Watching the horrific images of Syrian refugees struggling toward safety – or in the case of Aylan Kurdi, 3, drowning on that journey – I think of other refugees. Albert Einstein. Madeleine Albright. The Dalai Lama.
And my dad.
In the aftermath of World War II, my father swam the Danube River to flee Romania and become part of a tide of refugees that nobody much cared about. Fortunately, a family in Portland, Oregon, sponsored his way to the United States, making this column possible.
If you don’t see yourself or your family members in those images of today’s refugees, you need an empathy transplant.
Aylan’s death reflected a systematic failure of world leadership, from Arab capitals to European ones, from Moscow to Washington. This failure occurred at three levels:
▪ The Syrian civil war has dragged on for four years now, taking almost 200,000 lives, without serious efforts to stop the bombings. Creating a safe zone would at least allow Syrians to remain in the country.
▪ As millions of Syrian refugees swamped surrounding countries, the world shrugged. United Nations aid requests for Syrian refugees are only 41 percent funded, and the World Food Program was recently forced to slash its food allocation for refugees in Lebanon to just $13.50 per person a month. Half of Syrian refugee children are unable to go to school. So of course, loving parents strike out for Europe.
▪ Driven by xenophobia and demagoguery, some Europeans have done their best to stigmatize refugees and hamper their journeys.
Bob Kitchen of the International Rescue Committee told me he saw refugee families arriving on the beaches of Greece, hugging one another and celebrating, thinking that finally they had made it – unaware of what they still faced in southern Europe.
“This crisis is on the group of world leaders who have prioritized other things,” rather than Syria, Kitchen said. “This is the result of that inaction.”
António Guterres, the head of the U.N. refugee agency, said the crisis was in part “a failure of leadership worldwide.”
”This is not a massive invasion,” he said, noting that about 4,000 people are arriving daily in a continent with more than half a billion inhabitants. “This is manageable, if there is political commitment and will.”
We all know that the world failed refugees in the run-up to World War II. The U.S. refused to allow Jewish refugees to disembark from a ship, the St. Louis, that had reached Miami. The ship returned to Europe, and some passengers died in the Holocaust.
Aylan, who had relatives in Canada who wanted to give him a home, found no port. He died on our watch.
Guterres believes that images of children like Aylan are changing attitudes. “Compassion is winning over fear,” he said.
I hope he’s right. Bravo in particular to Icelanders, who on Facebook have been volunteering to pay for the flights of Syrian refugees and then put them up in their homes. Thousands of Icelanders have backed this effort, under the slogan “Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”
Then there are the Persian Gulf countries. Amnesty International reports that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates haven’t accepted a single Syrian refugee (although they have allowed Syrians to stay without formal refugee status). Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s bombings of Yemen have only added to the global refugee crisis.
We Americans may be tempted to pat ourselves on the back. But the U.S. has accepted only about 1,500 Syrian refugees since the war began, and the Obama administration has dropped the ball on Syria – whether doing something hard like using the threat of missiles to create a safe zone, or something easy like supporting more schools for Syrian refugee children in neighboring countries.
Granted, assimilating refugees is difficult. It’s easy to welcome people at the airport, but more complex to provide jobs and absorb people with different values. (In Jordan, I once visited a refugee family hoping for settlement in the United States and saw a poster of Saddam Hussein on the wall; I wondered how that adjustment would go.)
In any case, let’s be clear that the ultimate solution isn’t to resettle Syrians but to allow them to go home.
“Stopping the barrel bombs will save more refugees dying on the route to Europe than any other action, because people want to return to live in their homes,” noted Lina Sergie Attar, a Syrian-American writer and architect.
There has been a vigorous public debate about whether the photo of Aylan’s drowned body should be shown by news organizations. But the real atrocity isn’t the photo but the death itself – and our ongoing moral failure to save the lives of children like Aylan.
Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for the New York Times.