Tools for teaching refugee issues

We’ve organized this resource to respond to specific teaching goals or concerns. Click on the to expand a section.

An introduction to refugee issues

  • Lesson modules for refugee education -­ different ages/subject areas
    The UNHCR has a series of modules on refugee issues designed to be integrated into art, history, language, geography, civics and human rights teaching. The modules include lesson plans, suggested activities and background materials.
  • Refugees Seeking Safety ­ Social Studies / World Issues lesson plans
    Secondary lesson plans from the Red Cross for UK refugee week provide an outline of a week­long unit for a s​ocial studies/world issues setting​that includes activities for reflection on experiences of flight and resettlement as well as definitions of key concepts like refugee, asylum seeker, and migrant. There is nothing particularly British in the content. 
  • Arts and literature activities to explore refugee issues
    Secondary lesson plans from the Red Cross UK for refugee week provide an outline of a week­long unit in an arts/literature course that includes a range of activities to stimulate imaginative identification with the situation of refugees, promote empathy and reflection. 
  • The Suitcase
    This social justice resource from the includes the script for a play about a Colombian girl whose family must leave for Canada. The story is set in a Canadian classroom. It is accompanied by discussion questions and an activity which asks students to interview a new Canadian about their refugee or immigration experience in Canada. It is also available in French in M​ore than a play, a​collection that can be ordered through the ETFO catalogue. ­ 
  • Seeking Refuge: Understanding Refugees in Canada
    High school lesson plans to explore refugee experiences in Canada from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association ­­ directly tied to Ontario curriculum expectations. Emphasis on what it means to be a refugee and Canada’s obligations to refugees; critical thinking is emphasized.

Geography of refugee issues ­ globally, and in the Middle East

  • Interactive map of global refugee flows over time
    This interactive map developed by a Bulgarian non­profit provides an overview of total worldwide refugee populations, and where they originate, between 1975­2012. It highlights growing numbers of refugees and the range of origins. There is a brief description of the causes for flight in different areas.
  • Refugee flows from and around Syria
    Where is Syria, and where are the Syrians fleeing their homes going? ­­ Wired Magazine produced a feature in September 2015 with a series of maps presenting different aspects of the Syrian refugee crisis, with data about population, migration routes, and responses from different countries.
  • Mapping the refugee crisis ­activity for students
    This assignment from T​his week in the news​provides a brief overview of refugee issues then asks students to engage with the project both through reflection activities (what would make you leave your home?) and through map­making to trace journeys of refugee groups and, based on stories, individuals.

Engaging facts and figures on international refugee issues

  • Top 10 Global Facts about Refugees
    The UK Refugee Council has highleghted the 10 most interesting facts from the World at War, the UNHCR’s 2014 report on forced displacement ­ including some staggering numbers and the fact that more than half of all the world’s refugees are children. This site also provides a link to the full report which is full of interesting visualizations of the statistics. 

  • Infographics on the Global Displacement Crisis
    A range of striking visual from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) approaches demonstrating the scale of the refugee crisis that could work well in a math or social science setting. Upper elementary/secondary. 

  • The crisis in Syria

    • UNICEF Syrian Refugee Crisis in numbers
      This upper­elementary­suitable overview of the refugee crisis provides understandable figures and facts about the Syrian crisis and its human impact.
    • Syria Crisis Fact Sheet
      This 6­page fact sheet from UNICEF Middle East and North Africa Out­of­School Children Initiative provides 2015 statistics on the Syrian refugee crisis, with a specific focus on children refugees and their educational struggles. The factsheet highlights the challenges faced by neighbouring countries providing support to refugees, as well as the many difficulties young refugees face when it comes to schooling. 
    • Short history of the crisis ­ journalistic
      The British Broadcasting Corporation website has an informative overview including a series of visuals to explain the roots of the conflict in Syria up to the present day.
    • Failing Syria: Assessing the Impact of UN Security Council Resolutions in Protecting and Assisting Civilians in Syria
      This resource by a coalition of 21 respected NGOs provides in depth insight into the Syrian crisis which provides details as to how this conflict has contributed to our current global refugee crisis ­ the largest since the end of WWII. P​lease note ­ this document covers a wide variety of topics related to this crisis which might not be appropriate for your students. Be sure to read it over carefully before providing this resource to your students.
    • Syria Four Years On: No End in Sight
      This resource from a consortium of leading international non­governmental organizations (Action Contre la Faim ­ ACF, Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children International) provides an in­depth look at the current refugee crisis, and provides infographics to help us better understand the magnitude of the conflict. P​lease note ­ this document covers a wide variety of topics related to this crisis which might not be appropriate for your students. Be sure to read it over carefully before providing this resource to your students. 

