Hands-on Children’s Activities Related to Life in Refugee Camps



The materials available from various denominations, and religious organizations, etc., are valuable resources to use in presenting a Biblical/Christian focus to how we might better follow the teachings of God, through His Son Jesus Christ.  As adult leaders, we can help children and youth learn how we all may best follow the “Greatest Commandment – Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.”

The materials and ideas presented below have all been used by Nancy Staigmiller of the Montanta N. Wyoming Conference of the United Church of Christ.  She has used the materials offered by Church World Service for about 10 years at the UCC Camp Mimanagish on the Boulder River in south-central Montana.  She likes, especially, to work with the 5th/6th grade campers.  For some years she composed her own camp curriculum, but then a camp curriculum was made available in the MNWC/UCC New Earth Christian Resources for the Outdoors, published for the Outdoor Ministries Programs of the National Council of Churches of Christ.  In the past few years, the themes ‘On Our Way’ and ‘Breakthrough,’ etc. have  offered ample opportunity to integrate the concepts of the scriptures appropriately as we strive to consider our brother and sisters around the world.  In order to allow this approach to be completely Bible based, a few examples of possible scriptures follow.  Many more scriptures may be used, as well.

“Give justice to the weak and the orphan.”  

Psalm 82:3

“If a stranger lives with you in your land, do not bother them.  You must count them as one of your own countrymen and love them as yourself-for you were once strangers youself in the land of Egypt.” 

Lev. 19:34 

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of thee who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Matt. 25:40 and
Matthew 25:34-40



“Little Children, let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

1 John 3:18 

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-truly I tell you none of these will lose their reward.” 

Matt. 10:42 

Feeding of the five thousand, “You give them something to eat.”   

John 12-17

“… what does the Lord require of you but to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah. 6:6-8 


Background stories in preparation for helping children understand refugee life

There are 3 different children’s magazines available from Church World Service.  Please note that much of this material is online, but a few copies are available free from www.cwsglobal.org.  Nancy highly recommends them for elementary school age children.  Many of the pages are easily accessible online for printing out.  Also, there are supplemental resources available online with pictures, and more information to enhance curricular content.  There are also web pages designed for the children to interact with on the internet, if that is applicable to your setting.  CWS also offers service projects complete with video an DVD materials of exceptional quality.

Story 1 – “Journey from Somalia,” from Build a Better World, Africa, Church World Services, Children’s resources.  This is a story about finding a new home and new hope!

This refugee family had to flee their homeland in Somalia after civil war in 1991.  They walked many miles to safety.  This Bantu family fled to a refugee camp in Kenya.  With no country they could call their own and no hope of making Kenya their home, this family of 3 received permission to come to the US and settle in Denver under the Ecumenical Refugee Services of Church World Service.

This children’s story helps all children understand what it might be like to flee from home under bad circumstances with very little possessions.  This family of refugees has survived difficult times by sticking together and taking care of each other.  “Lmani” the CWS mascot, whose name means ‘Hope’ in Swahili, helps learners understand truth of the African proverb.  “If you want to travel fast, travel alone.  If you want to travel far, travel together.”  The giraffe, Imani, is willing to stick his neck out and show God’s people how we can travel far — together.

Story 2 – “Journey from Sudan,” From CWS, Build a Better World, II,  A story of children fleeing from home, not knowing the plight of their own families, but finding new hope arising from the worst effects of genocide.

This group of refugee boys (cousins) experiences many childhood years of being uprooted over and over again.  They walked hundreds of miles by themselves to escape war in Sudan.  They went to refugee camps in 2 other countries before coming to the United States.  These true stories can help children who are safe to understand the hardships of refugee life, unknown to them.

Accompanying this story are activities, including a game – “A Long Walk.”  It can be played inside or outside with a life-sized homemade game board.  Instructions along the walk guide players in emulating real-life experiences along the long journey as refugee chidren.  There are other children’s activities accompanying these and other stories from the CWS materials that are appropraite for use.  Being creative, based on needs, time, energy, etc. is an important consideration.  Have fun!!

Church World Service offers three booklets for the student/camper.  In additional to the above mentioned, the newest booklet focuses on water, Build a Better World, Water.  Each booklet offers five stories with pictures focusing on children in many parts of the world.  A theme poster is inserted for display.  Multiple activities, games, art projects, and other valuable learning hand-on projects are offered to the users.


