Picturing the Syrian Refugee Crisis

To the teacher: 

In 2011 violence erupted in Syria when thousands took to the streets to protest the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  The protests were in response to the arrest and torture of a group of schoolboys who had tagged their school walls with slogans opposing Assad.  Although protesters were initially unarmed,  opposition to the regime grew, and soon armed groups from within and beyond Syria joined the opposition, fuelling a vicious civil war that has now lasted for almost three years. 
 
The Syrian civil war has caused more than 2.5 million people to flee the country.  Most have fled to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, but some are looking for safety further afield.  In the lesson plan that follows, students explore life in the immense Jordanian refugee camp of Za’atari by viewing and analyzing photos and consider the U.S. response to the Syrian refugee crisis.  
 
Read more about history of the civil war in Syria at:

 
Materials:
 
See pictures 14, 15, 16, and 17 from the James Nachwey’s Lightbox slideshow in Time magazine.

Either print up these pictures to share with your students, sequentially, or project them, one after the other, on the smart board in your classroom.   Try not to show the captions accompanying the pictures, at least not in this first activity.  (Other pictures to consider are 3 and 11.)
 


Gathering

Standing on Liberty Island in New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty welcomes visitors, immigrants, and returning Americans.  Ask students to read and then respond to the last few lines of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus” which is inscribed on a bronze plaque mounted on the Statue of Liberty.
 
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
 
Ask students:

  • What does this poem on the Statue of Liberty say about the U.S.?
  • What does it say about the U.S. and its relation to immigration?
  • Do you know whether the U.S. lives up to Emma Lazarus’s famous words?

 

Ask students about the different reasons people leave their home countries to come to the U.S.  Elicit and discuss how some people come to seek out opportunities in the U.S., like an education, work, a better life for themselves and their families.  Other people flee their home countries because of war, violence, extreme poverty, or other kinds of oppression.  Explain that we often refer to the first group as immigrants; the second group as refugees. 
 

Ask students to raise their hands if they know their family came as immigrants.  Ask the students to raise their hands if they know their family came as refugees.  Ask a few volunteers to share their family’s story.
 

Check Agenda and Objectives

Check agenda and explain that in today’s lesson we’ll be looking at the U.S.’s recent decision to ease some of its immigration rules.  To begin exploring this immigration issue, we’ll look at a set of images.  From there we’ll do some work in small groups, read excerpts from different publications on the issues and come back to the words of Emma Lazarus at the end of the lesson. 
 


Pictures of a Crisis

Share these pictures from James Nachwey’s Lightbox slideshow in Time Magazine: 14, 15, 16, and 17. Also consider 3 and 11.  Either print up the pictures and show them to students sequentially, or project them, one after the other, on your smart board.   Try not to show the captions accompanying the pictures, at least not in this first activity.  
 
Start by showing picture number 14:
 
Step 1: Objective Descriptions.   Ask students to look at the first picture and describe what they see.  Instruct them to describe what is in the image objectively, only what can be seen.  If students draw any conclusions or make any interpretations, redirect them to what’s actually in the image.
 
Students might share that they see clothes hanging on a clothesline, they can see what appears to be a satellite dish, a large tent is somewhat central to the composition, partially hidden by the clothes, a container with a person on it stands to the left of the tent, and in the top left of the image, we see some more people and more tents and containers.  There are clouds in the sky.  Try to have students share as complete a description of the image as they can, by asking every time someone shares, what else students can see. 
 
Step 2: Assign Adjectives. Now ask students to move beyond the mere description of the place. Ask: If you were to use adjectives to describe this place, what might they be?  Why?  What feelings does the place bring up for you?
 
Step 3: Moving Beyond the Image.  Next ask student: If you were the photographer and you zoomed out from this photo, what do you think you might see?  What do you think is beyond the image?
 
Step 4: Interpretations. Ask students to guess where and what this place may be.  What might be going on here?  Ask them to explain why they would think/say that?
 
Now show picture number 15 and take students through the same process:
 
Step 1: Objective Descriptions.  Ask students to look at the picture.  Explain that it was taken nearby in one of the tents.  Instruct them once again to describe what they can see in the image, an objective description, like the number of people, how many adults, how many children, the food on the floor, etc.  If they draw any conclusions or make any interpretations, redirect them to what can actually be seen in the image.
 
Step 2: Assign Adjectives.  Next ask students, again, if they were to use adjectives to describe this place, what might they be?  Why?  What feelings does the place bring up?
 
Step 3: Moving Beyond the Image.   If they were the photographer and they were to zoom out, what do they think they might see?  What do they think is beyond the image?
 
Step 4: Interpretations.  Based on the two images now, ask students to guess where and what this place may be.  What might be going on here?  Ask them to explain why they would think/say that?
 
Show the next two pictures, numbers 16 and 17, taking students through the same process, asking the same questions.  Explain that all these pictures are taken in the same vicinity. 

 


A Short History of the Syrian Civil War

Picking up on what your students share in response to the images, explain that these are images of Za'atari refugee camp, in Jordan.  Jordan is a country in what we in the U.S. refer to as the Middle East.  It borders another country in that region called Syria.  Ask students if they know why Syria has been in the news since 2011 and recently? 
 
Explain that in 2011 violence erupted in Syria when thousands took to the streets to protest the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  The protests were in response to the arrest and torture of a group of schoolboys who had tagged their school walls with slogans opposing Assad.  Although protesters were initially unarmed,  opposition to the regime grew, and soon armed groups from within and beyond Syria joined the opposition, fuelling a vicious civil war that has now lasted for almost three years. 
 
