World

Aylan Kurdi: A powerful, iconic image of the global refugee crisis

By Ranjeni Munusamy 4 September 2015

At first glance, it looks like he might have tripped on the water’s edge while playing on the beach. You almost expect the next frames to show the little boy getting up, gurgling in delight and then splashing around in the water, as little boys do. But there is no movement in Aylan Kurdi’s tiny body as the water swirls around him. The images and visuals of the dead three-year-old have stunned the world and prompted a new round of bluster from European leaders on the refugee crisis. Little Aylan has turned the conversation from the politics, the Islamophobia, the racism, the xenophobia, the economic costs and security issues. His death gave his war-ravaged people a human face. And hopefully it will help the world find its humanity. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

All along the beachfront in Turkey’s west coast city of Izmir, people sat waiting. These are the people nobody wants. They left their battle-weary country, Syria, in fear and are now in desperate search of safety. They were on beachfront in Izmir, waiting and hoping to find someone to ferry them across the treacherous waters of the Aegean Sea to Greece, from where they hoped to journey on to find new homes and new lives somewhere in Europe.

Men sat talking, working out plans for the journey. Youngsters walked around, full of spunk and optimism about the future.

It was around midnight when I saw some women and children huddled on the floor of a bus shelter. On the one side of the bus shelter was a woman in a black cloak and headscarf, cradling a small sleeping baby. On the other side a similarly dressed woman sat with an anxious expression on her face while three young children fidgeted around her. Another woman and a child were asleep on the floor.

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Photo by Lucas Ledwaba.

I greeted the woman sitting alone but she pulled her baby closer and buried her face in the thin wrap that covered him. She had a small bag next to her and a plastic packet with snacks. I walked around to other side. The woman there looked at me, startled. I smiled at her and asked if she spoke English. She shook her head rapidly, her eyes wide open and fear written all over her face. The kids looked at me curiously but were clearly also fearful of strangers.

“We speak English!” A group of young boys were walking towards me. Unlike the women, they were not afraid and chatted easily. But after talking to the boys, I understood why the women were so afraid. Damascus was hell on earth, they said. The civil war was unrelenting and bombs were exploding day and night. There was no safe place in their country. If the bombs didn’t kill them, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) would. Most of the people on the beach had left loved ones behind; they were the pioneers, going off to find safe havens across the seas and their families would follow.

There was no set formula as to how they would make their way across the sea or reach where they wanted to go. The most popular destination was Germany, mostly because there was some assurance that they would not be turned away. The boys in the group are all football mad, and one of them hoped to play for the German national team someday. He spoke no English but when his friends explained what they told me, his green eyes lit up and he nodded shyly. “Özil,” he says, when I ask who his favourite player was.

“He says he will be meeting Özil when we get to Germany,” says his friend, bemused.

How to get to Germany was the problem. They could pay up to $3,000 for the journey but first they had to make it across the sea to Greece on a dinghy. The boys were optimistic they would get across, despite so many boats capsizing and people dying. They had to leave Turkey, they said. The locals did not like them or treat them well. They could not find jobs, and those who did had to do low-paid menial work.

This was part of the reason the women were so afraid of me. They did not know who I was, where I came from or why I was interested in them. They had come to expect the worst of humanity.

The boys said they hoped the Germans would be good to them and they had heard that the country was nice to live in. Compared to how they described Syria, and being stuck in purgatory in Turkey, whatever was across the water had to be better.

The most important investment for everyone hoping to make the trip was a luminous life jacket, which they had to buy for 50 Turkish Lira each. That was the key to their survival.

Abdullah Kurdi had made the fatal mistake of not buying lifejackets for him and his young family when they set off from Turkey for the Greek Island of Kos. Abdullah is the father of the three-year-old toddler Aylan, whose lifeless body was swept up on a beach near the resort town of Bodrum. The heart-wrenching image of the child in a red T-shirt and blue shorts lying face down in the surf went viral, awakening the world to the horror of the refugee crisis.

