So much of the curriculum I plan to teach each year reshapes itself as the year progresses. It’s hard for it not to when we all watch history unfold as it’s happening on our phones and tablets. This year, the reshaping felt seamless. Each year I teach a unit on the experience of refugees. Students read historical fiction about the experience of a refugee family during the Vietnam War, as well as various articles and shorter memoir pieces focusing on other refugee crises. As the refugee crisis in Syria and Iraq continues to unfold, it seemed like a worthy unit to extend, giving students more of an opportunity to educate themselves on the situation that refugees currently experience and to explore the global response. I anticipated that students would notice that in each of the narratives we explore, refugees highlight feelings of ostracism and isolation in their new homes after experiencing extremely high levels of fear and violence in their country of origin. What I didn’t expect was that the conversation would quickly become focused more on the perception of Muslims in America.
Over the course of the unit, students analyze each refugee crisis they study in an attempt to find similarities in the experience of refugees across the board. After analyzing the experience of refugees fleeing Vietnam in the 1970s, students read a brief interview with four teenage refugees from Bosnia in the 1990s. While the novel they’ve read illustrates the discrimination and feelings of inferiority that refugees faced once they arrived in the United States, the four teenagers from Bosnia paint a completely different picture of their own lived experience. In our class, we were conducting a partnered reading where students worked in pairs to read in the way that felt most comfortable for them. I started to notice that each pair stopped and had a strong reaction at the same point in the text. The interviewer has posed the question, “What are your lives like in the U.S.?” One of the teenagers responds: “I like it better than being a refugee in Croatia. Here, people don’t judge you by your religion. When I say that I’m a Muslim, they don’t react like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be with you, I don’t want to be your friend because you’re Muslim.’”
The general reaction from my students was complete confusion. How could these teenagers say that America was more accepting of Muslim refugees when we have a current presidential candidate running on a platform of exclusion for this very group- and he’s winning? How could these teenagers say that America was more accepting of Muslim refugees when there are students in the room who have faced discrimination for being Muslim themselves? How could these teenagers say that America was more accepting of Muslim refugees when it seems like no matter where you go, there are people who believe that all Muslims must be suspect when we have a specific subset of the global Muslim community taking extreme action?
And then it dawned on me. The kids I teach were born after 9/11 and as a result have only experienced first-hand a post-9/11 world. The idea that there was a time in our nation’s history where Muslims weren’t “the bad guys” is almost beyond their comprehension at first. And while they know that the Constitution protects their right to practice their religion freely, they see the lived experience of either peers, loved ones, or themselves that tells them that those words do not apply to everyone in a de facto sense. These kids had clearly been affected by the messages they receive on a daily basis from various media sources on who “the bad guys” are and whether or not it’s actually ok to practice any religion. In the moment, I was briefly at a loss for how to handle this situation. Clearly, the class was no longer focused on the topic of similarities between the historical fiction they’d read and the experiences of these teenagers. They had a lot of questions about how we could possibly go from a world where Muslims felt safe and welcome in 1994 when the interview was published, to a world where being Muslim could eliminate your chances of being considered an American in 2016. And I felt like the remaining 15 minutes of class just wouldn’t be enough to have a deep and honest conversation with them about these issues.
So clearly, we have a lot more work to do for this project. Especially since as we head into exploring photo essays by journalists who are documenting the experience of refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq, they’re going to hear further stories of Muslim families trying to find acceptance in a new place. But I feel a great sense of pride and hope knowing that these kids, who are only in middle school, are able to see that media portrayals and perceptions of particular groups can not be equated to with who these people actually are. I felt proud knowing that the students in that room can receive the messages of hate that are spewing from Donald Trump’s mouth and see it for what it is- language that is meant to scare so that powerful people can swoop in to pacify and “save” the masses. While it is disheartening to know that they grow up in a world where it just seems unreal to them that Muslims can feel welcome here in the United States, I think it speaks volumes that young people are able to see that discriminating against whole groups of people for the actions of some people who identify with that group just doesn’t make sense.
Brice, Arthur. “Children of War.” Scholastic Update. 3/25/94, Vol. 126 Issue 12, p. 25.
The interview with four Bosnian teen refugees
Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out & Back Again. Harper Collins. 2011.
Historical fiction written in verse telling the story of a young girl and her family as they flee war in Vietnam and seek safety in America.