Louise Thayer offers perspective on how the death of Aylan Kurdi and the refugee crisis affect us all.
Everybody has a point at which they break. We’ve all known moments when it’s become utterly apparent that life will never be the same again, no matter how hard we’d like to pretend differently.
I sincerely hope that of none of your moments includes having to flee from your homeland. This week my Facebook feed has been overrun with outpourings of love towards the refugees from Syria who are currently displaced all over Europe.
Before they left, I’m certain those people first sat for countless hours with their families around their kitchen tables. They must have been in shock as they held conversations that previously seemed unimaginable but were now desperately real. I can picture the panic and tears as inevitability dawned, of having to strike out into the unknown, of needing to take risks and live with the consequences because they felt that they had no other choice for survival.
As a species, I don’t think humans even come close to acknowledging how interdependent we are on one another for the continuation of our kind. We don’t have any global strategy set in place to help us deal with those forced from their homes by circumstances outside of their control.
Worldwide, the sheer number of refugee camps and the conditions within them are the stuff of dystopia,and yet they hover outside of most of our spheres of existence. It takes a massive effort to keep reminding ourselves that hundreds of thousands of our fellow human beings are living in purgatorial limbo.
This week I’ve seen videos of spontaneous applause, hugs, and toys given from the children of Munich to their Syrian counterparts. I cried every time I saw the images of exhausted boys and girls being carried through what looks to be a joyful throng in the arrivals area of an airport.
The trepidation on their faces turned at first to shy smiles and then later to big grins as they realized that this was a completely open-hearted welcome.
The banners written in three different languages signified to the world that our German brothers and sisters knew how momentous this occasion would be. They wanted not only to include the refugees but to send a clear message to English speaking nations that they were opening their arms to those in need.
I’m an immigrant myself although I’m very aware that it’s never been much of a disadvantage to have a British accent living in the States (ok … so being asked where I’m from almost every day for the past 15 years is getting kinda old, but that’s a ‘complaint’ I can live with). I’m Caucasian and I check most boxes for “normal.” In other words, I’m not the kind of immigrant that gets classed by some of their fellow beings as sub-human simply because of where they happened to be born.
Chances are, most people here in the US and even many countries in Europe don’t know much about Syria (or didn’t before this crisis). I didn’t. I’m not ashamed to admit that I just Googled where it was in relation to Germany. I’m no expert on geopolitical matters or climate issues, but I’m obviously fortunate enough to have unlimited access to information through the World Wide Web.
I find it more useful to search for my own information online, to root through the political diatribe and find trusted sources of truth. In general, mass media focuses on fear. Thrives on it. Allows monsters to grow in the minds of people who are susceptible to such – and we’re all susceptible to fear.
That’s the thing. We really can’t justify burying our heads in the sand anymore when it comes to the very human implications of this sort of mass migration.
In extreme contrast to the celebratory scenes in Germany were the photographs that emerged of a three-year-old boy, a Syrian of Kurdish descent, washed up, lifeless, on a beach, having drowned in the Aegean Sea when the traffickers’ flimsy boat sank en route to the Greek island of Kos.
My friend, Steven O’Rourke, is the dad of a toddler, and his devastatingly beautiful piece for thejournal.ie speaks to his visceral reaction that the dead boy on the beach should instead be enjoying what his own son was experiencing during a zoo trip that same day. His words dig right to the heart of what the experience of imagining the little boy as his own son was.
In the first days after the picture of little Aylan Kurdi appeared on every form of social media, I must have read 20 or more articles from reputable sources to get an idea of what had caused families with small, vulnerable children to attempt this kind of perilous trip. I came to the conclusion that I would have done the same for my loved ones.
This time around we were reminded of the fragility of existence by the photograph of one little boy who should have been playing on that beach but wasn’t. As much as the scenes from Munich did a lot to offset the feeling of loss, the light extinguished from one all-too-brief life means that there’s nothing to be jubilant about yet.
I know that plenty of us are open to the idea of the types of change that would benefit more than our immediate circle of friends and family. I’m also aware that many of us look around in frustration, for solutions to problems that seem beyond the scope of our ability to grasp them.
I say that we don’t have to know the new ways yet, we don’t need to pressure ourselves for answers to questions that we first need to find. We just need to open up to possibilities.
On an individual level we can only tap into as much compassion as we allow to come through; if we reserve it for the English speaking inhabitants of this planet, we reduce our capacity for humanity.
To pause and look past our cultural conditioning and onwards to acceptance, we first have to realize that we are, in fact, conditioned, and then do something about it.
Those who fail to see the truth of global reorganization already well underway, run the risk of becoming a parody of their own outdated beliefs.
Until we shift our attention away from ourselves (and those people who would seek to create division) and onto empathy and solicitude, we will be blind to the possibility of a future that includes everybody as equals.
Photo—DFID–UK Department for International Development/Flickr