I was thrown into a whirlwind of self-doubt last week, after seeing a single photograph. If you’ve paid attention to the news at all, you already know the one — a drowned toddler, clothed in vibrant primary colors, washed up on a beach. You probably know the story, too; another migrant family, desperate to escape the civil war in Syria, put their trust (and their savings) in the wrong boat captain. Half the family drowned and, because of the death of a child, the world is suddenly paying attention. This is the power of photography – to capture human suffering with a strength that makes people pause their lives and actually do something.
Suddenly, the world has been afire with criticism for the European reactions to the millions of Syrian refugees. Perhaps it is because I am now a mother, but that image has haunted me in a way that I can’t remember another photograph doing. Every child, no matter their nationality or language or ethnicity, has become mine. It is only chance that my Baba is safe in her crib, while so many Syrian children are still in danger. To be a parent is to be so aware of how vulnerable you are to great loss, at any time. It is to know that your heart walks around outside your body — and to fear what will happen to you if you live long enough to see tragedy strike. This child, Alan Kurdi, was born during the civil war that has torn Syria apart. He never experienced the safety that I have been able to give to Baba, simply because she was born here and not there.
It is an awful thought. My heart breaks for his family — for all of the families that have had to make such desperate choices.
One of the members in an online mothering group that I belong to posted about having a feeling of gratitude that Alan Kurdi’s mother also drowned. At least she was spared the pain of living, after the drowning of her sons. It’s an awful sentiment, a terrible thing to say out loud, but also a feeling that I fully understood. If I were unable to keep Baba safe, but I survived….living would be the harder course, by far.
When he was interviewed by the press, the words of Alan Kurdi’s father really struck me. My wife, he said, my wife was everything to me. How do I go on? How does he, after the death of his life partner and two of his children?
How do you go on in the face of such loss? Your children, your wife, your community, your home. What do you do when your entire world has become a place of danger, a place of loss?
It puts the trivialities of my daily trials into a certain perspective.
What can I do from here? I can donate money. That’s easily done. But what can I do? Do my daily efforts contribute to making the world a safer place, a place where “the refugee problem” is solved not by finding refugees new homes in new countries, but creating a place where we don’t make refugees in the first place? In my job, I build a communications network, but that seems feeble. My writing…well, I have had an artistic crisis, as every trivial scene I’ve ever written feels empty and hollow. I haven’t written a word all week, because what could possibly be the point of it all?
I’ve read that there are more people on the move in Europe since the end of World War II. Armies of people are sitting in camps and at checkpoints on national borders. Vivid photographs of their marches through fields and along highways have made it across the world. It’s touching — and frightening — to see just how many people have had to give up their lives. My heart goes out to them. It makes everything I do to get through the day seem meaningless. What does a clever story matter, when there are people who have lost so much, suffered so much, through no fault of their own?
What am I doing with my life that really means something, when there are such problems in the world? It’s a question that has lingered with me, ever since I saw a single photograph.
How to Donate: