Photo of Syrian boy acts as a call to action

You have probably seen the picture: a tiny, crumpled boy in a red T-shirt laying facedown in beach sand. The image was plastered across the news, shared on social media and became a topic of elevator conversation almost immediately following its publication.

A photograph has the power to incite emotion and action in others. While the picture is uncomfortable to see and the topic is difficult to dwell upon, its publication was necessary to bring the appropriate attention to the refugee crisis. It is more important to create awareness through the truth than to spare comfortable eyes from feeling sad.

There is an ethical dilemma of whether it was right to share the images taken of the boy’s small, lifeless body. Although it is the media’s responsibility to minimize harm, the ability to use the truth to make a difference can sometimes take precedent. The decision must sometimes be made to sacrifice the comfortableness and use the shock as an incentive to make a change.

The 3-year-old boy’s name was Aylan Kurdi, and he was one of the nine million refugees who have fled to escape the civil war in Syria. His family was leaving Syria in an attempt to find sanctuary in Greece, but their boat capsized off the coast of Turkey, according to the BBC.

The civil war in Syria is nothing new — Syrian refugees have been seeking shelter in other countries since March 2011. Regardless, the talk circulating the infamous picture was the first many heard of the huge number of refugees seeking safety in many Syria-adjacent middle-eastern and European countries.

It is far too easy to live in our safe, comfortable bubble and ignore the horrific realities we have only ever seen in movies. The closest many people have been to a real war-plagued country is through video game screens and action movie scripts. There is a detachment between what is happening on the other side of the Earth and with what we could ever imagine ourselves going through.

This type of privilege is misleading and leads to an overall lack of understanding and knowledge in our western society. There are numerous lucky people, especially in the U.S., who have never been a refugee, nor have any personal experience with war or extreme poverty or imminent danger. It is undeniably hard, through no immediate fault of our own, to relate to someone who has survived such terrible circumstances.

It would be easy for many of us to say that we have nothing in common with those refugees. They come from a far-away country with a different culture, a different religion, a different language.

Universally, we can understand a pair of tiny sneakers that will never be in need of tying again.

Yes, the picture is sad. Every time I saw little Aylan while researching for this column, my stomach lurched and I alternated between feeling sorry and angry. However, I realize that if I had not seen that tiny red T-shirt while scrolling through Twitter, I would not know and therefore could not care about the refugee crisis. Since the picture’s publication, news coverage on the Syrian refugees has been more thorough, headlines continue to appear and there has been action.

Germany, England and many other countries have announced plans to provide refuge to those escaping war. Pope Francis has called for parish sponsorship and open arms for refugee families. With any luck (and human decency), this support will continue for the groups that need it and a greater effort will be taken to accommodate for the lives at stake.

The photograph of Aylan had an effect on those who viewed it, and awareness continues to grow about the very real crisis impacting millions of lives. An opportunity to inspire reaction should never be passed in order to promote the theory that ignorance is happiness.

Related Links:

ASU student finds success after fleeing Iraq

Students donate time to help refugees

Reach the columnist at or follow @symmaki on Twitter.

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Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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