The photo of a dead Syrian toddler washed ashore on a beach in Turkey galvanized the world's attention on a humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding before our eyes for months now. The fact that the backstory of that child's despicable fate had a Canadian connection brought the horror of what is happening in the Middle East and Europe into sharp relief in this country.
It was impossible to listen to Tima Kurdi of Coquitlam, B.C., detail what happened to her brother Abdullah's wife, Rehenna, and their two sons – one being three-year-old Alan, the boy photographed face down in the sand, and the other Ghalib, who also died – and not be furious and broken-hearted at the same time. All three drowned when the tiny boat they were in capsized in high seas en route to Greece. The story behind the image seemingly opened the eyes of the world like never before to the miserable choices Syrian refugees face as they flee horrendous circumstances in their home country.
The fury it sparked is undoubtedly a good thing, especially in this country. Canada has mostly been immune to the fallout of the atrocities under way in Syria. First it was Lebanon and Jordan that were overrun by those fleeing the massacres being carried out by Islamic State and the government of Bashar al-Assad. Now it is Europe, where hundreds of thousands of these migrants are arriving in the hope of planting the seeds of a better life.
The mass influx has created border chaos and left many European governments struggling to cope with arguably the greatest refugee disaster since the Second World War.
While the reaction to the photo of little Alan Kurdi's lifeless body has been profound, it is also perplexing. The reality is he is not the first child to die as a result of what is happening in Syria. We have seen images before of innocents blown up by bombs dropped by the odious Assad regime. We've read accounts of refugees suffocating in trucks and drowning at sea as they tried to make their way to other countries. Where was our collective outrage then? Why did it take this little boy's life to wake us up to the madness that has been unfolding in Syria not just for months but years?
Perhaps it is too strong to say that Alan Kurdi's death has all our fingerprints on it. But it would not be overstatement to say it was caused by the absence of global political leadership. It's appalling that the world has stood back and watched a political regime systemically wipe out vast swaths of its population in the name of power; and yet, that is precisely what has happened.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was right to suggest that it would be hypocritical to mourn the death of the Kurdis, and Syrians more generally, but refuse to join in the fight against Islamic State. But he ignores the fact that the Assad regime is responsible for far, far more Syrian deaths than the extremist organization we are trying to destroy. (Eight times as many, in fact, according to many estimates). And yet, the Western world has allowed this monster to carry out the extermination of his people unabated – ostensibly because it is worried what Russia might say.
What we are witnessing now with the Syrian people had been predicted for some time. What right-thinking person stays in his country when the chance of being killed at the hands of your own government is so great? Who stays when there is no economy to speak of because that same government has happily presided over its complete and utter destruction?
The calamity we are witnessing is not Syria's problem any longer. It hasn't been for some time. It's all our problem. Tima Kurdi was right when she tearfully blamed the world for not doing enough to help Syria's refugees. It is a disgrace.
Canada has extended its hand to 2,300 Syrian refugees with the promise to take in thousands more. But time is of the essence. We should be devising a plan to get those thousands more here now and not make them endure time-consuming and soul-destroying bureaucratic entanglements, while not compromising proper vetting procedures. We could enact emergency provisions that would allow for the simplification of the asylum process and expedite the transit of these scared and tortured souls to Canada.
We should be aiming to take in thousands more than the 10,000 the Conservative government has targeted. We should be doing this for Alan Kurdi, and his family, and for all Syrians. They are desperate and desperately need our help.