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Ariadne Kypriadi/UNHCR
I Live in a Refugee Camp

After fleeing her home, a 15-year-old girl must imagine a new future

By Kristin Lewis

Learning Objective: Through the eyes of a teenager growing up in a refugee camp, students will learn how people become refugees and how their lives change as a result.

Lexile: 600L-700L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: U
DRA Level: 50
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Cause and Effect

As you read, look for why Bilan and others have become refugees and how their lives have changed.

You would never plan to become a refugee—to flee your home because your life is in danger. Yet today, there are 25.9 million refugees, more than the world has seen in nearly a century.

There are many reasons a person might become a refugee.

Maybe you live in a country torn apart by war, and your house was bombed to rubble.

Maybe you live in a place where you and your family are being attacked because of your religion.

Maybe you live in a region where food is scarce, and you are facing starvation.

Or maybe you are like 15-year-old Bilan [BEE-lawn], and you were chased from your home by violence.

Not so long ago, Bilan was a typical kid. She and her family lived in a comfortable home in Mogadishu, Somalia, a country in East Africa. She went to school and had many friends. With her twinkling eyes and shy smile, Bilan seems like someone you would want as a friend too.

But life in Somalia was difficult—and dangerous. Since 1991, different groups in the country have been at war. Seemingly endless waves of violence have torn the nation apart. Hotels, restaurants, and homes have been bombed. Factories have been looted. Schools have been closed.

At the same time, widespread droughts have swept across Somalia. The droughts have dried up crops, killed off farm animals, and caused many to go hungry. Famine has killed 260,000 Somali men, women, and children—and left many more sick and starving.

Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have fled across the border into neighboring countries, like Kenya and Ethiopia. They are desperately trying to escape these terrible situations.

Four years ago, Bilan became one of them.

She still remembers when her mother told her that they had to leave, that they were going to Ethiopia, where they could be safe.

Where will we live? Bilan worried. What will become of us?

The journey out of Somalia took Bilan and her family about 10 days. So much was left behind: treasured photographs, favorite clothes, beloved books. They crossed over the border into Ethiopia with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

You would never plan to become a refugee—to flee your home because your life is in danger. Yet today, there are almost 26 million refugees, more than the world has seen in nearly 100 years.

There are many reasons a person might become a refugee.

Maybe you live in a country torn apart by war, and your house was bombed to rubble.

Maybe you live in a place where you and your family are being attacked because of your religion.

Maybe food is scarce where you live, and you are in danger of starving.

Or maybe, like 15-year-old Bilan [BEE-lawn], you were chased from your home by violence.

Not so long ago, Bilan was a typical kid. She and her family lived in a comfortable home in Somalia, a country in East Africa. She went to school and had many friends. With her twinkling eyes and shy smile, Bilan seems like someone you would want as a friend too.

But life in Somalia was hard. It was dangerous too. Since 1991, different groups in the country have been at war. Violence has torn the nation apart. Hotels, restaurants, and homes have been bombed. Factories have been looted. Schools have been closed.

At the same time, droughts have swept across Somalia. The droughts have dried up crops, killed off farm animals, and caused many to go hungry. Famine has killed 260,000 Somalis. Many more have been left sick and starving.

Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have fled across the border into neighboring countries, like Kenya and Ethiopia. They are trying to escape these dangers.

Four years ago, Bilan became one of them.

She remembers when her mother told her that they were going to Ethiopia.

Where will we live? Bilan worried. What will become of us?

The journey out of Somalia took Bilan and her family about 10 days. So much was left behind: treasured photos, favorite clothes, beloved books. They arrived in Ethiopia with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

Ariadne Kypriadi/UNHCR

Bilan cooking dinner

Crisis After Crisis

For as long as there have been humans, there have been people forced from their countries because of fighting or hunger or natural disasters.

But it was World War II that brought a refugee crisis to a level the world had never seen. When the war ended in 1945, much of Europe was a wasteland. Once shining cities like London, England, and Berlin, Germany, had been burned and bombed to ruins. At least 80 million people were dead. There were 40 million refugees in Europe alone. These men, women, and children had lost their homes, their jobs, their way of life.

The crisis was too big for any one country to handle on its own. And so nations joined together to create an organization with one purpose: to help. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was meant to operate for three years, just long enough to help the refugees of World War II get back on their feet.

But in the following years came more conflicts, more wars, more famines—in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Crisis after crisis drove millions of people from their home countries. It became clear that the UNHCR needed to be permanent and that other organizations needed to help too.

Today, thousands of aid workers from the UNHCR and countless other aid groups dedicate their lives to helping refugees like Bilan. They work in some of the most dangerous places on Earth. 

For as long as there have been humans, there have been people forced from their countries because of fighting or hunger or natural disasters.

