"This tragedy will scar my heart forever."
Photo Credit: By Voice of America News: Margaret Besheer reports from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli; "Syrian Refugees Seek Out Smugglers". [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A year and a half ago, the Turkish photojournalist Nilüfer Demir chanced upon a sight that would become iconic: the prone body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up from the angry Mediterranean Sea. Demir would photograph the small body, hands along his sides, his feet askance, his red shirt a beacon of distress. That photograph of the toddler would zip around the world from this beach in Bodrum (Turkey). It would be painted as a mural in Frankfurt (Germany) and in Duhok (Iraq). It would be on the front page of newspapers that September of 2015.
The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was photographed lying on a beach in Lesbos (Greece) like Alan Kurdi for the Indian magazine India Today. ‘You see so many children come off these boats. They are like angels – they are the most vulnerable,’ said Ai to CNN in January 2016. ‘There are two worlds – a world of adults and a world of babies, and they are not connected.'
The tragedy of Alan Kurdi could very well have focused world attention on the refugee crisis. A great deal of moral outrage followed, including phone calls from European leaders to Turkey’s Recip Tayyip Erdoğan. They wanted Turkey to do something to stop the flood of refugees from Syria into Europe. Money flooded into charity organizations in the name of Alan Kurdi. Social media lit up Demir’s photograph. Sadness and anger defined the emotional range. Something had to happen. That was the sentiment.
Nothing came of it. There was not enough political will to stop the cause of the flight, namely – in Alan Kurdi’s case – the war in Syria. Nor was there enough genuine feeling to fund the dismal refugee camps along the Turkish-Syrian border. The UN has now asked for $3.5 billion to fund the basic needs of the three million Syrian refugees in Turkey. A fraction of this will come from the donor states. In 2016, the year after Alan Kurdi had died, the U.N. was only able to raise 59 percent of the requested amount.
There was even less sentiment to welcome Syrian and other refugees from the desolations of war and starvation into areas of greater stability. Repellent forms of cruel populism across the West made demons of the refugees, refusing to allow that it is Western policy that has contributed so fundamentally to the plight of these fleeing people from Afghanistan to West Africa. False news reports – such as by the German paper Bild – vilified refugees as rapists, echoing Donald Trump’s rhetoric of ‘Mexican rapists’ and ‘bad dudes’ among the refugees. Hateful rhetoric saturated the airwaves from Holland’s Geert Wilders to Trump. In all this, the image of Alan Kurdi made no impact.
Walk in Their Shoes
For Tima Kurdi, the aunt of Alan Kurdi, there is no day that goes by when she is not seized of the terrible misfortune that struck her family in September 2015. Demir’s picture of Alan defined the refugee crisis for a few months, but Alan was not the only one to die that day from Tima’s family. Alan (age three) died alongside his brother Ghalib (age five) and their mother Rehana. The three of them died, leaving Abdullah—Rehana’s husband and the children’s father—alone. The three were buried in Kobane (Syria), from where they hail. Abdullah recalled how their small overfilled boat capsized in the waves, and how his family slipped from his hands. Tima, who had sponsored them from Canada, despaired at the loss.
‘This tragedy will scar my heart forever,’ Tima told me. Abdullah now lives in Irbil (Iraq), a guest of the Kurdistan regional government. Tima, Abdullah and other members of their family have set up the Alan and Ghalib Kurdi Foundation , which they hope will provide assistance to some of the 20 million refugees in the world.
Tima, who works at a hairdressing salon with her husband Muhammad in Coquitlam-Maillardville (British Columbia, Canada), has traveled to the refugee camps in Turkey. She has talked to people there and felt their frustration as her own. Tima speaks with great emotion when it comes to the question of flight and the anti-refugee backlash in the West. When she hears people complain about refugees she feels angry, she tells me. ‘You have no idea why they flee their country unless you walk in their shoes’, she says. ‘Then you will see.’
Abdullah, Rehana and their two children fled Kobane, which had been overrun by ISIS. According to Rehana’s father, Sexo Seno Kurdi, ISIS killed 11 members of their family in the city, which was destroyed when ISIS was forced out by the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG. Almost the entire population of Kobane, a key city in Syrian Kurdistan, fled for the relative safety to other Kurdish cantons or Turkey. Violence in Syria, says Tima, comes from a ‘hundred troubles’ – echoing an Arabic phrase. Whatever the cause of their flight – whether violence from ISIS, al-Qaeda, this proxy or that, the government – the fact is that the people flee because they must. They do not choose to leave. They are forced to flee.
Enough is Enough
I’m talking to Tima Kurdi around the same time as the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, releases a new report on the battle for Aleppo. The Atlantic Council has long called for regime change in Syria. This report comes out just when new ceasefires have been negotiated and when parts of the armed rebels have decided to hold talks with the Syrian government. The only real fighting groups amongst the rebels that remain of consequence are ISIS and the al-Qaeda portmanteau group Tahrir al-Sham, as I reported a few weeks ago. None of this mattered to the Atlantic Council.
The Council calls for three strategies to undercut the peace initiatives afoot in Syria. First, to provide ‘robust support for local allies on the ground’, namely the elusive ‘moderate opposition.’ As Tima Kurdi said to me, ‘there are no moderate rebels in Syria.’ Those days are long gone. Second, for ‘direct kinetic action’ which is military jargon for armed action by the United States. Third, for the creation of safe zones within Syria, which is precisely what a ceasefire initiative and peace process would create.
Point one and two are anathema to Tima Kurdi, who urges support for the peace process to ‘stop the war in Syria.’ ‘Western people have no idea of what is going on in Syria,’ Tima Kurdi says. They see things as ‘black and white’, with ‘President Bashar as the one responsible for everything’. But, she notes, ‘it is not about President Bashar or ISIS or al-Qaeda’ but the fact that this war is futile. That is the essence of the matter. Calling for more war is not going to help anyone.
The call for war is not mere words. In an important report , Diana Bashur found that the very Western countries that are loath to take in refugees from the Syrian conflict make immense profits from arms sales to the regional powers that are involved in the proxy battlefield. For example, Bashur found that the countries that are part of the ‘Friends of Syria’ group earned 31.88 billion in weapons sales to states that armed the Syrian rebels, while these same ‘Friends of Syria’ states spent only 10.45 billion on hosting Syrian refugees. These numbers are inflated by Germany. If it is removed from the list, then the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Italy made 27.92 billion in arms sales while spending merely 1.18 billion on refugees. These are scandalous figures. Front-page news should be made of such facts.
Arms dealers and arms exporting countries are making a phenomenal amount on this war, while the cost of it is borne by families such as the Kurdis. Who is good or bad on the battlefields of Syria is perhaps not as important as who is making these vast sums of money arming all sides of the conflict. ‘I don’t support one side or the other,’ Tima Kurdi said. Rather, ‘let the suffering Syrians rebuild our lives’.
This is a powerful message from a Syrian woman who has endured a great tragedy. The world stopped before the photograph of her nephew and shuddered. It was a vivid symbol of the meaninglessness of this conflict and its social costs. Tima Kurdi wishes to give voice to the Syrians who want to salvage as much of their lives as possible. But for that to happen the various powers need to take seriously the pathways to peace.