    Teaching refugee issues with sensitivity

    • When disaster strikes
      Children often have questions about events in the news that are difficult to answer. To support your efforts to discuss challenging and sensitive topics with empathy and understanding, UNICEF Canada created an elementary and secondary teacher guide: W​hen Disaster Strikes. 
    • How to Talk to Children About Refugees
      This short UNICEF UK blog provides tips on how to talk to children about the current refugee crisis, and provides links to supporting material.
    • Talking to children about terrorism
      This New York Times article discusses the development of a s​pecial kids’ edition of the French newspaper L​ibération, w​hich was published after the November 2105 terrorist attacks in Paris. It discusses some of the difficult questions raised by children in the aftermath of these attacks, and how the paper responded to their questions. The article includes a link to a short 4 minute video about how the special edition was produced. 
    • Teaching Controversial Issues
      This 16 page teacher’s guidebook from Oxfam UK helps teachers think through learning objectives and challenges involved in teaching controversial issues as part of the global citizenship groups. It provides strategies to help teachers handle controversial issues in the classroom, and suggests accompanying activities appropriate for a wide range of age groups from very short­term activities to setting up student­led communities of inquiry.

    Canada’s role and history


    • Myths and facts from Canada’s leading refugee organization
      The Canadian Council of Refugees produced a review of common misconceptions or myths about refugees, and facts to respond to misconceptions like ‘all refugees live in camps’, ‘refugees are jumping the line’ or ‘refugees are a threat to security’. (Secondary, no date) 
    • Facts about idea refugees are a security risk
      Press progress is a weekly news review published by the Broadbent Institute. They produced a recent overview of the refugee screening process and data on the very low risk to Canada of refugee resettlement.
    • Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson Explains the Screening Process For Refugees
      This 4 minute video narrated by the USA’s Secretary of Homeland Security explains, in clear language, the process a refugee must go through in order to be resettled in the USA. While the process in the USA is slightly different than in Canada, this video demonstrates how our governments are working hard to help resettle people in need without jeopardizing our security. 

    Children’s rights and refugees

    Welcoming refugees in your school

    • Resources for youth­-led process of creating ‘sanctuary schools’
      Oxfam developed a set of resources for student leaders to use to learn and teach about refugee issues, looking at both the human rights issues and barriers experienced on arrival to England. The package includes a youth action guide, including tools to help students make an assessment of how welcoming their school is, what levels of diversity are already present, and how to make it more welcoming. There is a teacher guide, youth guide, and powerpoint to get started
    • BC government handbook to prepare schools and educators for refugees
      The Government of British Columbia prepared this 2009 resource overview for educators. It gives an overview of refugee issues ­ from what is a refugee to common challenges ­ then provides advice for schools and teachers. The schools section reviews the roles of different staff, orienting to the school, connecting to community resources and the classroom section provides guidance on cross­cultural communication, language support, etc.
    • Welcome card project
      Millenium Kids, a Toronto­-based organization that emphasizes children’s voice on global issues, has launched a welcome card project​i​nviting students of all ages to create handmade cards or letters to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees coming to Canada. Mail your cards to your local Member of Parliament in Ottawa to strengthen Canada’s greatly anticipated refugee response. Together we can create a beautifully welcoming Canadian culture! 
    • Supporting refugee children: A guide for educators
      By: J​an Stewart
      This 2011 book by University of Winnipeg professor Jan Stewart emphasizes the psychosocial needs of war­affected children, from how to identify issues to how to address them. S​upporting Refugee Children​provides a holistic exploration of these challenges and offers practical advice for teachers, social workers, and counsellors, as well as suggestions for policy makers within a Canadian frame.