After World War II, there was a refugee crisis on a level the world had never seen. When the war ended in 1945, much of Europe was a wasteland. Cities like London, England, and Berlin, Germany, were in ruins. At least 80 million people were dead. There were 40 million refugees in Europe alone. They had all lost their homes, their jobs, their way of life.

The crisis was too big for any one country to handle on its own. So nations joined together to create an organization with one purpose: to help. It was called the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It was meant to operate for three years, just long enough to help the refugees of World War II get back on their feet.

But in the following years came more conflicts, more wars, more famines—in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Crisis after crisis drove millions of people from their home countries. It became clear that the UNHCR needed to be permanent and that other organizations needed to help too.

Today, thousands of aid workers from the UNHCR and other groups work to help refugees like Bilan. They work in some of the most dangerous places on Earth.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Life in the Camp

After Bilan and her family crossed the border, they were taken to the Kobe [KOH-bay] refugee camp, in the southern part of Ethiopia. It is located in a large, empty area. But the Kobe camp is a beehive of activity. Nearly 50,000 people live there. The camp is like a sprawling town, with tidy rows of bamboo shelters separated by wide dirt streets.

Around the world, there are more than 100 refugee camps. Each one is different. But every camp has the same basic purpose: to provide food, medicine, housing, and protection to refugees.

Life in these camps can be grim, with families crowding into tents that boil in summer and freeze in winter. There may not be enough food, water, or power. Basic supplies, like toothpaste and shoes, may be hard to get. Not all refugee camps have schools, and those that do may not have enough teachers or books. Outbreaks of violence and disease are constant threats. Sometimes there isn’t enough medicine for everyone who needs it.

A refugee camp is certainly not a place where most people would choose to live. But the Kobe camp in Ethiopia does have much to offer. It’s clean and well organized, and it has the basics: food, water, shelters, and a health clinic. Six schools serve about 6,200 students. In the bustling market, refugees can shop for everything from soaps, perfumes, and colorful fabrics to delicious vegetable-stuffed pastries, goat meat, and pasta. There is also a place to get cell phones repaired.

Bilan remembers that when she first arrived at the Kobe camp, she was struck by how different her life was going to be. She would no longer live in a home in a big city. She would live in a small shelter in the middle of a vast desert. She would no longer have running water either. Instead, she would have to lug water from the camp’s well, a time-consuming and difficult chore. She would also have to fetch firewood for cooking.

But early on, Bilan made a choice. She decided to accept her new life—and to make the best of it.

“I had to adapt,” she says simply.

After Bilan and her family crossed the border, they were taken to the Kobe [KOH-bay] refugee camp, in the southern part of Ethiopia. It is located in a large, empty area. But the Kobe camp is a beehive of activity. Nearly 50,000 people live there. The camp is like a sprawling town, with rows of bamboo shelters separated by dirt streets.

Around the world, there are more than 100 refugee camps. Each one is different. But they all have the same basic purpose: to provide food, medicine, housing, and protection to refugees.

Life in these camps can be grim. Families live in tents that boil in summer and freeze in winter. There may not be enough food, water, or power. Supplies like toothpaste and shoes may be hard to get. Not all refugee camps have schools, and those that do may not have enough teachers or books. Outbreaks of violence and disease are constant threats. Sometimes there isn’t enough medicine for everyone who needs it.

A refugee camp is not a place where most people would choose to live. But the Kobe camp in Ethiopia does have much to offer. It’s clean and well organized. It has the basics: food, water, shelters, and a health clinic. Six schools serve about 6,200 students. In the market, refugees can shop for soap, perfume, fabric, food, and more. There is also a place to get cell phones repaired.

When Bilan first arrived at the Kobe camp, she was struck by how different her life was going to be. She would no longer live in a home in a big city. She would live in a small shelter in the middle of a desert. She would no longer have running water. Instead, she would have to lug water from the camp’s well. She would also have to fetch firewood for cooking.

But Bilan made a choice. She decided to accept her new life and make the best of it.

“I had to adapt,” she says.

Ariadne Kypriadi/UNHCR

Bilan shopping at the market

What’s Next?

Today, there are nearly 26 million refugees around the world. That’s almost the population of Texas. More than half the world’s refugees are children or teenagers, like Bilan.

What will happen to them?

Some will return home when it’s safe for them to rebuild the lives they left behind. Often, this is a refugee’s first choice. After all, most never wanted to leave their homes in the first place.

But it can be many years before the problem that drove them away is resolved. And so they live as strangers in foreign lands. They can’t return to their past, and they don’t know what the future will hold.

Some will eventually be resettled in places like the United States, Australia, Germany, or Canada. In these countries, refugees are able to start new lives. They are permitted to get jobs, go to school, and live in apartments or houses alongside everyone else. Their lives may be difficult, but they are the lucky ones. Less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees ever get resettled.

