ROME – Three years after the gut-wrenching image of the lifeless body of little Alan Kurdi, a toddler who drowned and washed up on the shores of Turkey, sent shock waves around the world, his aunt has said there’s been little follow-up to the initial outrage and urged global leaders to put some bite behind their bark when it comes to helping refugees.
Speaking of the adoption in December 2018 of the United Nations global migration compact, which promotes safe and orderly migration, Tima Kurdi said the initiative is nice in theory, but asked: “We’ve been talking about migration for the past three years after the tragedy of my nephew, so where is the action?”
Kurdi spoke to Crux ahead of the Jan. 15 release of the Italian version of her book, The Boy on the Beach. Published in English in April 2018, the book recounts her family’s story of growing up in Syria, their growing desperation as war overtook the country, their plight living as refugees in Turkey, and finally, a fatal boat ride.
After paying for the voyage on Sept. 2, 2015, that would end with the deaths of her brother Abdullah’s wife Rehanna and their two young sons, Ghalib, 4, and Alan, 2, Kurdi – a hairdresser living in Canada – eventually turned her pain and guilt into advocacy. She now travels around the world sharing her family’s story and advocating for the rights of refugees, putting a human face on what is often a heated political issue.
The image of little Alan’s body exploded online and across social media the next morning, and it has since become an international icon symbolizing the dangers refugees often face.
Since the tragedy, Kurdi said many politicians and “greedy people” have sought to use her nephew’s death to bolster their own agenda, or their own pockets, including the media. However, she also said there are many people who want to use the tragedy to do good.
She voiced hope that her book, available in English and Italian, would help create awareness and prompt people to consider that they themselves could end up in a similar situation.
“We need to raise our voice and stand up for them, for the human beings,” Kurdi told Crux, speaking of refugees.
“There is no one, anywhere, that would like to leave their country, their home where they grew up, what they have, their memory, to leave everything just to come somewhere for a benefit,” she said.
Refugees, she said, “are suffering, and the only reason they flee their home is because the situation is worse. I hope, really, that people when they read my book, they can imagine themselves in the same situation.”
Below are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Tima Kurdi, who spoke over Skype from her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada:
Crux: Your book, which tells the story of your family and the tragic death of Alan, is being released in Italian. Why did you write it?
Kurdi: There are so many reasons. First of all, and the main, main thing, I want the world to call my nephew by his real name, Alan, not Aylan. He was only two years old, not three years old. And his brother Ghalib, not Galeb, and his mother, and to show the world, the reader, that my family is no different than yours. Maybe we speak a different language and maybe we practice a different religion, but we’re all people, we’re all the same.
And I hope that people, when they read my family’s story, it will move them and help them feel that they are part of my family and will move them to actually help others in need. It’s all about awareness, it’s all about my people, or the people who to this day continue to suffer. We need to raise our voice and stand up for them, for the human being, and make the world be in peace again, and solve the problem, focus on the root cause.
There is no one, anywhere, that would like to leave their country, their home where they grew up, what they have, their memory, to leave everything just to come somewhere for a benefit. There is no one who will do that. Those refugees are suffering, and the only reason they flee their home is because the situation is worse. I hope, really, that people when they read my book, they can imagine themselves in the same situation as the refugee.
You said one reason you wanted to write the book is to make sure your nephew’s name was spelled correctly. Often the migration issue is politicized, and the personal, human stories of migrants and refugees get lost, despite best intentions. Do you think the fact several initiatives have tried to honor your nephew Alan, but have consistently gotten his name and age wrong, is a reflection of this?
I don’t know if I want to use the word ‘blame’, but I do blame the media, who are the ones who put my nephew’s name wrong even though from the beginning until now, three years later, I keep telling them, no, his name is not Alyan and he was only two. And they refuse. If they are going to put the headline in use, Alan looks like it’s not going to catch the attention of the reader, so it hurt me that they put themselves as a business (first) instead of respect to honor this boy.
But … I always see people honoring the image of my nephew because they want people to keep remembering that image, and to keep it as a permanent reminder in people’s hearts to do better and to help others. The latest one that moved me so much is in Italy, there is a cemetery in Calabria…it really moved me…I want to reach out to this person (Franco Corbelli) and thank him, because he’s really with the suffering people…those people are not just an image, he wants to give them a name that the world will remember.
But there are a lot of people, until today, who use that name, Aylan, as a political game, and for their own greed. It hurts us a lot, because this image is one image, but there are a lot, there are a thousand of those dead children who continue, until today, and it doesn’t capture the world’s attention. It’s sad to see this, it’s very sad, but if the image of my nephew Alan can bring awareness, then we are willing to swallow that pain and let people use it to help those suffering.
