The Photo That Personalized the Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Marissa Luna

I cried when I saw the photo published in news stories around the world last week of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old boy from Syria who drowned after the boat ferrying him and his family from Turkey to Greece capsized in high waves. His family is one of millions fleeing war and violence in Syria. Aylan’s father, Abdullah, was the only survivor.

It was hard to avoid seeing the photo of Aylan. I wasn’t seeking it out. I just happened to log on to Facebook that day and it was the first thing that came up on my timeline, and was being shared again and again across social media. I tend to avoid sensationalist images that mass media publish because they often distract from what’s really important and are only used to get more clicks on a story, but I think that millions of people around the world, myself included, who saw that photo needed to see it. A picture really is worth a thousand words.

Sometimes it takes a painful, shocking image to awaken us to a disaster that is unfolding right before our eyes that we might have been blind to before. This has been true throughout history. The photo of Buddhist monk, Quang Duc, burning himself to death on a street in Saigon in 1963 brought global attention to the oppressive policies of the South Vietnamese government at the time. It is still an iconic image even today.

The image of Aylan deeply personalized for me the Syrian refugee crisis and effects of Syria’s civil war, the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. In that image, he looks exactly like my nephew, who is the same age.

That photo is a reminder to all of us that people are suffering and that there are millions of people who need our help. Syrians are now the largest refugee population in the world. The U.N. predicts there could be 4.27 million Syrian refugees by the end of this year — the worst exodus since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago.

There has been a lot in the news recently about how the European Union countries have been struggling to deal with the large numbers of Syrian migrants at their borders, further shining a light on the dire situation that Syrian people are facing. Hungary even built a 110-mile razor wire fence to keep migrants out.

Politics and economics aside, the millions of Syrians fleeing violence and a brutal civil war are people. They are children like Aylan. What kind of world are we creating where we can watch people suffer, then build a giant barrier to keep them from a chance at safety? Let’s remember our humanity.

The United States has an obligation to support Syrian refugees, too. Thankfully, President Obama has told his administration to take in at least 10,000 displaced Syrians over the next year. Congress is also debating the budget for humanitarian assistance this fall and they must prioritize funding for humanitarian assistance to support displaced people.

We have seen the faces of those who are suffering and heard their stories. We have a responsibility to support and protect the people that need our help. We don’t want to look back on history and say that we turned a blind eye.