Teaching About Refugees

The Refugee Experience in Amman, Jordan
A Participatory Video Project

All of the teaching materials—videos and sample lesson plans—are available online. Click here to view and download.

ISIM Research Assistant and MAAS ('14) student, Grace Benton, directed the project, working closely with Professor Rochelle Davis (Associate Professor, CCAS). Below, Grace reflects on her work with refugees in Amman, and the importance of teaching high school students about the lives of refugees.

Popular discourse about refugees emphasizes two main features. This first is the sheer size of refugee populations—a prime example is the fervor in March 2013 surrounding the number of Syrians forced to flee their country “hitting the one-million mark.” Secondly, refugees are often cast as helpless victims in need of saving; this portrayal, often accompanied by pictures of children, is generally found in appeals from international aid organizations for donations. The effect of both of these representations is to deny refugees their individual experience, their humanity, and their agency. There is thus a need for a new way of talking about refugees that brings the human dimension, through individual experience, to the forefront of the discussion.

Bringing this approach to the classroom seemed like a good place to start. We developed a plan to create teaching units for American middle- and high school students structured around stories told by refugees through video. In this way, the emphasis is trained back on the individual and how they have negotiated the experience of displacement through an engaging, visual medium. 

For the first stage of the project, I traveled to Amman, Jordan, with CCAS Professor Rochelle Davis and ISIM Research Associate Abbie Taylor in May 2013 to gather refugees’ stories through participatory video. We partnered with two NGOs in Amman and implemented five participatory video workshops with urban refugees. Participants were trained in the basics of using handheld cameras and story-telling, and were then loaned small, hand-held cameras to take home for one week.  The approximately 60 workshop participants were Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians, Sudanese, and Somalis, all living in Amman, and their ages ranged from 11 to mid-60s. During a follow-up meeting, participants presented the material they had filmed, and I collected the cameras and their footage. Each workshop met for a third and final time for a “graduation party” of sorts, during which selected footage they had taken was screened and participants were awarded certificates of completion.

The workshops took on different meaning for different people. Because the intended viewers for their footage are American students, many participants, particularly the Sudanese and Somalis, spoke only in English and treated this project as an English language exercise. For others, such as some middle-aged Syrian women, it was an opportunity to gain technical skills in the basics of using a camera, and a step along the way to learning to use a computer, which many said was a major goal. A group of Iraqi teenagers who participated used the project as a way to engage with their communities, interviewing friends, family, neighbors, and business owners—refugees as well as Jordanians—in their neighborhoods.

After returning to the U.S., I began to organize the footage we gathered into a video-based teaching unit as part of the second stage of the project.  As I delved deeper into the editing process, it was fascinating to see what people had chosen to show and talk about. People sang, rapped, asked probing questions, explained what it meant to be a foreigner in an unfamiliar place, and talked about their pasts, their present conditions, and their hopes for the future. They filmed food, cats, soccer games, their children, their siblings, their homes, and their neighborhoods. They captured a spectrum of emotion: happiness, loneliness, pride, frustration, gratitude, anger, contentment, dejection, and hope. It was only until months after I left Jordan, staring into editing software in a computer lab thousands of miles away, that I began to appreciate the sheer depth of what the workshop participants had captured.

We have attempted to channel the incredible work of the workshop participants into four videos that complement the teaching unit we have developed for American high school students. Topics covered in the unit include an introduction to the international refugee legal structures, urban refugees, Sudanese refugees in Jordan, Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, among others.  We hope that these lessons and videos may, in some small way, help to train the focus of discussions about refugees onto this crucial human dimension of displacement.

For more information about the project, please contact Professor Rochelle Davis (rad39@georgetown.edu).