A Lesson on Empathy: Refugees and the UN Rights of a Child
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, 75 Years of the United Nations Special Issue, 2020
By Michelle Watrin
“All right Rubin, can you read from the UNICEF website under the Rights of a Child?” It was September of 2015 and the new school year was off to its usual start as I began teaching my class about global poverty and inequality issues through the UN Rights of a Child.
The school where I was teaching at the time was located in the inner city of Abbotsford, BC. My students represented a variety of cultures and worldviews. My first impressions were of a lively, fun group, but I could tell there would be a few classroom management challenges. We were known as Pod J because the school follows the practice of “looping,” which meant I was their teacher for two consecutive years—grade six and then, grade seven. Little did I know that what started as a simple lesson plan would become a two-year journey and one of the most incredible teaching experiences of my career.
Rubin, a bubbly student who always smiled, began reading. “Every child has the right to health, education and protection, and every society has a stake in expanding children’s opportunities in life. Yet, around the world, millions of children are denied a fair chance for no reason other than the country, gender or circumstances into which they are born.”
A discussion ensued about different reasons students around the world could not go to school. “Last year we learned about girls in Ethiopia who have to walk for water instead of going to school when my elementary school did a Run for Water,” Taryn shared.
“Lucky!” Rubin called out, which produced some giggles. I smiled with them and asked, “Is that lucky? Think about how your life would be different if our country was not as fortunate as others. We’ve won the lottery in life, Pod J. We were born in Canada, a peaceful, prosperous, compassionate country where we don’t have to worry about clean water or other things, like war.”
“Yeah, I heard we have the best tasting water in the world!” Emily said. It was true, our water had won a global taste test and it had been on the news.
“Yes, so think about how easy it is to turn on a tap in the morning for water to drink, brush your teeth, and cook your oatmeal. Now, think about a life where you have to walk miles and miles to collect water. Or, a life where you have to maneuver through a war zone to try to get to school. That is what kids your age are doing today in Syria.”
Over the next few weeks, we used the UN Rights of a Child as a springboard into the Canadian Federal Election that year by discussing the different governmental systems of countries around the world. The students showed a real interest in the election, especially in Justin Trudeau, who, his political opponents playfully insisted was “just not ready, but nice hair though.” The kids laughed at these commercials and were amazed that “old, political people” actually had a sense of humour.
During this time, the world, and my students, were shocked by the images of a drowned Syrian boy washed up to on a beach while attempting to escape to Greece. As a result, Mr. Trudeau made a campaign promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by Christmas, which was only two months away.
After some research and soul-searching discussions, each student was given a sticky note to write their strongest feeling on the refugees coming and stick it, either, in the PRO or CON column on our bulletin board. At the end of the survey, the results were 50-50.
While I was pleased to read notes that followed the theme of “It’s the Canadian way to help others,” I was disheartened by others. “They may bring in new viruses,” or as Rubin wrote, “Mr. Trudeau is worried about keeping his promise to bring 25,000 by Christmas but he can’t possibly check out each one close enough.” Clearly, my students had seen and absorbed recent news coverage of the Ebola outbreaks in Africa and a string of terrorist attacks in Europe. Their feelings were raw and real. I appreciated their honesty, but wondered if I could help them develop compassion and empathy towards these refugees.
We continued to follow the news and watched Syrian refugees begin to arrive in Canada, and kept track of Trudeau’s promise. Playing off the students’ interests, I weaved learning outcomes through a makeshift unit on what it would be like to live in a refugee camp. UNICEF videos became our textbooks as we watched dirt and dust fly around young kids jumping rope and playing with nothing more than rocks and buckets, day after day, as they waited for their country to be peaceful again. The refugees explained through UNICEF translators that they lived in tents, waited for the daily water truck, ate meat only once a week, and shared access to a makeshift kitchen with many other families. Some camps had a space for school, others didn’t. My students were seeing firsthand how some children were being denied their rights.
At the end of the year, I wanted my students to take a walk in a refugee’s shoes. I assigned a writing exercise that asked them to pretend they were living in a refugee camp and to include their thoughts on receiving news they were chosen to come to Canada. The writing assignments were good, but I wasn’t sure if any students with reservations had changed their perspectives. At least, I thought, they were given the opportunity to understand the situation more.
