The Refugee Crisis and Human Responsibility | Facing History & Ourselves
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Syrian refugees cross from Syria to Turkey via the Orontes River, near the village of Hacipasa, Turkey, Dec. 8, 2012. This image was one in a series of 20 by AP photographers that won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Photography.

The Refugee Crisis and Human Responsibility

Students learn about the legal rights of refugees and then use poetry to develop a personal connection to the current global crisis.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

The United Nations reports, “We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement . . . nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution. . . . ” 1

This lesson asks students to consider the ethical and legal implications of the global refugee crisis and what those implications mean in terms of our human responsibilities. Through the activities, students explore the global refugee crisis by looking at the legal frameworks for establishing the rights of refugees, insights and analysis from an expert who has dedicated his life to these issues; and a poem—“Home,” by Warsan Shire—that will help students make an emotional connection to this crisis. As detailed in the context section, this crisis affects millions of people, and such staggering numbers may well be impossible for students to imagine. This lesson is designed to help students begin to understand both the breadth of this crisis as well as some of the human beings involved.

  • 1“Figures at a Glance,” UNHCR website, accessed June 23, 2017.
  • What is the global refugee crisis? 
  • What moral and legal questions does the refugee crisis raise about our responsibilities to each other as human beings?
  • How can poetry provide an opportunity for reflection and emotional connection to this crisis and the human beings involved?
  • Students will better understand the scope of the refugee crisis.
  • Students will understand some of the legal rights and protections of refugees.
  • Students will be able to reflect on the legal and ethical implications of the crisis.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 6 activities
  • 4 teaching strategies 
  • 2 videos
  • 2 reading 

Hassan Akkad worked as an English teacher and freelance photographer in Damascus, Syria. 2 Now he is a “refugee,” a label that seems to have taken over his other identities and one that he wrestles with as the people he meets question why he speaks English, why he has a cell phone, and why he knows how to use social media. They expect “refugee” to mean something else, to look like something else. And many cannot imagine Damascus and the life that he and many Syrians lived. He knows he is fortunate, because he survived a horrific journey to arrive in the UK, and he enjoys the safety of a home that was opened to him by caring people. But he longs for his home. Akkad’s story is one of millions. He is part of an unprecedented refugee crisis.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there were 17.2 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate by the end of 2016, and the global refugee population was at the highest level ever recorded. These refugees were spread across the globe, with the greatest number in Europe (5.2 million, 2.9 million of which were in Turkey) and sub-Saharan Africa (5.1 million), followed by Asia and the Pacific (3.5 million), the Middle East and North Africa (2.7 million), and the Americas (692,700). 3

Despite the devastating crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s the refugees coming to Europe that have drawn much of the world’s attention over the last year. Millions of these refugees, like Hassan Akkad, have fled civil war and genocide in Syria and Iraq. Most of these people had first sought safety in neighboring countries such as Turkey and Lebanon. In 2016, Turkey was the largest refugee-hosting country worldwide with 2.9 million refugees. Pakistan was next with 1.4 million, followed by Lebanon (1 million), the Islamic Republic of Iran (979,400), Uganda (940,800) Ethiopia (791,600). 4

The legal and humanitarian frameworks designating the rights of refugees were established in the wake of World War II. Many of the domestic and international policies and institutional supports for refugees cannot effectively respond to both the scale of this crisis and the speed with which it is unfolding. While it may appear to your students that this crisis happened suddenly because it became more visible in the media, it has been building over years. There has been nearly ongoing war and mass violence in Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, and South Sudan, to name just a few places. The refugee crisis has exposed the failure to respond to the needs of millions of people as well as the failure to effectively address the root causes, the wars and mass violence that have forced them from their homes.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts.

The poem “Home” includes language and topics that require special consideration from the teacher and students. We believe that the best way to prepare to encounter these topics is to create a class contract outlining guidelines for a respectful, reflective classroom discussion.

  • Dehumanizing Language: The poem, “Home,” uses the n-word to express how some people view refugees who are arriving to their countries. Dehumanizing language should not be spoken aloud during class. Before teaching the poem, read Strategies for Addressing Racist and Dehumanizing Language in Literature and plan how you will approach the term in your classroom when you read and discuss Shire’s poem.
  • Sexual Violence: Be aware that “Home” also alludes to the sexual violence that some refugees face on their journeys. It is important that you preview the materials, know your students, and build in time and space for individual reflection in journals so that students can respond emotionally to what they are reading and learning.