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Photo: Abdullah al-Kurdi (R), the father of the drowned 3-year-old boy Aylan Kurdi from Syria, cries at a morgue as he tries to get his son’s body in Mugla, Turkey, 03 September 2015. EPA/DEPO PHOTOS / TOLGA ADANALI

Aylan, his five-year-old brother, Galip, and their mother, Rehan, were among 12 people who drowned when the overcrowded dinghy they were in capsized. Their father, Abdullah, survived and recounted to international news networks how he had paid a smuggler 4,000 Euro for that failed boat trip. He said the waves were very high and the driver dove into the water, abandoning them. Abdullah had tried to steer the boat but it capsized. He tried to hold onto his wife and two boys buy they drowned. He said he wanted to take their remains back to Kobane in Syria for burial.

The Kurdis had been trying to make their way to Canada to join Abdullah’s sister in Vancouver. She had tried to sponsor a refugee application they made in June to the Canadian authorities. It was rejected because refugees living in Turkey are apparently not regarded as being in immediate danger.

The young family had been fleeing for their lives since 2012. Mustafa Ebdi, a journalist in Kobane, told The Telegraph that the family had been displaced several times by the Assad regime’s war with Isil.

“They left Damascus in 2012 and headed to Aleppo, and when clashes happened there, they moved to Kobane. And again, when clashes happened there, they moved to Turkey.” He said they returned to Kobane earlier this year when Isil had been pushed back. However in June they fled back to Turkey when Isil re-took the town.

The picture on Aylan lying on the beach provoked reactions across the world and ratcheted up pressure on European leaders to respond to the desperate plight of the refugees.

British Prime Minister David Cameron faced criticism domestically for his description of a “swarm of migrants” going to the United Kingdom. On Thursday he said: “Anyone who saw those pictures overnight could not help but be moved and, as a father, I felt deeply moved by the sight of that young boy on a beach in Turkey.

“Britain is a moral nation and we will fulfil our moral responsibilities.”

Nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said Europe was in the grip of madness over immigration and refugees. He said he was defending European Christianity against a Muslim influx. “We Hungarians are full of fear, people in Europe are full of fear, because we see that the European leaders, among them the prime ministers, are not able to control the situation,” he said in Brussels.

“The moral, human thing is to make clear: ‘Please don’t come. Why do you have to go from Turkey to Europe? Turkey is a safe country. Stay there. It’s risky to come,’” Orbán said.

His comments came as hundreds of asylum seekers were pulled off a train in Bicske, Hungary as the authorities tried to take them to an immigration centre. There were more heart-breaking scenes as crying parents flung themselves on the train tracks carrying their young children. They had been bound for Germany via Austria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an slammed the West for “insensitivity” over the growing refugee crisis. “The body of a three-year-old boy who died on a boat carrying refugees in the Mediterranean Sea washed up on our shores. Won’t humanity give an account of this three-year-old child?” he said.

“What drowned in the sea were not only refugees, but our humanity. These are our values that are being drowned in the Mediterranean. Every single refugee who has become the subject of inhumane treatment on the borders, and who is even sent to death intentionally through sinking boats, is the bitter symbol of this reality,” Erdo?an said.

But for as long as world leaders do not act to stop the conflict in Syria, the refugee crisis continues. Aylan’s picture has prompted a wave of sympathy with other countries offering asylum and aid to the refugees. His death has not only woken the world to the crisis in his country but also to the movement of refugees from conflict zones in other parts of the Middle East and Africa under equally hazardous conditions.

Through his tiny body lying in the water that killed him, Aylan has given all those who have no home and no country an identity and a patron.

Before I left the beach at Izmir that night, I turned and looked back at the frightened woman at the bus stop. She looked at me and turned away. But standing behind her, her toddler son smiled and waved shyly.

He was not Aylan. But he could have been. DM

Photo: A Turkish police officer carries Aylan’s body. Photograph: Reuters

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