There are more people displaced in the world today than at any time since the end of World War II. Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations (2013–2017), shared this fact with dozens of New York City students, all immigrants, during a visit to Newcomers High School in May 2016. By discussing the global refugee crisis with them, Ambassador Power hoped to inspire in the students a sense of responsibility—to bridge the gap between "us" and "them"—and to empower them to take action.
This lesson draws on readings and short videos featuring Ambassador Power in conversation with the young people of Newcomers High School to explain and humanize a crisis that often feels too overwhelming to confront. After surveying the scope and impact of the global refugee crisis, students will come to understand what makes someone a “refugee.” They will then learn how even small ways of seeing the “other” in ourselves can make a difference in our approach to large and complicated problems involving the needs and well-being of people distant from us. The lesson also considers the value of looking critically at historical moments—in particular, the case of the St. Louis, a ship that carried Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution across the Atlantic in 1939—and recognizing in them implications for our choices today.
There are currently more than 70 million people displaced worldwide—the highest number on record since the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) began collecting statistics.1 At least 15 conflicts have erupted or reignited around the world since 2010, contributing to this crisis. Half of the world’s refugees have come from only three war-torn countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. In Syria alone, where a brutal civil war has raged since 2011, over 5.5 million have sought to save themselves and their families by fleeing the country, while 6.6 million have been displaced within the country’s borders.2 Millions of refugees are living, often in overcrowded camps, in Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Jordan, and Ethiopia. Millions of others have fled to Europe and other countries around the world.
This lesson asks students to consider how a refugee crisis in the 1930s might help us think about how we respond to today’s refugee crisis. In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of European Jews were refugees, fleeing persecution from Nazi Germany. One challenge facing these refugees was that very few nations would protect them or take them in. In 1939, over 900 Jewish refugees boarded the ocean liner the St. Louis and set sail for Cuba. Before they left, Cuba had agreed to accept the refugees, but by the time the ship arrived, the Cuban government had changed its mind. The ship then sailed along the Florida coast, hoping the US government would accept the refugees. It passed close enough to Miami for the refugees to see the lights of the city, but they received no assistance. The ship was forced to return to Europe, where the refugees faced a perilous future. The results from a 1939 poll of 5,000 Americans indicated that 53 percent of respondents regarded Jews as different from "real Americans." That, coupled with economic troubles at home, may have accounted for why Americans did not wish to accept a ship full of refugees.