Refugee Week – Great teaching resources to build empathy

Silhouetted figures walking in a line, to represent Refugee Week

Use Refugee Week in June to celebrate refugees’ contributions to the UK and educate pupils about their plight…

by Teachwire
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! KS2 PSHE lesson – Learn about the refugee crisis
PrimaryHealth & Wellbeing

What is Refugee Week?

Refugee Week takes place in the UK every year around World Refugee Day (20th June).

It’s a nationwide programme of arts, cultural and educational events that celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK, and encourages a better understanding between communities.

It started in 1998, and its aims are to encourage a diverse range of events to be held throughout the UK, which facilitate positive encounters between refugees and the general public in order to encourage greater understanding and overcome hostility.

It’s a chance to showcase the talent and expertise that refugees bring with them to the UK and explore new and creative ways of addressing the relevant issues and reach beyond the refugee sector.

And, of course, it’s an important way of educating and raising awareness of the reality of refugee experiences.

There are loads of great ways your school can take part, no matter how big or small you want to go. There may be events near you, or you can create something in your school for students or the wider community.

When is Refugee Week 2023?

This year’s week takes place between 19th-25th June 2023.


Refugee Week official resources

Refugee Week pack

Visit the Refugee Week website to download this year’s Children & Young People’s Pack. It contains a range of activity ideas and resources to explore at school.

British Red Cross resources

Refugee Week lesson plan

This free KS2 lesson plan activity from the Red Cross will help children explore what’s really important for those forced to flee their homes. Pupils will discuss how they might cope in a crisis and explore the differences between wants and needs.

I Am Human is a video designed to create empathy, and show how language can enforce and encourage negative views and stigma towards refugees and asylum seekers. There are also a variety of activities and discussion points to accompany the video.

The Boy at the Back of the Class planning

The Boy at the Back of the Class is the perfect book to study during Refugee Week and will help you promote empathy and compassion in your KS2 classroom. Download our free PDF of activity ideas to help you get the most out of the book.

KS2 wordless picturebook activities

Give children the chance to address an important subject at their own pace with Issa Watanabe’s wordless picturebook, Migrants. This free download contains a wide range of KS2 activity ideas based around the book.

World Refugee Day assembly and resources pack

Refugee Week assembly resources

This resource pack from Plazoom will introduce children to the word ‘refugee’ and its meaning. You’ll then go on to explore why people might seek safety in a different country. Use the included assembly and activities to investigate this topic.

The Boat story and resources

The Boat is an Arts Council England funded project designed to challenge perceptions of immigration via a picturebook. The book is accompanied by free teaching resources that aim to engage children with this tricky subject.

ActionAid Refugee Week resources

Refugee Week resources

ActionAid has a range of free resources available for Key Stages. They cover disasters, conflicts and human rights to build empathy and boost literacy skills.

Primary teachers can use these KS1 and KS2 Refugee Crisis Resources. For secondary there is a resource called Refugees: In Their Own Words which will help students understand the lives and experiences of those who have been displaced.

Use comic books in KS3/4 to discuss refugees

Teaching Powerpoint for Refugee Week

This ‘Maths of Migration’ resource features an animation called ‘North Star Fading’, which is based on the story of four Eritrean refugees. It also contains data on over 500 refugees and migrants who arrived in Europe during 2015.

In the sessions, pupils will create and answer their own questions, presenting their findings through infographic posters.

Read more about the resources and how Oaklands School students used them, then download the resources.

“By focusing on particular aspects of the data, our students revealed many different stories”

Into Film Refugee Week resources

This resource from Into Film lets teachers use film as a stimulus to discuss the hardships and resilience of refugees around the globe and contains a guide to five movies which have been specially selected to be accessible to learners within the 5-19 age range (as well as a list of other recommended films):

  • An American Tail
  • Casablanca
  • Monsieur Lazhar
  • The Kite Runner
  • The Terminal

The guides include discussion questions and activity ideas to encourage learners to ask and answer questions and reflect on why people seek sanctuary in other countries.

Oxfam – We’re not so different

This film was part of Oxfam’s ‘Stand as One’ campaign which asked the public to stand in solidarity with people forced to flee.

It comes with creative resources for Key Stage 2 and 3 to get students to think about our similarities and what we all need to have a good life. Use it to encourage children to feel empathy with refugees by imagining what it would be like to leave everything behind.

Traces Project

Traces Project website for Refugee Week

It can be difficult for some children to fully comprehend what immigrants can bring to a country. The excellent Traces Project website explores the contributions to arts and culture from people who have sought safety in the UK.

The homepage has a timeline of well-known and important refugees from Lucien Freud through to popstars like Rita Ora and MIA. But beyond that you’ll want to check out the fantastic learning activities.

Amnesty International Refugee Week resources

Amnesty International has a range of great resources for you to explore. There’s a Seeking Safety activity pack for primary children and a one-hour Time to Flee lesson plan for secondary pupils.

Best books for teaching and learning about refugees

Everybody’s Welcome

Patricia Hegarty (3-5 years)

This gentle and empowering story is about a little mouse who dreams of building a ‘great big happy house’ in the forest. He achieves his goal with the help of a succession of animals who are themselves in need of assistance.

