Bishop Seabury students find passion in helping others, raise $3K for refugees

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A group of sixth-graders at a Lawrence private school has collected money to help people fleeing war and violence across the world.

Bishop Seabury Academy English teacher Krista Barbour said the project began with a book this spring. She chose the New York Times bestselling novel “Refugee” by Alan Gratz. In a Zoom interview with the Times and three of her students, she said she intended to use “Refugee” as a springboard to illustrate a real-world problem and prompt discussions.

The novel — which is also taught in Lawrence Public Schools — tells the stories of three children in search of refuge, each from a different country and era. The book illustrates the traumatic realities of refugee life but also conveys hope.

The United Nations defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence” and has “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” It cites war and ethnic, tribal and religious violence as leading causes of refugees fleeing their home countries.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees website states that by the end of 2019, 79.5 million refugees were forcibly displaced worldwide, calling the stat “a record level of displacement.”

When Barbour realized her sixth-grade students were moved to tears by the personal accounts in “Refugee,” she asked them what they could do.

“I consider myself an activist,” Barbour said, adding that a fundraiser seemed like a possibility. “Let’s do something with this information. That’s the purpose of teaching and learning is to take action with what you’ve learned.”

“It was not my intention to do this fundraising project. It was just one of those moments where I saw what the kids were passionate about and I followed their lead.”

The students armed themselves with statistics and information about refugees. And they asked for door-to-door cash donations, which produced its own group of lessons.

“That was really cool for them to practice knocking on a door and how you introduce yourself, how you speak in a clear, succinct way to strangers,” Barbour said. 

The students set up a table in front of Arizona Trading Co. on Massachusetts Street on a rainy weekend day, followed by a Saturday morning at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market.

Within a couple of weeks, the class had raised more than $3,000.

Barbour gave her students some options for organizations that help refugees. Then the class took a vote.

The winner was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, an agency that describes itself as helping “refugees and people displaced by violence, conflict and persecution.”

Student Hannah Billen said she voted for the UNHCR because it provides help to refugees before and after their journeys.

“They’re helping them get to a home and they’re also helping them get the supplies they need,” Billen said.

The UN estimates that 68% of those displaced across borders come from five countries: Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and Venezuela.

For Isabella Gonzalez, the project made her think twice about complaining, especially when she realized many refugees don’t have transportation.

Barbour said the average refugee from South Sudan walks 400 miles. She took her students on a 3-mile walk to give the students time to consider people their age who walk all day long, day after day.

Teresa Karugia said the unit taught her that life might not always be “awesome” but it’s important to remain “grateful for what you have.”

Barbour said she wants young people to remember they can affect change.

“If you see a problem in the world, if you see something you don’t like — regardless of how old you are — you have the agency and the power to do something about it. This group of 11-, 12-year-old kids was moved by something and with the tiniest bit of help from me, they raised $3,000. That’s enough to care for two refugees for a year.”

The donation from the Bishop Seabury class will arrive in time for World Refugee Day, celebrated annually June 20 since 2001.

Barbour invites Lawrence educators, especially those interested in social justice issues, to connect with her on Instagram, @whimsyandrigor.

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