It was now the first day of school in the fall of 2016 and I was once again teaching the same students with the usual sprinkling of new kids. Two of them, a boy and a girl, were clearly from another country, with clues pointing to somewhere in the Middle East—his dark features and her hijab. I noticed the girl had a jagged front tooth and could not move her right arm very well. The boy wore a Twilight t-shirt and jeans.
Upon greeting them, I quickly assessed English was not their first language or a language they knew very well. He knew more than she did, however, and translated a bit. With curious, contemplating eyes they sat amongst the rest of the students, went through the first day activities with as much success as possible (lots of gestures by myself and other students), and left at the bell. My head was spinning.
During our staff meeting that afternoon, my colleagues and I learned our school had six new students who were Syrian refugees. The district had several new Syrian families and decided to assign them to different schools so as to not overload a given school’s ELL program. We were told not to ask the Syrian students anything about their past as they may be full of trauma. “Treat these kids with compassion, just make them feel safe and a part of class for now,” we were instructed. Their native language was Arabic, and the district had hired a translator to help us if we needed to talk with their families.
We’d never had a level one ELL student in our school, let alone six. Myself, our ELL support teacher, and other colleagues tried our very best to assist these students. But quite honestly, there were times I could not help them while maneuvering my lessons to meet the needs of the other students in the class.
Over the next few months, however, I was inspired to witness most of my students go out of their way to help and befriend these two kids. Girls helped the female Syrian student, Kalilah, with English flashcards, and boys admired Mirhan, the male Syrian student’s soccer abilities.
Three months into the school year, a woman from our district ELL program came to meet with teachers who had Syrian refugee students in their classes. We learned they had all been living in a hotel while waiting for more permanent homes. And for the first time, I learned many of the families longed to return to Syria. I naively believed they would want to live in Canada—a country of freedom and peace—forever. But the puzzle pieces started to fit; they wanted the homes and the family members they had left behind. How hard it must be to come and learn a new language while trying to find a route to employment to support their families.
Many mornings, I reflected as I watched my students stand for our national anthem. Mirhan, who was a bit smaller than most seventh graders, stood at attention and stared respectfully at the flag. I could only imagine how, behind his eager eyes, this daily school tradition must feel bittersweet: a feeling of relief to live in peace, but also an anxiety about his family’s future. He has five brothers and sisters and both parents had trouble finding jobs after being in Canada almost a year. Mirhan’s skills developed really well, and we all celebrated when he gave a Google slide presentation in front of the class on the Mesopotamian invention of the chariot. He was eager to try to learn what the other kids were learning. His progress was so encouraging, and I was confident he would eventually catch up to his peers. He was even considered for the leadership group “Where Everyone Belongs” (WEB) as a future grade nine mentor.
Kalilah had received some dental and medical treatments, and she smiled a lot some days. Other days were clearly uncomfortable for her. We found out she had lived most of her life in a refugee camp prior to coming to Canada and hadn’t been able to attend school. Our ELL teacher learned she did not know her native language’s alphabet. Not surprisingly, she struggled to learn English. She also shared with some of her female peers that her sister had died in a bombing. Emotions were once again very raw and real. However, she laboured through every day in my class, touching my heart in the last term when she created a Google slide that had the simplest yet most meaningful note, “Thank you teacher.”
In the last weeks of our seventh grade year together, I got the opportunity to talk with Rubin during a nature walk for our daily physical activity. I asked him about his two Syrian classmates, and reminded him of his past apprehension in bringing refugees to Canada.
He giggled and said, “They’re great. They remind me Canada is a place of peace. I’m glad they’re safe here. And Mirhan is such a good shooter in soccer!” Without a quiz or test, Rubin and my other students exceeded my expectations on learning the importance of the Rights of a Child. They naturally connected the experiences of their Syrian classmates to the lessons on the UN. And their perspectives were changing as their empathy grew. What started as a typical social studies lesson grew into so much more.
*Student names have been changed.
Michelle Watrin has been a teacher in the Abbotsford School District for over 20 years. An avid lover of the outdoors, she, her husband, and four kids enjoy spending their time camping, kayaking, hiking, and biking. She is currently teaching online in the transitions program at Clayburn Middle School.