‘Mamma, what is a refugee?’

My son’s voice reaches my ears from the back seat of the car: we are driving to a friend’s house, the plan for the day being a lazy afternoon in front of the fire with tea, light hearted chat and kid games. Navigating the city traffic, I am humming the Christmas song on the radio, meaningful thoughts momentarily forgotten.

His question makes me snap out of my privileged state of mind: the state of the world, the horrors so many people are experiencing every day, the immense difference between the life my family has and the life very similar families ravaged by war experience every day hits me again with the same strength as the first time I saw images of war and despair.

I know, in a split second, that this moment is important: the way I handle this now might have a long-lasting impact on my son and I want to make sure the impact leaves the right mark: I want to acknowledge his question as important, I want to tell him the truth, I want to make him understand, but I don’t want to scare him.

How to do this?

To be honest with you, his question didn’t find me completely unprepared. The refugee crisis is a tragedy we often talk about, with my husband, and while I have made a point of sheltering my kids from distressing images of displaced, desperate families, I also knew I wanted to address the topic with them.

I have a lot of trust in the ability of children to understand even complex situations and I also feel passionately about them growing up with awareness about the world, compassion and a sense that they can, should even, try to make a positive difference. Travel is part of this educational idea, but everyday actions enter into it as much, if not even more strongly.

I had prepared my answer to this question in advance, so when it finally came I was, if not ready, at least not completely taken aback. At the end of our conversation, he seemed appeased and not distresses. Below is how I handled it.

I’d love to know if and how you have had this conversation with your children and if you have advice on how to handle these kinds of topics. You can let me know in the comments below.

how to tell your kids about the refugee crisis


How to tell your kids about the refugee crisis


References I found useful are: UNICEF and National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

I believe the following 6 points summarise their advice and how I tried to put into practice

Wait for the right moment or for the question to come up naturally

My son brought this question up by his own initiative and I think this was a good thing.  Following his timing, I was sure he was paying attention and he was open to the topic. I don’t think it is necessary to wait for them to bring up the subject, but I do think our timing and awareness of the moment is fundamental for effective communication: a distracted child will not understand you and might even misunderstand your message, so a captive audience is crucial

don’t dodge the question

My son is not new to asking what I call ‘existential questions’: over the course of the years I have been asked why the sky exists, why people die and why we grow old instead of young (he is 5).When asked a difficult question, the temptation to  dismiss it is very strong. ‘You don’t need to worry about this’ or ‘I don’t know’ seem to be easy ways out: if I tell my child they should think about something else, I am  momentarily off the hook. Hopefully, they will forget about it or ask dad later on, won’t they?

I find that this approach always, and I mean always backfires. When my child is asking me a question, it means that he is bothered by the possible answer: most likely, he already has answered the question in his mind and he wants to double check with me if his thoughts are correct. When I dodge the question, I am not helping him to move on: I am imprisoning him in his own fantasy, which can be as bad or even worse that the reality.

ask where the question comes from

When an unexpected question comes up, I always try and figure out what brought it up: was it discussed in school? Is it something they overheard, is it something brought up by a friend? I find that asking your child where they heard about the topic can help frame your answer and tackle curiosity and fears better.

use simple words and examples they can understand

If I am really answering the question, I need to make sure they understand it so I make an extra effort to break it down for them, using examples from our own lives and experiences.

In this case, I said something along these lines. Refugees are people like us but, unlike us, they are going through very bad times and had to leave their homes, friends and countries. They are far from home like we are during our travels, but while we go on holidays because we want to and only leave our homes for a short time, they had  to leave even if they didn’t want to and they do not know when they can go back. Because they don’t have their homes anymore, they sometimes live in tents, a little bit like we did when we went camping: camping is fun for a few days, but can you imagine if we had to always live in a tent? How would we feel?

Stress our own safety 

After eliciting empathy, I think it is really important to introduce some reassuring elements and I explained how safe we are here. We talked about the physical distance between us and the countries of origin of the refugees: yes, Syria is farther than Rome (my son’s measure for distance!), no you can’t walk there, no it won’t happen here, yes mum and dad will protect you and your little sister

Make him feel we can make a difference

Finally I wanted him to understand that even when terrible things happen, we can do something to make them better and to help. I think this is a truly important message, not only to get kids into the habit of engaging with events but also to put hope back into the picture and to give back some sense of control. Maybe we cannot save the world right now, but if we all do what we can, we can sure have an impact.

Like the Dalai Lama said: ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleep in a room with a mosquito’. 


I believe that there are many things we can do to help the refugees and one of the most valuable is to listen to people who work in the camps and know what is actually needed. I received from blogging friend extraordinaire Stacy from Strollering the Globe two lists of things that refugee camps need and that we can send to them without even getting up from our desks. These are two amazon lists for a refugee camp in Munich and a refugee camp on the Slovenian border.

If you wish to contribute, you can: select from the list the item/items you want to purchase and send them directly to the camp, just selecting the delivery address of the organisation (it will appear when you check out) If you are in Ireland, you can also contact the Irish refugee council and get in touch about ways you can contribute to their great work

Please note: while other links on this website are affiliate links, the ones in this post are NOT, which means your contribution to the camps will not make me any money but will only benefit the camps. So donate, donate, donate!





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