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#9 News 2021

August 19, 2021

Talking and Teaching about Afghan Refugees and the Fall of Kabul

As educators, how can we help students make sense of what Afghan refugees are seeing, feeling, thinking, and wondering?  Find suggestions here.


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By the Re-Imagining Migration Program Staff

Afghan Refugees Seeking Safety After the Fall of Kabul

Over the weekend and into Tuesday morning, news of the fall of Kabul spread through the media as Taliban forces surrounded and then took over the capital of Afghanistan. The speed of the Taliban’s advance stunned observers and prompted thousands of Afghans to seek refuge outside of the country.

In advance of its planned military pullout, the Biden administration had been preparing a process to allow the families of Afghans who had worked with the United States during the nearly 20-year conflict to receive asylum here. However, as events over the weekend accelerated, the urgency and number of those seeking to flee escalated dramatically.

As educators, how can we help students make sense of what they are seeing, feeling, thinking and wondering? Below are some suggestions. We look forward to hearing your thoughts as well.

map of Afghanistan - Afghan refugees lesson plan
A  map of Afghanistan. Ask students: Where is Kabul?
Click here for a lesson from Listenwise.

A Place to Start

While many questions from our learning arc can help illuminate the stories of Afghan refugees, consider focusing on the following set of questions:

  • How do refugees and asylum-seekers navigate life with an ambiguous and uncertain status?
  • What are the rights of people with ambiguous status seeking to flee their homes? What should those rights be?
  • What are our moral and ethical responsibilities toward people on the move with ambiguous status?

Slow Down

The fast-moving news can leave people feeling helpless and overwhelmed. Consider reflecting on the situation by using images to humanize the story, build empathy and foster connection.

We have found several images particularly striking. They include these images in this photo gallery from Reuters.

As well as this image of 600 Afghan refugees aboard a U.S. Air Force plane.

Consider using the “See Feel Think Wonder thinking routine from Project Zero to structure reflection on the images. Psychologist Paul Slovic suggests that when we are exposed to news of massive suffering it often leads to psychic numbing. Journalist Brian Resnick explains, “As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases. This happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two.”

Veronica Boix-Mansilla has been piloting a new Project Zero/Re-Imagining Migration thinking routine called “Seek to See”' that is intentionally designed to humanize those who are vulnerable to dehumanization. Boix-Mansilla writes that Seek to See is a “routine to nurture a disposition toward proactive empathic perspective taking, de-stigmatization, and recognition of dignity.” We outline the thinking routine below. Consider using it with the image of the 600 Afghan passengers on the plane.

Seek to See

Take some time to look closely at this photograph with the information you have and explore the following ways of seeking to see. Focus on one individual and consider:              

  • Multiple Feelings: What might be this person’s various feelings in this situation?         
  • Strength: What might be this person’s strengths, cultural richness and power?
  • Connections: What might be some ways in which we connect as human beings? 
  • Human Dignity: What words would I choose to honor their humanity and make them shine?

Reflection: Take a moment to reflect about your experience seeking to see. Did you notice any shifts in your thinking, perspectives or feelings? Did anything surprise you? What questions do you have? How did that exercise influence the way you think about the stories of those trying to leave Afghanistan?

Inquiry and Understanding

Select a set of questions from our learning arc to guide an inquiry about the range of responses to the escalating refugee crisis.

You might use the articles we have curated below to create an inquiry using this question: “What are our legal, moral and ethical responsibilities toward people on the move with ambiguous status?”

  1. “Malala Yousafzai Urges Countries to Open Borders to Afghan Refugees as Taliban Take Over,” CBS News
  2. “As Afghans Scramble to Escape the Taliban, Fox News Hosts Lean into Anti-Refugee Rhetoric,” Washington Post 
  3. “Uganda to Take 2,000 Afghan Refugees at US Request,” Reuters
  4. “Get Afghan Refugees Out. Then Let Them In,” New York Times
  5. “Gov. Kim Reynolds Supports Certain Afghan Refugees Resettling in Iowa,” Axios
  6. “Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy Could Host Afghan Refugees amid Chaotic US Withdrawal,” Wisconsin Public Radio 
  7. “Joni Ernst: Iowa ‘Absolutely’ Has a Role to Play in Accepting Afghan Refugees,” Des Moines Register 
  8. “The Fall of Afghanistan,” New York Times, The Daily Podcast
  9. “Afghanistan: ‘My Family Is Stuck and There Is Nothing I Can Do,’” BBC News
  10. “Fort Bliss in El Paso Could Receive Thousands of Afghan Refugees as Taliban Topples Government, Pentagon Says,” Texas Tribune

As students read, have them note what they are learning, what they are feeling, and what they are wondering.

Media Literary Connections: It is helpful to consider whose voices are being heard in the media we consume. Consider using the “By whom, about whom, for whom?” routine to make power and positions in the texts visible.

Digging Deeper

Many people have commented that the fall of Kabul is similar to the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. This article from CBS News includes photographs from the fall of Saigon. Review the images and use one additional Project Zero/Re-Imagining Migration thinking routine to explore the connections and distinctions between the two events. Try the routine called “Same-Different-Gain,” designed to encourage thoughtful and purposeful comparisons. 

  • How are the images the same?
  • How are they different?
  • What do we gain by comparing them?
  • And, what might be lost in the comparison?

Where are the Afghan voices? Make sure to share stories of Afghan people in their own words. Colorín Colorado has created a list of books with Afghan voices for students and adults.

Taking Action

As we noted earlier, reading about all that is going on can often leave people feeling overwhelmed. While we might have empathy toward the people we are learning about, that empathy may not lead to action when we do not know how and where to begin to make a positive difference. The routines below are not designed to tell students what to do, how to feel or how to act; instead they help students identify the issues that they feel are most important and would like to act on.

In particular, these Project Zero / Re-Imagining Migration thinking routines are designed to help learners:

  • Have a sense of belonging to a learning environment and to society, and an inclination to participate regarding issues or situations involving human migration. 
  • Be sensitive toward opportunities to act constructively in groups, contexts and relationships, and have a desire and inclination to make a difference. 
  • Employ understanding, voice and capacity for influence to foster well-being among immigrant and host communities to strengthen civic life and democratic institutions to create inclusive and sustainable societies.
  • Reflect on the use of a repertoire of civic engagement tools to take informed and compassionate action (learning from the stories of the past, examining prior attempts, engaging others, planning and executing).
  • Nurture an identity and sense of self-efficacy as a change-maker in more-intimate and broader spheres.

Stay in Touch

Let us know if you found the ideas we have discussed here helpful. If you have any suggestions, reach out to Re-Imagining Migration through direct message on social media. 

Re-Imagining Migration

Re-Imagining Migration'smissionis to advance the education and well-being of immigrant-origin youth, decrease bias and hatred against young people of diverse origins, and help rising generations develop the critical understanding and empathy necessary to build and sustain welcoming and inclusive com

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