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Syrian refugee choices

It's hard to imagine two million refugees. So don't try. Instead focus on something the human mind has a chance of grasping – a family, their things, their choices. The trigger is a photograph of a Syrian family in northern Iraq. It looks like a refugee camp. In fact, they're surviving on the outskirts, the camp itself is too full. Discuss daily life and explore options, developing insight and understanding.

By the end of this activity students will be able to:

  • describe everyday items used by a family surviving on the outskirts of a refugee camp and explain their use
  • evaluate the benefits and challenges of living in an apartment or a refugee camp after leaving home because of armed conflict.

Download the powerpoint.

A Syrian family and their tent on the edges of Domiz refugee camp in Iraq© InfoInvite students to study the picture. Say what you can about the objects in it. Form a statement and complete it with an explanation:

  • The mattresses and pillows are outside because...
  • The shoes are outside because...
  • The wooden pallets are there because...

And so on. Where you are unsure, include the modifier "probably".

  • The large metal cylinder to the left is probably there to...
  • The collection of wood is probably for...

As the group warms to the task, move on to larger "why are they there" questions.

  • The people are in a tent because...
  • The tent is there because...

When students have made their best guesses, go through the following description. Were students mainly right? Note any surprises.

The people are refugees who have fled the fighting in Syria and gone to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. They are not actually in a camp. That is overcrowded. They have a tent on the edge of the main Domiz refugee camp around 60km from the Iraq-Syria border. This summer there were tens of thousands of people there, with new arrivals estimated at 3,000 a week. The mattresses and pillows are outside because their sleeping space is also their living space. On the left of the tent are a latrine (the usual term for a communal toilet in a camp) and a water container. The wood could be firewood. The box on the right used to contain sunflower oil. It probably holds some of the family's possessions.

  • What questions would students like to ask the children they can see in the picture?

Play the short video of clips from a film by the Norwegian Refugee Council. There are questions and suggestions for discussion on screen. If you cannot show the video, use the transcript and questions below.



Narrator: The refugees living on the edges of Domiz camp are highly vulnerable. Most have no savings, no income and no other place to go.

Hazina: We are Kurds so we came here to Kurdistan because it is safer for us than other places. As you can see, we have nothing. We still need many things. It is very difficult. I have a disabled daughter and hope that someone can help us. At the very least, if someone could help me to find a job so I can earn money for my children. Things are very hard here. Now it starts to get hot and we have no fridge for our food. It is so hot in the tent. My disabled daughter cannot walk, but she still tries to leave the tent because of the heat. I sincerely hope someone will hear me and help my family.

Narrator: With the focus currently largely on supporting camps, little support is being given to the roughly 60,000 refugees in urban areas. Conditions may seem better in apartment buildings and neighbourhoods in town. But overcrowding is also a problem, as is access to basic services such as drinking water and sanitation. As savings and resources dwindle, evictions are more and more common.

  • What does Hazina say she needs? 
  • What is the biggest risk for those who live in apartments?

Think about the three forms of living: in an established camp, on the perimeter of a camp and in an apartment. In small groups, imagine that you are a family and have left your home because of armed conflict. Which of the three options would be best for you? Consider and evaluate factors such as:

  • If you can no longer pay rent for your flat, you may be evicted.
  • If the camp is full, you may have to live outside it for weeks or months.
  • Life sounds better in a flat, but there are still problems with overcrowding, access to water and toilets.

You have limited information... as do refugees. They rarely know what it will be like when they arrive. But they still have to make choices.

Further activities

Town planning

An estimated 35,000 people live in Domiz. That's the size of a smallish town in the UK. Find a comparable sized town near you. List the services it has that help daily life go smoothly – electricity, running water, shops, a police service, schools, health centres and so on. Which of these do you think a camp like Domiz has? Make a guess then research the answer. You might be surprised.


Finding work

When refugees leave their homes they also leave their livelihoods. Getting a job, or at least a source of income, makes a very big difference to life and health. Think of five jobs that might be needed in a refugee camp. Use the previous activity for ideas. Which would students most like to do? Hazina asks for help in finding a job. Describe how that would improve her life.


Camp experiences

Reinforce and deepen students' learning with other activities on refugee camps. A video-based insight into a camp in Haiti gives a chance to explore personal safety – and learn some Creole words. Or start with an intriguing cricket photo – looking at how refugees try to maintain important aspects of life, such as games, singing, dancing and playing music. What would students miss most if they lived in a camp? How might they recreate it?


This resource was written by PJ White and published in September 2013.

The British Red Cross would like to thank the Norwegian Refugee Council for their kind permission to use their photograph and video and for their help with this resource.


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