/ Peace / Human Rights

Teaching about Refugees

As part of my grade seven social studies course, I have spent the past few years teaching a mini-unit about refugees. In our curriculum, students are expected to learn about push and pull factors that cause people to move, human rights, and quality of life, all of which can be discussed by learning about refugees around the world. More importantly, the topic has been a timely one the past few years. With politicians and internet pundits throwing around language that dehumanizes refugees and immigrants, it is important to teach about the struggle refugees face and to promote compassion.

Below are a collection of resources that are useful for teaching about refugees in a middle years classroom.

Picture Books

I like to start our study of refugees with picture books. First of all, picture books allow for multiple points of entry for students at varying ability levels, and the books below are rich texts. With these texts students can learn about the struggles many refugees face.

Typically I start by having students work in small groups to identify a picture, symbol, colour, and word that represent their given book. Afterwards, the groups must identify push factors causing the characters to leave home, pull factors pulling them to their new home, and the struggles they face. Groups can then compare answers to see the commonalities and differences in the refugee experiences. The books are listed below:

Stepping Stones, by Margriet Ruurs - The pictures in this piece are made up of stones that were arranged by Syrian artist Nazir Ali Badr. They are particularly compelling. The book tells the story of a family who was forced to flee a civil war. It has both English and Arabic text.

The Journey, by Francesca Sanna - A story of a family who must leave their home to escape a devastating war. This is a text that takes multiple readings to catch the deeper meaning and full emotional resonance of the illustrations.

Out, by Angela May George - This tells the story of a girl and her mother who must make a difficult journey to get out of danger, and make a new life in an unfamiliar country.

Brothers in Hope, by Mary Williams - Based on a true story, this book is about the Lost Boys of Sudan. It is a slightly longer and more challenging text than the others in this list.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings, by Tanya Simon and Richard Simon - After escaping Kristallnacht, the main character arrives alone in New York City and journeys to find his aunt.

My Beautiful Birds, by Suzanne Del Rizzo - A book that tells about a boy's arrival and adjustment to a refugee camp after escaping the Syrian civil war.

Videos

In addition to examining picture books, we also watch a variety of videos that help students better understand refugees and their experiences. Here are some powerful and useful ones.

  • What They Took With Them - This poem features actors reading a list of what refugees took with them when they had to leave home. Prior to viewing this video, I have students create their own list. Comparing the two leads to excellent discussions.

  • Touring a Refugee Camp - There are a variety of videos online that allow us to see what life in a refugee camp is like. I show students videos where authors Neil Gaiman and John Green act as tour guides and help us interpret the images we are seeing. The videos give some good insights into what life is like in the camps and what the people there have experienced.

  • Refugees Past and Present - In this video, a refugee from Syria and a refugee from World War II outline their experiences. Seeing the two accounts told side by side helps emphasize the similarities between a child refugee of the Holocaust and a child refugee of today.

Along with these resources, we also examine current news articles relating to refugees. Through class discussions and written reflections, students gain a better understanding of what it means to be a refugee and hopefully greater compassion for those individuals have no choice but to flee their homes.

Ellen Bees

Ellen Bees

I am a middle school teacher with a passion for sustainability and human rights. Opinions are my own.

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