Trigger Warnings: Child death and disappearance, homelessness, refugees
If you’re regularly on social media or watch TV news, you’ve seen The Picture. The photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned while his family was trying to escape their homeland’s civil war. Of course, it was undeniably tragic.
While I normally try to keep up on the news, I avoided that photo at every turn, averting my eyes when it came up in my Facebook or Twitter feeds. It certainly wasn’t because I don’t care about the plight of the Syrian people – I’ve signed many a petition demanding the US Do Something and am a religious contributor to Oxfam’s work.
No, it’s because I care too much.
As the mother of a two-year old boy, I choke up literally every time I even think about the photo, imagining it was my son instead. In the Chicago airport, waiting for my flight back home, I almost had a full-on crying jag when they were talking about his funeral on CNN.
To add to my concern, I recently learned much of the civil unrest underlying the war was motivated by the huge drought in the Middle East. While the Middle East has had its share of droughts in the past, this has been one of the worst in part because of climate change, my major point of activism.
But my emotional reaction run deeper than this one situation. What makes me the saddest of all is that it took this boy’s documented death to make us care. What if no one had taken that photo? There are so many children just like him with families looking for a better life with no or little acknowledgment. The photo reminds me of them as well.
The photo reminds me of Relisha Rudd, an eight-year-old girl in DC who disappeared last year. Her family was homeless and living in DC General, a former hospital turned makeshift center that has been criticized multiple times for its poor conditions for families. But for the nearly 2,000 parents and children with inconsistent, impermanent housing in the District, that’s all they have. (In one school, one in five children is homeless.) At the time of her disappearance. Relisha was with a janitor at the shelter, who seemed to have a relationship with the family. The man was later found dead, having shot himself and his wife. While not directly caused by her homelessness, her disappearance was certainly influenced by her family’s lack of stability and safety. But she’s just a single case in the sickening number of children our city is failing to serve. In addition to a lack of affordable housing, D.C. has the highest rate of food insecurity among children in the country. We’re not just failing the children halfway around the world, but even those in our own backyard.
The photo reminds me of the children of immigrants from South America into the US, whether they moved here with their families or were born here afterwards. 60,000 undocumented immigrant children moved from South America in 2014, hoping they could find better financial and social opportunities here than they could have in their home countries. Many are fleeing unsafe conditions, whether because of political turmoil or high crime. More than 100,000 people have died in the drug wars in Mexico, many of them young people and many at the hands of their country’s own military. Fleeing this horror, the parents of these children (and often the children themselves) work in very physically-demanding, low-paying jobs, often under minimum wage. While I stress about if we’ve signed my kid up for the “right” toddler classes, they worry about being sent back to a country that holds no hope for them.
And the photo reminds me of my own grandmother. My grandmother came to America when she was only three years old from Poland. As a child, I thought her story was sweet, especially the fact that her first memory was seeing both the Statue of Liberty and her father.
As an adult, I realized it was much more serious. My grandmother came over because my great-grandmother returned home to “visit relatives,” not knowing she was pregnant. As I grew older, I started to understand that my great-grandmother wouldn’t have made that miserable journey back, by herself, just for fun. In all likelihood, her and my great-grandfather were broke and she returned to Poland to see if she could get further financial support from her family.
As a mother, my grandmother’s story – or more accurately, my great-grandmother’s story – both terrifies and inspires me. While I always saw my grandmother as the protagonist, I now imagine it through my great-grandmother’s eyes. When she went back, she left behind not only her husband, but her toddler son. (Or even more difficult, brought him with her – I’ve never been clear on this point.)
That challenge then followed the shock of finding out she was pregnant in a country she had already left once must have made her heart sink. Personally, I remember what a tangled mess of joy, fear, and anxiety my own heart was finding out I was pregnant; I can’t imagine the cascade of emotions she must have experienced. The timing couldn’t have been worse, especially because she wouldn’t be let back in the U.S. until my grandmother was at least 3 years old. And yet she made it through. She birthed and then raised my grandmother in Poland, brought a toddler across the ocean in steerage, and walked through the doors of Ellis Island. If the boat sunk, that photo could have been of my grandmother. But despite all of that, my great-grandmother – my babcia – did it. And her bravery and hope is why my grandmother is here, and my father, and me and my son.
That hope what I want for all of these families, in Syria, in D.C., and in South America. I want to give them the chance to shed their old lives and start anew. We owe it to these families and their children to provide that opportunity. Tragedies are only inevitable if we choose not to act.
For a very powerful and graphic poem written by a refugee, check out Home by Warsaw Shire.