Ukrainian Refugees crossing a fallen bridge.
Mini-Lesson
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Teaching about the Ukrainian Refugee Crisis

Use this Teaching Idea to introduce students to the experiences of Ukrainian refugees fleeing war, highlight inspiring ways people have stepped up to help, and raise ethical questions about the treatment of refugees from non-European countries.

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At a Glance

Mini-Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–12
  • Global Migration & Immigration

Overview

On February 24, 2022, the Russian military invaded Ukraine. The escalating conflict is causing a widespread humanitarian crisis, as civilians are injured, killed, or forced from their homes. This Teaching Idea is designed to help students explore one facet of this devastating war: the mounting refugee crisis. The UNHCR projects that more than 4 million Ukrainian people—10% of the population—will leave the country because of the Russian invasion, and as of March 8, 2022, half of the 2 million Ukrainian refugees who fled to other European countries are children.

European governments and private citizens have mobilized to help Ukrainian refugees. For example, the European Union plans to allow Ukrainian people to live and work in EU countries for up to three years, the Polish government is providing Ukrainians with healthcare and social assistance, and individual volunteers have assembled to provide free rides, food, and supplies. We can and should be inspired by these stories, and they also raise ethical questions about the different treatment migrants and refugees from other parts of the world, including Middle Eastern and African countries, have faced recently in Europe.

This Teaching Idea introduces students to the experiences of Ukrainian people forced to flee the war and highlights the inspiring ways governments and individual volunteers have stepped up to help Ukrainians. It also raises ethical questions about the treatment of refugees and migrants from non-European countries and asks students to consider how we can take care of ourselves and each other during this crisis.

Preparing to Teach

Additional Resources:

What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.

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Activities

Activities

To introduce your students to the growing Ukrainian refugee crisis, share the following passage, which you can also find in the Slides for this Teaching Idea. (Note: The situation involving Ukrainian people fleeing the war is evolving rapidly, and we recommend you consult a recent news story to find the latest information and statistics.)

On February 24, 2022, the Russian military invaded Ukraine, a country in Eastern Europe with a population of about 40 million people. The conflict has continued to escalate, and many civilians have been killed or forced from their homes due to the fighting, creating the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Most of the refugees are entering Poland, with large numbers also crossing into other countries west of Ukraine: Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia. As of March 8, 2022, half of the refugees fleeing Ukraine were children, and Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been ordered by their government to stay and fight. The UNHCR (the UN agency in charge of refugees) estimates that more than 4 million Ukrainians—10% of the population—will leave the country because of the Russian invasion.

European governments and private citizens have mobilized to help Ukrainian refugees. For example, the European Union plans to allow Ukrainians to live and work in EU countries for up to three years, the Polish government is providing Ukrainians with healthcare and social assistance, and individual volunteers have assembled to provide free rides, food, and supplies.

Show your students a selection of images of Ukrainian people fleeing the war from the Atlantic photo essay Ukrainian Refugees Say Goodbye to Home and Family Members. (Note: We recognize that your students may have varying degrees of proximity to the events in Ukraine, a lived experience of war, or refugee status. We encourage you to be careful in choosing images to share, balancing a desire to help your student confront and understand the crisis with a desire to meet them where they are.)

Then, ask your students to reflect in their journals on what they learned about the Ukrainian refugee crisis using the Head, Heart, Conscience strategy:

  • Head: What information did you learn from these sources about Ukrainians who were forced to flee their homes because of the war? What questions do you still have?
  • Heart: What emotions did these sources raise for you? Were there particular images that stood out to you? If so, why?
  • Conscience: Who should be responsible for helping Ukrainian refugees? According to the paragraph you read, what are some steps individuals and governments are taking to help Ukrainian refugees? What other ideas do you have about how people and governments can help refugees?

Once students have finished reflecting in their journals, give them an opportunity to share aspects of their reflections with a partner or call on a few volunteers to share with the whole class.

European governments and individual volunteers have been stepping up in inspiring ways to aid Ukrainian people forced to flee their homes because of the war. This generosity should be celebrated. At the same time, it highlights the harsh treatment that refugees and migrants from non-European countries have at times faced in Europe. This activity is designed to help students think about the ways people are standing up to help Ukrainians while also exploring ethical questions around the differences in the reception refugees and migrants from different backgrounds face in Europe.

Ask students to read one or both of the article excerpts in the reading Choices People and Governments Make to Help Refugees. Once students have finished reading, they should discuss the questions below in small groups of 3–4 students. These questions are also located within the reading, below each excerpt.

Excerpt 1 Reflection Questions:

  • What does Godlewska-Jeneralska plan to do to help Ukrainians fleeing the war? Why did she decide to help?
  • According to the article, why do many Polish people feel close to Ukrainians? What are some other reasons people feel close to each other?
  • Why does Godlewska-Jeneralska believe it is “natural” to help Ukrainian refugees? Why might people feel a greater obligation to help those who feel geographically or culturally "close"?
  • What problems can it create when people prioritize helping those who feel geographically or culturally “close”?

Excerpt 2 Reflection Questions:

  • What assumptions do the politicians and the journalist quoted in this article make about refugees from non-European countries? What assumptions do they make about Ukrainian refugees? What do these assumptions say about who they think “belongs” in their countries?
  • The politicians and the journalist mentioned socio-economic class, religion, education, and physical appearance as significant aspects of refugee identity. Why do you think these factors shape the way people respond to refugees? Should they matter?

Finish by asking a few volunteers from different groups to share their responses with the class.

In times of crisis, it is important that people take care of themselves and others. Place your students into small groups of 3–4 and ask them to choose one or more of the following prompts to discuss together:

  • Godlewska-Jeneralska is prepared to host Ukrainian people fleeing the war in her own home. Can you think of other examples, perhaps from your own community, of people meeting a crisis with generosity?
  • Who in your own community might be feeling particularly vulnerable because of the war in Ukraine? What can we do to help those who feel vulnerable?
  • The news about the war in Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis is upsetting for everyone, and in particular for those who have a personal connection to Ukraine or the region. What steps can you take to care for yourself in the face of this crisis? (Some ideas include talking to someone you trust or limiting the amount of time you spend reading the news.)
  • Intolerance, fear, and existing stereotypes have shaped the extent to which many societies respond to refugees with empathy and support. What can we do to challenge these harmful attitudes and encourage more equitable responses?

When students have finished discussing, ask them to return to their Head, Heart, Conscience journal reflections and add any additional thoughts or questions these activities raised for them.

Extension Activities

You can build on the final reflection by using our Toolbox for Care teaching strategy, which invites students to create a physical toolbox containing “tools” that represent the skills, attitudes, and actions that they need to care for themselves and their communities during difficult times.

The “universe of obligation” is a helpful concept in analyzing the choices both governments and individuals make about what groups of people they are most likely to protect. Our global system assumes that every person will fit into their own nation’s universe of obligation. However, that is not always the case, especially for refugees who are forced to flee their own countries. Share Facing History’s reading Universe of Obligation with your students. Read it together as a class, and then discuss the following questions with your students:

  • What factors influence the way a society defines its universe of obligation? In what ways might a nation or community signal who is part of its universe of obligation and who is not?
  • What factors do you think should influence whether migrants or refugees are included within a country’s universe of obligation?
  • What do you think might be some of the consequences for those, including migrants and refugees, who are not within a society’s universe of obligation?
  • How do we expand our own universes of obligation? What can we do to encourage our communities and nations to feel and act responsibly towards others?

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