5 Guidelines for Talking to Young Children About the Refugee Crisis

When Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, NY, announced that the synagogue would embark on a refugee relief mission to Greece and Germany to learn about the global refugee crisis and deliver critically needed supplies to refugee shelters, I felt compelled to participate. As the director of the synagogue’s early childhood center, I faced a unique opportunity to involve our families in this mission. Here was a chance for all of us to struggle with a worldwide moral crisis and put ourselves in the shoes of people with life circumstances so different from our own.

My challenge was to explain the refugee crisis to children from three to five years old. I followed these five guidelines, all of which are useful in helping children confront any troublesome situation.

  1. Use age-appropriate language and material. I often use age-appropriate children’s literature as an entry point to help children learn about difficult issues. However, the children’s books I read about families being smuggled out of Syria were too frightening for our age group. Instead, I created a one-of-a-kind book, A Trip to Freedom, that uses simple language appropriate for young children. With our youngest children, I focused on images – many from news stories – and narrated that I would visit families and children who were leaving their countries and needed books and art supplies. Our four- and five-year-olds could understand bigger ideas, such as the desire for a better life, the need for jobs for grown-ups, and schools for children.
  2. Build on what children already know. Building upon the language used to discuss Passover, I explained that the Syrians needed to leave their country in a hurry and were looking for a place where they would have a better life and be free. Our children had discussed what it means to be free, how important it is to make our own choices, and the need to protect our community. As they studied an image of a lengthy line of refugees escaping along a beach, the children saw parallels to the Israelites leaving Egypt. One child stated, “I think there are people we can’t see who are chasing them.” The story of Pharaoh’s army in pursuit of Jews was a familiar one to them.

    As New York City residents, our students also know about homelessness. On their way to school, on subways and in parks, they have frequent conversations with their families about what it means to be without a home. They also visit our synagogue’s on-site homeless shelter where they help cook meals, collect clothing and other items, and send caring notes through a mailbox they created.
  3. Be sensitive to children’s fears when sharing information. I was very deliberate about the images I shared with the children. I did not include photos of war-torn cities, but did show pictures of families leaving Syria on foot, in trucks, and in trains. These images triggered many conversations. I was sensitive to any fears the children expressed about the chaos they observed in the photos. One child worried about the apparent danger the families faced. Another child, who had recently visited Israel knew that Syria bordered Israel; this class of five-year-olds became proficient using the globe, showing me where Syria and other countries are located.
  4. Listen to children’s concerns and be sure they feel safe asking questions. When I told the children that the Syrians were searching for a country that is friendly and can offer a home, a job, and school, one child stated, “Oh, that’s like here. Can they come to New York?” When discussing our book drive for the refugee families, some children expressed worry that I would take their books for this purpose, and one child said, “It's okay. We have plenty.” Our students felt comfortable expressing their feelings and continued our conversations with teachers and parents.
  5. Show empathy and give children opportunities to be helpers themselves. An essential element of our mission was to collect books and art supplies for the Syrian children who were searching for new homes. I brought my red suitcase to the classrooms, explaining that we would be filling it with books and art supplies that we would deliver to the children from Syria. Each day the children offered me their generous contributions, including one child’s well-worn favorite book. The ability to be a helper, to do some good in the world, is a strong motivator for children.

Many parents were moved by our trip, and the discussions that took place at home reinforced the empathetic values that are central to Judaism. Together, we are raising a new generation of Jews – one that will feel empowered to make a difference in the world.

Lori Schneider has served as the director of the Early Childhood Center at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, NY, for more than 20 years. She is a member of the boards of both the Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York and Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism.