On September 2, 2015, Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who was seeking refuge in Europe with his family, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and was washed up on Turkish shores. Universal shock ensued at the images of Aylan lying dead on the edge of a beach far from both his home and intended destination.
Almost one year later, on August 17, 2016, the world trained its attention on five year old Omran Daqneesh, yet another Syrian child who, like Aylan, is the victim of a war he was born into and knows nothing about. Saved from Russian airstrikes which decimated his family’s home, Omran was pulled from the rubble by medical responders and placed in the back of an ambulance. As he sat bloodied and maimed in the van, Omran said nothing, shed no tears, and stared into the distance.
Many are juxtaposing the two boys’ stories to express a simple truth, that there is no escape for Syrians or their children no matter what they do or where they go. If they remain in Syria, they will become the deformed victims of bombs that destroy their lives. If they leave, they will likely drown seeking a semblance of freedom.
But, while the infamous images of Aylan’s dead body and Omran’s disfigurement are meant to remind us of this constant reality, their widespread circulation often creates the opposite effect. Instead of humanizing Syrians, these viral images merely spark temporary global outrage at the Syrian war that results in little-to-no action or meaningful change.
There is nothing particularly special about Aylan or Omran, and it would be dangerous to suggest otherwise. They are, like all other Syrians in similar circumstances, victims of President Bashar Al-Assad and his allies, who are primarily responsible for the refugee crisis and the constant bombardments that continue to claim countless lives. The only tangible difference between these two boys and the nameless, faceless mass of dead and injured Syrian children we ignore is that Aylan and Omran were the ones whose stories happened to be broadcast globally.
Almost every major news source in the world covered the two boys’ plight. CNN’s Kate Bolduan, for example, cried as she reported on Omran’s story. When news anchors and individuals otherwise silent about the Syrian tragedy suddenly take up this sort of heightened, selective interest, their tears are virtually meaningless, however.
Exactly two weeks ago, I discussed how airstrikes by the Assad regime and its Russian allies had killed up to fifteen children in the town of Atarib—a news story that barely received any attention and was, instead, met with overwhelming apathy around the world. While outrage emerges at the sight of Aylan and Omran’s plight, it somehow stops at the countless other Syrian children who have experienced the same trauma on a daily basis. Consider the fact that since Aylan’s death, we have heard almost nothing about the nearly 340 Syrian children who have drowned seeking refuge across the Mediterranean Sea.
Though we may hope that highlighting Aylan and Omran’s stories will remind the world of the suffering of all Syrian children, we ignore the fact that we have barely, if ever, paid attention to these other tragic stories emerging from the Syrian conflict. In the same way that we ignored the Syrian children who died while we mourned Aylan, we will undoubtedly do the same in Omran’s case, and ultimately forget the many lost and destroyed lives that we superficially claim to care about.