What Is a Refugee? What Is it Like to Leave Home?

9, 10, 11, 12

Students learn what it is like to be a refugee through pictures, video, and stories. They build empathy and do an activity that simulates choices refugees must make. 

Photo Credit: Refugees by Global Panorama is licensed under CC by 4.0 

PrintOne 50-Minute Class Period

The learners will...

  • define refugee.
  • compare and contrast two refugees.
  • simulate and reflect on choices that refugees make about what to bring.
  • Access to YouTube
  • Copies of handouts below
Teacher Preparation 

refugee: a person who has been forced to flee from his or her home country and is unable or afraid to return because of  war, violence, and persecution.


YouTube video about Harry and Ahmad, two child refugees: one from WWII and one from Syria https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APWyeCuvk5Q


  1. Anticipatory Set (10 minutes)

    Display a photograph from the Syrian refugee crisis without giving information to the students about the context of the photograph. Give the students a moment to look at the photo in silence before asking questions. Stand near the photo and examine it along with students.

    • When ready, ask,  “What is going on in this picture?” Have students raise their hands and call on them so that they do not all talk at once.
    • If a student makes an interpretive remark, ask, “What do you see that makes you say that?” 
    • To prompt responses from as many students as possible, ask, “What more can you find?” 

    (More about Visual Thinking Strategy)

  2. Explain that the people in the photograph are refugees. Ask what students know about refugees, and compile a list of background knowledge. (5 minutes)

  3. Give students a partial definition: “A refugee is a person who has been forced to flee from his or her home country and is unable or afraid to return because of _________.”

    Ask them to name reasons a person might flee his or her country and be afraid to return. Once students have come up with some answers, explain that warviolence, and persecution are three reasons a person can be considered a refugee. (5 minutes)

  4. Show this YouTube video about Harry and Ahmad, two child refugees: one from WWII and one from Syria. After watching the two-minute video, ask students what they felt. What similarities are there between Harry and Ahmad? What differences?

    What do you think people would say if they knew that America admitted very few Jews during World War II? Why? How does this relate to how people were discussing refugees from Syria? (10 minutes)

  5. Distribute to students a copy of the backpack handout (below). Using the examples of Harry and Ahmad from the video, explain that many refugees must leave their homes quickly, sometimes within minutes, and have little time to plan or prepare. They must keep survival in mind. On the handout each student lists 20 things that they will put into their backpack and take with them as they flee their home.

    Have students share this with a partner. 

  6. Then tell the students that there has been a change of plans; someone is knocking on their door and has found out about their plans to leave. They can now take even less, only 10 items. Have students cross out 10 items from their backpack that they would leave behind.

    Then give time to share with a partner what they chose and why.

  7. Partway through the journey, the backpack becomes too heavy. They will have to leave behind 5 items. Have students circle 5 things that they will leave.

    Share with a partner what they chose and why.

  8. The teacher asks some questions for the students to consider.

    • Do they have anything to eat or drink with them?
    • Do they have any money with them in case they need to buy supplies or pay someone to take them to a new place?
    • Many Syrians make the journey to Europe by boat. Did they pack anything to prevent their items from being ruined by seawater or rain?
    • How does this exercise make them feel?
    • What questions does it raise for them? 
  9. Optional Extender:

    For additional lesson ideas that use primary sources to explore the connection between the Syrian refugee crisis and Jewish refugees during WWII, visit:



Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 02. Diverse Cultures
      1. Benchmark MS.2 Describe the importance of hearing all voices in a community and respecting their right to be heard.
      2. Benchmark E.2 Discuss the importance of respect for others.
      3. Benchmark HS.2 Give examples from history of how intolerance of ideas, religion, and minorities contributed to social disintegration.
      4. Benchmark MS.5 Discuss examples of groups denied their rights in history.
      5. Benchmark E.5 Identify the relationship between individual rights and community responsibility.
    2. Standard PCS 03. Philanthropy and Economics
      1. Benchmark HS.9 Analyze a major social issue as a "commons problem" and suggest ways the civil society sector could help to resolve it.
  2. Strand PHIL.IV Volunteering and Service
    1. Standard VS 01. Needs Assessment
      1. Benchmark E.1 Identify a need in the school, local community, state, nation, or world.
      2. Benchmark MS.1 Identify a need in the school, local community, state, nation, or world.
      3. Benchmark HS.1 Identify a need in the school, local community, state, nation, or world.