January 2022 (update)

There are more displaced people today than at any time since World War II—at the end of 2020, 82.4 million people had been forcibly displaced from their homes. The recent surge in refugees fleeing Afghanistan has brought new attention to the global crisis. Why have so many people been displaced? What is the experience like for people who are forced to leave their homes? In this lesson, students examine maps, data, and broader trends in the global refugee crisis, and then explore the stories and experiences of individuals. Ultimately, students consider the U.S. and international response to the crisis.

This lesson has been updated to include revised maps and new data, videos, and news articles. A previous version of the lesson (December 2019) is available here


Students will:

  • Explore the human geography of the current global refugee crisis;
  • Employ data to create a map of the crisis;
  • Examine one refugee’s story and use it to map their experiences;
  • Consider challenges facing the international community and weigh responses to the crisis.


Handout: Key Terms
Handout: Refugee and IDP Data—2020
Handout: Mapping the Global Crisis
Handout: Mapping One Refugee’s Journey
Handout: Refugee Stories
Optional Videos: Life on Hold
Slideshow: Maps

In the Classroom

Note: Teaching about the global refugee crisis may require special sensitivity. The activity might be especially intense for students with a personal connection to the issue. Teachers should help promote careful consideration of the topic and work to make their classrooms a safe place for all students.

Note: Colored pencils or markers are helpful for this activity.

1. Introduction

Write the question “What might force you (and your family) to abandon your home and leave your country?” on the board. After students have considered the question individually, ask students if they’ve heard about the global refugee crisis. What is a refugee? What are some reasons that refugees leave their homes?

Distribute “Key Terms,” and review each term with the class. Make sure that students understand the difference between a refugee, an internally displaced person, and a migrant. Review what it means for a person to apply for asylum. You may wish to show the following Choices video (What are refugees and internally displaced persons?) to help introduce the terms:

2. Mapping the Global Crisis

Explain to students that in order to better understand the scope of the crisis, they are going to analyze data on refugees and IDPs and then map the information. Give each student a copy of “Refugee and IDP Data—2020” and “Mapping the Global Crisis.” Instruct students to read through the data handout on their own. Next, guide the class through the instructions for shading in the map on the “Mapping the Global Crisis” handout. Go over the term “map key” with students if needed. You may wish to have students complete this activity in pairs or small groups.

It might be helpful to project the map onto a screen or whiteboard for reference. To modify the activity and complete as a class, students could collaboratively shade in the countries on the map projection.

If colored pencils or markers are not available for your classroom, consider instructing students to use patterns in place of colors, when shading in areas on the map.

After the class has completed the exercise, ask students to reflect on what they have mapped and read. Were they surprised by any of the data? Which numbers were the most striking? How does the data compare to what they expected to see?

Ask students about the countries they shaded. What do students know about the current situation in countries that are the greatest sources of displaced people, such as Syria, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Venezuela, Yemen, and Afghanistan? Why might such large numbers of people be leaving their homes in these places?

Ask students about the top host countries and countries with the most asylum applications. Why might refugees go to these countries? Encourage students to look at the locations of these countries on the map. How does location affect where refugees go? What might be other reasons that so many refugees end up in these countries? What responsibility do these countries have for protecting refugees?

3. Mapping One Refugee’s Journey

Explain to students that in order to learn more about the current refugee crisis, they will read the account of one refugee and then map their journey. Break the class into small groups or pairs. Assign one refugee story per group, and give each student their own copy of “Mapping One Refugee’s Journey” and “Refugee Stories.” (You may wish to only give each group a copy of the story that they will map instead of the entire packet of stories.)

Ask students to follow the instructions on the handouts—they should begin by reading the story. Review any vocabulary that students have identified as challenging. Have students fill out the organizer and then complete the map exercise. Tell students that they will be sharing their stories and maps with the class.

The map exercise designates specific tasks, but also asks students to use creativity to illustrate aspects of their refugee’s journey that they think are important. This could include drawing a picture, using an image, or adding text to the map. Students may face space constraints on the maps for Shahad and Ahmet and should be encouraged to use their space creatively, drawing “out of bounds” over different parts of the map if they wish. To help students understand the mapping exercise, you may wish to read Shahad’s story as a class and share our sample map of her journey, available in this slideshow of maps.

