As Young Refugee Boy Identified, Photos Representing His ‘Outcry’ Reverberate

Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi drowned along with his mother, Rehan, and older brother, Galip, while the family attempted to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece on Wednesday

A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi after he drowned when the boat he and his family members were in capsized near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. (Photo: Nilüfer Demir/DHA)

As new details emerge about the young Syrian boy, now identified as three-year-old Aylan Kurdi—who drowned along with his mother, Rehan, and older brother, Galip, while the family attempted to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece on Wednesday—the global impact of the pictures has perhaps fulfilled the “sorrowful” hopes of the photographer who took the images in order to “make heard his outcry.”

It has now been reported that the father, Abdullah Kurdi, was the only member of the family of four to survive when the boat they and other refugees were traveling in capsized off the Turkish coast. In all, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, 12 people drowned when two boats attempting to reach the island of Kos capsized. Eight of the 12 were children. The news agency subsequently reported that several individuals had been arrested on smuggling charges related to the incident.

Other new information includes how the Kurdi family—which had fled their war-torn hometown of Kobani to reach safety—had been sponsored by a relative for asylum in Canada, but that the application had been rejected.

“I heard the news at five o’clock in this morning,” Teema Kurdi, Abdullah’s sister, told the National Post on Wednesday. Teema described how the telephone call came from Ghuson Kurdi, the wife of another brother, Mohammad. “She had got a call from Abdullah, and all he said was, my wife and two boys are dead.”

According to the Post:

Teema, a Vancouver hairdresser who emigrated to Canada more than 20 years ago, said Abdullah and Rehan Kurdi and their two boys were the subject of a “G5” privately sponsored refugee application that was rejected by Citizenship and Immigration in June, owing to the complexities involved in refugee applications from Turkey.

The family had two strikes against them – like thousands of other Syrian Kurdish refugees in Turkey, the UN would not register them as refugees, and the Turkish government would not grant them exit visas.

“I was trying to sponsor them, and I have my friends and my neighbours who helped me with the bank deposits, but we couldn’t get them out, and that is why they went in the boat. I was even paying rent for them in Turkey, but it is horrible the way they treat Syrians there,” Teema said.

Just over twenty-four hours after his tragic and untimely death, the emotional power of the images of Aylan’s lifeless body have become undeniable.

As the Wall Street Journal notes,  broadcast shows across Europe on Thursday “were already comparing the image’s power to Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 photograph of a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl running naked, suffering agonizing burns from a napalm attack.”

Nilufer Demir, the photographer from Turkey’s Dogan News Agency who captured the haunting photographs, described the scene on the beach by saying she was “petrified” by the moment but took the pictures to fulfill her role as a journalist and make an attempt to give the young boy some kind of voice.

“Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi was lying lifeless face down in the surf, in his red t-shirt and dark blue shorts fold to his waist,” she said in an interview with Dogan. “The only thing I could do was to make heard his outcry. At that moment, I believed I would be able to achieve this by triggering the shutter of my camera and took his picture.”

And what did she feel as she witnessed this? “Pain and sorrow,” she responded to the question. “I have pictured, witnessed many migrant incidents since 2003 in this region, their deaths, their drama. I hope from today, this will change.”

Meanwhile, of course, the photos sparked conversations about the ethics of publishing such images prominently in news stories or sharing them unadulterated on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. For his part, Peter Bouckaert, director of emergencies for Human Rights Watch, described in a blog post why he contemplated long and hard before making his decision.

On the personal side, he explained of the photographs, “What struck me the most were his little sneakers, certainly lovingly put on by his parents that morning as they dressed him for their dangerous journey. One of my favorite moments of the morning is dressing my kids and helping them put on their shoes. They always seem to manage to put something on backwards, to our mutual amusement. Staring at the image, I couldn’t help imagine that it was one of my own sons lying there drowned on the beach.”

In the end, and despite reservations, he explained why he did share the photo:

Some say the picture is too offensive to share online or print in our newspapers. But what I find offensive is that drowned children are washing up on our shorelines, when more could have been done to prevent their deaths.

It was not an easy decision to share a brutal image of a drowned child. But I care about these children as much as my own. Maybe if Europe’s leaders did too, they would try to stem this ghastly spectacle.

Social media continued to be the biggest driver behind the sharing and discussion of Demir’s photographs of Aylan, even as joyful pictures of the young boy and his older brother emerged and people urged the world to see them as they “should be remembered“:

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The Child Has a Name, They All Do

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NBC gave the headline “The Toddler Found on Resort Beach Has a Name”. I suspect they simply meant that his identity had been found out, but there is a layer of truth or almost shock in that these refuges are supposed to be a generic horde. This 3 year old didn’t follow the rules of all this. His very appearance, dressed like a little guy cleaned up in his nice clothes for a visit to a relative’s didn’t help maintain that cognitive distancing. He looks too much like a child that we would see playing in the park, with his little velcro shoes. His 5-year-old brother died too, as did his mother. All trying to reach safety from war in Syria. You can imagine the day they left, and crammed into an unsafe boat. The parents dressed him up nicely; trying to make it all seem normal. But they had no choices. The inky black of the sea was safer than what was going on in their land. The level of desperation is obvious when you hear that they were wanting to get asylum in Canada (which was denied)–they were literally shoving off into a pure unknown with no assurances of anything, complete with the danger of nature.

There is argument about the words refuge, migrant…. in the US it has become very popular to speak about things like moving 11 million people back to their home countries. It is all in the realm of surreal as this nation was completely and utterly filled in by genocide and land theft. To argue that point requires mental gymnastics of the Olympic variety. That the descendants of these raiders (of which I am of course, one) would rail about individuals trying to make their way here for a better life is beyond bizarre. Leaving for economic reasons may not be as dire as leaving because you may be shot the next day, but extreme poverty will kill over time. The absurdity of it all, that people are safe in one spot surrounded by imaginary lines, yet not safe a mile over is one of the arguments that humans are a very deranged species, sort of an experiment gone wrong. The sociopaths are in charge, of course. That’s what they do.

Now that we know the toddler is Aylan Kurdi, what now? I suspect if we knew the stories of most of those fleeing repression, death and economic circumstance, only the worst of us could maintain a level of emotional distancing. I would imagine a lot of people just can’t wrap their heads around the circumstances of too many, it becomes daunting, like pondering the night sky. A generalized empathy that extends beyond borders is much more difficult than simply wanting to build a wall, physical walls and more nebulous personal walls that allow for cruelty and willful ignorance.

Policies create all of these conditions. NAFTA created a situation that made it difficult to eke out a living with small time goals like farming corn in Mexico. These things cause misery. The ongoing war in Syria has so many villains, but identifiable items like the creation of ISIS through unnecessary war, or the support of dictators when it is convenient for US policy goals, create hells on earth so severe that a family would dress up their little guys and put them on a boat with a very good chance of sinking. But when these policies are implemented, policy hacks explain why we need to smash our giant hands down and topple stability, never a thought to the real and focused down effect on 3-year-old little boys.

I’m not sure how all of this can be reconciled in a world with billionaires, with resources present, but simply being funneled to the few. In the west, we seem to enjoy shunting the terrible to other places. Sweatshops, wars, all of these shames. It is rare when something can pierce the jaded hearts and perhaps that little body will be able to. The trajectory is not good for any of us if we don’t start understanding our connections to each other. There is obvious unrest, with the climate, with our souls. If the motivation to alleviate suffering for others doesn’t emerge from all of this, we will be headed for misery as well.

Kathleen Wallace writes out of the US Midwest