This is the now famous photograph of Aylan Kurdi, 3 years old, lying dead on a beach at Bodrum, Turkey. He was buried today in his hometown of Kobane in Syria, a Kurdish town near the Turkish border along with his mother Rehan and his brother Ghalib who died with him. His father Abdullah is the sole survivor of the family. They were trying to cross 10 miles of open sea to Greece on a flimsy raft at night. They were fleeing a town that was seized by ISIS last year and then again by Kurdish forces more recently. Aylan and his family were Syrian Kurds. They applied for asylum in Canada, but were turned down, and so they decided to try the perilous journey to Western Europe across Turkey and the Aegean by way of Greece. That journey ended at Bodrum in Turkey.
It's hard to look at this photo and not feel moved.
I've always been puzzled by the indifference or hostility to these refugees by European governments, a sentiment not shared by their own peoples. In a forceful demonstration that people are frequently much better than their governments, many Europeans have spontaneously gone to great lengths to help the desperate people arriving on their shores, along their roads, and at their railroad stations.
The world is facing the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Bashir al Assad and ISIS are destroying Syria. Iraq and Yemen are proxies in the warfare between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Boko Haram, Al Shabab, and the Lord's Resistance Army terrorize Africa. Eritrea's government terrorizes its own people. Libya and Afghanistan continue to disintegrate and fall into the hands of violent religious fanatics. The Rohingya of Myanmar Burma flee oppression in Southeast Asia. These are just a few of the crises plaguing the world now. Innocent people are ground between the wheels of competing ambitions and ideologies. Ordinary people caught up in these upheavals are voting with their feet and shaking the dust off at the fanatics, warlords, tyrants, and aspiring philosopher kings trying to determine their futures. They see the possibility of a new life for themselves and their children in the despicably liberal and decadent West.
While Germany has been very generous, especially to Syrian refugees, most of the rest of Europe remains stingy with their welcomes. The USA might consider cracking open its golden door for these people. Instead of binging on xenophobia and jingoism, maybe the USA might be better served if we remembered this poem:
'Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.'
'"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
This poem never reflected official American immigration policy which was always only slightly more generous in its welcome than other countries, and at times much less.
It does remind us a lot about what we are as a people on this continent. Unless you are Arapaho, Lakota, Inuit, Navajo, Iroquois, Lakota, or Pawnee, then your family at some time arrived here homeless, poor, and unwelcome as refugees or migrants -- not much different than the Kurdi family from Syria who died at sea.
An ancient text reminds us:
"Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Amanda Taub at Vox takes the USA to task for doing so little to relieve the human suffering it helped to create through its actions and inactions:
The death of any child is devastating. But these children’s stories are particularly painful to read about, because they carry a reproach for readers like us: We let this happen. We left those innocent children to this fate. We knew refugee children were in danger, and did nothing, and this is the result.
And make no mistake: We did know. As the refugee boats have crossed the Mediterranean, photograph after photograph has showed rescue workers cradling tiny babies and toddlers rescued from the water. We knew desperate families were bringing children on these journeys. We knew they would keep coming, because what could drive a parent to bring a child on such a dangerous crossing except fear that staying behind would be worse? And we knew that if we didn’t do more to help them, many of those children would die — and so would their families.
But apparently those children weren’t dead enough to hold our attention. An infant saved from a boat wasn’t good enough for us: We needed to see one dead on a beach, lying alone, face down, in the surf.
And so the world has treated the refugee crisis as a sort of bureaucratic inconvenience, a problem that someone else really ought to be handling. But the truth is that those are just excuses we tell ourselves to feel better about the fact that we’re not doing the right thing. Because make no mistake: This is a situation where there is a right thing to do. And we are not doing it. Germany is now beginning to show moral leadership on the refugee crisis, and to call on other countries to come forward and do their part before more children and their families die. But the United States, like much of Europe, has not followed suit. Our silence and inaction are shameful.
Another thing to note, the Kurdis and most of these other migrants on their way to or in Europe are people who could afford to pay smugglers. They are the last remnants of Syria's middle classes; professional people and small business people. There are thousands, even millions more, in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, or on the Syrian border, who do not have the funds even for so impoverished and perilous a journey as the one that ended so fatefully for the Kurdis.