Three 50-minute class periods

Understanding the Global Refugee Crisis

Essential Questions

  • What responsibility do individuals have to respond to the needs of refugees? What can an individual do to help? 
  • How can closely examining a troubling moment in history inform our choices today?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will gain a better understanding of the refugee crisis and what it means to be a refugee.
  • Students will reflect on the implications of the historical episode involving the St. Louis in 1939, particularly in relation to responses to the current refugee crisis.
  • Students will consider the importance of “humanizing” those who otherwise seem distant and different from us. 
  • Students will recognize the power of taking a “small step” when faced with a problem that seems too large to tackle.


There are more people displaced in the world today than at any time since the end of World War II. Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations (2013–2017), shared this fact with dozens of New York City students, all immigrants, during a visit to Newcomers High School in May 2016. By discussing the global refugee crisis with them, Ambassador Power hoped to inspire in the students a sense of responsibility—to bridge the gap between "us" and "them"—and to empower them to take action.

This lesson draws on readings and short videos featuring Ambassador Power in conversation with the young people of Newcomers High School to explain and humanize a crisis that often feels too overwhelming to confront. After surveying the scope and impact of the global refugee crisis, students will come to understand what makes someone a “refugee.” They will then learn how even small ways of seeing the “other” in ourselves can make a difference in our approach to large and complicated problems involving the needs and well-being of people distant from us. The lesson also considers the value of looking critically at historical moments—in particular, the case of the St. Louis, a ship that carried Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution across the Atlantic in 1939—and recognizing in them implications for our choices today.


There are currently more than 70 million people displaced worldwide—the highest number on record since the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) began collecting statistics.1 At least 15 conflicts have erupted or reignited around the world since 2010, contributing to this crisis. Half of the world’s refugees have come from only three war-torn countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. In Syria alone, where a brutal civil war has raged since 2011, over 5.5 million have sought to save themselves and their families by fleeing the country, while 6.6 million have been displaced within the country’s borders.2 Millions of refugees are living, often in overcrowded camps, in Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Jordan, and Ethiopia. Millions of others have fled to Europe and other countries around the world.

This lesson asks students to consider how a refugee crisis in the 1930s might help us think about how we respond to today’s refugee crisis. In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of European Jews were refugees, fleeing persecution from Nazi Germany. One challenge facing these refugees was that very few nations would protect them or take them in. In 1939, over 900 Jewish refugees boarded the ocean liner the St. Louis and set sail for Cuba. Before they left, Cuba had agreed to accept the refugees, but by the time the ship arrived, the Cuban government had changed its mind. The ship then sailed along the Florida coast, hoping the US government would accept the refugees. It passed close enough to Miami for the refugees to see the lights of the city, but they received no assistance. The ship was forced to return to Europe, where the refugees faced a perilous future. The results from a 1939 poll of 5,000 Americans indicated that 53 percent of respondents regarded Jews as different from "real Americans." That, coupled with economic troubles at home, may have accounted for why Americans did not wish to accept a ship full of refugees.




  1. Introduce the Crisis

    To begin the lesson, tell students that in 2019, more than 70 million people are displaced from their homes as a result of wars, persecution, or severe economic difficulties. Figuring out how to respond to this many displaced people and the problems that forced them from their homes has been a global crisis. Share the following resources with the class in order to give students a glimpse of the scale and consequences of this crisis:

    • Have students watch the video clip An Overview of the Refugee Crisis.
    • Show students the image of Za’atri Refugee Camp in Jordan, near the Syrian border. When you share this image, tell students that in November 2019, according to the UNHCR, 76,000 people lived there.3 All of them fled across the border from Syria to escape the brutal civil war. According to the UNHCR, 5.6 million people have been displaced outside Syria since its civil war began in 2011.4

    Have students take notes about the crisis as they view these resources, and then ask them to briefly respond to these questions in their notebooks:

    • What have you learned from these sources about refugees and other displaced persons around the world? Why do you think this current situation is considered a crisis?
    • What do these resources suggest about the experiences of individuals and families who have been forced to leave their homes?
    • Why should world leaders care? Why should individuals like us care?

    Have students share their thinking with the class briefly, using the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy.

  2. Define Refugee

    Tell students that of the 70 million people who have been displaced around the world for a variety of reasons, some—according to the United Nations—deserve special protection. They are designated as refugees.

    Have students begin to fill out a K-W-L chart. Start with the “K” and “W” columns (save the “L” column for the end of the activity). Ask:

    • What do you Know about what a refugee is or about what makes someone a refugee?
    • What do you Want to know about what a refugee is or about what makes someone a refugee?

    You might also compile a class K-W-L chart on the board, asking students to volunteer to share statements and questions they listed in the “K” and “W” columns of their individual charts.

    Next, introduce the video clip The Definition of a Refugee by telling students that for over half a century, the international community has struggled to help millions of displaced persons who fear for their safety. The term refugee is not a casual designation; it is a word that applies under very specific circumstances. In the clip, Ambassador Power discusses the factors that lead a person to be designated as a refugee. After watching the clip, students should write down the factors they heard.

