The photo got me. Red shirt, blue shorts, and little shoes. It's been a long time since I have helped my children put their shoes on, but in an instant I was sitting on the floor lacing up Willow and Maren's tiny floral trainers before taking them to pre-school. Three year old Aylan Kurdi's parents had lovingly dressed him for a very difficult journey that morning. Hoping for a better life, his parents placed their faith and their family in a rubber dingy, trusting that the journey would end in a better life.
Since 2011, some 11 million people — almost half of the population of Syria — have fled their homeland. Over 300,000 people have tried to leave this year and more than 200,000 are believed dead.
The case of Syria is a complicated one. There are many variables that prompt people to leave. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a ruthless leader who has killed and imprisoned thousands of his own people.
From 2006-2011 the majority of the country experienced a devastating drought resulting in a massive internal displacement of 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. As the urban areas swelled with new refugees, strains on an already fragile infrastructure may have contributed to social unrest, culminating in a civil war that began in 2011.
The US withdrawal from Iraq in December of that same year resulted in a regional instability not seen in decades, allowing ISIS to flourish. With its economy in shambles, a political system that allows poverty, war -- always war-- little to no freedom, it is easy to see why so many people see no future in Syria.
I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a refugee. I have always had a home regardless of where I have lived. I have moved freely from place to place and country to country. I have taken what I needed and wanted with me. My home in Macomb is full of things that give meaning to my life and remind me of people and places that are important to me. Dishes from Germany, art from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, cloth from India, and furniture from my parents’ farmhouse.
As I have watched how the Syrian refugees are being treated I am ashamed. Just as I am ashamed by how we treat those seeking refuge in our own country.
What would the mothers and grandmothers of the world say? Both of my grandmothers were kind to those in need. My maternal grandmother told me how when my mom and aunt were little girls she would hang a white dishtowel on the clothes line letting the hobos riding the trains know that they could find food on the back stoop.
My paternal grandmother hosted the Kulouts - refugees from Estonia for a time after WWII. Their homeland ravaged by war and seeing no future for their family, they sought refuge in a new place. I can’t imagine how disconcerting it must have been for them moving from a place where they were leaders in their community as, a judge and teacher, to a small bedroom over the kitchen of rural southern Ohio farmhouse having left everyone and everything they loved behind.
My friend and fellow anthropologist Roberto Barrios from Southern Illinois University knows personally and professionally what it is like to seek refuge in a new place. Born in Guatemala, Roberto came with his family to New Orleans, Louisiana in 1987 to escape escalating state violence and civil unrest. Many years later his family experienced another forced relocation when Hurricane Katrina devastated their new home.
He writes that it is important to understand that no refugee wants to leave their homeland. The social relations and built environments of our communities and nations we leave behind are part of us. The architecture, landscape, food and the ways we are embodied as people influence how we relate to and experience the world. The act of forced displacement tears a person from the people and things that make life meaningful. When faced with suspicion, condescension, and outright hatred relocation can destroy a person.
Understanding the former crystalizes the quote from Abdullah Kurdi , Aylan’s father:
"Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die."
He lost not only his sons and his wife, but in most ways, his life.
Fortunately we all have an opportunity to act with compassion and see those seeking refuge in new places in a new way. Icelandic feminist author Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir challenged the Minister of Social Affairs and Housing to increase the number of Syrians her country would host. She wrote:
"Refugees are human resources, experience and skills. Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker, and the television host.'"
Iceland originally proposed to accept 50 refugees. They are now hosting 10,000. Aylan may have had little feet, but he left us some big shoes to fill.
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.