Denied entry

passport-2642172_960_720I sometimes catch myself pondering this: To what extent can you relate to/fully understand a negative phenomenon if you’ve never actually experienced it? How valuable is knowledge gained through vicarious experience? And isn’t it deceptive of me, the teacher, to want to pass such knowledge on to my students?

For example, I have never had the first-hand experience of being discriminated against. Not even when I most expected it. Being a member of the EU, traveling around Europe is pretty easy for me. And looking the way I look, I’d probably appear totally harmless to customs officers all around the world anyway. I’m saying this because I’ve never been further questioned, searched or even looked at with suspicion. Not even 25 years ago when the precautionary measures were much tougher for a Czech who wanted to travel the UK, for example. My colleague, on the other hand, could share tons of anecdotes of how he’s been treated by the customs officers. Well, looking the way he looks (darker complexion, scruffy looking hair), he’s always the one who captures their attention. And regardless of the fact that he isn’t a drug dealer and he’d actually never hurt a fly, his luggage is often singled out to be sniffed at by detection dogs.


Yesterday, I went to a non-ELT-related seminar. The first part was about discrimination and racism. We talked about some ways of educating our students in this respect and we agreed that the best way to do so is through experience. In other words, students must feel what it is like to be ostracized to fully understand that ostracizing is something they should never inflict upon others.

We did one activity which I’d like to share here on my blog. Although I’m not sure if it’s 100% safe in all teaching contexts, I thought that it could be presented as an ESL activity ‘in disguise’. Just keep in mind that if you teach students and/or nationalities who often experience the feeling of being excluded, they should NOT be the targets of this activity.

Before the lesson, check out the list of countries which have the reputation of having the most intimidating border officials. You (the teacher) will pretend to be one of them to put the travelers (your students) on edge.

Give each student an empty passport template, such as the one below. Ask the students to complete it. They can choose from the list of countries you give them (you need to have this under control to make the point).


The students approach you one by one to show you their passports. You treat some of them nicely (based on the country they come from and/or their gender) while you will be very strict with others. Each student will have to bring their luggage too (it should be just a pencil case, not a bag!). Warn them in advance that it may be searched. Do single out some ‘luggage’ for further search. If you have rubber gloves, all the better! 🙂 You may even choose some travelers who will eventually get denied entry.

After you’ve talked to all of them, it’s time for reflection. Ask them how they felt. What was it like to be rejected? What was it like to get a free pass? Ask them if they or their parents have ever been in such a situation. What would they do if they got denied to enter a country? Is it fair/justifiable to be judged by the color of your complexion/the place of your birth/gender/age?

To take the strain off a bit, you can watch the following videos too.

Travel Tips: How To Go Through Immigration (this can be watched prior to the activity itself.)

Travel English: How to go through customs at the airport 

You can also watch/talk about the movie called The Terminal. It’s a comedy-drama, starring Tom Hanks, and it can actually dumb the whole point down but anyway. It depends on how serious you want to make it.

Let me know what you think.


About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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6 Responses to Denied entry

  1. Adi Rajan says:

    Kind of reminds me of the blue eyes/brown eyes exercise ( but I’m sure you’re nothing like Jane Elliot 🙂 I might have a lot of stamps in my passport but immigration officials are perpetually suspicious of me – they’ll ask the European/North American person in in the line in front of me one question (or often none) and ask me five. Even the process of getting a visa is like something out of an absurdist piece – have to submit everything but my horoscope. One consular official demanded to know why I wasn’t married. Another looked at my tax returns and said I made very little money and yet another looked at my bank statements and said I had too much.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Oh, I remember this documentary. She’s tough, this Jane Elliot! The difference between her experiment and the one I describe here is major, I think. What she does is personal. ie she divides the group based on their real traits (the color of the people’s eyes). I would never take it that far, hence the fake passports.
      I’m really sorry to hear that so many of my online friends have experienced discrimination at the customs. But one day, it may well be the other way around (North Americans/Europeans will be the oppressed ones…). This was actually another activity we did yesterday, but it was about homosexual relationships. A topic for another post, maybe… Thanks for the comment, Adi.


  2. Zhenya says:

    Hi there,
    Great lesson idea Hana! I think it can get quite serious, depending where the lesson is taught. I come from Ukraine and have the Ukrainian passport. Even though I have never been denied an entry or a visa, there is a chance it can happen. So much depends on the political situation, I guess (in the mother country, in the world, in the country where we travel, etc.) My passport was taken away at Heathrow without explanation (for about 10 mins, which seems considerably longer at that time!) and then returned. My husband was once denied a visa to the UK because he did not have ‘enough travel experience’ to the ‘respected countries’, or something along the lines. I wish I kept the letter from the embassy to quote. By ‘respected’ countries they meant EU or US 🙂 It’s interesting how good English may help (and a sense of humor, too, but carefully) in such situations. Definitely worth a lesson! Thank you as always for writing and inspiring!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for your take on this, Zhenya. These anecdotes always prove valuable as they broaden one’s horizon and make up for the lack of direct experience. You’re right when you say that things may change suddenly and that so much depends on the political situation. I remember that some years back, there was a massive influx of Czech Gypsies to Canada and later to the UK, where they were granted asylum. At that time, the Czech authorities faced harsh criticism for the way in which they treated Gypsies, who were (and still are) hit by unemployment and were forced to live in ghettos. Later, however, to curb asylum claims from the Czech Republic, Britain set up pre-departure checks at Prague airport for all passengers traveling to Britain. Gypsy leaders, rights campaigners, and some members of the Czech government protested, saying Gypsies were being filtered out according to the color of their skin. In other words, although the situation affected all Czechs regardless of their motivation to travel the UK, the color of your complexion was the key, which to a certain extent is understandable but not right. Anyway, we’ll see what the future holds for us after Brexit, for example.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Tesal Sangma says:

    I was traveling with my American friend in Europe last summer. She wasn’t asked a single question and was allowed entry; it literally took her like 1 second to get through. On the other hand, I had to provide them with proof of my accommodation. They also wanted to make sure I was just visiting for a while. If I wanted to stay there, I’d apply for a different visa duh!

    And don’t even get me started on having to apply for a visa; it’s tedious and annoying. I must have provided them with papers and papers of proof. On top of that, they still called my school to confirm my employment. They gave me a call too, asking me questions.

    I need to stop, or else I’ll end up writing another poem about unfairness. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      This is incredible! I didn’t think the situation was that bad. When it concerns people you know, it’s a completely different story. Thanks for sharing this, Tesal.

      Liked by 1 person

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