The other night, my younger brother, who is a sophomore in college, texted me. Normally, at this point in the semester, all the kid wants is help brainstorming ideas for his papers or someone to complain to about the absurdity and injustice of final exams. But this time, he said something different. He said that he had “just seen this thing about the White Helmets” and “they seem cool.”
The “White Helmets” to whom he was referring are the volunteer Syrian rescue workers who aid civilians caught in the destruction left in the wake of frequent bombings. We continued to text about it, which prompted him to mention that he wanted to “read some more stuff.”
Being the annoying, nerdy, older sister that I am, I proceeded to ask him what else he knew about the Syrian Civil War. His response—that he didn’t know anything else except for what he had gleaned from some photos on social media and a few articles online—didn’t surprise me.
Don’t get me wrong. My brother is, in my opinion, a smart, kind person. He is well-rounded, curious, and excelling at a competitive four-year university. But at the same time, he is also a busy, American student who lives far away from Syria’s everyday violence. In these ways and others, he is highly privileged. He, like many people throughout the world, has the ability to choose ignorance. But, in addition to his geographical and intellectual distance from the conflict, what was ultimately blocking his engagement with Syria’s war was simply not knowing where to begin. He was overwhelmed. He wanted to learn, but he felt like he was years behind—and he was right. The topic had not come up in any of his courses in college, nor had the earlier years of the war been covered in his high school social studies classes. His friends are not particularly interested in international affairs, so it only came up occasionally in conversation. He was unfamiliar with the long, complex history leading up to what is taking place in Syria today, and that made really digging into the conflict daunting for him. But, he finally realized that that was not a good enough excuse.
I suspect that, in this way, my brother is not unlike many of the high school students with whom educators work: students who are well-meaning and want to learn, but who just do not know where to begin. All students are different and have different experiences, but what they do have in common is the need for an entry point that is accessible to them. In my brother’s case, the catalyst for his learning was the White Helmets—seeing people risk their lives to help others escape a conflict about which he had the privilege of knowing next to nothing. For other people, it may be a photo in the news, the story of a family member or a classmate affected by the conflict, a personal experience with war and violence, a post on social media, a statement from a politician or activist, or a lesson in the classroom. Whatever it is, these entry points—and meeting students where they are in terms of their knowledge and the gaps in their knowledge in a non-judgmental way—is an important step in the process of nurturing students as they grow into both informed and empathetic global citizens.
The Choices Program provides a number of resources that offer an accessible entry point, and beyond, for students of all levels and backgrounds to engage with the war in Syria. Specifically, in addition to directing my brother to some reputable and diverse media sources and scholarly articles, I pointed him to a few free, online Choices resources, including videos by political scientist Bessma Momani and Teaching with the News Lessons “Debating the U.S. Response to Syria” and “Refugee Stories: Mapping a Crisis.”
Teachers may also find the Choices curriculum unit The Middle East in Transition: Questions for U.S. Policy useful as it introduces students to the conflict in Syria as well as many other regional histories and issues. We hope that these resources might help educators who are looking to prompt students to engage with the many dimensions of Syria’s war.
Photo: Public Domain, United States Agency for International Development.