Update: Video Alternative

Another collection of refugee stories that you may find useful for this activity is Life on Hold by Al Jazeera. The site features video interviews with Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, as well as a place for viewers to leave comments for each refugee. The videos provide more in-depth stories than the shorter UN text sources and focus on a single region.

You may wish to orient students to the website to be sure they know where to find important features. Each refugee’s page provides a main video that is about eight minutes long as well as a small map that shows his or her route. Instruct students to watch the main video and also click the map for a description of the refugee’s journey. Remind students that, because each story is different, they only need to fill in the sections of the handouts for which they have information. You may encourage students to click “Add your thoughts to the wall” to leave a comment for a refugee or to see others’ posts.

Note: The videos are intense and powerful and may be upsetting for students to watch. (For example, Mohammad describes seeing dead bodies, Abu Abdo describes what it was like to kill someone in the conflict, and Omar shows the camera his wounded leg.) As with the text sources, be sure to preview the videos to make sure they are appropriate for your classroom. You may wish to assign only a selection of the following:

Syria to Lebanon:

4. Class Discussion

Ask groups to briefly summarize each refugee story for their classmates. You may also wish to have each group present its map to the class.

What did students learn about each refugee? What were some of the reasons people gave for leaving their countries of origin? After hearing a few answers to these questions, ask students if any of the refugees’ stories had similarities. How did experiences differ? Were students surprised by anything that they read (or viewed)? What challenges did the refugees face during their journeys, and how did they respond? Who or what organizations or governments have they turned to for aid? Is there anything else that the students would like to know about the refugees they read about? About other refugees?

Who do students think should be responsible for helping refugees? What do students think that people, organizations, and governments should do? What role do students think that the United States should play? Did hearing refugees’ stories shape students’ opinions about the refugee crisis? If so, how?

Ideas for Extra Challenges

1. Ask students what they know about the role of the United States in responding to the refugee crisis. To learn more, ask students to read the article “Biden to Raise the Cap on Refugees to 125,000” You may also direct them to the supplementary resources at the bottom of this page and the following Choices video: What is the process for refugees coming to the United States?

Based on what they have read, what role do students think the United States should play in response to the refugee crisis? Encourage students to write letters to elected officials detailing these opinions. They can find contact information for the White House at whitehouse.gov/contact and for their U.S. senators and representatives at congress.gov.

2. Encourage students to explore international and local responses to the refugee crisis. How are other countries’ governments and citizens responding? What are some specific examples of people finding ways to assist and welcome refugees? (“A dozen Afghan evacuees have arrived in Rhode Island” describes local groups’ efforts to welcome refugees arriving from Afghanistan, and “German Volunteers Launch ‘Airbnb for Refugees’” is an example of one group’s efforts to encourage a sense of community among host countries and refugees.) Ask students how people in their own communities have responded to the refugee crisis. Students can research and contact local organizations that are responding, and interview someone who is part of an active organization. Students can also research their state’s specific Resettlement Program. Alternatively, students might wish to organize a meeting at school to raise awareness and discuss possible next steps at both at an individual and community level. For example, students may want to plan a fundraiser or film screening related to refugee relief.

3. Have students research the country of origin or the host country from one of the refugee’s stories. Direct them to the UNHCR country profiles, Wikipedia, and the additional resources below as places to begin the search. Ask students to find information about the country’s government, economy, and social policies and programs. Ask students to write a short essay about their findings, outlining possible reasons why refugees made, or had to make, certain choices.

Supplementary Resources

Al Jazeera: Topics: Coverage of the Refugee Crisis
NYT: Topics: Refugees and Displaced People
The Refugee Project: Interactive Map
Switchboard: Who are Refugees and How Do They Arrive in the United States?
UNHCR—The UN Refugee Agency
UNHCR—Emergencies (country profiles)
UNHCR—Global Trends Report

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