A story: My old church supported several Karen refugee families from Myanmar. The Karen are a Christian and Buddhist ethnic minority group in Myanmar (Burma) who were forced from their homes, their villages destroyed, and fled from violence and ethnic cleansing in a Burmese civil war into hiding in the surrounding jungles. Not the pretty Jungle Book jungles but mountainous ones that grow cold and inhospitable, with little food to forage.
The fortunate ones were able to cross the border into Thai refugee camps. The very fortunate ones were able to make their way from Thailand to settle in other nations, such as the Karen community in the south Seattle area. This was not their wish, though. They miss their homes desperately and find it hard to adjust to a new life in a new land where they're definite minorities. As one woman said in an interview with CNN: "[I]f the situation in Burma changes, I hope to go back to my country."
Here's the part of this experience that has stuck with me for years now. A group of internally displaced Karen people still running and hiding in the mountain forests wrote our church for assistance. We raised money regularly to try to get supplies to them and sent words of support and encouragement. In this letter back to us, they asked in particular for one thing: a bone saw. They had been performing amputations on horribly injured members of their community with whatever sharp implements they had to hand. They wanted a bone saw to ease the process.
THAT is what a refugee is. It's a person who's thankful for a bone saw. It's a person whose current greatest wish is an appropriate instrument to perform major surgery in the open air of a jungle as they're running for their lives.
I've seen a lot of confusion lately, even among adults, about the differences between refugees and immigrants. I've also seen confusion about the distinctions between documented and undocumented — to help clear that latter point up a bit, the recent ban on immigrants and refugees coming from seven Muslim-majority countries into the United States was against legal immigrants, people with green cards or visas. People who are trying to immigrate illegally are always banned, since that's the definition of illegal.
At any rate, most of us in the United States will have relatives or ancestors who immigrated to this country, whether by choice or no. I'm the great-granddaughter of immigrants from Finland and Sweden, and the greater-granddaughter (I'm so great! The greatest!) of folks from all over the British Isles, Germany, and the Netherlands. At one point, my great-great-great-whatever-grandfather who came over during the Potato Famine had to deal with the American prejudice against the Irish, which we now find quaintly ridiculous. Now there are new groups who seem scary and unfamiliar.
But standing apart from immigrants are refugees, a whole different group. Immigrants leave their countries, either temporarily or permanently, to pursue new opportunities. Refugees leave their homes because their homes chased them out.
If your kids are tuned in to the news and are curious about what refugees are and why they need assistance, here are some age-appropriate resources to turn to.
Keep in mind your child's sensitivity threshold in choosing from the resources. Some children might appreciate the empathy of thinking through what it would be like for them personally to be a refugee: for their home and city to be destroyed by bombs or famine or natural disaster, to be chased into another area or another country, to have to restart somewhere unfamiliar and potentially unwelcoming. Some children might be traumatized by going through even the thought experiment of that. I have a five-year-old who tends to think that any hypotheticals are in fact going to happen to him, so we have to be cautious about what we say around him. Use your discretion as you go through the options below about what is undoubtedly a troubling subject.
Watch a videoThis is a short video from Alicia Keys about an American family with two young kids who are forced from their city by bombing and into a dreary and desperate march to possible safety:
Remember what I said above about the sensitivity levels of your own children. What I like about this video is that it shows the refugees before, on a typical U.S. suburban school day, so kids can glom on to the fact that refugees once had homes and cities and jobs and schools and toys and pets. We tend to see refugees only once they are, in fact, refugees, sitting desolate and empty-handed in a camp somewhere, and we can lose sight of the stable and civilized existence they've lost. I also appreciate that it's shown through the eyes of the daughter, so it's accessible for kids, and that there's a surprise ending of hope.
Here's an even sadder video showing the shift from middle-class U.K. child to refugee:
And a real-life video from a smuggler's boat:
Here's a video about Bana Alabed, a 7-year-old girl who tweeted from Aleppo, with help from her mom, as bombs fell on her neighborhood. You can assure your children that Bana and her family are now safe in Turkey, though the war continues to rage in Syria.
Here's an uplifting video of a family reuniting with their lost cat, who traveled all the way from Iraq to Norway:
This is a good one to go with if you have a particularly sensitive child since it has such a happy ending. See below for the accompanying book as well.
Read a book
|Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush's Incredible Journey, |
by Doug Kuntz, Amy Shrodes, & Sue Cornelison
My kids & I watched the video above telling the true story of Kunkush the cat's journey from Iraq to Greece to Norway. This is a simple hook for children to understand the pain and disorientation of a refugee journey, because most kids are attuned to love of family pets.
|Oskar and the Eight Blessings, by Tanya Simon, Richard Simon, & Mark Siegel |
This is the story of Oskar, a boy who has fled Europe during Kristallnacht and who must wander alone through the unfamiliar city of New York to seek out his aunt before the Hanukkah candles are lit. As he walks, he experiences small kindnesses that welcome him to his new home. This is a gentle book despite the background of dark subject matter, and it reminds us of Mr. Rogers's adage to "look for the helpers," which means it will inspire your children to be one of those helpers.
