When the photos of Aylan Kurdi were released, the world reacted in horror. That picture of such a tiny boy face down on a beach put an image to a crisis from which we feel irreparably detached. When my son was 3, he dug deep wells in the sand and, oblivious to the length at which it was possible for water to travel onto land, attempted to dig a crevice to connect his toddler made puddle to its far larger, lake counterpart. Little children were never meant to wash up onto the shores of beaches; they were meant to sit atop damp towels and eat sandy lunches on them.
I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me. At one point in this letter to his son, he writes of viewing the history of slavery:
“I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.” (emphasis mine)
Coates is not a religious man, but I could pray this in a heartbeat, that we would all see mass injustices as atrocities affecting individuals as opposed to issues that impact, say, “refugees”- a noun which releases all responsibility from the rest of us to see beyond the country, the cities, the villages, the boats, and instead see the homes, the families, the Aylans. I heard another interview in which one man spoke of how Aylan’s shoes impacted him. As a father of little boys, he knew how lovingly he dressed his children in the morning and realized how Aylan’s parents must have velcroed his little shoes that morning with affection and fear, knowing what a hard road lie ahead of them.
When images like the one of Aylan strike our soul, it is because we are forced to look, with a hand on either side of our face, at the appalling individualism which is glazed over as a nameless, faceless, mass. It may be too big to comprehend, but Aylan was tiny. He was only 3 and far from an unidentifiable multitude.
We must educate ourselves, yes, but we must also elbow past the daunting, glaring impossibilities wars pose and see only that there are people suffering, people who pull socks onto the feet of their children, who kiss their spouse goodnight, who have a favorite food, song, book. Over 6 million Syrians have been displaced, which is an incomprehensible number until you imagine trying to count your way, one by one, through those more than 6 million people in order to offer the level of empathy each deserves. More than 6 million individuals with their own stories and triumphs and heartbreaks. Dear God, let us remember to look past the numbers so we may be moved to movement, to opposition, to empathy. We need to be more intentional in seeing individual people in crisis so we are more likely to extend kindness, care, aid. Aylan was a refugee before he drowned; there are millions more waiting for us to show our solidarity, to show we also care about them while they are still alive.
Should you be an emotional like me, or simply feel ill equipped in your knowledge about the war from which he was fleeing, below are some background overviews from a variety of sources to get a crash course.
The Washington Post: 9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask (2013 article, but still useful)