Daily reports of the war in Ukraine have, sadly, become part of the wallpaper of the news cycle--with regular footage showing bombed-out buildings, scarred land, and displaced people. It is hard to fathom that as of Oct. 11, 2022, 14 million people were classified as Ukrainian refugees. Pushed out by the violence and pulled into countries more peaceful, these refugees have risked their lives to seek shelter.
Yet, it is so easy to turn away from them.
When I visit area schools, I ask students, “What do you think about the Ukrainian refugee crisis?” I am met with blank stares.
Ukraine seems so far away, so removed from students’ daily lives that they have a hard time connecting to the situation. The war seems to have gone on for ages, and it has become background noise, drowned out by midterm elections, mass shootings, and salacious tidbits about celebrities. An in-person visit to Ukraine would bring the war and the refugee crises to the forefront of our consciousness. Yet, obviously, none of us can (or want) to visit. What to do? How can teachers focus students’ attention on this humanitarian crisis? One answer may lie in pairing digital technology with Young Adult (YA) literature.
Virtual reality (VR) and the YA novel Refugee by Alan Gratz offer a way for students to gain empathy for the refugees in Ukraine. Together, they offer a one-two punch toward understanding.
Refugee and Virtual Reality
Refugee, suitable for middle grades readers (or any secondary reader with an interest in the topic), tells the story of three kids – Josef, a Jewish boy in 1930s Nazi Germany; Isabel, a Cuban girl in 1994; and Mahmoud, a Syrian boy in 2015 – and how each of them became a refugee. Gratz builds the characters slowly and puts the reader alongside them as they escape their home countries and seek asylum. Their stories are interwoven in an unexpected way, and the turmoil and crisis of each one makes the novel a page-turner. When I read it for the first time, I quite literally read it in one sitting—too absorbed in the perils of the characters to put the book down.
The novel is quite engaging, but sometimes a virtual field trip can help students really picture what’s happening. Aided by the wonders of a 360-degree VR sphere, students can feel as if they have stepped into another world. They can see up, down, behind, and in front of them, walking alongside refugees and visiting their camps.
VR is useful for more than playing video games. It is an alternative paradigm that allows a viewer to enter a new domain and become someone else. VR is a portal into a realm in which users can “see” as if they are a character, “feel” as if they are in a new place, and “know” what it means to inhabit the skin of another. It belongs in the English language arts (ELA) classroom as a way to amplify literature and act as an experiential tool for a deeper understanding of course content.
Using inexpensive VR cardboard players is a great way to help students enter this 360-degree sphere. The cardboard players, available on Amazon from $5 each, use a mobile phone to view video content. The players are sturdy and can be used for years without much wear and tear. They are low-tech and have no moving parts. But when you slide a mobile phone into one, you get an immersive experience that is lifelike and rich with sound and color.
To pair VR before, during, or after reading Refugee,
- Ask students to open the YouTube documentary, “Life in the Time of Refuge,” on their mobile devices. This 10-minute film, created by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), documents the life of young Syrian refugees.
- Tell students to insert their phones into the VR cardboard players and watch the documentary. (Tip: Students without a mobile phone can be paired up with another student who has a phone. Ask students to use earbuds to reduce noise in the classroom.)
- After watching the video, ask students to answer the following questions:
- In what ways do the characters in Refugee seem the same as the real people in the documentary?
- In what ways are they different?
- Can you imagine how you would feel if you needed to leave this country and move to another country?
- Lastly, ask students to write about the plight of refugees and propose some solutions to help them.
In addition to Refugee, similar text connections for the same activity and same VR documentary are as follows:
- A Long Walk to Water (Linda Sue Park) – This novel, based on a true story, follows a boy and a girl as they become refugees and walk across Sudan in search of water. This book is appropriate for older elementary and middle school readers.
- Other Words for Home (Jasmine Warga) – This Newberry Honor book tells the tale of Jude, a young Syrian girl, who leaves some of her family behind to move to America. This book is appropriate for middle school readers.
- We are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World (Malala Yousefzai) – Nobel Peace Prize winner Yousefzai gives a first-person account of her own story as a refugee and weaves in the heartbreaking tales of other girls. This book is suitable for middle school readers and some high school readers.
- Before We Were Free (Julia Alvarez) – This novel is loosely based on Alvarez’s own experiences as a 10-year-old refugee. It follows the saga of Anita who flees the Dominican Republic in the 1960s to escape el Trujillo's dictatorship. It is suitable for middle school and high school readers.
Teachers interested in service projects or a call to action, can partner with local non-profit agencies and gather supplies or write letters to refugees. Organizations such as UNICEF, the Red Cross, and Save the Children have active campaigns to assist refugees. The government website, Office of Refugee Resettlement, also offers links and ideas for assistance.
Although a novel and a VR experience won’t stop the crisis, they might be enough to garner empathy in students, who may then go on to enact real change.
Additional Resources on refugees can be found at:
- UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees): https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/
- World Refugee Day: https://www.globetrottinkids.com/world-refugee-day-resources-activities-for-kids/
- Trauma-Informed Strategies to Help Refugee Students: https://www.edutopia.org/article/5-trauma-informed-strategies-supporting-refugee-students
Clarice M. Moran is an assistant professor of English Education at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia, as well as a master’s degree in creative writing, secondary English teaching certificate, and Ph.D. in literacy—all from North Carolina State University. She is a former journalist and high school English teacher, and she has published four books, including Virtual and Augmented Reality in English Language Arts Education (Rowman & Littlefield/Lexington)—winner of the 2022 Divergent Publication Award for Excellence in Literacy in a Digital Age Research—and the recent Next Level Grammar for a Digital Age (Routledge/NCTE). Her research centers on digital literacies, teacher education, and digital technology in English language arts.