The little boy’s body proclaimed humanity’s failure on a Turkish beach, his red and blue outfit appeared carefully chosen, his shoes were still on.
I too have dressed my boys like that when I took them out for play dates, or may be to run errands, banal luxuries denied to this little boy and his mother.
We are told that before Alan Kurdi was placed face down on a Turkish beach, his Syrian Kurdish family’s refugee application was rejected by Canada. Canada, where the American slaves found refuge if they made it through the underground railroad to escape their "owners," failed Alan.
But Canada is not alone. It appears that all wealthy nations fear refugees. Nor is this a new problem. When the United States sent back the ship St. Louis, which carried Jews fleeing the Nazis in the spring of 1939, nearly a third of those on board perished in the Holocaust.
The countries with arguably the biggest roles in the circumstances leading up to the present situation in the Middle East, namely the United States and Russia, as well as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, U.A.E, Kuwait and Bahrain, have not welcomed Syrian refugees.
The wealthy Muslim Gulf nations were publicly shamed for their "zero contribution" in an Amnesty International report, to little avail.
Europeans are finding it harder to look the other way because living, breathing humans have started streaming into Europe as a result of geographic proximity.
There is some collective soul searching in the West after xenophobia went on a full frontal display in Hungary, and even some self congratulation for Germany’s humane response towards the unwashed masses.
Yet to call this a "migrant crisis" is unconscionable. This is not an opportunistic immigration bid. They are jumping out of burning buildings, not merely choosing to walk in our private gardens. What was painted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as an effort to undermine Europe’s Christian roots, implying a back-door effort to get into the European Union (EU), is anything but.
Today, in addition to refugees and asylum seekers, there are 38 million internally displaced people (IDP) who were forced to leave their homes due to conflict, generalized violence and human rights violations. They remain within the borders of their own countries, according to UNHCR, with 2.2 million IDP uprooted in 2014 in Iraq alone.
Europe is not alone as a destination sought out by refugees. A quarter of Lebanon’s population consists of Syrian refugees now. Turkey is hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees, and 10 percent of the people in Jordan are Syrian refugees. None of these countries are European Union members.
While many American media outlets coyly pixelated the image of that dead child lying face down, that image is widely available in its original form. Sometimes the only voice the oppressed have is the unfiltered display of their plight. To deny them that is to deny their suffering.
When murdered black teenager Emmett Till’s mother insisted upon an open casket in 1955, she refused to give America the benefit of that denial and in doing so helped move the American civil rights movement forward.
Yet images can only go so far in today’s world. Thanks to our near-constant consumption of social media, we are bombarded by a never-ending stream of images. Alan’s image competed briefly with all those other ones, and it seems to be fading away already.
His picture was shared widely in its original, as well as in artistically altered, forms. There have been widely circulated cutesy pictures of his dead body covered with (an imaginary) blanket and with (Cupid-like) wings in the social media. In other words, the picture of his lifeless body became a ‘meme’ in the same way as KONY 2012 and “#Bring Back our Girls” images did not too long ago.
We know well from the outcomes of these other viral campaigns that hitting the 'share' button did not translate into actual public advocacy, nor a change in policy.
I hope that beyond the first few clicks of the ‘share’ button, we as a nation won’t just to move on to the next viral phenomenon, which may well be the outrageous outfits worn by a young celebrity.
We as Americans can do a whole lot more than just click on a stylized picture of a dead baby. We can donate to reputable charities, keep the conversation alive, and ask more of our government.
As outlined by Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison in his letter to President Obama, our government can intervene by applying pressure on wealthy Gulf nations to do more, establishing security zones in the region, offering Naval rescue resources, and streamlining the process of screening Syrian asylum seekers here in America.
As the United States of America, our government cannot be powerless in the face of this humanitarian crisis.
Aliya Saeed, M.D. is a psychiatrist in Cohoes and a member of the Terrorism and Political Violence committee of the Group for Advancement of Psychiatry.