Together #withrefugees

Painting of a man crying next to a dead baby on a beach. Mural by Majeed in Haramel, Oman
Mural by Majeed in Haramel, Oman

“Every minute 20 people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.”


This fact is easy to read but what does it mean? I have often tried to imagine myself in that position but I find it hard. I am fortunate in that I have never lived in a country at war. I have never been persecuted. I have never been afraid for my life. Yet this is a reality for over a tenth of the world’s population. According to the UNHCR, “82.4 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced at the end of 2020 as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order.” (UNHCR, 2020). That is 11% of the global population. The statistics are staggering.

June 20th is #worldrefugeeday. This year the focus is on the power of inclusion (UN website): not seeing refugees as ‘other’ but as integral and valuable members of the community to which they have fled. These last eighteen months have highlighted the vital contribution many refugees have made to their adopted communities.

“The shared experience of COVID-19 has showed us that we only succeed if we stand together. We have all had to do our part to keep each other safe and despite the challenges, refugees and displaced people have stepped up.”

(UN website)

How can we empathise with a situation so outside our experience? What is it like to leave everything and run? Stories and questions may be a way in for us and the young people with whom we work.

In English/Language Arts my colleague and I had completed a unit on biographies, where each student had to research someone who had inspired them and write a biography of the person’s life. The unit had gone well. We now wanted to do something different but in the same vein, so we planned ‘The Story behind the Face’. Each student was to choose someone whose face they knew well but whom they knew very little about. They were to do an interview with the person, borrowing or copying any photos or images the interviewee was prepared to share. They were tasked with creating a digital story of the person’s life, using photos, other images, music and text on screen. They were then to re-visit their person and share the story with them, giving it to them as a gift. If the interviewee was agreeable, the digital story was shown in class afterwards. Our classes were stunned by what they learned through these stories. They changed their perceptions of the people they saw every day. The boat-keeper was a soldier before he went overseas to work. The housemaid used to be a nurse. The driver was a computer technician in his home country. We teachers also learned of surprising interactions which revealed sides to the character of some of our young people we never knew existed. One ‘lazy’ female student spent her evenings after school playing football with local girls in her neighbourhood, teaching them English at the same time. It was one of the most rewarding English units I have ever taught.

Kelly Corrigan reflects on first impressions and how stories can turn these on their heads. In her graduation speech at her daughter’s school, Corrigan highlights how a simple question such as “What brings you here today?”, “Have you ever been to that part of the world?”, Where did you get that?” can trigger a story which shatters our perceptions and helps to engender empathy. Appearances can be deceptive is what we learn from her talk. “Ask questions,” is her maxim.

As we say in the introduction to our chapter on STORY, Story is about:

  • understanding your experiences through the telling of them as story
  • bringing a sense of meaning and purpose to what can feel like random facts and events
  • listening to the voices of others and learning from their wisdom
  • being open to the truth within a story so that the story becomes part of our own experience, tradition, history and culture
  • building a sense of community between the story-teller and the listeners or readers

Ted Aoki, a wise professor emeritus who taught a course on my Masters degree programme said, “Storytelling is a powerful way to offer insights into human experiences… Stories well told touch people: they resonate within people, because in the telling of something deeply human, that which is human is touched.”

Let us tell our stories and in so doing share our humanity.

Useful resources for working towards inclusion

Burns, S. & Lamont, G. 2018, Values and Visions: Engaging Students, Refreshing Teachers. Ascot, England: The Values and Visions Foundation.

  • Structured interview Activity 1, p.174 in ENCOUNTER – this activity is about channelling or encouraging curiosity and developing empathy; it is about understanding that an individual is just that – an individual, not a stereotype of the label attached to them; it is about appreciating people who may be different from you; developing respect for difference.
  • The Story behind the face Activity 4, p.163 in STORY – this activity is about listening to and learning from others, particularly those who do not always have a voice; it is about understanding bias and interpretation.
  • Life Stories – Activity 5, p.165 – this activity is about learning more about ourselves; it is about perceptions and self-awareness.
  • The Benedictine Way – Activity 8, p. 147 in LISTENING – this activity is about inclusion and marginalised voices; it is about perception and perspective.

UNHCR Toolkit

UNHCR Number-matching activity for making connections

Reference list

UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, 2020.

Kelly Corrigan’s speech

Question: What is your story?

By Comments off June 18, 2021