Exploration 1A: Stories

The Stories

A selection of real-life stories, from different parts of the world, is included (see resources). In all of them someone’s life or human dignity is under threat, as a consequence of armed conflict or other situations of violence.

The bystander in each story:

  • Is an ordinary person
  • Who may have put his or her life or well-being in danger
  • To protect the life or human dignity of someone he or she may not know or would not ordinarily be inclined to help or protect

Use some of these stories. Feel free to substitute similar stories of your own.

Each story contributes something different to the exploration of the humanitarian perspective. The chart below indicates some of the special features of the stories and their uses. It is followed by suggestions for the sequence in which the stories might best be explored, and activities to help students experience and analyse the stories.


Story Features Story Titles Suggested Uses
Youth in danger from threatening demonstrators "Alone on the bench" Good starting point for some students because they might find it easy to identify with the victim, who is in a school-related environment
Youth violence "Brave shopkeeper" Humanitarian response outweighing self-interest
Remarkable impact of a single bystander “Aftermath of a battle”
"A witness comes forward”
Good for tracing chain of consequences stemming from the immediate and long-term impact of just one bystander
Growth of humanitarian behaviour "Step by step" Opportunity to analyse an example of the incremental change in the humanitarian behaviour of the rescuers – good story for roleplaying, with four clearly defined participants
Ethnic division “Villagers ease pain in camps” Shows people crossing the ethnic barriers that define this armed conflict to help those at risk

Note: Background material is provided for the setting of each story. In some stories, suggested ‘decision points’ are indicated an arrow.

Suggested Sequences and Activities

Experiencing a threat to human dignity

“Alone on the bench” (35 minutes) or “Brave shopkeeper” (25 minutes)

Begin by asking students to think of experiences from their lives that echo the setting of the story (first day of school or going to a new school for the first time, being in an unfamiliar or unwelcoming neighbourhood). Elicit from them a list of the thoughts and feelings that they may have had in those situations and reasons for those thoughts and feelings.

Present the story you chose. Before discussing it, have students write down what they believe the young person at risk in the story was thinking as the situation developed.

Lead a discussion of students’ responses to the story. Help them to focus on the danger in the situation and the threat to human dignity. Then have them write down what the rescuer may have been thinking. What was the situation for the shopkeeper or for Grace Lorch? What risks or pressures did the shopkeeper or Grace Lorch face? In either case, what might have caused each person to act?

    Possible questions:

  • What obstacles did the rescuer face?
  • What decisions do you think each person made?
  • What do you think was going through the heads of those causing the danger?
  • What effect did the humanitarian act have? (What might the boys from the mechanics school do in the future? Why did the crowd not prevent Grace Lorch from protecting Elizabeth Eckford?)

Invite discussion on what it took for the shopkeeper or Grace Lorch to step in and protect the young person at risk.

Encourage students to find parallels to the story in their own lives. Have any of them had a similar experience? What do they remember thinking or feeling?

Were any of them ever in a position to help a vulnerable person? What did they consider doing? What did they actually do?

Tracing a Chain of Consequences

“Aftermath of a battle” (35 minutes)

Introduce the story as one that describes the response of someone who just happened to witness massive suffering after the battle of Solferino in 1859. Help students to picture the battlefield as it must have appeared to bystanders at the time.

Ask students what surprises them about this account, and why.

[For example, that no one was there to help the wounded and dying soldiers, or that no local people came forward to help]

Have students assess the impact that a single person had on others.

    Possible questions:

  • How did the behaviour of one bystander affect the behaviour of others?
  • What chains of consequences might develop when bystanders behave in an inhumane way, when, for instance, they steal from dying soldiers or when they ignore pleas for help?

Students can draw a diagram that shows a number of chains of consequences linked to a humanitarian act. They should first write the act in the centre of the page, then draw a line to each act it led to, each act forming a link to further acts. Have them explain the ‘chains’ they found in the story.

Ask students to imagine the links in the ‘chains’ that eventually led to the activities of the Red Cross/Red Crescent around the world.

Note: There is an example of such a diagram in Exploration 3A (Extension activities).

How Incremental Acts Build the Strength of Humanitarian Response

“Step by step” (35-45 minutes) – small groups and role-playing

Begin with a discussion of what enables people to respond in a humanitarian way.

  • What does it take to do something difficult, dangerous or unpopular in order to protect someone whose life or human dignity is at risk? [For example, personal courage, strong moral or religious beliefs, ignorance of possible danger, personal experience of suffering in a similar way.]

Encourage students to draw upon the stories they have studied as well as upon their own experiences.

Present “Step by step.” Then divide the four roles among all the students (assign each student one person from the story). Ask them to imagine being the person whom they have been assigned. Have them write down what that person might have been thinking and feeling at the time.

After at least 5 minutes, group students by the roles assigned to them: all those who have thought about the same person fall into one group. Have them discuss the following questions in their small groups:

  • As this person, what are you trying to do and why?
  • As this person, what are your hopes and fears at each point in the story?

Have students act out the situation.

You might set up the role-playing exercise in this way:

The scene is Occupied Poland in 1942. Jerezy and Stefa have been hiding Irena in their one-room flat for several months. This evening, Jerezy returns from work. For him, the danger has become too much.

After the role-playing exercise, conduct a discussion to encourage students to reflect on the experience and the choices that they made.

    Possible questions:

  • What do you think about the choices you made? Why?
  • What do you think of the choices made by the other three?
Trace the steps in the rescuers’ involvement. To help students to recognize that individual differences (in temperament, for example) will lead people to respond differently in risky situations, discuss the following points:
  • How did each person contribute to Irena’s survival?
  • How do the actions of one selfless person affect the actions of others?
  • Why is everyone not equally able to do what is needed?
  • What do you think the title of the story means?

Finding Humanitarian Acts Around the World

Have students apply what they have learned to other stories about ordinary people throughout the world who have acted to protect life or human dignity in violent situations. The authors of these stories are quite different from one another, as are the settings and the contexts.

Story Context Place Author
“Villagers ease pain in camps” Armed conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina A journalist
“A witness comes forward” Internal disturbances South Africa Adapted from an autobiography
“Brave shopkeeper” (if not used earlier) Street violence Thailand A teacher

Note: You can gather more stories from your own history – national, regional, local, personal – and from local news sources.