Za’atari refugee camp first opened in July 2012 to house the many Syrians streaming across the border to escape the violence of the civil war that was ravaging their country.
The refugee camp lies in Jordan, just four miles south of the Syrian border.  With up to 6,000 Syrians arriving at Za’atari a day, the sprawling camp has become Jordan's fifth largest city.  The original capacity of the camp was 70,000 but in early February 2014 the camp’s population was estimated to house 129,438 people, called “persons of concern” by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR.  Like most refugees around the world, the majority of these Syrians would like to go home.  Living conditions in Za’atari are difficult and there is a constant worry about family and friends who have stayed behind to fight.
 
Recent UNHCR reports have put the total number of Syrian refugees at over 2.5 million.  The vast majority of refugees have fled to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, but some are looking for safety further afield. 
 
Read more about history of the civil war in Syria at:

 


Za’atari Once More

If laptops are readily available to your students, ask them to Google “Za’atari images.”  Explain that this is the context within which the James Nachwey’s slideshow takes place.  Here students may find out what they would see if they were able to zoom out from Nachwey’s images. 
 
If laptops are not readily available, project the google images page of Za’atari onto the smart board, or print up a few of these photos website for students to see.
 
Ask students in small groups to discuss what additional adjectives they would use to describe Za’atari now?  Why?  What thoughts and feelings does the place bring up for your students now?
 


U.S. Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Ask students in small groups to discuss the excerpts below describing the U.S. response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis. 
 
Ask each group to address these questions:
 
1.  What do the excerpts say about numbers of refugees that have been allowed to resettle the U.S. so far?
2.  How do these numbers compare to the numbers of refugees that have been allowed to resettle in Syria’s neighboring countries?
3.  What do the excerpts say about the recent easing of the U.S. immigration laws?
4.  Do you think the U.S. response to the Syrian crisis is sufficient?  Why or why not?

When the whole group reconvenes, ask for a few volunteers to share their thoughts.


 
U.S. ready to accept thousands of Syrian refugees
RT News, August 9, 2013
 
…. The Obama administration is responding to the rapidly deteriorating conditions [in Syria] by agreeing to take in 2,000 Syrian war victims who will be given permanent residence status. Even though the number will represent only a fraction of a percent of Syrian refugees in need of assistance, the administration’s decision marks a major shift in policy. ….
 
But the chosen victims – many of whom are expected to be women and children – won’t be leaving the country anytime soon. …. The application process is expected to take months because of the State Department’s extensive background screenings. U.S. officials will carefully select refugees who appear to have no ties to anyone with terrorist sympathies. Even though infants and young children are unlikely to be terrorists themselves, the concern is that they might have relatives in Al-Qaeda who would then have an easier chance of entering the U.S.. ….
 
Refugees must also show signs of vulnerability, and Clements [the State Department’s assistant secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration] said that the most eligible applicants are those “exposed to everything from torture to gender-based violence to serious medical conditions.” They must also have no intentions of ever returning to Syria. ….
 
About 6.8 million Syrians are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. Although permanent resettlement will help 2,000 lucky victims, it will hardly make a dent in the overall suffering of the millions who are fighting for survival, and it will hardly compare to the 564,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the 454,000 in Jordan.
 
“We are exceedingly frustrated to be quite honest,” Clements said. “Because we can’t keep up with the humanitarian need especially inside Syria.”
 
 
U.S. aid to Syrian refugees generally stops at border
Anne Gearan,  Washington Post, December 27, 2013
 
Only a tiny number of the more than 2 million refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war can meet the requirements to be resettled in the United States, frustrating international relief officials who say the numbers needing help could nearly double in the coming year.
 
The Obama administration allowed only 90 Syrian refugees to make permanent homes in the United States from the start of the Syrian civil war through September. About 50 made the journey from camps outside Syria to live in the United States over the past year, including 20 admitted since Oct. 1.
 
U.S. eases rules to admit more Syrian refugees, after 31 last year
Patricia Zengerle, Reuters, February 5, 2014

President Barack Obama’s administration announced on Wednesday that it had eased some immigration rules to allow more of the millions of Syrians forced from their homes during the country's three-year civil war to come to the United States.
 
Only 31 Syrian refugees - out of an estimated 2.3 million - were admitted in the fiscal year that ended in October [2013], prompting demands for change from rights advocates and many lawmakers.
 
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been taken in by neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. …. [But in the U.S. the “Material Support”] bar had made it impossible for anyone who had provided any support to armed rebel groups to come to the United States, even if the groups themselves receive aid from Washington. ….
 
Easing some of the immigration laws "will help address the plight of Syrian refugees who are caught up in the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation," Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, chairman of the U.S. Senate subcommittee on human rights, said in a statement. ….
 
By early January, 135,000 Syrians had applied for asylum in the United States. But the strict restrictions on immigration, many instituted to prevent terrorists from entering the country, had kept almost all of them out.
 
Washington has provided $1.3 billion in humanitarian assistance to aid Syrian refugees. ….

 


Closing

Going back to the Emma Lazarus sonnet quote from earlier in today’s lesson, ask students to recall their answers to the questions from earlier in today’s lesson

  • What does the plaque on the Statue of Liberty say about the kind of country the U.S. is?
  • What does it say about the U.S. in relation to immigration?
  • Based on what you read about the U.S. response to the Syrian refugee crisis, does the U.S. live up to what Emma Lazarus wrote?