Pretend Refugee Camp:  A simulation/pretend activity for campers

The camp curriculum offered by the Committee of Outdoor Ministries the last few years has lent itself easily to adding a focus on people of the world whom we do not want to forget in our welcome and hospitality.  We know that ‘God is still speaking’ regarding our love, care, and concern for all His people,  ‘regardless of where they are on life’s journey.’  The stories and activities available from Church World Service, as well as other resources, may be adapted to add enrichment to written camp and Christian education curricula that are used from year to year.  There are opportunities in program, worship, recreation, and general activities to expand on our actions regarding how each of us carries out God’s love to others.

After hearing the above stories, doing simple Bible study, viewing pictures and videos, sharing in activities, worship, etc., the children will have an initial understanding of the difficult life styles and challenges that millions of refugees face daily.  Because many refugees leave their homeland on foot, taking only what they can carry, they have little money, personal items, and little food.  They may also be missing some of their loved ones.

This particular activity is personally one of my very favorite with the campers.  After a few days of background learning and reflection, on the mid week day, we play “refugee camp.”  Nancy shares that the first time she offered this activity, her camp counselors thought she had ‘lost it’ and that the kids would never go for this.  But, amazingly, they embraced it with full energy, understanding, and creative enthusiasm.  After four years of doing this, she reports that campers really ‘get the picture’ and become better and more empathetic caring children of God.  When we finish after about an hour and a half, they beg to keep going.  No child has ever failed to participate, fully.


“We Walk because they Walk” 

The campers gather on the dining hall deck.  Of course they have already heard the stories of children in other lands.  They are ready to pretend and to assume the role of refugees  in troubled parts of the world.  They may choose how to gather in small groups, 2 to 5 in size, and pick a role of children, adults, family, orphans, or any combination.  Many choose to have injuries, etc., and to be orphans.

They are advised that they are to gather some basic materials for their journey from the “CWS” or humanitarian aid workers.  The refugees are given a plastic bag for imaginary belongings, a plastic gallon water jug, a pot or pan (from the camp kitchen), and an army blanket or CWS blanket.  They are sent on their journey thru the wilderness (within the camp boundaries where they remain visible), and they are advised to arrive at the allotted and marked camp sites on the volleyball court.  A CWS worker greets them and allots a camp site for each small group.  The campers then begin to rig up their home and settle in to the refugee camp.  Some groups occasionally set up camp along their journey, and a worker needs to find them and advise them of unprotected dangers (wild animals, etc.) and encourages them to join the other refugees at a safer location in the volleyball courts.

After the refugees have settled in to the camp, they immediately start looking for firewood for cooking, and also may find wood to stake up a blanket type tent.  The campers role play really well, and they soon begin to assist others, or share their ideas.  A bell is rung by the CWS, or other aid workers, offer food commodities to all family units.  Dried beans, rice, or corn kernels.  Rations of foods are offered when refugees bring their pans to the central resource site at the refugee camp.  Soon refugee campers realize they have to haul water and figure out they can walk to the church camp outdoor clean water spigot nearby.  Some also walk to the tiny stream that meanders thru camp.  Refugees add wild onions, dry weeds, and wild fruits to brew up a wild food concoction.  Fire pits are carved out in the sand with firewood used for pretend cook fires.

Various ideas have evolved over a period of 4 years of this activity.  Some boys hauled some fairly big firewood to make rafts so they could pretend to travel downstream to find other safe villages or lost family.  Some campers planted seeds and pretended to grow food sources.  Some lost a family member to disease and sought funeral services for CWS staff.  One counselor refugee taught others how to make tent rope out of dried weed stems, while a couple campers shared and sold medicines (licorice) they had salvaged to bring on their journeys. 

The CWS and aid workers offer school services to the refugees.  Many of the children resist going to school, but after encouragement from refugee parents, and aid workers, they do join a teacher who very creatively offers them instruction, usually of the English language.  This helps to remind campers of the value of education, worldwide, and helps them realize that deprived children of the world may value education almost more than American children.

This activity continues for an appropriate time period, but it is always good to transition while things are still going well.  The bell rings for lunch and the refugees go back to the dining hall deck.  Here the CWS workers (counselors) greet them and invite them to a simple lunch to be provided for all.  This is an opportunity to share with the campers an appropriate simple lunch to show a scarcity of food.  I have used pita bread with a small bowl of peanut butter.  Simple fruit, (nuts, bananas, mangoes, etc.) could be offered with water.  A poverty meal could also be shared this day or on another day.

