Last September, the world was captivated by the images of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach. Aylan’s horrific, tragic death during his family’s attempt to reach Greece was a major news event around the globe. People were shocked, appalled, and devastated. Many were moved to take action, and a larger conversation around the Syrian refugee crisis started to take place. Now, a little over a year later, the crisis continues to grow, and countries around the world are still scrambling to find room for the 4.8 million displaced people.
As an American, I have been disappointed with the way that the global and national conversation surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis seems to have faded away over the last few months. It has been so easy for me to give in to bitterness and cynicism about my country, and about the world. Have we forgotten Aylan? Have we forgotten Syria?
As I write this, I am sitting in a coffee shop in my affluent suburban town, watching through the window as people stream in and out of the church across the street. It is autumn here, and the leaves have all changed colors. People are smiling as they walk, they’re stopping to admire a particularly beautiful tree, they’re opening their wallets to buy coffee; they’re here, they’re alive, they’re safe.
And as I sit here reading stories from Syria, stories from camps in Europe and the Middle East, stories of desperate, dying people- it’s hard not to notice the harsh juxtaposition of the beauty and affluence surrounding me compared with the death and devastation that I’m reading about. I feel so far from Syria; I feel so far from the reality of what I know is happening to refugees across the globe.
The church across the street is selling pumpkins, and I watch as a family walks through the plants, carefully choosing one to take home. There’s a little girl who looks to be about three years old- Aylan’s age. She’s laughing as she climbs on the pumpkins, and every few seconds, she looks up at her mom and dad to see if they are watching her. She’s so small, so vibrant, so alive. I wonder if Aylan’s parents used to look at him the way her parents look at her, like they are completely filled up with love. I wonder a lot of things- what was it like for Aylan, at the end? Was he scared when he climbed into that raft with his family? Did he understand why they had to go? Did he cling to his dad’s shirt in terror when the raft began to fail them? Did he cry? Was he afraid of the waves? I wonder if he knew he was going to die. Do 3-year-olds even know what death means?
If I think about Aylan’s death for too long, it will break my heart. And it should break my heart. It should break all of our hearts. For those of us in the western world, for those of us who have the privilege to choose which stories we consume, for those of us who can close our computer screens or turn off the television- maybe we need our hearts to be broken a little bit more.
We can’t do anything, now, to save Aylan, or to save any of the other children who have been killed in Syria or lost at sea. But we can do something about the children who are still here, still desperate, still alive. The cost of complacency is so high, but we have the opportunity to choose a different route. We have the opportunity to choose to let our hearts be broken by the tragedies that surround us. We can choose to keep our eyes open, to engage, to seek solutions. Aylan’s life mattered. And in a horrible, tragic, twisted way, his death mattered, too. For every child still climbing into those rickety rafts, for every child who has been resettled in a new country, for every child still in Syria, for every child waiting in a refugee camp- let’s keep our eyes open for them.