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Teaching Syria: What You Do Matters

Andrew Beiter and Joseph Karb are Social Studies teachers at Springville Middle School in Springville, New York. Beiter is also the Director of the Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies of Buffalo, which co-sponsored the I Am Syria campaign. More information on how you and your students can get involved is available at

Written by Andrew Beiter and Joseph Karb Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

During World War II, a Polish Catholic social worker named Irena Sendler and her network of allies rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland. When asked years later where she got her courage, Sendler harkened back to something her father had told her: “Always remember, my darling Irena, that if you see someone drowning, you must rescue them—even if you cannot swim.” He later died from typhus caught from treating the Jewish patients that no one else would.

It doesn’t require too much imagination to guess what Sendler might say today to teachers about the worsening situation in Syria. The atrocities are quite obvious. Its dictator, Bashar Assad, and his forces have killed over 25,000 Syrians in the past two years, with an additional quarter million forced to flee to refugee camps.

What makes the issue even more compelling for educators is that the Syrian revolt was started in Daraa by a group of 9 to 12 year-old boys, who brazenly wrote on the side of their school “The people want to topple the regime”. The students’ efforts were followed by other Syrian children who courageously pressed their painted green hands against the walls of their community as a sign of symbolic protest. These were young kids, but for them social justice and activism were a necessary means to survival itself.

For educators around the world who help develop students’ understanding of social justice, the situation begs a number of questions: What can I do in my classroom to help explain the situation in Syria? In an age where I am increasingly judged by my test scores rather than the relevance of my lessons, why should I bother raising the issue in the first place? And, how can I help students understand social activism as not just a part of history, but a relevant tool today?

At first glance, the teaching of complex international situations such as Syria seems daunting. But when looking back at Rwanda in 1994, it seems like malpractice that more classrooms weren’t emphasizing that was happening there was wrong and needed to be stopped.

The good news is that since that time, the digital revolution has provided teachers with the access to the materials, tools, and know-how to help their students understand what is happening in Syria while also inspiring them to help make a difference. It’s a relief to know that teaching the basic facts about the crisis need not be overly complicated, or take up more than a forty-minute class. A short video or summary of the situation can do wonders. Moreover, including a new Common Core reading assignment as homework would in turn connect real world learning to the needs of state education departments as well.

But teachers can take this to another level: they can help students engage in social justice for Syrians in small ways. One way to do this is to encourage their students to join a worldwide awareness campaign, “I Am Syria,” started over the summer by a group of young New Yorkers. Students and teachers can like the group Facebook page and upload pictures and videos of themselves saying “I Am Syria,”sending a powerful message to the Syrian people that they are not alone. Other activities include having a Syria awareness night, Skyping with Syrians in the refugee camps, or organizing a Day of Silence in which students get pledges to refrain from using cell phones, computers, video games, or even just talking—all to express a sense of solidarity with the thousands of Syrian students whose voices are muted by Assad’s regime.

Students can also call the free 1-800-GENOCIDE hotline, which allows them to connect with their congressperson, senator, and president about human rights abuses. They can leave messages for their representatives about how our shared humanity is important to them as voters this November. As the late Illinois Senator Paul Simon once said about the genocide in Rwanda, “If every member of the House of Representatives and Senate had received 100 letters from people back home saying we have to do something, then I think the response would have been different.” Students can make the response different this time around.

Why is all this important? The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a saying that “What you do matters.” In short, when one human being suffers, it affects us all.  As American teachers, we celebrate the role that foreigners such as the Marquis de Lafayette and General Casimir Pulaski had in assisting our American Revolution. Now with our students, let us in some way return the favor for our brothers and sisters in Syria in their moment of need. Doing so becomes a “ripple of hope” that Bobby Kennedy said “would build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

In an age where we as teachers face increasing constraints to our profession, teaching about Syria is not only important in its own right, but helps cultivate the social awareness and moral leadership so important to the future of our pluralistic world. And while teaching global situations in real time will never be perfect, it nonetheless can offer students the opportunity to see their world differently, appreciate that it is fragile, and, most importantly, to speak up when it is at risk.


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