It was less in pity than in anger that the world was moved by the photograph of little Alan Kurdi, that dead three-year-old Syrian refugee boy whose name we’re all remembering now on the first anniversary of his drowning, along with his five-year-old brother Galip and their mother Rehanna. Having broken the story of Canada’s complicity in the circumstances that put little Alan’s lifeless body on that Turkish beach, I thought I should begin this remembrance by getting some things off my chest.
That photograph did not cause me any greater pain than the memory of the barefoot Yazidi ragamuffins who gathered round me with their tear-stained faces and clutched my hands on the Kurdish mountain roads between Dyarbakir in eastern Turkey and Duhok in northern Iraq, a year before Alan Kurdi became famous by drowning. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis were streaming out of the Shingal Mountains in an exodus of Biblical proportions, fleeing the genocidaires of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State.
I confess as well that Abdullah Kurdi’s heart-rending story of his flight with his wife and two children from the besieged Kurdish town of Kobane in Syria, and the story’s horrible denouement on that Turkish beach, did not move me any more than the stories I’d heard two years before Alan’s drowning from a ragged band of Syrians I encountered in the Great Syrian Desert, streaming across the border into Jordan. Or from the Syrian refugees I met in their hovels in Amman and Zarqa, or in the teeming UN refugee camp at Za’atari.
There were 140,000 refugees living at Za’atari at the time. They all had stories to tell. At night you could hear the explosions from rockets and the bombs falling from Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad’s helicopters just across the border in Dara’a. It was in Dara’a that Syria’s non-violent democratic movement had begun in 2011, with schoolboys scrawling on a wall: “The people want to topple the regime.” Five years on, they are still being punished for trying. The bombs are still falling.
I’d been writing about the Arab Spring and the Syrian agony from its earliest days, and I confess that on the night of Sept. 2, 2015, when I filed my story to the National Post and the Ottawa Citizen about that little boy on the beach and about his family’s frustrated hopes of making it to Canada, I had no idea it would be an important “political” story. The thought didn’t even occur to me.
The Canadian angle was both straightforward and complicated. Coquitlam hairdresser Tima Kurdi, Alan’s aunt, had filed a refugee application with Citizenship and Immigration Canada on behalf of little Alan’s cousins and their parents. Alan and his brother and his mum and dad were to follow, but the application for them was still on Tima’s desk, owing to a bureaucratic imbecility: Syrians in Turkey couldn’t qualify for private refugee sponsorship in Canada without the minister’s direct intervention. All this had been set out in a submission Tima had put to minister Chris Alexander months earlier, along with an account of the hardships being endured by little Alan and his family. What Tima got for her trouble was a nightmarish bureaucratic runaround.
The nastier Conservative partisans claimed the story was a journalistic frame-up (in the rush to deadline, the fifth paragraph of my first story about the Kurdis contained the word “application” where “submission” would have been accurate), that the Kurdis were liars and smugglers, and it was all an election-campaign conspiracy. The nastier Opposition partisans took the opportunity to claim that I was covering up for Alexander, and that Alan’s photograph was smoking-gun evidence of the Conservatives’ irredeemable heartlessness and racism.
But what mattered about Alan Kurdi’s photograph was that it made Canadians very angry, and the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats ended up competing with each other over which party was offering the most generous refugee policy. Roughly 30,000 Syrian refugees have made it to Canada since last September. The photograph made millions of Londoners, Berliners and Parisians angry, too. Europe began opening its doors to a million refugees.
Anger gets a lot of bad press, but it was only after the world became enraged by the indifference of “the international community” to the Islamic State encirclement of thousands of defenceless Yazidis on Mount Sinjar two years ago that U.S. President Barack Obama cobbled together his air-power coalition to begin bombing the genocidal doomsday cult. Not long afterwards, public fury was incited by images of unveiled teenaged girls and grandmothers defending the Syrian town of Kobane with rusty Kalashnikovs and antique Lee-Enfield rifles. It was only then that NATO made a 180-degree turn and began backing the Syrian Kurds that the Turks and the Americans had been slandering as “terrorists.”
It was only two weeks ago that another viral photograph of a Syrian child—Omran Daqneesh, sitting bloodied and dazed in an ambulance—aroused worldwide anger. It was sufficient to cause at least a modicum of public attention to American official-policy indifference as Bashar Assad’s napalm-and-chlorine barrel bombings and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s hospital-targeting fighter bombers turn Aleppo into Dresden.
The problem with public rage about these things is not that it can get out of hand. It’s that it’s difficult to sustain. People have buses to catch and jobs to go to and kids to get off to school. It subsides under the weight of expert admonitions that we should not be so emotional, that Syria is complicated, it’s best left to the foreign-policy specialists, the Middle East is a quagmire, and the Arabs should fend for themselves.
Five years of this, nearly a half million dead Syrians, close to six million refugees, and at last count 373 more refugee children have drowned in the Mediterranean since the day Alan Kurdi died for our sins on that beach.
We all have every right to be angry. What Syrians need from all of us everywhere right now is our rage.
Unquenchable, incandescent, blind rage.