Talking and Teaching about Afghan Refugees and the Fall of Kabul

By the Re-Imagining Migration Program Staff

This current events resource is designed to help students make sense of the refugee crisis brought on by the fall of Kabul. The teaching ideas will help learners reflect on what they see, feel, think, and wonder while building habits for deeper learning, inquiry, and exploration of migration.

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Over the weekend and into Tuesday morning news of the fall of Kabul spread through the media as Taliban forces surrounded and then took over the capital of Afghanistan. The speed of the Taliban’s advance stunned observers and prompted thousands of Afghanis to seek refuge outside of the country. 

In advance of their planned military pull out, the Biden administration had been preparing a process to allow the families of Afghanis who had worked with the U.S. during the nearly 20 year invention to receive asylum in the United States. However, as events over the weekend accelerated, the urgency and number of those seeking to flee escalated dramatically. 

As educators, how can we help students make sense of what they are seeing, feeling, thinking, and wondering. Below are some suggestions. We look forward to hearing your thoughts as well.

A Place to Start

While many questions from our learning arc can help to illuminate the stories of Afghan refugees. You might might consider focusing on the following set of questions:

  • How do refugees, asylum seekers navigate life with an ambiguous and uncertain status?
  • What are the rights of people with ambiguous status seeking to flee their homes? What should those rights be?
  • What are our moral and ethical responsibilities toward people on the move with ambiguous status?

Slow Down

The fast moving news story can leave people feeling helpless and overwhelmed. Consider beginning reflection on the situation by using images to humanize the story, build empathy and connection. 

We have found several images particularly striking. They include this images in this photo gallery from Reuters. As well as this image of 600 Afghan refugees aboard a US Air Force Plane. 

Consider using the see-feel-think-wonder thinking routine from Project Zero to structure reflection on the images. Psychologist Paul Slovic suggests that when we are exposed to news of massive suffering it often leads to psychic numbing. Journalist Brian Resnick explains, “As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases. This happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two.”

Veronica Boix-Mansilla has been piloting a new Project Zero/Re-Imagining Migration thinking routine called “Seek to See” that is intentionally designed to humanize those that are vulnerable to dehumanization. Dr. Boix Mansilla writes that Seek to See is a “routine to nurture a disposition toward proactive empathic perspective taking, de-stigmatization, and recognition of dignity.” We outline the thinking routine below. Consider using it with the image of the 600 Afghan passengers on the plane.

Seek to See

Take some time to look closely at this photograph with the information you have, explore the following ways of seeking to see. Now focus on one individual and consider:

Multiple Feelings What might be this person’s various feelings in this situation?

Strength   What might be this person’s strengths, cultural richness and power?

Connections What might be some ways in which we connect as human beings? 

Human Dignity What words would I choose to honor your humanity and make you shine?

Reflection: Take a moment to reflect about your experience seeking to see. Did you notice any shifts in your thinking, perspectives or feelings? Did anything surprise you? What questions do you have? How did that exercise influence the way you think about the stories of those trying to leave Afghanistan?

Inquiry and Understanding

Select a set of questions from our learning arc to guide an inquiry about the range of responses to the escalating refugee crisis. 

You might use the articles we have curated below to create an inquiry using this question “What are our legal, moral and ethical responsibilities toward people on the move with ambiguous status?.”

  1. Malala Yousafzai, a Nobel Peace Prize winning refugee from Pakistan, urges countries to open borders to Afghan refugees as Taliban take over, CBS News
  2. As Afghans scramble to escape the Taliban, Fox News hosts lean into anti-refugee rhetoric, Washington Post
  3. Uganda to take 2,000 Afghan refugees at U.S. request, Reuters
  4. Get Afghan Refugees Out. Then Let Them In. Opinion Column, New York Times,
  5. Gov. Kim Reynolds supports certain Afghan refugees resettling in Iowa, Axios
  6. Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy Could Host Afghan Refugees Amid Chaotic US Withdrawal, Wisconsin Public Radio
  7. Joni Ernst: Iowa ‘absolutely’ has a role to play in accepting Afghan refugees, Des Moines Register
  8. The Fall of Afghanistan, New York Times, The Daily Podcast
  9. Afghanistan: ‘My family is stuck and there is nothing I can do”
  10. Fort Bliss in El Paso could receive thousands of Afghan refugees as Taliban topples government, Pentagon says

As students read, have them note what they are learning, what they are feeling, and what they are wondering.

Media Literary Connections: It is helpful to consider whose voices are being heard in the media we consume. Consider using the “By whom, about whom, for whom?” routine to make power and positions in the texts we consume visible.

Digging Deeper

Many people have commented that the fall of Kabul is similar to the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. This article from CBS News includes photographs from the fall of Saigon. Review the images and use one additional Project Zero thinking routine to explore the connections and distinctions between the two events. This routine is called Same – Different – Gain and it is designed to encourage thoughtful and purposeful comparisons. 

  • How are the images the same?
  • How are they different?
  • What do we gain by comparing them?
  • And, what might be lost in the comparison.

Where are the Afghani voices? Make sure to share stories of Afghani’s in their own words. Colorín Colorado has created a list of books with Afghani voices for students and adults.

Taking Action

As we noted earlier, reading about all that is going on can often leave people feeling overwhelmed. While we might have empathy towards the people we are learning about, that empathy may not lead to action when we do not know how and where to begin to make a positive difference. The routines below are not designed to tell students what to do, how to feel, or how to act, instead they help students identify the issues that they feel are most important and would like to act upon. 

In particular, these Project Zero thinking routines are designed to help learners:

  • Have a sense of belonging to a learning environment and to society and an inclination to participate regarding issues or situations involving human migration. 
  • Be sensitive toward opportunities to act constructively in groups, contexts, and relationships and a desire and inclination to make a difference. 
  • Employ understanding, voice, and capacity for influence to foster well being among immigrant and host communities to strengthen civic life and democratic institutions toward inclusive and sustainable societies.
  • Reflect on actions to employ a repertoire of civic engagement tools to take informed and compassionate action (learn from the stories of the past, examining prior attempts, engaging others, planning executing).
  • Nurture an identity and sense of self-efficacy as a change-maker in more intimate and broader spheres.

Stay in Touch

Let us know if you found the ideas we have discussed here helpful. If you have any suggestions, reach out to Re-Imagining Migration through DM on social media.

Thumbnail Image Credit: Hashoo Foundation, Creative Commons 2.0