A Photo Speaks A Thousand Words

I am glad that more people are finally paying attention to the refugee crisis (and using the correct terminology). Even our PM has now been forced into saying that the UK will help.

As a historian, I view these events from the perspective of the present, but also from the perspective of the future and how they will be viewed looking back. The influx of refugees and migrants to the EU seems to be a watershed moment. It is also an example of how ordinary people can and do shape the course of history. The American Civil War was not initially fought to end slavery, but as hundreds and thousands of Southern slaves fled their plantations and presented themselves at Union camps, they forced the issue. So too, the thousands of people fleeing from war and poverty and washing up on the shores of Europe have forced the issue and have now forced European leaders (including our own) to deal with the situation.

None more so that poor little Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body is now everywhere on social and traditional media. My husband doesn’t even want to go on Facebook at the moment because of it. He told me “it’s not that I don’t care, but I don’t want to see that. I already cared about the situation I didn’t need that photo to make me care.”

I think that it is right that the photo be published. I was upset by the story of the children that suffocated in the lorry; I tried to imagine the horror because I think about things like that and I empathise. I wrote to the PM asking him to help.

The photo of Aylan Kurdi seems to have done for the world at large what the news stories alone did for me. The photo is something tangible and easily shareable and it certainly has been shared a lot in the past couple of days. But it is not just the original photo and news stories that have been shared. I have seen photos that have been Photoshopped to show his lifeless body with cartoon angel wings, and a cartoon with his body lying outside a world map cordoned off with barbed wire.

I haven’t posted links to these images because I don’t agree with them. What right do people have to take this image, edit it, and flood the internet with cartooney-versions of a little boy’s death, so that forever more when people search for his name these images come up? To me, photos of his dead body, edited and added to by complete strangers is an entirely inappropriate “memorial.” I do agree with the original publication of the image because sometimes an image burns into the collective imagination and can help to change the course of history. But I do not agree with people editing and changing the image, even in “tribute.”

Who are you to take such an image, of someone else’s precious child, a child you have never met, and Photoshop it into something else? The image itself is powerful enough. That poor kid does not need angel wings. He is not an angel, he is a victim of a heartless and unfair world.

I hate images of my children being put on the internet without my consent. Have some respect for this boy’s family and for the boy himself. By all means share the image to raise awareness but leave it as is. Unedited, it speaks a truth (but not the only truth). Aylan was not the only child who died that night and there are plenty more still in danger.

Above all, he was a little human being. A little individual with joys none of us but his grieving friends and family know. By all means we should raise awareness and help other refugees, but we should be careful not to turn the memorialisation of a little boy we have never met and didn’t care about until his lifeless body washed up on the beach AND was photographed (other children who died that night; do we even know their names?) into a collective conscience-salving.

If you edit a photo of little Aylan and share it on social media but don’t write to the PM or your MP, don’t donate to one of the charities helping the refugees, don’t speak up when people try to demonize these people, then you are not helping. You are just engaging in a ghoulish exercise in social media-fueled narcissism.

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We Need to Speak Out About Syria (and elsewhere)

This being a more suitable forum than Facebook (my FB Friends are no doubt reaching saturation point with my Syrian refugee posts), I am writing to express my sadness and disgust over the refugee crisis unfolding on the shores of Europe (I say unfolding, but it has been going on for a very long time now, it is just recently that the British newspapers have been waxing hysterical about the “migrants” at Calais and so only now that we seem to be paying attention en-mass).

I saw a petition shared on Facebook to get the BBC to use the term “refugees” and not “migrants.” I read the desperately sad story about the refugees (including three children and a baby) who suffocated in the back of a lorry.

I read a story about Lebanon that says the Lebanese government is in crisis with uncollected rubbish piling up in the streets. This article mentions that Lebanon, with a native population of 4 million people, has accepted 1 million Syrian refugees since the Syrian crisis began which is the equivalent of the UK accepting 13 millions refugees. Which of course we haven’t.

We live in one of the richest and safest countries in the world, and our national press and our government are whipping up a mountain out of a molehill over a few thousand people at Calais.

And they are people. Not a swarm. Not an inconvenience. Even if most of them are young men – a category that apparently elicits precious little sympathy. As a woman and a mother, my heart fills with sadness when I read about the plight of the refugee women and children, but as someone with four younger brothers and many younger male cousins (all of whom are fine, kind, and empathetic young men) I can see the humanity in these young men. They have probably been sent on because they are the most able. I imagine that old men, women and children often get left behind to face the worst of the atrocities when the journey to safety is so arduous.

I saw two things shared on Facebook that moved me. One, a video by Save the Children putting the plight of Syria’s children into perspective. The other, a poem by Warsan Shire that completely blew me away. From what I can tell, the actual version, is titled “Conversations About Home (At the Deportation Centre)” and is even more powerful.

My uncle also shared his own poem on the subject of the refugee crisis and one of my cousins was planning a trip to Calais to take supplies to the refugees in The Jungle. Our family at least (along with many other families of course) are immune to the idiotic analysis of much of the British press and to the dangerous apathy of the British government.

I also saw this article from The Guardian with “ten truths” about the refugee crisis. And this photo from Amnesty International.

I am going to write to the editors of the national newspapers and the BBC to express displeasure at some of the reporting on this crisis, and the use of the word “migrants” which is dangerously euphemistic. We need our leaders and our press to foster sensitivity and sensible solutions and not to pander to and perpetuate nationalistic ignorance and hatred.

England is not full. Our infrastructure is woefully inadequate but that doesn’t mean we can’t (and shouldn’t) improve it for our own population in any case and to help accommodate refugees from places like Syria as well.

I am also going to write to David Cameron for the record, not because I think that he will care or do anything significant, but because speaking out is the right thing to do.

Our water was brown this morning because the water went out in three postcodes in our town (luckily ours didn’t go out but my parents’ water was out for a few hours yesterday). My husband has gone to buy bottled water as I don’t want the kids to drink brown water (and I don’t want to drink it either).

My preference for clean water and my expectation that it will forever and always flow freely from my tap reveals my First-World privilege. We are all connected. We are all human. Those of us who are not refugees should show empathy towards those who are and if our government will not help we should speak out.

Please consider also writing to the Prime Minister, or to the newspapers, or writing on Facebook or Twitter or on a blog if you have one (and I know a lot of you already are because I have been sharing all of your posts!). We need voices to speak the truth and to speak for humanity over the scare-mongering hatred in the mainstream press and the foot-dragging in Westminster.

I wish I could do more. I don’t really know what to do. But I have this blog. And my voice. And that is better than sitting here in silent witness to these atrocities.

“Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”

Please consider sharing this post (or writing your own) if you agree.

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