It was commissioned by Thomas Truong, publisher of Caterpillar Books. He is the son of a refugee and a European migrant, following the results of the Brexit referendum.

Its message is simple: if we are all kind and welcoming then together, we can create a home where everyone can be safe and joyful.

The Colour of Home

Mary Hoffman and Karin Littlewood (6-9 years)

Hassan feels out of place in a new cold, grey country. At school, he paints a picture showing his colourful Somalian home. It’s covered with the harsh colours of war from which his family has fled.

He tells his teacher about their voyage from Mogadishu to Mombasa, then to the refugee camp and on to England. But gradually things change. When Hassan’s parents put up his next picture on the wall, Hassan notices the maroon prayer mat, a bright green cushion and his sister Naima’s pink dress – the new colours of home.

My Name Was Hussein

Hristo Kyuchukov (5-9 years)

This picturebook tells the story of a young boy called Hussein as a group of soldiers take over his small Bulgarian village.

As the rights of all Muslims living there are taken away, Hussein is forced to change his name. His family’s way of life is forcibly changed too. They are no longer allowed to go out at night or go to the mosque.


Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin (7-11 years)

This graphic novel begins with a quote about illegal aliens from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. It’s from the team behind the Artemis Fowl comics and will help you to start a discussion on the migrant crisis in an accessible way.

The story follows 12-year-old Ebo. He’s making the treacherous journey from Africa to Europe across the Sahara desert and Mediterranean Sea.

The book cleverly alternates settings every chapter. We lurch between Ebo and brother Kwame’s panic-stricken sea crossing and the journey that brought them there.

Colfer and Donkin deliver a sucker-punch towards the end of the book. Children will need some time to absorb this, but the focus on relatable Ebo is an excellent entry point into this sensitive topic.

At the end of the book there is a map of Ebo’s journey. There’s also a cartoon strip telling a real-life refugee’s story that is similar to Ebo’s.

A Story Like the Wind

Gill Lewis (7-11 years)

This moving, atmospheric story is outstanding. Gill Lewis’s flowing prose tells the story of Rami. Marooned on a small boat with a group of strangers, Rami refuses all offers of help and support.

He has nothing to offer in return except a violin and an ancient story – a song of freedom and a story like the wind.

Rami tells the fellow travellers around him the tale of Suke and his fight to save a wild foal. His moving fable prompts the other strangers to share their own stories. There are tales of first kisses, fragrant lemon trees, of hopes, dreams and their families.

This book is a celebration of determination, love and hope. It is about the mindless devastation of war and the power of music to unite.

Jo Weaver’s blue and white charcoal illustrations are stunning and evoke beautifully the swirling sea and silent night sky.

Looking at the Stars

Jo Cotterill (7-11 years)

Utterly believable from the opening paragraph to its heartbreaking yet hopeful conclusion, this is a powerful tale that celebrates human resilience in the face of human cruelty, confusion and conflict.

It’s set in an unnamed country that is simultaneously horribly familiar and yet distinctly new. It follows the experiences of Amina. She’s a young girl who is forced to leave her home town with her sisters and her mother.

She flees to a refugee camp, after the arrival of a ‘liberating force’ proves to be far from the signal of freedom for which her community had been hoping.

As life becomes increasingly, unthinkably tougher, Amina sustains herself and her family by drawing on her imagination. She tells stories inspired by the night sky that enable all of them to picture a possible future.

Cotterill’s writing is sure, confident and moving without excess sentimentality. This allows her characters, and the circumstances in which they find themselves, to speak for themselves in a way that crosses cultural and geographical boundaries with ease.

The Children of Willesden Lane

Mona Golabek & Lee Cohen (7-11 years)

There’s no doubt that the Holocaust is a challenging period of history to broach, especially in primary school.

The Holocaust Educational Trust suggests that focusing on the experiences of Jewish child refugees is an age-appropriate way to teach the topic.

Beginning in Vienna in 1938, this book tells the true story of 14-year-old musical prodigy Lisa’s escape from Nazi-controlled Austria via the Kindertransport. It covers her experience of living in a home for refugee children in London.

Lisa’s daughter Mona Golabek, a Grammy-nominated recording artist, has co-written the story with journalist Lee Cohen. The book focuses on themes of courage, survival and the power of music. It will both educate and inspire young readers.

Find free KS2 schemes of work to accompany the themes of the book on the trust’s website.

Jackdaw Summer

David Almond (7-11 years)

Every summer Liam and Max roam the wild countryside of Northumberland – but this year things are different. One hot summer’s day a jackdaw leads the two boys into an ancient farm house. Here they find a baby, wrapped in a blanket. There’s a scribbled note pinned to it: PLESE LOOK AFTER HER RITE. THIS IS A CHILDE OF GOD.

