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June 1998 - Issue No. #31 (p.10 - 12)

A Content-based Approach to Teaching About Refugees

by Vicky Starfire

One may wonder why English teachers in Japan should teach about refugees. After all, most people think, there are so few refugees here and their problems aren't relevant to Japanese students. And yet...

  • did you know that, according to UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees), there are 10,000 refugees in Japan from 12 different countries? Some are students but many are employed and want to become citizens.

  • did you know that the present High Commissioner of UNHCR is Sadako Ogata, a Japanese woman?

  • did you know that Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced ansan suchi), the elected leader of Burma (Myanmar) who is still under house arrest and who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, once lived in Kyoto?

  • did you know that the U.N. estimates there are 27 million refugees in the world today? This figure doesn't include "internally displaced persons" who have not crossed any borders into other countries.

The topic of refugees is closely related to peace education, conflict resolution, women's rights and child labor. While there are some environmental refugees due to droughts, most refugee situations are caused by war.

In this article, I'd like to introduce three types of EFL activities for teaching about refugees: (1) paired reading and discussion, (2) information gap exercises for new vocabulary, (3) a refugee simulation EFL board game

Paired Reading and Discussion

Reading passages are usually read silently. In this exercise, however, Student A reads the first paragraph while Student B listens (without looking at the text). Then, Student B reads the next paragraph while Student A listens. This is followed by pair comprehension questions and discussion. The students can usually do this exercise with little help from the teacher until the answers are checked. An example passage follows:

Today 70% of the world's refugees are women and children. The traditional family structure of these people is upset. Husbands, fathers, brothers and sons - who normally contribute to the care and protection of their families - are absent fighting in wars. Others may have been killed or separated from their families in the upheaval of wars.

As a consequence, these women often risk ill treatment as they try to care for their children alone. They must often leave their homes as well, so they have only the clothes and food they can carry. Because they have no protection, they often face rape, theft or other physical violence. It is difficult for mothers who are tired, afraid and hungry to care for their children.

The lucky ones who reach refugee camps must rebuild their lives. First, they must find shelter and keep their children healthy. This is not easy as the camps are crowded and there are many diseases such as cholera and malaria. Later, the women must find some way to make money. Many of them are illiterate so they can't work in offices. Some host countries also might refuse people with so little education. The women in some camps teach each other crafts like sewing and weaving so that they have a way to earn money.

Answer these questions with your partner and discuss the answers in English.
  1. Why are so many refugees women and children?

  2. What is a traditional family?

  3. What ill treatment do refugee women face?

  4. Do you think many refugees die?

  5. What can be done to help these women and children?

Pair Work Vocabulary Gap Exercises

Talking about refugees requires special English vocabulary. To practice this refugee vocabulary, I use a jigsaw gap exercise. For this, I make up two handouts with half the new words and meanings on each. Each student must get the missing definitions from their partner by asking the question, "What does _________ mean?" Students then write down the missing definitions in the blanks.


 1. refugees:           people who must leave their 
                        homes or their countries
 2. immigrant:          ______________________
 3. emigrant:           someone who leaves a country 
                        to live abroad permanently
 4. UNHCR:              _______________________
 5. cholera:            a disease spread by drinking 
                        unclean water
 6. malaria:            _______________________
 7. host countries:     safe countries that will accept 
 8. refugee camp:       _______________________ 
 9. WHO:                World Health Organization
10. road blockade:      _______________________ 


 1. refugees:           _______________________
 2. immigrant:          someone who comes to a  
                        country to live permanently
 3. emigrant:           _______________________
 4. UNHCR:              United Nations High     
                        Commission for Refugees
 5. cholera:            _______________________
 6. malaria:            a disease spread by mosquitoes
 7. host countries:     _______________________
 8. refugee camp:       a temporary shelter for refugees 
                        in a safe but not permanent place
 9. WHO:                _______________________
10. road blockade:      when soldiers won't let anyone 
                        pass on a road due to fighting

Refugee Simulation Board Game

A further activity I use is a refugee simulation board game which I call "Home Sweet Home". I first created this for a Global Issues class I attended on the Teachers College Columbia University MA-in-TESOL program. It was later revised for a book, "You, Me and the World" to be published soon by Kinseido here in Japan. The topic of refugees can be heavy and unpleasant since it involves people who are suffering. This board game is a light, positive way for students to experience being a refugee and to practice speaking with "chance" and "choice" cards.

Note to the Teacher

This game is best played with 3 - 6 players to ensure everyone can discuss and play often. The choice cards (chosen at the refugee camp) need not be followed by the students. They simply give more information, but the individual students are free to make their own decisions. Please encourage students to read the cards out loud to the other players, and make sure they follow the chance cards.

Rules for the Game
  1. Each player uses a small marker (a paper clip or pen cap) to move round the board

  2. Move forward by rolling one dice or by flipping a coin (heads = 3, tails = 2)

  3. When you reach a square with an obstacle spot (*), read the words aloud and follow the instructions given.

  4. When you reach a Chance Square, pick up the top card and read it aloud to the other players. Follow the instructions.

  5. When you reach the refugee camp, pick up the top Choice Card. Decide which way to go (left, right, straight or stay there).

  6. The first person to reach a New Country Home or a Native Country Home is the winner. Please help the other players to reach the goals, too, so everyone can win.

Chance Cards
(refugee encounters on the road)

********* CHANCE *********
1. The police stop you. Tell them your name and address in English.

********* CHANCE *********
2. A truck driver stops to give you a ride and asks you, "Where are you going?" If you can answer, go ahead 2 spaces. If not, stay on chance till next turn.

********* CHANCE *********
3. This is your chance to get a job and some money. What kind of work can you do?

********* CHANCE *********
4. The war is all around and you can't travel. Ask the person on your left if you can hide in his/her house.

********* CHANCE *********
5. This is your lucky day. The U.N. forces get through the fighting and give you some food. Go forward 5 spaces.

********* CHANCE *********
6. Soldiers stop you. Tell them where you are from and how old you are.

********* CHANCE *********
7. You help an old man, and he has some money. What will you try to buy for the two of you?

********* CHANCE *********
8. You are caught by the soldiers and forced to work building a highway. How will you try to escape? Think of a way to escape or miss 2 turns.

Choice Cards
(decisions to make at the refugee camp)

******** CHOICE *********
1. The fighting has stopped and you can return safely. Will you return to your native country? If so, turn right as you leave the camp.

******** CHOICE *********
2. You can speak English so you might be able to move to an English-speaking country.Will you go to a new country? If so, go straight ahead.

******** CHOICE *********
3. You get to the refugee camp but your sister and mother aren't there. Will you go back and look for them? If so, turn left as you leave the camp.

******** CHOICE *********
4. If you plan to go to a new country, you must stay in this camp for three years to wait for immigration papers. Will you wait? If so, miss two turns.

******** CHOICE *********
5. You get very homesick and miss your native country. In the refugee camp you can eat only rice and fish paste. Many of the refugees are sick. Will you return to your native country? If so, turn right as you leave the camp.

******** CHOICE *********
6. When you reach the refugee camp, you are very weak and sick. There is very little food or medicine, but if you try to leave the might die. Will you stay at the camp? If so, miss two turns.


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