Teaching children about refugees

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Teaching children about refugees can be a challenge for parents and schools.

Three of USAHello’s staff members recently gave presentations at their children’s schools about refugees. We wanted to share some of the tools they used and some of their insights to help you when you are teaching children about refugees, whether at home or in a school setting.

Make sure the kids feel safe

For children, one important thing when teaching them about refugees is to also make sure they feel safe. Try to talk about refugees in an environment where the children already feel secure. If you are a parent, try talking to your kids at home or in the car, not while you are out somewhere new.

If you are giving a presentation at a school or if you are a teacher, present in students’ regular homeroom classroom rather than in a gym or new environment. If they do feel upset, let them feel their emotions. But then remind them they are safe. Have them find a “safety” object such as a stuffed animal or rock or have them talk about someone who makes them feel safe like a grandparent.

Teaching children about refugees at home

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Incorporate books

To help kids understand, you can read books about refugees. It’s hard to find books for really young kids, but you can always modify the words. The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman is a children’s book about a boy from Somalia coming to the United States that can be read to elementary school kids or just used for the pictures for preschool kids (warning: it does include a reference to guns). By looking at the pictures, kids draw their own connections about what it would be like to be a refugee. For example, children might talk about how bright the houses were in the images in the book in comparison to many of the houses where they live in the United States. Here is a great lists of books from the educational site Colorin Colorado.

Incorporate cuisine from around the world

Take time to learn about different cultures and build this into your children’s daily life. When you eat food from different places, talk to your children about immigrants and how these different cuisines were brought to the US. Some great examples are salsa and hummus, foods many of us eat all of the time. Use a map to show them the journey that some people and their cuisines make to come to America.

Incorporate music from around the globe

Music is such a powerful tool. Every culture has its own to represent important traits and values. Besides, kids enjoy experimenting with music, rhythm and movement while exploring other cultures. Some of our favorites:

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How to help

Teach children about refugee assets

Let children know that though it is very hard to be a refugee, refugees themselves bring many assets with them to America. If your child has a refugee or immigrant in their classroom, remind your child that they can learn from that student. Children often first become interested in learning a foreign language, for example, because of someone they know. If your child says they want to learn a language, find some fun and easy ways for them to explore learning some words – like memory games with pictures and words or other games you can print off the internet. Research shows refugees contribute positively – help your children understand the assets refugees bring.

Teaching children about refugees at school

Give kids a chance to be active before you talk about hard subjects

Even into high school, it can help students feel comfortable by beginning lessons in an active way. For little kids, making the lesson active will help them pay attention. For example, USAHello’s co-president Jessica Marks spoke at her daughter’s preschool, and she used this activity. She had each of the kids pick their favorite animal and then make noises and move like that animal. Most of the kids had picked lions or tigers, so she was able to draw a connection to the place the animals were from and where many refugees come from. Doing something physical is a good way to start talking about a subject that may be hard for you approach.

Encourage questions

When Marifer Sager, USAHello’s former Community Relations and Development Manager, gave a presentation at her daughter’s school, she told the children ahead of time to interrupt and ask questions. Be prepared for these questions and realize children often are paying close attention to the world around them. “Children were really curious about refugees and why they became refugees in the first place. They paid a lot of attention and had really good questions and observations,” said Marifer.

Don’t make a complicated situation too simple

Children can accept and understand situations that don’t have easy answers. Don’t be afraid to answer a difficult question with: “I really don’t know” and then an explanation of some of the complications, or with an honest description about how there is not always a single right answer. For example, when Miranda Kaiser, USAHello’s co-president, did her presentation to a group of children in Italy, they had many questions about whether or not their parents should give money to the immigrants they see on the street. Miranda acknowledged what a difficult decision that is and let the students talk about why it might or might not be good to give directly. She then helped them explore what circumstances could lead people to ask for money on the street and other ways that the children and their families might give assistance.

It may feel odd, but you can still play games and make learning fun

Here is one game, adapted from the UNHCR, you can play with kids: Give each child a balloon and asked each child to share what they need to feel happy and safe. When we did this activity, the answers ranged from a pillow to tacos, but the kids identified the major things they need: food, shelter, clothing, their families. Then, have one child stand in the middle of the circle while the other kids toss their balloons into the air and say out loud what they needed to be safe. On their own, the children realize it is very difficult to catch more than one balloon at a time. Older kids can play online games to simulate the experience.

Help them take action

Kids can take action, such as decorating a “Welcome Home” sign to give to a new refugee family, writing letters, or collecting items for a local refugee family. If they have an idea, encourage them to do it because this feeling of taking action really supports their long term feelings of individual efficacy – that they can do something that will make a difference in the world.

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Resources for teachers and supporters

Sign up for our online professional development class or find cultural background information about refugees and asylum seekers – useful for professional educators and anyone who wants to support newcomer families.

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Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.