Abdullah Kurdi, father of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, cries as he leaves a morgue in Mugla, Turkey, Sept. 3. The family of Aylan, a Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, had been trying to emigrate to Canada after fleeing the war-torn town of Kobani, one of their relatives told a Canadian newspaper. CNS photo/Murad Sezer, Reuters

Lessons learned

  • December 25, 2015

Newspapers typically select a “person of the year” based on noble deeds or towering accomplishments. The world certainly abounds with such people, but rather than acclaim one of these for 2015 we instead commemorate Alan Kurdi.

Alan is the refugee child whose photograph shocked the world after his body washed onto a Turkish beach. He drowned before any of the achievements that awaited him in life could be realized, just three years old. But his death ignited a merciful outpouring on behalf of the abandoned refugees of war-torn Syria. In death, little Alan Kurdi reminded the world of its shared humanity.

The child would have been unaware he was one of four million Syrian refugees. More than half of them are children. He was born into war and never knew peace. His family fled to Turkey when the Islamic State jihad engulfed northern Syria. On Sept. 2 they wedged alongside other families in a small boat crammed far above capacity and set off for the Greek island of Kos not four kilometres away. It was to be a temporary safe haven, a toehold to a new life in Europe. But five minutes into their journey the smuggler’s boat capsized, killing Alan, his older brother, his mother and several others.

The story might have ended there if not for a photo of Alan’s lifeless body face down at the water’s edge. The image of the cold, abandoned child sparked international outrage and then compassion for Syria’s war victims. People around the world were first horrified then shamed when they learned about Alan’s short life and began to comprehend the horror that has gripped Syria.

It took a harrowing image of a lifeless child to touch hearts, mobilize opinion and open wallets. Almost immediately, donations spiked for Syrian humanitarian relief but, more important, governments sensing voter anger were compelled to act. Nowhere was this more striking than in Germany, where doors were opened to 800,000 Syrian refugees. Across Europe, others followed, albeit in lesser numbers.

In Canada, Alan’s death awakened the federal election campaign and became one factor in a Justin Trudeau victory. A pre-campaign promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada became an election issue after the child washed ashore. Canadians ultimately voted for the compassion reflected in Liberal policy and subsequently demanded by Alan’s death.

Alan died because his parents wanted him to live in peace. His death made it possible for hundreds of thousands of others to do so. He reminded people of all nations that we not only share a planet but we share our humanity. We are our brother’s keeper.

If nothing else, that is the lesson to take from 2015. We owe that much to Alan Kurdi.

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