For These PS 234 3rd Graders, a Lesson on Refugees Turns into Action

PS 234 3rd graders with the posters they created to draw attention to the plight of Syrian refugees and to help raise money for their cause. From left: Lila Schafer, Remy Komarnicki, Olga Christenson-Eglund, Alexa Rotman, Crystal Shao and Zahana Simpson. Photos courtesy of Jane King

Apr. 27, 2018

A group of PS 234 third graders are turning classroom learning into compassion and action.

Many of the children in Mara Sombrotto’s class had never heard of refugees, much less knew about the Syrians who have fled their war-torn country. But when the teacher read to her class about poet Emma Lazarus and her work with Russian Jewish refugees, the lesson soon turned to one about today's Syrian refugees. The class, divided into groups, then read articles about programs that are helping the refugees.

One of those groups, some half-dozen girls, took the refugees' plight to heart.

By the time they came to me ready to do their group work and talk about the articles, they had already devised a whole plan,” Sombrotto said.

“We read a lot of articles about that and it was really interesting so it made all of us, including me, want to help a lot,” said student Lydia Freeman.

“They need our help,” added her classmate Zahana Simpson. “They don’t have a lot of money and they’re being chased away from their countries and it makes me sad.”

Zahana and Lydia, along with students Lila Schafer and Crystal Shao, were standing outside Tribeca’s Washington Market Park last Sunday, handling brisk sales of like-new children’s books, the proceeds to go to UNICEF for Syrian refugee relief. By the end of the day their 25-cent to one-dollar bargains would add up to $182.42 toward their eventual goal of $500.

Those earnings will be added to about $150 already raised last month with the sale of bead bracelets. The girls also created posters to help with sales and raise awareness about the plight of refugees. “We feel like refugees deserve to be treated better than they’re being treated now,” Lila said. “They’re just like us but they’re from different countries. We want them to have more money to at least buy some food and clothes and water.”

They were also inspired, Lydia said, by students taking action against gun violence. “We thought we could change how people felt about refugees.”

Lila’s mother, Jane King, recalled her daughter’s sudden concern for the displaced Syrians. “She was just really interested in refugees and what was going on and wanted to look at pictures of refugees and wanted to spell refugees and wanted to learn more about them,” she said.

“It’s taught them geography, it’s taught them that they’re fortunate to live in a place that’s not at war,” King added. “And that there are other kids who don’t have it as good as they do. That’s always a good lesson to learn.”

“Kids taking something on and independently doing it on their own and keeping up with it, this is something new for me,” said Sombrotto, who has taught at PS 234 for 14 years. “That’s really exciting.