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.
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.
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 word “nigger” to express how some people view refugees who are arriving to their countries. Before teaching the poem, read Addressing Dehumanizing Language from History 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.