Alternative Poverty Meals and other Poverty, Hunger, Health and Education Activities

A simple poverty meal could also be shared at this meal, or another day, made up of beans and rice, scant rice soup, etc.  It would also be appropriate to choose activities from the CWS booklet, Making Poverty History:  Hunger Education Activities that Work!  These activities can turn out ot be very worthwhile as learning tools for different age groups.  Many excellent activities could be used at another time, from this outstanding resource, to help children grasp the Millennium Development Goals intended by the year 2015 to:  1) Eradicate extreme hunger and poverty, 2) Achieve universal primary education, 3) Promote gender equality and empower women, 4) reduce child mortality, 5) Improve maternal health, 6) Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other Diseases, 7) ensure environmental sustainability, 8) Develop a Global Partnership for development.


CROP WALK – Communities Responding to Overcome Poverty, established by CWS in 1946 

Following the refugee camp activity, our camp children/youth participated in a modified CROP Walk as a reminder that poor and hungry people around the world have to walk for food, water and safety.  Find an appropriate place to walk to, of some distance, so that the children can experience the CROP Walk theme, “We Walk because they Walk.”  Give each child a gallon milk jug, or something appropriate, to carry on their walk so that each child may fill it with clean water for the family’s daily water source.  Our campers at Camp Mimanagish go on a 2 mile hike on the road to a safe picnic spot along the Boulder River.  If the river conditions are safe and the water temperature tolerable, we wade in the river then enjoy a picnic lunch.  After filling the gallon water jugs, campers and counselors hike back down the road to camp and enjoy a quiet evening of camp fire, worship and reflection on the lessons experienced.  The campers carry the empty jug up stream, and the full jug downhill back to camp.  They actually do not complain much.  The filled jugs weight about 8 lbs., and campers find ways to share the task.  Of course campers are forbidden to drink the river water (unlike real life refugees).  As an aside, the campers could experience trying to carry bigger containers of water on their heads.


This reverse CROP Walk is a different type of CROP Walk.  The campers do not know about this ahead of time, because they walk as refugees.  The usual style of CROP Walk is out of generosity with the intent of raising funds to share for CWS projects around the world.  Instead, Nancy offers this walk with the intention of honoring each child’s experience with a simple donation of one dollar per child to be sent to Church World Service for clean water projects.  Following our evening picnic walk, I announce to the campers that I have placed a one dollar representing each camper’s efforts to carry water into an offering fund as a CROP Walk donation. The rest of the week the campers are encouraged to save some of their spending money from their bank account held in the camp store for snacks and miscellaneous items.  We collect the offering on the final day and the students are usually surprisingly generous.  Hopefully, campers will consider walking in local community CROP Walk activities in the future.  Materials and information are available online with CWS.

Service Project:  Assembling of School Kit and Health Kits for Church World Service

The campers receive a camp letter a few weeks ahead of their arrival at camp for the 6 day camp in the mountains.  The letter assures their parents the campers will be kept safe and be well cared for and loved during their week at camp.  It is good to advise the campers what kind of things to bring to camp and not bring to camp.  But most of all, the families need to know something about what their children will be learning during time together at camp.  It will be a time of fun, fellowship, new experiences, but most of all a growth in the camper’s spiritual development.

In the letter campers are asked to bring some gifts to share with children around the world, through the Service Projects of Church World Service.  This is a voluntary activity, but most campers choose to bring items of their choice from the list of supplies for School Kits and Health Kits.  Late in the week, selected CWS DVD segments feature the recipients of these gifts for children who may be living in refugee camps, or have been uprooted in natural disasters.  It is a valuable experience for the campers to glimpse the families of the world who share experiences both similar and yet unlike the experiences of most of our American children. 

School kits:  1 box of 24 crayons, 1 ruler, 6 pencils, 1 eraser, blunt tip scissors, small pencil sharpener, and 3 lined school notebooks of 70 pages all place in a cloth bag, with handles.

Health kits:  6 Band-Aids, packaged tooth brush, 1 bar of wrapped soap, nail clipper, comb or brush mostly wider teeth, 1 wash cloth, and 1 hand towel, all packed in a gallon zip lock bag.

The size composition, and measurements of these kids can be found at www.cwskits.org, as well as mailing details.

The campers enjoy sorting and filling these gift bags for mailing purposes.  Canvas could be made available during craft activities for them to decorate to be made into school bags later.  Local volunteers in home churches might be asked to make the fabric School Kits ahead of time.  Also, the monetary gifts made in the final camp offering can be used to fund the shipping costs $2 per bag, plus mailing costs state-side.  The DVD resources from CWS add a lot to this service project by showing pictures of the children in their homelands.

Recommendations and details related to these service projects are available in the children’s magazines from CWS Build a Better World, and also online with CWS.