And so begins Jackdaw Summer. A summer when friendships are tested; lines between good and bad are blurred. A summer that Liam will never forget…

The Bone Sparrow

Zana Fraillon (7-11 years)

Born in a refugee camp, all Subhi knows of the world is that he’s at least 19 fence diamonds high, the nice Jackets never stay long, and at night he dreams that the sea finds its way to his tent, bringing with it unusual treasures. And one day it brings him Jimmie.

Carrying a notebook that she’s unable to read and wearing a sparrow made out of bone around her neck – both talismans of her family’s past and the mother she’s lost – Jimmie strikes up an unlikely friendship with Subhi beyond the fence.

As he reads aloud the tale of how Jimmie’s family came to be, both children discover the importance of their own stories in writing their futures.

In the Sea there are Crocodiles

Fabio Geda (14+ years)

One night before putting him to bed, Enaiatollah’s mother tells him three things: don’t use drugs or weapons, don’t cheat, don’t steal.

The next day he wakes up to find she isn’t there. Ten-year-old Enaiatollah is left alone at the border of Pakistan to fend for himself.

In a book that takes a true story and shapes it into a beautiful piece of fiction, Italian novelist Fabio Geda describes Enaiatollah’s remarkable five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy. Here he finally managed to claim political asylum aged 15.

His ordeal took him through Iran, Turkey and Greece. He worked on building sites in order to pay people-traffickers. He endured the physical misery of dangerous border crossings squeezed into the false bottoms of lorries and trekked across inhospitable mountains.

A series of almost implausible strokes of fortune enabled him to get to Turin. Here he finds help from an Italian family and meets Fabio Geda, with whom he becomes friends.

The result of their friendship is this unique book in which Enaiatollah’s engaging, moving voice is brilliantly captured by Geda’s subtly simple storytelling. In Geda’s hands, Enaiatollah’s journey becomes a universal story of stoicism in the face of fear.

Refugee Boy

Benjamin Zephaniah (11+ years)

Alem is on holiday with his father for a few days in London. He has never been out of Ethiopia before and is very excited.

They have a great few days together. One morning, when Alem wakes up in the bed and breakfast they are staying at, he discovers the unthinkable. His father has left him.

It is only when the owner of the bed and breakfast hands him a letter that Alem is given an explanation. Alem’s father admits that because of the political problems in Ethiopia both he and Alem’s mother felt Alem would be safer in London – even though it is breaking their hearts to do this.

Alem is now on his own, in the hands of the social services and the Refugee Council. He lives from letter to letter, waiting to hear from his father, and in particular about his mother, who has now gone missing.

How to support refugee students

Refugee child

Trainer Nola Ellen offers advice for making refugee families welcome at your school…

Some families make long and difficult journeys across Africa, Asia and Europe. On the way can experience hostility, violence, detention and exploitation.

Then, once they get to the UK, there are even more challenges to face – from the lack of sensitivity towards them in the media to our complex asylum process.

Parents can wait years for a decision on their asylum claim, and because we don’t allow most to work they’re pushed way below the poverty line.

Professional people

These might be skilled, well-educated, professional people who wish to work, to support their families and contribute to society. It can be really crushing on self-worth.

And after all that, with the success rate of all asylum claims being around 30%, many live in fear of detention and deportation.

All this has an impact on children too. They can find it difficult to sleep and concentrate in the classroom. Then there’s racism, language barriers, cultural differences and so on.

For me, enabling true inclusion starts with raising awareness, as children and adults need to unravel what they think they know about refugees. Even in schools with a high proportion of refugee children, this knowledge is often very basic.

“Enabling true inclusion starts with raising awareness”

The great news, however, is there are quite a few strategies I’ve experienced that have worked incredibly well in promoting this inclusion.

Home visits

Firstly, encourage staff who do home-school liaisons to build, where possible, a clear picture of children᾿s lives at home, what their experiences were in their homeland and on the journey here, and their educational history. This helps put behaviour and attainment in context.

Staff need to foster strong links with parents, creating a safe space in which they feel involved, welcomed, supported and included. The more you can get parents into school, the better.

“The more you can get parents into school, the better”

Welcome videos

You can also create a welcome video or book. Children can create a storyboard template, filming different parts of the school, interviewing teachers and talking about things like extra-curricular activities, lunchtimes, uniform, PE kit – everything someone new to England would need to know about the school.

Buddy systems

Peer-to-peer buddy initiatives work well – especially if you advertise volunteer positions like job roles and conduct interviews.

Anything that helps children to boost their English language skills is great, as are clubs which encourage children to celebrate their cultural heritage with others.

This builds self esteem and a strong positive identity, reminding children that they don’t need to assimilate to all things English to fit in.

The children in your class have a thirst for information and will engage with refugee awareness messages really well. But it’s also about helping pupils to become active citizens of positive change in your school and community.

Ask them, “What are you going to do with this new information?”. It’s getting them to think about the small acts of kindness that they can do that make an amazing difference.

“The ways children respond really do touch your heart”

And the ways children respond really do touch your heart. Children are generally so receptive, accepting and open-minded. It makes you think that if more adults shared their mentality, perhaps there wouldn’t even be a need for such work.

Nola Ellen offers refugee awareness sessions for children and staff in schools.

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