What I see in Italy, even in Malta recently last week, how they would block the organization from helping those refugees from entering Malta, watching the news I was crying (because) there is no human being who can do this to somebody. There are children on that ship, there are families, there is a mother, there is a pregnant woman, they are a human being, they are there, they risked danger, they risked their life to go to safety for their own children. We cannot close any port or any border on them.
If those politicians can bring awareness and act, not just talk, and focus on the root cause of why those people flee their country, we can fix that root cause and focus on it, then we don’t see refugees. But if we don’t find a solution, we cannot let them die.
It’s been three years since the incident happened, and you mentioned since then that there are genuine efforts to honor your nephew such as the cemetery, but it’s also been politicized. Would you say that your family is at times being used for political means?
I do feel that it’s being used on a political side, and also by lots of greedy people, because people benefit from war to make more money. Lots of organizations use that image and my nephew, fraud organizations, and they become rich and they benefit from those refugees, but there are a huge number of good-hearted people everywhere in the world. They are actually doing it for a good cause, so I cannot say it’s equal being used in a good way and a bad way, I would rather forget about the hurt, the politics, the greed, and focus only on the good people, and not think about that bad stuff anymore. If politicians want to use it, let them use it, let’s see what they’re going to gain from it. The really good people, they are the ones important to me.
Initially there was a lot of outrage when the incident happened over the dangers and difficulties that migrants face, but it seems that all the fury never led to any real change…
Exactly. This is my point. If from the beginning all those politicians tried to put a solution and find again why those people are coming and fleeing, if we focus on that in a peaceful way, we cannot create this mass of people we cannot deal with. I’ve seen it in Europe. If we, the west, Europe, Italy, the UK, you name it, from the beginning they will go and support the war in those countries, from Libya to Syria, in all the Middle East, what do you think that war will cause? That war will create refugees, and then all of the sudden refugees are coming to their border, and all of the sudden all those politicians will say, oh my god, why are you coming to my country? You see the point there? We support it, we support to create those crises and more. And if we don’t, everyone will live their lives peacefully.
I cannot blame one person, I cannot blame only one leader. I from my personal experience, from traveling to refugee camps the last three years, from being in Turkey and talking to refugees, I get it. I get both sides of the story. I get that there is not only one person to blame. There is always a bigger project, there is a reality behind it, a truth behind it, so what I’m hoping, really, is for there to be peace in the world. I want those leaders to actually open their heart and stop thinking of those refugees as greedy people. They want better lives. I want them to focus on how to fix their country so nobody will flee. We need to give those people a chance to rebuild their lives inside Syria, outside Syria, those people in Libya, we need to focus on that.
The migration compact was just adopted in Morocco. Do you think this will help make a difference in terms of safety and awareness for migrants who still choose to go abroad?
This is beautiful if we can do this, but do you know how hard it is to actually reach that point? Because again, we can talk, we’ve been talking about migration for the past three years after the tragedy of my nephew, so where is the action? Where is the action? I heard about people before (saying), why can’t we educate those people before they take that journey, why can’t you go legally? But if there is no legal route to take, and their life continues to be in desperate need of help, those refugees, there are like millions of them, how long can they wait?
People, if they want to act, how I wish that there somehow would be a legal route for those people to take, instead of putting their lives in those smugglers’ hands for 1-3,000 euros, when it would cost them 2-300 euro to go to Europe, and safely.
Now, politicians, they don’t want that and they will never work on this even though every country is benefitting from those refugees or migrants. If the migrant person, if he wants to come to Europe because he wants a better education or a better future, he or she is a highly educated person, why don’t we give them that chance if they can’t do it in their own country because of war? Why would we let them risk their lives and put themselves in danger?
I encourage the whole community and world leaders that they would share this plan together and really work to finding a good solution so that no more people would take that dangerous route. It’s very sad, they are not a number, they are a human being, they care about their family and we need to go for that route.
One final question. Going back to the book, on a personal level, did you find any healing through the writing process?
Absolutely, absolutely. Writing my book, The Boy on the Beach, was a healing process for me because to put my words on that paper every day, it was not easy, and to share my private family story with the world, that is also not easy, but when you’re grieving and you want to do something to help those millions of suffering people and you can’t, putting that word in my book from my heart, and with my tears running down my cheek, it gave me so much healing.
In the end, it’s all about people, it’s all about awareness, it’s about human life, that we continue to see and we’re not doing enough. I keep telling myself, no, it’s not over, I continue to write because somebody has to do it, somebody has to be out there and keep reminding the world of that image, of the boy on the beach who shook the world.