By Wally Gordon
Stories of individuals speak to our heart. Josef Stalin, who was vicious and crazy but not stupid, put it best: The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of a million people is a statistic.
Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old refugee from the Syrian town of Kobane, died along with his brother and mother, when the boat they were taking from Turkey to a Greek island sank. His body washed up on a Turkish beach. The photograph of the scene entranced the world in a way that the statistic of 4 million Syrian refugees has failed to do.
What is it about this photograph that has spoken so powerfully to hundreds of millions of all ages and races, from all continents?
The photograph is not bloody or gory. There is no visible pain or suffering, no agony, no wounds. The little boy lies face down on the sand. His face is turned to the side, toward the camera. His arms lie loosely beside his body, his hands upturned. He is wearing a red T-shirt, blue shorts and black tennis shoes. He seems to be serenely, innocently sleeping. But he is not sleeping.
It is this serenity, this innocence that stirs our compassion. This intact and attractive little boy could be any of our sons. Aylan is our own family, our own past, our own future. He is all of us. This is one person’s tragedy but it is all our humanity.
Aylan’s fate, or rather the peaceful photograph of this toddler’s untimely demise, has changed the world’s discourse and perhaps the world’s fate. European countries led by Germany’s Angela Merkel are talking, for a change, about all the right things: how to help the refugees find new homes, how to show mercy in the face of suffering, how to restore the displaced to their original homes, and how to stop rather than abet the vile, complex, multi-sided, incarnadine massacre of Aylan’s fellow countrymen. That the bloodshed is facilitated by many of the world’s most powerful countries, including the United States, makes it even more morally outrageous.
This is not just Syria’s or Europe’s problem. The countries bordering Syria, especially Jordan and Lebanon are housing several million refugees. Other refugees, in their hundreds of thousands, are pouring out of Somalia, Eritria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Libya. Millions more are awash in Southeast Asia—Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are all dramatically affected. Closer to home, the sad and often fatal march of millions of migrants from Mexico and Central America continues, although at a lesser rate than in the recent past.
In the wake of Aylan’s tragedy, new pressure is being applied to the wealthy throughout the world to do more. The Persian Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, but also the smaller oil-rich sheikdoms in the area, are coming under pressure now to accept Syrian refugees. Australia is renewing its eternal debate over immigration policy. Canada—which is undergoing a crisis of conscience because it rejected an application from Aylan and his family—is going to do more than the paltry little it has done.
And what about us in the United States? Where do we stand? The Guardian newspaper asked all 22 Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. Twenty of them, including all the major candidates of both parties, either opposed doing anything or took no substantive position. President Obama has failed to offer help, and White House correspondents are reporting that all signs point to continued inaction.
By the end of this month, Obama will have to finalize the immigration quotas for the next 12 months. This year’s quota for the entire world is 70,000, of which only 1,000 are Syrians. “The Syrian refugee crisis is perhaps the most serious challenge to the legal obligation to protect refugees since World War II,” 14 Democratic senators wrote Obama. They, along with numerous non-politicians, have asked Obama to add to the 70,000 quota another 64,000 of those now imprisoned in the hopeless and overwhelmed refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, but few believe he will do so. Donald Trump and his xenophobic rhetoric seem to be setting the agenda, not the President of the United States.
I wonder if our pusillanimous leaders wouldn’t prefer that the famous poem of Emma Lazarus be scraped from the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. We need a reminder of its injunction:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Germany, with one-fourth the U.S. population, expects to take in 800,000 refugees this year. By the same token, we could accept 3.2 million. Is out door no longer golden? Are we so frightened of the world that we have to cower fearfully behind our fortress oceans, no longer the mother of exiles?