    Taking action

    Recommended books and book lists ­- elementary

    There are lots of great refugee­-related book lists available online. We have provided the links to some below. However here are a few of the books that are highlighted on several of the lists:

    • Primary and Middle School:
      • The Color of Home
        By: M​ary Hoffman
        First­grader Hassan has only recently arrived in the United States after he and his family were forced to flee Somalia, and he deeply misses the colorful landscape of his former home in Africa. But with the help of his parents, an understanding teacher, and a school art project, Hassan finds that by painting a picture of his old home and sharing his story, his homesickness and the trauma of leaving a war­torn country are lessened. (Description from­experience­books­children)​
      • How I Learned Geography
        By: U​ri Shulevitz
        As a young boy in 1939, Uri Shulevitz and his family fled Poland for the Soviet Union. They lived for a time in Turkestan, where Uri’s father returned from the market one day with a large world m a p . F​o o d i s s c a r c e , s o w h e n t h e b o y ‘ s f a t h e r b r i n g s h o m e a m a p i n s t e a d o f b r e a d f o r s u p p e r , at first the boy is furious. But when the map is hung on the wall, it floods their cheerless room with color. As the boy studies its every detail, he is transported to exotic places without ever leaving the room, and he eventually comes to realize that the map feeds him in a way that bread never could.​(Description from­experience­books­children​and­Learned­Geography­Uri­Shulevitz/dp/0374334994)​
      • Girl of Kosovo
        By: A​lice Mead
        Even after her father and brothers are killed and her leg is gravely injured in a Serb attack, 11­year­old Zana, the narrator, struggles to heed her father’s advice: “Don’t let them fill your heart with hate. Whatever happens.” Zana’s friendship with a Serbian girl, Lena, and her trip behind enemy lines to a hospital in Belgrade provide Zana with evidence of kindness to weigh against the brutality in the Serb faction, while her cowardly KLA uncle Vizar illuminates weaknesses among the Albanians. Mead puts the war into a context that young readers will understand. (Description from­experience­books­children)​
      • When I Get Older: The Story behind “Wavin’ Flag”
        B y : K​ ‘ n a a n
        In his first book for children, Somali­Canadian poet, rapper, singer, and songwriter K’NAAN tells his own story. Born Keinan Abdi Warsame in Somalia, he grew up in Mogadishu. His grandfather was a renowned poet who passed on his love of words to his grandson. When the Somali Civil War began in 1991, K’NAAN was just thirteen. His mother made the difficult decision to move her family so that they could grow up in safety.
      • From Far Away
        By:​Robert Munsch
        The tale of a seven year­old refugee from Lebanon who resettles in Canada. It is an excellent book for primary students and flows nicely into a few questions about the number of refugees now in the world, how many are kids, how many kids in Syria are out of school and how many refugees Canada has promised to resettle by the end of the year.
      • Four Feet, Two Sandals
        By:​Karen Lynn Williams, Khadra Mohammed
        When relief workers bring used clothing to a refugee camp in Pakistan, ten­year­old Lina is thrilled when she finds a sandal that fits her foot perfectly ­ until she sees that another girl has the matching shoe. But soon Lina and Feroza meet and decide that it is better to share the sandals than for each to wear only one.
    • Primary level book lists:

