From Syria to DC: Illuminating the Crisis in the Classroom

Displacement Syria
Natalie Chapman

Schoolteacher Natalie Chapman wasn’t expecting a lesson plan about the U.S. civil war to become a transformative exploration of the Syrian conflict. But that’s exactly where her students led her.

Syria was on the minds of Natalie Chapman’s 5th grade students at the Bilingual Charter School in Washington, D.C. when they started talking about America’s own civil war 150 years ago.

Her 38 students had seen the headlines, photos, tweets, and posts about the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. Some had already chosen to write essays in their Spanish class about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Still others had their own perceptions of the chaos: That ISIS represented the government, that everyone was forced to leave Syria, and that every Syrian who left wanted to come to the United States.

Their interest in the conflict gave her an idea: To harness their natural curiosity and debate the original question of her lesson plan—“What is worth fighting for?”—through the lens of Syria’s ongoing war, its people, and its culture.

“I didn’t know a ton,” Natalie recalls. “It is a vast topic so I learned along the way with them.”

Together, they explored the origins of the conflict and Syria’s geography, religions, food, and culture. Her students paired up for a “chalk talk” of six photos, each silently exploring the war through visual images before sharing their reflections with one another. The photos showed the aftermath of a city bombing, families swimming to refuge, and a man holding his injured daughter.

Questions and curiosities abounded: Where are they staying? Why are parents leaving? Why isn’t anyone helping this man?

“Even 10, 11, 12-year-olds have the capacity to really dig deep into quite frankly controversial issues that are big in scale,” Natalie says.

When the popular website Humans of New York started posting stories about Syrian refugees coming to the U.S., the class decided to debate whether refugees should be allowed to enter.

At first, about a quarter of the class said they wouldn’t accept refugees while the rest said they would. Many in the latter group felt people needed help, regardless of their circumstances. Soon they were brainstorming ways to help, from offering English classes and raising money to help feed and house refugees to organizing a march on the National Mall.

“I teach a ton of kids whose families have immigrated here,” Natalie says. “As they were thinking about their viewpoints on accepting refugees, many of the students started connecting their own lives as immigrants to the Syrian families seeking safe haven. ‘Wait, this is kind of like my country and my family has had the opportunity to escape this violence and we should give that to others,’” Natalie remembers one student telling her.

To help put a human face on the distant tragedy, Natalie invited two Syrian refugees who had been living in the D.C. area for the past 6 months to visit the classroom. The pair, two sisters from Damascus, were welcomed like  “celebrities” by her students.

“My kids were so excited because they had only read articles about people in Syria, but they didn’t know anyone from there,” Natalie says. “To have a first hand conversation with someone who is from there was very exciting for them.”

One of the sisters, a graduate student at Georgetown University, made a presentation on Syrian culture, landmarks, and history. Students prepared questions and shared their perspectives on the value of generosity while some voiced concerns over security. At the end of the presentation, roughly half of those who had previously said the U.S. should not accept Syrian refugees changed their mind.

Beyond enjoying the novelty of the experience, Natalie’s students felt something deeper: gratitude. So they let Natalie know exactly what they wanted the next step on their journey together to be after their two guests left: Writing them thank you notes.

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