The Western world has been in a state of shock since its newspapers and broadcast media shelled them with images of the drowned corpse of little Aylan Kurdi face down in the sand on a Turkish beach, writes Abdel Bari Atwan. Aylan was just three years old when the ship his family hoped would take them to freedom from the horrors of Kobani capsized off the Turkish coast.
The next day the media showed pictures of Aylan when he was alive, smiling, with his foot on a football, standing next to his brother, Galip, aged 5, who also drowned as the family tried to escape war-torn Syria and make a better life for themselves – as they hoped – in Canada.
Aylan’s father, Abdullah, and his mother Rehan, desperately tried to save the two boys; Rehan herself would perish and Abdullah is the only family member to survive, to be tormented by these memories for the rest of his life.
Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, began to cry on live television when footage of the tragedy was aired, expressing a deep sorrow which all of us must share.
Images of children destroyed by war have changed the course of history before now.
Who can forget the horrific photograph of nine year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing burning napalm from an American bomber during the Vietnam war? Or the footage of Palestinian boy Muhammad Al-Durrah crouching terrified behind his father, Jamal, who was trying to shield him from Israeli gunfire and then collapsing in a hail of bullets, his twelve years extinguished.
A reader of the Guardian newspaper wrote in to tell the editor: “I am ashamed to be British after I saw the tragic death of little Aylan. Why can’t Prime Minister David Cameron understand that it is our wish to help Syrian refugees fleeing incredible violence and risking everything to do so? We do not want to be citizens of a country that will only take a measly few thousand…”
We wonder whether the many Arab leaders, especially those involved in this war, who have done nothing at all to help, saw these same pictures… and if they did, did tears pour from them as they did from Margot Wallstrom? And were they galvanized to leap into action to help and offer kindness to those who have yet to come? We leave you to answer this question…
For the rest of us, the effect of these images is two-fold: we feel a debilitating sense of powerlessness and helplessness in the face of this tragedy; and we feel an urge to rush to the nearest charitable institution to donate money.
What motivates refugees to confront such unsurmountable risks and dangers?
There are two main categories: the first are so certain of death at home that they are not afraid of death hence they take to the high seas in impossible vessels, or try to cross in refrigerated trucks in search of life in any safe spot on the planet, and in the hope of dignity and humanity; the second type are looking for a better future for themselves and their children away from the unemployment, corruption and cronyism, oppression and dictatorship that characterizes most Arab countries.
Whatever their motivations, refugees exact a humanitarian response from those of us who are fortunate enough to live in safe countries.
Few national leaders have answered the call, however, and we offer heartfelt praise and thanks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has promised to take a further 30,000 Syrian refugees in addition to the one million Germany offers sanctuary to every year.
The Economist has labelled her “Angela the Bold” in response to her bold stance on this issue. “If Europe fails on the question of refugees,” she said, “it won’t be the Europe we wished for.”
The European Union was born in the embers of the Second World War, on a promise of solidarity with the persecuted and downtrodden. The current flight of the Syrian refugees is the biggest displacement of people since 1945 and is a massive test of European values, and of the ability of member states to work together.
Failure of Gulf Arab states
We feel great pain when we read Arab “thinkers” and “analysts” apologizing for their governments’ failure to meet the moral challenge the future of these Syrian refugees confronts them with. Many of them pass the buck by proposing a meeting of the Arab League to discuss the matter and reach a consensus.
Did Syria request a meeting of the Arab League when it received more than 2 million Iraqis in 2007/2008 during the height of the violence, when thousands of Iraqis were killed every day? Did Jordan and Lebanon seek approval from the Arab League for their acceptance of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees during the current crisis?
Our pain only worsened when we read self congratulatory articles in Saudi newspapers announcing the dispatch of boxes of dates and blankets to refugee camps in Jordan.
I have been accused by such journalists of being “over emotional” when I have appeared on television criticizing the failure of rich Arab countries to help their brethren in such dire times.
The Syrian people come from one of the most ancient and important civilizations on the planet, they are well-educated, creative and dynamic; every man, woman and child who finds shelter abroad represents a significant asset for the State which hosts them.
God bless Aylan, his brother and his mother. Whether Kurdish or Arab or whatever other sect or creed or ethnicity man can invent, we must protect and nurture our children. For without them, there can be no future.