    Recommended books and book lists ­- secondary

    • Ru
      By: Kim Thuy
      In vignettes of exquisite clarity, sharp observation and sly wit, we are carried along on an unforgettable journey from a palatial residence in Saigon to a crowded and muddy Malaysian refugee camp, and onward to a new life in Quebec. There, the young girl feels the embrace of a new community, and revels in the chance to be part of the American Dream (discription from 
    • Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada.
      Edited by: Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner
      A​collection of thirty astonishing interviews with refugees, their descendants, or their loved ones to document their extraordinary, and sometimes harrowing, journeys of flight. The stories span two centuries of refugee experiences in Canada: from the War of 1812—where an escaped slave and her infant daughter flee the United States to start a new life in Halifax—to the War in Afghanistan—where asylum seekers collide with state scrutiny and face the challenges of resettlement.
    • Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees
      By: Deborah Ellis
      In this book, Deborah Ellis turns her attention to the Iraq war’s most tragic victims — Iraqi children. She interviews more than 20 young Iraqis, mostly refugees living in Jordan, but also a few trying to build new lives in North America. Some families left Iraq with money; others are penniless, ill, or disabled. Most of the parents are working illegally or not at all, and the fear of deportation is a constant threat. The children speak for themselves, with little editorial comment, and their stories are frank, harrowing, and often reveal a surprising resilience in surviving the consequences of a war in which they played no part. (Description from­children­of­war)
    • Walk in My Shoes
      By: Alwyn Evans
      Aimed at secondary students, this book tells of an Afghan refugee, Gulnessa, who struggles to establish a life for herself and her family in Australia. They are confined in a detention centre for asylum seekers, and forced to prove their refugee status (Description from­guides/books­and­novels/)
    • Secondary level book lists:

    Recommended videos

    • Mapping Memories
      This Montreal project invited refugee youth (aged 18 to 30) to share stories about their arrival. They made the videos in an attempt to sensitize high school students to the challenges refugees face. The videos are unique in that they are told by refugees.
    • Save the Children’s 1 Second a Day Ad
      As summarized by Time magazine, “This c​ommercial is modeled in the popular “one second per day” video format, in which people chronicle a year of their lives through quick one­second clips. It starts with a British girl celebrating her birthday with friends and family. She’s initially oblivious to reports of an escalating conflict that can be heard from TV screens in the background, but that conflict comes to affect her directly. The girl is forced to leave her home, dodges bombs on chaotic streets and eventually ends up at a refugee camp. The ad ends with the sentence, “Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”
    • My two Families
      A young woman shares her extraordinary story of surviving the Rwandan genocide and the secret of how she has sixteen children at the age of 23.
    • My Sister Solonge
      A young woman decides to probe beneath family silences to better understand how the Rwandan genocide has impacted each of her family members differently.
    • YUL­-MTL
      Take a video tour of the YMCA, the first stop for refugees and newcomers to Montreal ­ via the poetic narration of a Zimbabwean immigrant who arrived alone with “one piece of luggage and a ton of hope.”
    • European Migration
      This 4 min video clip from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation explains the Syrian refugee crisis from the perspective of J​ehad, ​a 15 year old Syrian refugee.

    Recommended websites for further exploration

    • Syrian Refugee Children Takeover @Unicef Twitter to Tell Their Powerful Stories
      Attention to the impact of the conflict in Syria on the lives of millions of other children like them.
    • Humans of New York ­ Syria Series
      Starting September 25th, 2015, Brandon Stanton (the photo blogger behind HONY) did a photo blog series on refugees fleeing Syria. This powerful collection highlights the uniqueness of each refugee’s experience.
    • Facing an Uncertain Future ­ Unicef Photo Essay
      This Unicef Photo Essay illustrates the experience of children refugees as they journey through Europe to safety.
    • What’s in my bag?
      What refugees bring when they run for their lives
      The I​nternational Rescue Committee​asked a mother, a child, a teenager, a pharmacist, an artist, and a family of 31 to share the contents of their bags and show us what they managed to hold onto from their homes. Their possessions tell stories about their past and their hopes for the future.” 

    How to use the kit

    Schools Welcome Refugees is working to engage school communities in actively welcoming refugee families, whether through sponsorship or through the creation of informed, caring communities.

    A critical part of this welcome is the work educators do in their classrooms, helping students understand refugee issues and their own roles and responsibilities.

    This teacher kit includes a mix of materials, both suggested activities and background information or resources. Many of the resources are available directly online; there are also references to books or videos for libraries.

    We’ve tried not to reinvent the wheel, instead, linking to materials developed by credible organizations that do work on issues of development, human rights, and refugee support.

    We’ve organized this resource to respond to specific teaching goals or concerns.