This is what the Syrian refugee crisis looks like. Don’t look away.

syrian baby

I posted this image of the lifeless body of a young Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach earlier today on my Facebook page. I thought long and hard about doing so, because I knew it was a deeply distressing visual, one that was bound to disturb and gut-punch those unprepared to see it.

I usually shy away from posting scenes like these and will never ever post or watch videos of any killing or execution caught on tape because I believe that “when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you”. Because I do believe that what Nietzsche warned us about is true; we lose a little of our humanity when we witness its absence.

But this image was different. And what is happening right now is different. And what makes it different is that it’s happening daily and at a relentless pace. And choosing not to look at these images won’t shield us from the pain, won’t make it stop, and it certainly won’t solve anything. Looking away is utter apathy at this point.

It’s not a mark of respect to opt out of sharing this image of a little child washed up on shore like flotsam. It’s not disrespectful to this baby boy and his family to show people what its short precious little life amounted to and how it all came to an end way too soon while trying to reach safety and a possible future. I am not disrespecting this child’s right to privacy and a private burial when its little body lies on a foreign beach miles from home waiting to be picked up by a coast guard that doesn’t know his name and story either.

What notion of privacy does a refugee have when their entire lives play out in front of our TV screens, splattered all over our front pages, and serve as fodder for intellectual debates on pure semantics? “What do we call them? Migrants or refugees?” we ask from the comfort of our Western desks and laptops. What is the proper terminology for people so uprooted, so desperate and so hopeless they trust their lives and their children’s lives to flimsy lifejackets and dubious smugglers helping them cross over to the other side in rickety fishing boats. People who are so terrified of what’s behind them that they brave the water passage that has already claimed over 2,500 innocent women, men, and children, desperately hoping the horrid odds will be on their side this time.

I am not disrespecting this child by publishing his picture. I am mourning for him. I am saying to everyone who glances and quickly glances away “Don’t look away! Do something. Anything…. Just help in any small way you can so you don’t feel so helpless. Don’t let this child have died in vain. Bear witness to his life and his death.”

I, of course, understand the angry and negative reactions of some and the people who signalled my picture. I understand the desire not to be confronted by it. That little body, face down, with the little shoes and the little hands on either side… It’s enough to make you want to wail. Parents will no doubt have a particularly visceral reaction to this as it immediately conjures up images of their own babies. I get it. I don’t think I have cried as much at an image since I looked at my father’s picture after he passed away. It’s haunting and excruciating to look at.

If not for circumstances, this little one would have probably been off to pre-K this week, all dressed up and excited for school and for all the activities young kids get excited about. Instead his short life ended on a beach, one of 12 victims from last night’s boat crossing, trying to reach Kos. And I don’t know this child’s name, I don’t know whether his parents made it over alive, whether they’re somewhere at the bottom of the sea, or somewhere in a refugee camp mourning for their baby right now.

I simply know I can no longer look away and pretend it isn’t happening. Because this image (as painful as it is) is our reality; our collective failure. Disrespectful isn’t posting this image, this needless death, this inevitable and completely predictable result and consequence of failed policies and apathetic governments. Disrespectful is looking at this image and then looking away without doing anything to change this from happening again.

And it will happen again. Tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that… Whether you choose to look or not.

So, I’m sorry if this image disturbs you, but I’d rather you see it and it make you sick to your stomach, and then it make you mad, and then it make you click on one of the links below and you do something about it.

Because doing something in our privileged and fortunate position to be able to do something is gracious, and kind, and aware, and humane, and the absolute best thing you can possibly do to honour this child and the life it never got to have.

Resources and links

I have compiled a list of recommended links and NGOs who are currently working to help with the Syrian refugee crisis. It is by no means an exhaustive list, so I urge those who know of others to comment and add the ones they trust, as well. The more resources people have at their disposal, the more they can help.

Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) is running five hospitals in Syria: burn units, surgery for war-wounded, maternity wards, outpatient care, chronic disease care, mental healthcare. It’s supporting 52 health facilities throughout Syria with drugs, medical equipment and technical advice, and is training Syrian healthcare workers in hygiene, first aid, triage and treatment of war-wounded.

Oxfam Canada is providing aid and long-term support to hundreds of thousands of Syrians. In Syria alone more than 12 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance such as water, food, and shelter. Oxfam’s operations inside Syria focus on the provision of clean water to conflict affected populations through the rehabilitation of water infrastructure, water trucking and repairing of wells.

The SAMS Foundation (Syrian American Medical Society) is a non-profit humanitarian organization established in 2007. Its volunteer physicians deliver direct medical care in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. Its main focus is medical relief and healthcare development.

Lifeline Syria is a Canadian non-government agency that aims to resettle at least 1,000 Syrian refugees in the Greater Toronto Area over the next two years. Lifeline Syria will recruit, train and assist sponsor groups to welcome and support 1,000 Syrian refugees coming to Canada as permanent immigrants to resettle here.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently pledged that the Conservative government would accept an additional 10,000 refugees from Iraq and Syria over the next four years who have been the target of Islamic State extremists, yet the Conservative Minister of Citizenship and Immigration refuses to meet with the Syrian-Canadian community to discuss family reunification on humanitarian grounds.

There is an NDP petition that you can sign to expedite family reunification for Syrian refugees who have relatives in Canada.

The Canadian government consistently boasts about its ‘generous refugee system’, saying it welcomes about one in every 10 resettled refugees globally. But in the case of Syria, Ottawa’s resettlement target for 2014 was only half that traditional benchmark.

According to an Al Jazeera article by Canadian journalist Peter Goodspeed, who recently spent a year studying Canada’s refugee system, in 1990,  Canada resettled 15,485 government-assisted refugees. In 2013, that figure was an abysmal 5,781. We are not doing our part. We can do better. Canada has the resources to allow several thousand more Syrians into our country. It is our responsibility to do so.

Find your MP by typing in your postal code and contact them. Tell them you need to see them do more. Tell yourself we all need to do more.

Because this post isn’t about cheap histrionics, moralizing, or about shocking anyone with the brutal images of an ugly world we already know exists outside our doorsteps. It isn’t about social media “likes” or preaching to anyone. I don’t have all the answers and I still feel somewhat guilty for imposing this image on those unprepared or unwilling to look at it, but I felt compelled to do so.

Because this post is ultimately about our common humanity and how we can perhaps save a little of it by honouring a dead boy.

  • xzanthius

    So sad. Only compassion can get us out of this mess.

  • Ugonna Wosu

    So sad. Thanks for enlightening us.

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  • willissa

    May this innocent child rest in peace. His death is a horrible and heartbreaking tragedy. It has been proven however that the child and his parents are NOT Syrian refugees at all, so for you to USE the title that you did for your article is pure sensationalism! Shame on you for “USING” this little child’s image to bolster your misrepresentation of the facts. You have indeed “disrespected” this child’s memory by using his image to garner attention for your article, and hence for yourself, while pretending to be compassionate! It is reprehensible that you would post his picture; your motives are disgraceful and so are YOU! You are like a buzzard circling a dying body and pouncing on the body to feast before the person it has even died!