Almost a year ago, photos of a dead 3-year-old boy flashed around the world. The pictures of Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean while his family tried to flee Syria’s civil war, broke hearts everywhere. This week another little boy has become a symbol of Syria’s horrific toll on civilians. His name is Omran Daqneesh. He is 5 years old, and a victim of a Russian airstrike in the ravaged Syrian town of Aleppo. A viral photo and video of Omran’s rescue from the rubble of a building shows the stunned, floppy-haired little boy, covered in dust and debris, sitting alone on an orange ambulance chair, his ashy body resembling a little ghost. Omran is not screaming, crying or talking. He calmly wipes his bloodied face, looks at his hand, and proceeds to wipe it on the plastic seat.
Omran’s image, like Aylan Kurdi’s before his, is a heartbreaking reminder not only of the carnage of Syria’s five-year war, but also of the international community’s shameful failure to help Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic continue to demonize refugees from Syria — linking them with the Islamic State and other potential terrorist threats, not viewing them as human beings suffering from a cruel civil war. Far-right British politician Nigel Farage used a photo of Syrian refugees coming into Europe as part of the ‘Leave’ campaign for Britain to exit the European Union. On this side of the Atlantic, a number of state governors have requested halts on admitting Syrian refugees into the United States. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has called for stopping refugee admission from Syria, saying that “a lot of those people are ISIS.” Even Syrian refugee children have been treated as threats. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said of Syrian orphan refugees, “I don’t think that orphans under 5 should be admitted to the United States at this point.” Could Christie look Omran in the eye and tell him he has no home here in the United States?
Beyond the shameful anti-refugee rhetoric, wealthy nations’ efforts to resettle Syrian refugees have been pathetic. Nearly 5 million Syrians have been forced to flee coalition airstrikes, attacks from government forces, and starvation and disease. Yet according to Oxfam, the world’s richest countries have resettled only 1.39 percent of the 5 million Syrians in need, leaving places like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to bear the brunt of the refugee crisis.
The Obama administration has pledged to accept just 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of this fiscal year. Despite a slow start on resettlement, the United States admitted 2,000 Syrians last month. So far, 78 percent of the 8,000 Syrians admitted into the United States have been women and children. That’s a measly fraction of Syrians who are in desperate need of resettlement.
One hopes against hope that Omran has family that survived the airstrike, that he will have someone to claim him and care for him after he has healed from his wounds. Maybe Omran’s photo will move citizens to go beyond tweeting and sharing his image to demanding that their governments resettle those who are suffering in Syria.
But for me, the hope that some good may come from Omran’s pain crashes up against a deep feeling of shame and helplessness in the face of Syria’s intractable conflict, and anger at the world’s inability to ease the human suffering there. We, as a global community, have turned our back on Omran, Aylan and thousands of children in Syria like them. How many more images of dead and wounded Syrian children will it take? How many more innocent civilian lives, young and old, must be destroyed before we act?