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Lesson Plans


Have your students create a K-W-L chart. What do students know about the global refugee crisis? What do they think they know? What questions do they have?

Begin by providing your students with some context for the global refugee crisis so that they understand the scope of it. 

  • Read the context section above and consider using a resource such as Lucify’s “The flow towards Europe,” which draws on data from the UN to illustrate the scale of the crisis.
  • You might also refer to maps so that students have a sense of the geographical context, of national and regional boundaries, and of natural (seas, mountains, deserts) and human-made obstacles. UNHCR’s website is a good source for maps and more information. 

Provide your students with the opportunity to reflect on the scale of this crisis. Perhaps use a graffiti board that can be maintained throughout the lesson for your students’ thoughts and reflections.

Before students explore the legal rights and protections of refugees through the activities suggested below, have them reflect on one of the ideas that will be presented by Sasha Chanoff in the video. He asserts that refugees should have the “freedom to live their lives normally, just like you and me.” 

  • Have your students each create an identity chart with “normal life” at the center. What do they think are the features of normal life? 
  • Next, ask students to create a normal life identity chart at the front of the class. This will list what they agree captures the needs, rights, and protections that allow them to enjoy a normal life. This activity helps them prepare for their exploration of the official legal rights and protections.

Introduce Sasha Chanoff, who is featured in the videos in this lesson. Sasha is the co-founder and executive director of RefugePoint. He has worked for two decades in refugee rescue, relief, and resettlement operations in Africa and the United States. Prior to launching RefugePoint, Sasha consulted with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kenya and worked with the International Organization for Migration throughout Africa, identifying refugees in danger, undertaking rescue missions, and working on refugee-protection issues with governments of the US, Canada, Australia, and so on.

  • Watch The Rights of Refugees once together. Then watch it again and have students watch and listen for these key points: the distinction between a migrant and a refugee; what the 1951 Convention provides; and what the 1967 Protocol adds to it. Have students use the 3-2-1 strategy to debrief the video.

To deepen the students’ understanding of the legal frameworks for protecting refugees, explore The 1951 Refugee Convention and Protocol. This reading provides a condensed list of rights.

Together, watch the second video, The Global Refugee Crisis. In the students’ journals, have them respond to these questions:

  • How does Chanoff describe the current system for responding to the needs of refugees? What examples does he offer in support of his beliefs?
  • What are some of the key words that Chanoff uses to describe what refugees need?
  • Refer back to the normal life identity chart. How does the current state of the refugee system impact the ability of refugees to live normal lives? 
  • What does Chanoff suggest can be done in response to the current crisis?

After students have had time to write in their journals, put them in small groups to discuss:

  • Chanoff says that we have a moral obligation to address this crisis. What does this mean? Do you agree? 
  • Chanoff offers one point of view. There are others. This is not a black-and-white issue. What are some concerns that individuals, communities, and governments might raise regarding the settling of refugees?

Use poetry to help students make a personal connection to the global refugee crisis. The poem “Home”—by Kenyan-born, Somali-British poet, writer, and educator Warsan Shire—has been widely quoted and read over the last year, as many people feel that it has provided a medium for capturing the intensity of the global refugee crisis, and that it has given a voice to the millions of individuals who are part of it. 

  • Decide how you will read Warsan Shire, “Home” (See Notes to Teachers before teaching this poem). Allow students to read the poem to themselves first. Then one student could read the context section, while the teacher reads the poem out loud.
  • Have students choose a line from the poem that resonates with them. Have students copy the line in their journals and then write about their choice, exploring what the line makes them think and feel. Encourage students to write questions as well.
  • Then divide the class into small groups and have students share their lines, why they chose them, and their questions, which they can discuss together.
  • Come together as a class to discuss the following questions about the power of art and stories:
    • In Shire’s interview that follows the poem, she talks about how writing is cathartic. What does she mean? How does Shire’s poetry give a voice to the voiceless?
    • How does Shire’s poem help you understand the refugee crisis in a new, different, or deeper way?
    • How might you use the power or art and stories to engage people with an issue that you care about?

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