 A Special Project in 2009 – “Tents of Hope”
                     – raising awareness about refugees in Darfur, Sudan


In the year 2008, a very special event – “Tents of Hope” – offered a new, distinctive opportunity aimed at the tremendous tragedy that has changed the lives of the people of the Darfur region in the Sudan.  “Tents of Hope” helped others, especially in the United States, to understand and offer compassion and action related to enormous atrocities toward people of Darfur.  Unfortunately genocide toward some people of the world has not ceased to occur following the atrocities toward the Armenians, then our Jewish people of Europe during World War II.  Many churches, synagogues, and communities joined together in a new and distinctive opportunity to respond to the tremendous tragedy that has taken so many lives or changed the lives of the people of the Darfur region in Sudan.  Since 2003 and before, over 2.5 million people have permanently lost their homes and villages.  Many, many have been killed.  A member of the United Church of Christ in California, Tim Nonn, gained the support of the Wider Church Ministries/Global Ministries, One Great Hour of Sharing, many other churches, and non profits, (Save Darfus, etc.) to sponsor and encourage lifting up “Tents of Hope.”  Tents were raised, decorated creatively, and displayed as symbols of hope thru advocacy and awareness enhancement.  The “Tents of Hope” are symbols which creatively remind us all that each person and the Earth are beautiful and sacred.  The tents became symbols of lost homes and of refugee journeys which remind us that we are moving together as one human family toward peace.  The unique and colorful tents are symbols of hope, reminders that suffering and injustice can be overcome through compassion and conscience sustained by faith communities and people who care.  Taken from the “Tents of Hope” website – many communities were able to show that in “communities creating conscience, hope makes it possible to imagine peace and imagination makes it possible to create peace.”

The “Tents of Hope” rallied from around the nation in Washington DC on the Capital Mall in early November 2008.  It was quite a moving experience to view the dramatic, colorful images that the tents portrayed as a means of offering hope to God’s people in a very desperately traumatized part of our world, the Sudan.  Following the “Gathering of the Tents of Hope,” over 300 of the tents were bagged and gathered with other supplies to be shipped by Darfur Peace and Development Organization and Development Fund, a non-profit organization.  The tents had a very long and treacherous journey to get to the refugee camps of Chad and Sudan.  But it was welcomed as a special plan to the campers and all persons who supported this wonderful endeavor and journey with their time, talents and financial gifts.  Hopefully, the brightly decorated tents carrying such loving messages of hope, especially to the refugee children and their parents, eventually arrive safely to be used in the education of refugee children for schools and classrooms.

This activity offered a golden opportunity to the camping program at Camp Mimanagish in the Montana/N Wyoming UCC Conference.  Decorating an 8’x10′ tent added tremendous opportunity to connect with the children’s programs of refugee simulation, Crop Walks, etc. led at Camp to the churches of the Conference, as well as with the people of Sudan.  Focusing on real life experiences in Darfur offered a golden teaching moment that Nancy could not ignore.  She erected the “Tent of Hope” at all 10 summer camps and took the tent to about 8 different UCC churches to offer a learning experience to many children and youth and adults.  CWS continued to offer the appropriate teaching tools to add to the focus of the traveling ‘tent of hope’ being decorated around the conference.  Although this opportunity has passed, the outcomes were very valuable and long lasting.  Many people of all ages in the Conference now reflect and talk about issues of clean and available water, the plight of refugees, and the needs of our brothers and sisters in all parts of the world, outside of our local communities.  As leaders of children and youth programs, we will be able to observe and hear the changes in value systems, to see the avenues of love and caring opening up.  A few children’s comments and actions reflect this value.  One little girl shared, “Well I just thought all the kids in the world had all the same things we do, but they don’t!”  Another girl, Sarah, was seen on local TV news as a representative from her school student council expressing how many people in the world do not have clean water to drink.  Her school council had decided to participate in a fund raising activity in order to send purification water straws to children in Africa.  Sarah’s leadership and participation – in camp, school, and mission projects – has helped her discover how to use her experiences to transform the lives of others – and show others how the path can be fun and rewarding.  These are just a few examples of small but special outcomes.



Now because the opportunity for “Tents of Hope” has passed, you might just try thinking outside the box a bit and come up with your own idea to engage in meaningful activities or projects.  Nancy hopes to have campers complete painted designs on a small tent she made to emulate a refugee tent.  It was made as a small model that can travel easily for presentation and education.  It would really be nice to have church camps have a big tent for campers to design and use in any of the above activities, or similar activities which helped spread the concerns and caring of God’s people living in situations we, as Americans, can hardly imagine.  – For questions or sharing, Nancy is available at rstaigmiller@yahoo.com.