By now, you have likely seen the heartbreaking pictures of the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy whose family tried to flee war-torn Syria by boat. Their boat capsized, the captain allegedly abandoned the vessel, and Aylan, his five-year-old brother Galip, and their thirty-five-year-old mother Rehan drowned.
Like me, you might have wept at the sight of the photographs, which have now been seen around the world. The photos are a terrible reminder of how cruel life can be – particularly for the most vulnerable.
When I saw the picture of Aylan lying facedown on the shore, like a child in a crib, I also thought of his surviving father. According to relatives, Aylan and Galip’s parents only tried to escape Syria to create a safer life for their two sons. I was reminded of stories I’ve heard from other refugees over the past decade in my work as a human rights physician. Like Aylan’s parents, many of the refugees I’ve cared for fled devastating circumstances to create a better life for their children.
Images and stories like those of Aylan’s family can be overwhelming, and it’s natural to want to turn away from their suffering. But something about the photos of Aylan made the world turn toward – rather than away from – refugees like him.
It’s difficult to turn toward need and suffering. In medicine, journalism, advocacy, and other professions, professionals face a range of psychological risks, including compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress – also referred to as vicarious traumatization. Symptoms include numbness, withdrawal, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, anger, and cynicism. There is an emotional cost to caring deeply for others.
But there is also an inexplicable emotional gift that comes with caring for others. Caring for other people – and animals – can make us more resilient, hopeful, and courageous. It can also help us find refuge inside ourselves. Over the years, I’ve gleaned far more hope than despair from refugees who flee torture, war, abuse, and persecution. I’ve begun to view many of these individuals as strong and resilient Phoenixes who rise from the ashes, despite all the odds against them.
As earthlings, it’s also our responsibility to foster stories of hope and resilience. I’ve been encouraged to see how the German and Austrian governments have welcomed refugees and other migrants. Rather than being driven by fear or anger, Germans and Austrians have responded with empathy and compassion. It has not escaped me that this is a dramatic turn in history, in what has been described as the gravest refugee crisis since World War II.
Nilufer Demir, the photojournalist who took Aylan’s picture, told CNN Turk, “There was nothing left to do for him. There was nothing left to bring him back to life…There was nothing to do except take his photograph … and that is exactly what I did…I thought, ‘This is the only way I can express the scream of his silent body.’”
Sometimes there are no words to describe what a single picture can shout.
There is nothing we can do to bring Aylan and his brother Galip, their mother Rehan, or other families who have suffered to death, back. But we can learn from tragedy, craft better solutions that focus on prevention, and offer more compassion now and in the future.
After all, what’s the alternative? A refusal to look at and see the suffering others endure? Seeing suffering but not doing anything about it? Both of these options sound very cowardly to me.
Surely we can do better – for others and ourselves.