The good news for Bilan and her family is that the Ethiopian government and the UNHCR are working together to help refugees like her. An important law passed earlier this year allows refugees in Ethiopia to legally go to school and get jobs, driver’s licenses, and bank accounts. Refugees are included in many parts of Ethiopian life. 

Today, there are nearly 26 million refugees around the world. That’s almost the population of Texas. More than half the world’s refugees are kids or teens.

What will happen to them?

Some will return home when it’s safe for them to do so. Often, this is a refugee’s first choice. Most never wanted to leave their homes in the first place.

But it can be many years before the problem that drove them away is resolved. And so they live as strangers in foreign lands. They can’t return to their past, and they don’t know what the future will hold.

Some will be resettled in places like the United States, Australia, Germany, or Canada. In these countries, refugees are able to start new lives. They are allowed to get jobs, go to school, and live in apartments or houses alongside everyone else. Their lives may be difficult, but they are the lucky ones. Less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees ever get resettled.

The good news for Bilan and her family is that the Ethiopian government and the UNHCR are working together to help refugees. A law passed earlier this year allows refugees in Ethiopia to legally go to school and get jobs, driver’s licenses, and bank accounts. Refugees are included in many parts of Ethiopian life.

Ariadne Kypriadi/UNHCR

Bilan in class

Vision for the Future

Bilan has lived at the Kobe camp for four years now. Though life is challenging, she appreciates the moments of joy. She enrolled in school at the camp and is now a top student. She decorates the walls of her shelter with her schoolwork. And she loves shopping in the market and cracking jokes to make her mother smile.

Bilan has made friends too. They study together and play volleyball in their free time. At night, Bilan pores over her science textbook. And she speaks passionately about her dream of going to college in Canada or the United States.

She has a clear vision for her future life. Indeed, she knows exactly what she wants to do: become a doctor and help her family and other refugees.

But that’s not all.

“I will give health services to refugees for free,” she says proudly.

Bilan has lived at the Kobe camp for four years now. Life is tough, but she has moments of joy too. She goes to school and is a top student. She decorates the walls of her shelter with her schoolwork. And she loves shopping in the market and cracking jokes to make her mother smile.

Bilan has made friends at the camp. They study together. They play volleyball too. Bilan wants to go to college in Canada or the U.S.

She has a vision for her future life. She knows just what she wants to do: become a doctor and help her family and other refugees.

But that’s not all.

“I will give health services to refugees for free,” she says.

Ariadne Kypriadi/UNHCR

Bilan hanging out with friends

Special thanks to Ariadne Kypriadi, Asha Abdikadir, Farhiya Ali, and Abdisalam Kuresh Jamale from the UNHCR.

Special thanks to Ariadne Kypriadi, Asha Abdikadir, Farhiya Ali, and Abdisalam Kuresh Jamale from the UNHCR.

This article was originally published in the December 2019 / January 2020 issue.

This article was originally published in the December 2019 / January 2020 issue.

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Can't-Miss Teaching Extras

This powerful video from the Guardian depicts kids asking questions to refugees about their lives.

Read these stories from the Storyworks archives to meet other displaced people: Dania in the story “Escape from War” (which is paired with a moving poem) and brothers Cedric and Jacob from “Out of the Shattered Land.” Ask students how these young people’s stories are different from and similar to Bilan’s.

This UNICEF Kid Power episode is a short, kid-friendly introduction to the topics of refugees and the refugee crisis. Spark a class discussion with the questions provided at the end of the video.

The UNHCR, which was mentioned in this article, has a host of resources for teaching about refugees. The videos may help answer many questions that this article has provoked for your students (although we recommend previewing them to make sure the content will be appropriate for your students).

More About the Story

Skills

vocabulary, key idea, author’s craft, compare and contrast, key details, text features, inference, critical thinking, explanatory writing

Complexity Factors

Purpose

The article provides general information about refugees and refugee camps, as well as specific facts about one teen refugee.

Structure

The text weaves pieces of the teen’s story together with informational passages about the refugee crisis.  

Language

The article includes challenging domain-specific vocabulary (e.g., famine, resettled), as well as some figurative language. 

Knowledge Demands 

The text refers to large numbers. (25.9 million), a number of geographic locations (Somalia; Ethiopia; Kenya; Berlin, Germany; London, England), and World War II.  

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Text Features and Vocabulary; Watch a Video (40 minutes)

  • As a class, look at pages 4-5. Ask students whether they know what the word refugee means. Then review the definition from the vocabulary Skill Builder. Together, examine the map on page 6 so students know where the article takes place.
  • Distribute the vocabulary Skill Builder to introduce other challenging terms. Highlighted terms: refugee, rubble, scarce, looted, droughts, famine, crisis, sprawling, grim, adapt, resettled
  • Show our video “Beyond the Story: I Live in a Refugee Camp,” in which students will journey to the Kobe refugee camp in Ethiopia to meet Bilan. Have students complete the video activity.

2. Close Reading

Read and Unpack the Text (45 minutes)

Read the article as a class or play the audio version. Have students read it again in small groups, answering the close-reading questions. Regroup to discuss the critical-thinking questions.

Close-Reading Questions

  • Based on the beginning of the article, on page 4, give at least two reasons why people become refugees. Why did 15-year-old Bilan have to flee her home? (key idea) People can become refugees if their country is at war, if they are being attacked for practicing their religion, or if there is not enough food where they live. Bilan had to leave her home to escape violence in her country.
  • In the first section, author Kristin Lewis writes that Bilan was once a “typical kid” who “went to school and had many friends.” Why might Lewis introduce Bilan in this way? (author’s craft) Lewis probably wants readers to relate and feel connected to Bilan—to understand that before she fled her home, she lived a life similar to theirs.
  • According to the first section, what is life like in Somalia? What have people there done as a result? (cause and effect) The section explains that life in Somalia is “difficult—and dangerous.” The country has been torn apart by war. Droughts and famine have caused death and suffering. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Somali people have escaped to nearby countries.
  • Reread “Crisis After Crisis.” How did World War II affect people in Europe? What did countries around the world do to help? (cause and effect) World War II destroyed much of Europe, killing millions of people and forcing millions more to leave their homes. In response, countries around the world joined together to create the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an organization that would help refugees rebuild their lives.
  • Based on “Life in the Camp,” how does life in the Kobe camp compare with life in other refugee camps? (compare and contrast) Life in the Kobe camp seems safer and more comfortable than life in other camps. Some camps do not have enough food, water, or supplies; shelters are flimsy, and diseases spread quickly. In contrast, the Kobe camp is clean and well organized, and has basic necessities like food, shelter, and health care, plus schools and a market.
  • Reread “What’s Next?” What eventually happens to refugees after they flee their homes? (key details) Some refugees are able to return home once it is safe again—although they may have to wait many years before this is possible. Others move to countries like the U.S., Australia, and Germany to find new homes and start new lives.
  • Look at the photos on pages 6-9, “A Day in Bilan’s Life.” What do these photos add to the story? (text features) The photos show Bilan doing normal daily activities in the Kobe camp, like cooking dinner, doing homework, and hanging out with her friends. They support the idea that she has learned to live an ordinary life in the camp, despite the challenges she faces.

Critical-Thinking Question

  • How has becoming a refugee changed Bilan’s life? How has she responded to those changes? Explain using details from the article. (cause and effect) Becoming a refugee has made Bilan’s life more uncertain and more challenging. She used to live in a comfortable home in a big city, but she now lives in a small shelter in an empty area. She does not know where she will end up living in the future. Yet Bilan has responded to these changes with resilience and a positive attitude. She works hard at school, has made friends, and tries to make the best of her new life.
  • Consider Bilan at the end of the article. How might her experience as a refugee have affected her goal to become a doctor? (inference) As a refugee from Somalia, Bilan has seen people affected by terrible violence, drought, and famine. She has gone through the pain of having to leave her home. Seeing and experiencing such suffering probably inspired her to try to help other refugees in the future.
  • Why is it important to learn about refugees? (critical thinking) Answers will vary. Students might say it is important because refugees are people in crisis who need help. Learning about their lives can inspire people to feel empathy toward them and support them.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Cause and Effect

  • Distribute the cause and effect Skill Builder and have students complete it in groups. Then ask them to respond to the writing prompt at the bottom of the page.
Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

As a group, look at the map on page 6. Point out Somalia, where Bilan is from, and Ethiopia, where she lives now. Then listen to the lower-Lexile audio version of the article together. Afterward, work together to make a list of details about what Bilan’s life was like in Somalia and a list of details about what her life has been like in Ethiopia.

For Advanced Readers

Ask students to go to the Storyworks website to read our October/November 2016 paired text “Escape From War,” about a young Syrian refugee named Dania. Then have them write a short essay comparing Dania’s experience as a refugee with Bilan’s.

For ELL Students

Ask students to look at the vibrant photos on pages 6-9 that depict a day in Bilan’s life. Have them practice speaking skills by saying what Bilan is doing. Students with basic skills can use the simple captions to form sentences, like “Bilan is cooking dinner.” More advanced speakers can add details about what they see.

For Research

Invite students to go online to gather more information about the world’s refugees—for example, which countries they mostly come from and where they end up living. Students can then turn what they learned into an infographic.