How can educators help students understand the refugee situation and examine the motivations behind different policy proposals?

This is a question many educators are confronted with today, especially after the recent statements and policy decisions from the US government towards refugees. The following resource tries to give an answer to this question and offers teaching aids to address this topic with students.

IHRA delegate Karen Polak pointed us at this resource from Facing History and Ourselves in a comment she wrote on our blog post Lessons on Refugees:

“…it also refers, in what I consider a very thoughtful way, to suitable educational responses to the very recent events. Importantly it takes the students fears and concerns as a starting point. I hope that many teachers across the globe will remain focused on their student’s needs.” – Karen Polak

The resource offers 3 ways to address the latest news on immigration with your students and refers to several teaching aids to support you in this. We give you a short overview of the tools that are offered by this resource and you can find more explanation here.

1. Affirm the right to education and respect for all students

For this point, the resource refers to a USA Supreme Court ruling stating that undocumented children have a constitutionally-protected right to public education. All young people must have access to schools for their individual development and because “education has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society” and imparts “fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system.”

This is a specific example for the USA, but of course the right to education that is discussed here is universal. Similar statements can undoubtedly be found for your own country.

2. Use the “Universe of Obligation” to consider how we define our responsibility to others

  • How do groups, communities, and nations define who belongs and who does not?
  • How do individuals define the continuum of people for whom they feel responsible?
  • What factors influence the extent to which we feel an obligation to help others?
  • How does the way we view others influence our feelings of responsibility toward them?

The Universe of Obligation is a lesson that lets students explore the ways that individuals, groups, communities, and nations define who belongs and who does not. It examines what it means to belong by introducing the idea of a “universe of obligation,” the term sociologist Helen Fein coined to describe the circle of individuals and groups within a society “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends”.

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Police officers guard a reception center for migrants in Roszke, Hungary (September 2016). Source: The New York Times

Even within democratic countries, political movements and ideologies based on nationalism, racism, or antisemitism can take hold and lead a society toward a more narrow definition of whose rights and privileges deserve protection and whose do not. In times of crisis – such as war or economic depression – societies tend to define more narrowly who is truly “one of us” and whose loyalty should be under suspicion, making them undeserving of protection and respect. Those individuals or groups who fall outside a nation’s universe of obligation become vulnerable not only to being deprived of the rights, privileges, and economic benefits afforded to citizens but also to expulsion, physical harm, and, in the most extreme cases, genocide.

  • What concerns and values might motivate those who want to restrict immigration?
  • What concerns and values might motivate those who want to want to maintain or increase immigration? How do you think each side would define the country’s Universe of Obligation?
  • What is at stake for Americans in how our immigration and refugee policies are defined and enforced?
  • What is at stake for others around the world?

3. Put debates about immigration and refugees in historical perspective

This third point is of course highly relevant for the goal of our blog. Through sharing resources and articles on several topics related to the 1930s refugee situation, we explore how our knowledge about this topic can help us understand the current refugee situation. The aim of the materials we post on this blog is to help educators in creating this historical perspective.

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A tweet drawing a historical parallel to the current plight of Syrian refugees (November 2015). Source:  The New York Times

In “Text to Text: Comparing Jewish Refugees of the 1930s with Syrian Refugees Today,” published in the New York Times, Facing History and Ourselves explores if and how we can compare the current refugee situation with the past. This article refers to several lesson plans, articles, a film clip and other resources that invite students to ask if there are “lessons” of history that could guide decision-making today.

  • How do your students react to the recent policy decisions by the US government concerning refugees? Do your students express concerns about this topic? Which questions do they ask?
  • How did you discuss this topic with your students? Which materials did you use?

We are looking forward to hearing from you. Please feel free to share any materials you believe can be helpful for other educators. You can leave a reply or send it by email.

This way, you can help other educators in tackling this complex issue and help us build our platform.