The Syrian civil war is one of the most complicated conflicts in recent memory. Several groups are vying for power while civilians are trapped in their cities, unable to flee the carnage. Those who have gotten out of Syria face grave uncertainties as other countries debate whether to allow them refugee status.
It’s one of the most important issues in our world today, and it’s one of the most difficult to talk about, much less try to teach.
The purpose of this guide is to assist in creating structure for classroom lessons. The focus is to engage students in learning more about the region and this specific conflict and to get them to start asking questions and seeking solutions. Of course, the questions provided are merely suggestions. You are encouraged to alter them to best fit your particular classroom’s needs.
Thank you for taking the time to read “Madaya Mom” and use it in your classwork.
1. Have the class do research into the Syrian civil war. Have different groups research the factions fighting in the war, including the interests of the United States and the European Union. Then have a representative from each group come together as a council to bring the fighting to an end.
Bonus: Have one group represent the populace currently suffering in Syria (e.g., Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders). When the council meets to settle the issues, have the representative for the populace speak to the assembled group. After the class reaches a resolution, compare their solution with what’s actually happening.
2. Have the class read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Not My Turn to Die.” Have them compare and contrast the situations in each book. What are the similarities, and what are the differences? What conclusions can we draw from these?
3. The Syrian civil war has led to a massive refugee crisis throughout the world. Have the class research the policies for refugees in the European Union and the United States. Given the current questions of immigrants, especially immigrants who identify as Muslim, in the U.S., are the concerns expressed by leadership in those countries warranted, given the circumstances of the Syrian civil war? Why or why not?
4. When people flee war to other countries, often they end up in holding or resettlement camps while their status is determined by the government. Have the class read “The Bone Sparrow” or do research on internment camps. Is there a more efficient way to handle the influx of people? What would that look like?
5. Ask students to write an essay about a time in their lives when they felt powerless. Encourage them to be introspective about how it affected them. Does it still affect them? In what ways? If appropriate, lead a class discussion on the topic.
6. Reach out to an organization like Amnesty International or the Syrian Emergency Task Force and ask about creating a connection between the class and a community suffering in Syria. Have students find out the needs of the community and decide what they can do to help.
7. “Madaya Mom” puts a personal face and voice on a story that’s all too easy to ignore. Once a personal connection is made, it becomes less easy to consider war as a large issue on the other side of the world. Lead a classroom discussion asking students to consider other large issues that tend to be ignored when there’s no personal connection — homelessness, poverty, oppression — and ask them to think of ways to address the issues by making them less impersonal and more connected.
8. Part of what makes “Madaya Mom” so compelling is its portrait of people enduring through great hardship — lack of food, war, death, etc. Have students write an essay about a time in their lives when they or their families have undergone great hardship and how they coped with it. If the students haven’t experienced it, have them interview family members and see if there are any stories of coping with hardship.
9. Basically, the city of Madaya is under siege. Have students research famous sieges from history (e.g., the Battle of Leningrad, the Battle of Vicksburg, the Battle of Carthage) and have them compare those with what’s happening in Madaya and other cities in Syria. How did those sieges end? Is there a way to end the siege of Madaya without further loss of life? If the answer is yes, ask your students why they think that hasn’t happened.
10. In our current election cycle, one of the points being argued between the two candidates is whether to admit Syrian refugees into the U.S. The side against doing so cites the danger of allowing radicals and terrorists into the U.S.; argues for relieving the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people. Have the class divide into two sides to debate the issue. Did reading “Madaya Mom” change anyone’s perspective? Why or why not?
11. Gen. William T. Sherman, a Union general in the American Civil War, was the first officer in modern warfare to suggest that making the enemy populace suffer would weaken the enemy’s army. When he swung through the South, his army burned homes and fields, took possessions of value and wrecked train lines to interfere with the South’s ability to resupply the Confederate Army. Is this what’s happening in Syria? If so, who gains from the suffering of the civilian population? Should leaders and officers who use this tactic be tried as war criminals?
12. The devastation taking place in Madaya is tremendous. Have students research how much time, money and effort will be required to restore the city after the war. How will it be paid for? Given the costs of the war across multiple cities in Syria, is the war justified? Are there instances when war is justified, regardless of the cost in money and lives?
About the author of the guide Kelly Johnston, a former English and humanities teacher with over a decade of classroom experience, created these discussion questions and this study guide.