|Azzi In Between, by Sarah Garland |
Azzi and her family must leave their bombed-out city and escape finally to the U.S., where Azzi adapts to new customs even as she misses her grandmother who stayed behind. This graphic novel endorsed by Amnesty International is aimed at elementary school children but manages to pack many details of a refugee family's challenging journey into one girl's story.
|Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey, by Margriet Ruurs, Falah Raheem, & Nizar Badr |
This book with fascinating rock-art compositions by Nizar Badr and spare poetic text in both English and corresponding Arabic tells the story of refugees fleeing Syria and resettling in Canada. Proceeds from the book's sales go to help the resettlement efforts.
|The Journey, by Francesca Sanna |
Enchanting and gripping illustrations move you along a family's journey from a war-torn land to safety. Be aware that this is a disturbing tale, paralleled by the imagery, with the children's father dying and plenty of turmoil and fear along the way. Despite being a picture book, it would be more appropriate for older children.
|How I Learned Geography, by Uri Shulevitz |
The author-illustrator recalls his own childhood fleeing Warsaw for Turkestan. They have nearly nothing to eat, yet his father spends their precious coins on a huge, colorful map that ends up transfixing the young protagonist and giving him a way to escape in daydreams to far-off places. The story itself is a bit vague, but that makes it accessible for younger or sensitive kids to have a taste of the refugee experience without being overwhelmed by it.
|Mama's Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation, by Edwidge Danticat & Leslie Staub |
This lovely book about a daughter missing her mother isn't specific about whether Mama is a refugee or an undocumented immigrant from Haiti, but I'm including it because of the relevance to refugee families being detained and separated when they don't have all their papers in order, and sometimes even when they do. This puts a human face on the situation and shows how one small child can affect grown-ups as she uses her own words and stories to help secure her mother's freedom.
|How Many Days to America?: A Thanksgiving Story, by Eve Bunting & Beth Peck|
Soldiers force a family from the Caribbean into the open sea. After a harrowing journey, they land in America and are welcome in on Thanksgiving. While a bit distressing during the journey, this story is a great reminder to do the welcoming. You can preview the book with this read-along video.
|A Song For Cambodia, by Michelle Lord & Shino Arihara |
Please note: I would NOT recommend this book for small children. Despite being a picture book, I'd suggest an audience of age 10+. It is the dark but true story of Arn Chorn-Pond, who loses his family when the Khmer Rouge invade his village, is sent to a work camp, learns to play traditional Cambodian music for the workers, and later is adopted by an American pastor. As an adult, Arn returned to Cambodia to restore music to his home country.
Talk with refugeesI have friends who fled from North Korea into South Korea and from there to the U.S. Many Jewish families have heartbreaking stories from their grandparents or great-grandparents. Maybe you know some similar folks or are one of them yourself. If not, seek out refugee groups in your neighborhood. They will often host cultural gatherings to give your family an educational experience. They might also offer opportunities to give back in ways such as tutoring or donating winter clothing.
Make a pen palYou can watch a sweet video on CARE.org about the original WWII recipients of care packages writing now to Syrian children about their own experiences as refugees, and then use their contact form to send a short message of hope to a Syrian refugee child. For a longer-term relationship, sign up to be a pen pal at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Learn about famous refugeesResearch the history and accomplishments of world-famous refugees. Here's a list of well-known people who were refugees, including M.I.A., Gloria Estefan, and Albert Einstein. Here's another list, which includes Google co-founder Sergey Brin, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, actor Andy Garcia, gymnast Nadia Comaneci, artist Salvador Dalí, and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Play a refugee game"Syrian Journey: Choose your own escape route" is an educational online game that's a sort of choose-your-own-adventure with difficult decisions based on real-life dilemmas.
Watch a movieGod Grew Tired of Us is a moving, fascinating documentary showing what it's like to be a Sudanese refugee who's suddenly transplanted to the United States. The movie follows three of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan as they settle into their new lives. It's been long enough since I've seen the movie that I can't give a hard-and-fast age recommendation, but I'd suggest age 10+.
Write to your leadersYour children can send postcards, letters, and emails to elected representatives or even pick up the phone and make a personal call. Here's a starting point to find their contact information for U.S. residents. Let the government know your thoughts on how they should deal with the refugee crisis, and include any personal stories you have to share.
Post on social mediaYour kids can craft messages for you to post online. They can make videos talking about their beliefs. They can join the I Am Syria project by uploading a picture or video holding a sign saying "I Am Syria." Here is a printable sign, or your kids can design their own.
Give & donateChildren can raise funds or give saved allowance to a refugee organization, whether local or international. One worthy one is International Rescue Committee. Many local refugee organizations will gladly accept needed donations of new or gently used items to help people resettle, so a donation drive can be a great way for a kid to get involved alone or with a school or community group. Contact your local organization for a list of particular items, but popular options include clothing, school supplies, diapers, toys and art supplies, baby supplies, bicycles, linens, kitchen supplies, and the like. Your donation drive could focus on one particular area of need.
I hope this helps as you tap into your kids' deep wells of empathy for other children and families living through such difficult circumstances. May our children inspire hope and change!