Since March of 2011, more than nine million Syrian civilians have been displaced. Of that, four million have fled Syria. Hundreds of thousands are dead, and just as many widowed and orphaned.
Consider for a moment the magnitude of this. Consider what it must be like for this many people to flee. Families often facing serious danger including not only the violence from the Assad regime and certain rebel factions, but also starvation, dehydration, and debilitating economic conditions. Leaving with little more than the clothes on their backs, facing arduous journeys, fraught with harm.
We read the statistics. Read an article every once in a while. Our hearts sink, sure. We shake our heads with a helpless “what’s this world coming to?” Then we move on. Our Facebook newsfeed is far more concerned with funny memes, Donald Trump quotes, photos of the family on vacation, and Cecil the Lion.
Another 50 children dead – another 100 with severed limbs – another 30 raped – the numbers move us only temporarily. They do not consume us. They do not motivate us to act, or organize, or push for policy change.
Then comes three-year-old drowned Alan Kurdi (originally reported as Aylan). And we change. We are suddenly struck. Sick to our stomach. Outraged at the injustice.
He mobilizes the world. Not only individuals but entire communities throughout Europe, the Arab world, and North America are pushing their leaders to do more about the refugee crisis. The call that something be done about the war causing the crisis is the loudest it has been, with the focus away from ISIS chopping off American heads (us) and on the far more impacted Syrians (them).
The old cliché, you say. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” We have a general understanding about the evocative capabilities of imagery versus the coldness of statistic. Science can explain this. In fact, the human brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than text. Brain recognize familiar objects within 100 milliseconds. Familiar faces within only 380 milliseconds.
There are two basic reasons for this. First, visuals simultaneously affect us both cognitively and emotionally, whereas text is always cognitive at first. While text’s cognitive impact is frequently followed by an emotional effect, the process is a step-by-step ladder approach and therefore not as immediately impactful as the contemporaneous cognitive-visual impacts of an image. The second reason has to do with our memory capabilities. Visuals more easily move into our long-term memory and are more accessible. All of this may be due to evolution. The ability to quickly process and remember an image likely served our ancestors from attacks of predators or while gathering food. But grasping the significance of visual stimuli is just the beginning of understanding Alan’s power.
After all, his is not the first image of a dead Syrian child. His is not even the first image of a drowned Syrian child washed up on a shore. Image after image of bloodied bodies, crumbling walls, tearful children and their hopeless parents have circulated for years.
With Alan, we cannot even see his eyes.
Yet there is no doubt about the unique effects of Alan’s photo, which journals are proclaiming to be among the most impactful photos of all time. Our Facebook feed has never seen so many articles about the war in Syria and the ripple effects of it among an innocent civilian population. What has, for the last two years, been the largest humanitarian crisis of our time, suddenly consumes our mind. It is not that we are no longer concerned with Cecil and the disturbed mind of the man who hunted, decapitated and skinned the spectacular creature. Rather, the desperation of millions … millions of those with nowhere to go, risking the whims of the ocean because they have no other choice … seems to have taken its rightful place in our priority of causes list. The colossal scale that once made us throw our hands in the air with powerlessness now has us flocking to website after website that gives us the Top 5 Ways to Help Syrian Refugees (or some permutation thereof). It has us talking, sharing on Facebook, and petitioning our leaders to do more. And, of course, because as a collective we are powerful, it is working. The world is changing.
All because of Alan.
But why? What is it about Alan? What is it about this image? This boy?
And we see him, not just on the cover of the newspaper one day, but again and again, in our newsfeed, on our televisions, and when we close our eyes at night.
Science again tries to explain it through an examination of emotionally evocative colors and compositions.
The angle of his petite shoes. The loving way, we imagine, his mother must have put them on.
The stillness of his small body on the massive shore, as if he was just sleeping.
The softness of the waves, as if they could never harm a soul.
The vividness of his red shirt, which you know is one of his best.
And, perhaps, the image of your own child playing with a bucket in the water just last weekend. Your innocent-one pitter-pattering down the hall into your bed in the morning – wanting nothing more than to cuddle up, tug at your cheeks and slather you with kisses until you wake up to play. How safe your baby is. How protected. Imagining otherwise is crushing.
Alan tells us a story. He tells us his nightmare. We feel the water as it consumes and thrashes him. The tears of his devastated father. The lifelessness of his brother and mother. The soundtrack of his death rings through us. Alan manages to tell it all, and tell it in a way that enables us to process not only the singular devastation of him but to also grasp the enormous implications of the larger story.
We quickly extrapolate from his tragedy and suddenly begin to consume more and more woeful stories. Now there is a train full of desperate refugees stranded on their way to Austria. Now there is a crowd of welcomers in Frankfort. Now there is France pledging to take in this many and England pledging to take that many. Now the world is moving much faster. And we collaborate, coordinate, and call for world change.
We find we cannot look away anymore. Not from his cold body. Not from the statistics which we can finally grasp. Not from any of it.
As for science’s explanations, none of them seem sufficient. There is something ethereal about breathless Alan and his wet shoes.
He is the linchpin to a butterfly effect that is already changing the world.
As the dominoes fall, one by one, at least some part of us can rejoice in our own awakening and express gratitude to this precious and lost little boy for being our source of light.
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Author of Butterfly Stitching
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