“Refugee” Study in 7th Grade History, From Fiction to Reality

At Parker, we often lead with, “Expanding Learning.” While this phrase has many meanings, our faculty demonstrate this expression by pushing beyond a traditional approach to teaching and delivering a more robust, well-rounded unit of study. Seventh grade history teacher Anthony Shaker perfectly displayed this belief during the 7th grade’s reading of the book Refugee by Alan Gratz.

Refugee is historical fiction that weaves together the stories of three adolescents who were refugees from three time periods—Nazi Germany, Cuba in the early 1990s and Syria in 2015. Teachers at other schools may have simply had students read this book, identify themes and move on, but Shaker thought this approach was missing something. “While I tried my best in the classroom to humanize the plot and include materials showcasing real people impacted by these events,” he said, “there is something special about hearing from people who are directly and personally connected to the experiences of refugees.”

Building on this thought, he invited two special visitors to speak with the 7th grade: Parker parent Snjeza Barrack, a refugee survivor who escaped Sarajevo in the early 1990s, and Lauren West, the development and communications director at the Syrian Community Network. “Ms. Barrack spoke to my students last year, and I thought it would be great for Ms. West to add part of the refugee experience that is often overlooked: the resettlement and acclimation process,” explained Shaker.

Barrack presented her firsthand account of the rising tensions in Sarajevo and how that fear and uncertainty led her to flee. When she was maybe slightly younger than the 7th graders, she had to convince her parents to let her flee alone, then had the terrifying experience of trying to fit on the last military evacuation plane. While all alone, she had to crawl through a hole underneath the fence and run to the plane as fast as she could; she never forgot the sound of the military loading their weapons in case the crowd became too unruly.

Next, West discussed the Syrian Community Network (SCN) and its work supporting refugee and immigrant families. She discussed in detail the definition of a refugee, recent refugees’ native countries and the resettlement process and its trials and tribulations. West discussed some of SCN’s programs—including case management, education and immigration—before expanding on the challenges and problems refugees have after resettlement. She finished by suggesting ways each of the students could help. “The students were able to make connections between the characters in the book and the experiences of Ms. Barrack and Ms. West and see the common themes of fear, relocation, separation, loss, trauma, acceptance and renewal,” Shaker said.

Shaker continued, “With Ms. Barrack’s story, the fact that she was the same age they are now when she fled her country resonated with our students. They noted she was thrust into the position of having to make adult, life-changing decisions that aren’t typical for an adolescent, and those few, split-second decisions changed the path of her life. With Ms. West’s presentation, the students were struck by the refugee situations around the world that aren’t told or reported. They also were surprised to hear that, on average, it takes 17 years for refugees to resettle in a new country—longer than all of them have been alive.”

By inviting in these experts, Shaker turned this lesson from a flat, traditional study to an impactful experience that is sure to stick with students for some time. We are thankful to Barrack and West for giving their time to our students and aiding them in their understanding of this complex issue.

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Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.