Refugee simulation

I love it when a great idea comes from a colleague and other team members jump at the opportunity to do the same thing. One such idea came from Suchi, another Year 4 teacher. Her initial idea was discussed and refined and the learning engagement that came out of it was incredibly powerful.

To give some context, we’re studying the transdisciplinary theme Where we are in place and time through the central idea human migration is a response to challenges, risks and opportunities.

We asked students to bring a plastic bag full of things that they will need for a long boat journey to ‘The Promised Land’. They were given a variety of roles such as different family members, jobs, ages etc. No further instructions were given.

The following Tuesday, ‘Officer Jatar’ charged into our room in the middle of our maths Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 6.37.59 AMclass to announce that Hong Kong was under attack and that the students, in role, should take their plastic bags (nothing else) and flee. A boat would be leaving shortly. A different class was given the same news at the same time.

Students who brought (pretend) money with them were able to board the boat. Several ‘families’ did not have enough money for everyone and were immediately separated. The journey was long, crowded and uncomfortable.

Once they reached ‘The Promised Land’, they were interrogated by ‘officers’ Bene and Sjouke in a foreign, unrecognised language. The migrants were either accepted (eventually) or deported based on their circumstances or whether or not they had a passport (again, pretend ones were used). The process involved a medical examination, an immigration form and agreeing to an oath… all in the unrecognised language. Most ‘families’ were separated throughout the process and many of them did not meet again.

Vitally, the class teachers’ role was to question the students throughout the process. Special thanks to Danielle, our Head of Year 4, for emphasising this and for having the idea of recording their responses. Again, I wish that I could share the amazing photos and videos. They are a fantastic record of the learning engagement and we kept on referring to them throughout the unit. However, I can share their quotes. Here is just a small sample:

“I have no idea where my family are.”

“I don’t know what is going on.”

“How can I agree to this if I don’t understand it?”

“I don’t even know what ‘deported’ means!”

“I’m not allowed in just because I wear glasses!”

“I might as well die because I’m not allowed here and I also can’t go back.”

Consider how these responses could be connected to real life current affairs. The simulation was a perfect introduction to the unit and it helped the students to empathise. Crucially, students should also be exposed to the other perspectives. For example, why didn’t they just let everyone into ‘The Promised Land’? More connections were made to real life immigration controls and over-population issues.


  1. So many educational systems fail to teach students life lessons that are not in the textbook or prescribed curriculum. Teaching empathy, perspective and cultural understanding should be the cornerstones to educating young, influential future contributors to society. What a powerful simulation!

    1. Thanks for the response, Karin! The IB aims to develop internationally minded people through the attributes of the learner profile (among other essential elements). As promised, I’ll publish a post on this later (currently in draft form). It’s fantastic that other qualities are valued and encouraged through the programme. It’s not just about academic ability. Adam

Share your thoughts