    The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), or UN Refugee Agency, further clarifies the meaning of refugee by distinguishing it from the term migrant. Share Facing History’s Migration Explainer  to help students examine the difference between migrants and refugees. After reading the Explainer, drawing a Venn diagram on the board to illustrate the relationship between these terms might be useful.

    Finally, begin a class conversation to make sure students understand the Ambassador Power's formal definition of a refugee, paying special attention to the terms “well-founded fear of persecution” and her examples: people fleeing conflict and people targeted for persecution.

    Students should then complete the “L” column of their K-W-L chart (“What did you Learn?”), which may be used as an assessment. Finally, in pairs or groups, have students decide which questions they raised in the “W” column of their chart remain unanswered.

  3. Learn from History

    Looking back at history can inform our decisions today. Tell students that the United Nations created the refugee designation in 1951, six years after the end of World War II. At the time, many believed that it was important for international institutions such as the newly founded United Nations to commit to aiding refugees because of the failure to help those fleeing Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 1940s. In the video clip Refusing Passengers Aboard the St. Louis, Ambassador Power discusses one particular example of such failure to help refugees in the 1930s and how we might look back on it now.

    In order to understand the context for Ambassador Power’s discussion of this failure to help Jewish refugees during World War II, students will need some background information on the voyage of the St. Louis in 1939. You might consider having them read the second paragraph in the Context section from this lesson or either of the additional readings A Refugee Crisis and The Voyage of the St. Louis.

    Show Refusing Passengers Aboard the St. Louis, in which Ambassador Power addresses a student's question about the lessons we can learn from history. Along with the background information you offer students on the story of the St. Louis, this video clip will become the primary “text” for a class discussion. You may want to share the following questions before showing the clip to help students focus their attention, and then allow time for journal writing in response to the clip:

    • Why would governments refuse to offer refugees entry into their country? What are some reasons for allowing or denying entry? Which reasons do you find most persuasive?
    • How does the voyage of the St. Louis relate to our own time, particularly in regard to the global refugee crisis? How is it different? How does hindsight help us understand an event in history differently than people understood it at the time? According to Ambassador Power, how has this history affected the way some individuals and organizations are responding to the refugee crisis today?

    The Learn to Listen/Listen to Learn teaching strategy can help you structure deeper conversations between your students in response to these questions, if time permits.

  4. Choose to Help

    Ask students to think about what they have learned so far and to write down some thoughts in response to the following question: What makes taking action on a crisis of this magnitude seem so daunting?

    Then show the clip The Importance of Humanizing Refugees. Have students add to what they wrote about helping refugees as they watch the video by responding to the following questions: What barriers to choosing to help does Ambassador Power describe? What does she say about how these barriers might be overcome?

    Have students share their thinking with the class briefly, using the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy. In the discussion, help students highlight the ideas suggested by Ambassador Power of humanizing refugees and taking small steps.

    Finish the lesson by guiding students through a discussion of tangible actions they might take in response to learning about the refugee crisis. They should discuss the following questions:

    • What does it mean to “humanize” a cause? How can we help to humanize the refugee crisis, both in our own eyes and in the eyes of others?
    • What “small steps” can we take in our school and in our community to help respond to the refugee crisis?

    When considering the “small steps” they might take, students may draw additional inspiration from Ambassador Power’s 2016 speech Overcoming Fears and Spurring Action (excerpted). Because efforts to aid refugees vary widely from community to community, figuring out “small steps” may require creativity and additional research. Students might investigate what programs in their communities are already in place to aid refugees and how they might participate in those programs. Students may also investigate the positions of their representatives in local, state, and national governments with regard to refugees, and they may think about ways to support or influence those positions. They might find additional ideas for supporting refugees on the International Rescue Committee's global refugee crisis website.




  1. The ways in which individuals, communities, and nations think about who should get a helping hand has a lot to do with how they define their universe of obligation. Sociologist Helen Fein coined this phrase to describe the group of individuals “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends."5 A society’s universe of obligation, then, includes those people who that society believes are deserving of respect and whose rights it believes are worthy of protection. Just as Fein used the term to describe the beliefs and policies of a society, we might also refer to an individual’s universe of obligation to describe his or her beliefs and attitudes toward others.

    Universe of obligation is therefore a concept worth introducing in a class discussion about how we respond to refugees. During the third activity in this lesson, if time permits, consider introducing one or more of the activities in the Facing History lesson plan Defining Community: The Universe of Obligation at this point in your exploration of today’s refugee crisis.

  2. Have students consider some powerful examples set by Newcomers High School students. In 2012, the students, all immigrants, told their own stories of being welcomed to this country. While these students are not refugees per se, each story nonetheless provides a powerful example of people taking small steps to help new arrivals.

  3. To listen to a discussion with Samantha Power about educating young people to be upstanders for a more humane and just world, register for the on-demand webinar The Education of an Idealist: A Conversation with Ambassador Samantha Power.


  • 5 : Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide (New York: Free Press, 1979), 4.

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.