Some 250 people packed into a small theatre in Vancouver’s Harbour Centre, the downtown campus of Simon Fraser University, Saturday afternoon, to remember two small boys and their mother, who drowned earlier this week off a Turkish resort, a tragedy that has sparked global outrage.
White balloons and two dozen yellow roses adorned a dais that held giant, framed photos of the young brothers: Alan, 3, Ghalib, 5, and their mom, Rehanna, 27.
The memorial was not a political event. But when one mourner attempted to place a Syrian flag alongside the flag of Kurdistan, another angrily demanded its removal. Many ethnic Kurds have been mistreated for decades by Syrian authorities and denied Syrian citizenship and passports, making resettlement outside the country all the more difficult.
Vancouver’s Raj Gia, a 32-year-old father of two, said he was moved to attend today’s service because “that boy—Alan—was able to do what no world leader and no media outlet has been able to: make every single person on the planet pay attention to this crisis.” Gia wanted to honour his sacrifice.
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Betty Kosel, a Vancouver teacher, said she was there because “no parent deserves to have their child die on a beach.” She came to support Alan’s aunt Tima, a Coquitlam hairdresser, and the Kurdi family.
Calls to action came throughout. In her eulogy, Missy Koye, a friend of Tima’s, explained that when Muhammad Kurdi’s refugee application to Canada was denied, his brother Abdullah knew the door to Canada had closed to him also. “Our system is designed to fail,” Koye said. “It is too late for Alan, for Ghalib, for Rehanna.”
“They are human beings,” she reminded mourners. “They are like every single one of us in this room. They are not pawns in a political game.”
Before Alan, she said, “millions have been crying out to the world. But nobody listened. Alan’s body on that shore is the outcome of our silence. You three angels woke up the world. Please forgive us for letting you down.”
Koye also relayed Abdullah’s words: “My sons and wife survived ISIS,” he said. “They survived a brutal border crossing, a migration to Turkey. And they survived hunger and sickness. But they could not survive the water.”
Tima, who spoke last, shared stories of the young boys, including Ghalib’s final phone call to his grandfather. Ghalib wanted to know whether his grandpa was holding his toys in safe-keeping, in anticipation of his return. Then he confided he was scared of the boat. “What if I fall?” Ghalib asked his grandfather, asking whether he might come pick him up instead. He’d be fine, replied his grandfather, who helped raise Ghalib in Kobane when Abdullah left for Istanbul, where he hoped they might find safety.
Tima’s friends Loa Fridfinnson and Louise Shillington shared some of the global messages of support the Kurdi family have received:
“We will not let their premature deaths go in vain,” said one. “They will shape the future for better.”
Another quoted from “The Stolen Child” by Yeats: “Come away human child. To the waters and the wild. With a faery, hand in hand. For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
Following the service, mourners walked together to Canada Place, in sight of the PanPacific Hotel’s iconic, white sails, to release dozens of white balloons, to honour the young boys.
“We failed to help a child in need,” said the cleric who led the proceedings. “We refused him at our shores. So you gave him a better place. Forgive us our shortcomings. And help us be the change that we so desperately want to see.”