How to help your children understand what it’s like to be a refugee

I have a few things to say before I get to the 1–2–3 that answers the question inherent in this title. If you must, scroll down to the bottom for that list, but I ask you to bear with me, read the rest first.

“Have you ever had a memory from thirty years ago pop into your head?” Noah asked me over coffee this morning.

His memory originated in the early eighties, just after the Pahlavi regime had been toppled by the Ayatollah Khomeini. All Jews who could left Iran, and found their ways to the United States and into Jewish schools.

Noah’s family was friends with an Iranian family in his Maryland community. He remembered going to their house to play, knowing, somehow, that they were unfathomably sad. He didn’t understand, but he saw on their faces the heaviness of what it means to be expelled from your country because of violence.

The look on their faces — of sadness and loss — remains with him to this day.

I, too, remember Iranian students in my high school. They were different. Dressed differently, spoke with an accent. They didn’t fit in. I also didn’t understand how complicated a path they walked in order to sit in the same Physics classes with me.

It struck me that of all polarized information out there about refugees, I have yet to see a discussion of how our children process this information. Nothing to explain how we should talk to our children about what it means to lose your home. Not just your home, but your family, your life, your everything.

You, my child, mean nothing to people like that.

How does one explain to a child that there are people in this world who will destroy you? These people don’t care who you are. They don’t care you’re a child. They think nothing of killing your family in front of you. You, my child, are worth nothing in their eyes no matter how strong the love of your parents.

After 9/11, my friend Alimorad Fadaienia worked together to translate his Book of Shapur, a fictional account of a man, turned refugee from Iran. The main character, we don’t know his name, wanders confused in a city we can’t name to meet people he doesn’t know. It took months of painstaking diction to turn a very complicated Farsi story into something American English could reflect. As we worked together, slowly, bit by bit, I began to understand how your entire worldview changes when you’re forced from your home, when you have no choice, when you watch people die up close and when you hear rumors of more people dying, people you knew, people you loved, all gone.

We can understand it changes a person in unimaginable ways, but unless we experience it for ourselves, we will never really know.

We are not so adept at processing good and evil in real life

The trope of Good and Evil burst forth from all corners of United States culture. We cheer Luke Skywalker as he vanquishes the Emperor. We actively participate when large mens with guns annihilate the bad guys in video games. But we have no idea what to do when it happens right in front of us, because it’s never as simple as it appears in movies and games.

There are people who want to blame Muslims for the violence. And yes, it is indeed Muslims who perpetrate the horrors of Syria. Of Boko Haram. Of Al Queda and ISIS. But this violence has far less to do with Islam than it does with basic human nature.

Indulge me in a quick game, will you? Name one country in the world that doesn’t have a similar pattern of evil lurking somewhere in its history. Go ahead. Try. Italy. Spain. Argentina. Germany. Chile. Venezuela. Haiti. South Africa. The United States. Not a one can claim clean hands.

It is not religion that causes terrorism. This has been wrought by humans.

How does one explain that to a child?

You can’t.

You can’t explain to a child what you have no way of understanding yourself. It took almost thirty years for Noah to suddenly have a flash of insight at what must have happened in the life of his childhood friend. Even so, sitting on the porch this morning, coffee in hand, relaxing in the peace of the Argentine countryside, birds chirping, we have absolutely no idea.

Now imagine being a refugee entering a country where at least half the people actively fear you. They see you as a potential threat, the weight of that potential highly magnified by politics.

Just this week, Donald Trump praised the police for stop-and-frisk procedures that are pointedly non-constitutional. Stop-and-frisk violates our Fourth Amendment rights. Donald Trump asks us to give up our rights as citizens and as human beings in order to stay safe.

This is not safety.

Make no mistake, even if you are not personally affected by this loss of rights, even if you are willing to sacrifice the freedoms of others to protect your own, you only pave the way for someone else to rob you of yours. When you allow for injustice to become law, it is only a matter of time before you, too, will be a victim of that law.

People in Iran in 1979 wanted freedom from the Shah’s harsh rule. And yes, they were released from it. Now, there’s a saying among Persians. “We wanted something different and look what we got.”

I promised you earlier for actual pointers on how to explain the unexplainable to your children.

Here they are:

  1. Practice constant kindness and compassion — That can mean volunteering and donating. It can also mean greeting people with a smile, sharing a snack, inviting someone over to play. If there are people who have been through this kind of experience in your community, don’t avoid them. Welcome them as you would anyone else.
  2. Help them see the reality of a fear. — Crossing the street is dangerous for a child, but you don’t teach them to be scared of all roads and all cars at all times. It is not healthy for the human brain to live in a state of panic. Fear of other people is not good for us. This, of course, requires you to put the danger in perspective as well.
  3. Reinforce the idea that different isn’t bad, wrong or dangerous. — Some amount of discomfort is normal when you first encounter something new, but the world is a huge, exciting place. If your children can’t navigate the new without being afraid, they will miss out on many things.
  4. Let them know a refugee can look like them, too. — Most of the photos we see of refugees are nothing like our world. Usually, we see a child covered in dust or barefoot and dirty in a dry field. Sometimes, it’s photos of people in a moment of distress or crouched by tends in a camp somewhere unpleasantly foreign. But refugees also eat dinner, go to school and wear jeans. They’re people, not just some exotic other. Check out Lola Akinmade’s photos of real people taken at the Solbacka Integration Center in Sweden.
  5. Do the right thing yourself — Model behaviors of acceptance by addressing your own fears. Be kind to those around you. Remain open to other human beings and never assume someone is dangerous because of what they wear or where they pray.
  6. Don’t hide the news from them. — They’re going to see it anyway. It’s impossible to entirely escape photos and people talking. The issue of refugees entering the United States (or elsewhere) is impossible to avoid. Talk to them and let them know what’s going on. Better they hear from you than from any other source.
  7. Explain what it means to be a refugee — Let them think about what it might be like to lose everything. You know how much your child can take. You know how to talk to your child. But be honest with them. These things exist in our world, and it does no one any good to pretend otherwise.
  8. Let them know you don’t really know. — It’s ok to be fallible in front of your children. They’ll grapple with similar questions as adults do, and when they come up short, when they don’t get it, it helps them to know that we don’t either, but we do the best we can with the information we have.

Anything else? Because I’m sure I didn’t cover it all. Please leave a comment below!


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For more about my work and how I can help you write a book of your own, check out my website, The Future Is Red.