Responding to Aylan

This blog is usually a mental health blog, particularly a perinatal mental health blog. Today however I am going to take a break from the usual focus and look instead at an issue which has been troubling me for a long time, but has become even more weighty after the horrific images of people arriving on the shores of Turkey and Greece, both alive and perished have been hitting the international news in the last few days. I have struggled to know whether to write about this, and feeling that my doing so is likely to be insignificant compared to many who are doing so, but I have decided to do so despite my reservations in the hope that it might help even in a very small way.

The refugee crisis in Northern Africa and the Middle East has been going on a long time, with people risking their lives in desperation to reach Europe in the hopes that they will be able to find safety and refuge there. It is estimated that as many as 20000 may have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the last two decades, and in the last two years the problem has become critical, with over 2500 dying attempting the crossing this year. It has been in the news regularly in relation to the war in Syria for at least the last two years, both in England and throughout the world. Last week the bodies of around 70 refugees who had been exploited and then abandoned by human traffickers were found in a shipping container, and to be honest no one really batted an eyelid. But this week images have come to light which have shocked people in to realising the seriousness of what is going on, and the reality of the struggle for these desperate families who are risking everything because they have no other choice. It has finally dawned on the general public, including myself, that we need to wake up.

The most powerful and most distressing of these pictures are these:

REFILE - CORRECTING BYLINEATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH OR INJURYA young migrant, who drowned in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, lies on the shore in the Turkish coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, September 2, 2015. At least 11 migrants believed to be Syrians drowned as two boats sank after leaving southwest Turkey for the Greek island of Kos, Turkey's Dogan news agency reported on Wednesday. It said a boat carrying 16 Syrian migrants had sunk after leaving the Akyarlar area of the Bodrum peninsula, and seven people had died. Four people were rescued and the coastguard was continuing its search for five people still missing. Separately, a boat carrying six Syrians sank after leaving Akyarlar on the same route. Three children and one woman drowned and two people survived after reaching the shore in life jackets. REUTERS/Nilufer Demir/DHAATTENTION EDITORS - NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TURKEY OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN TURKEY. TEMPLATE OUT

A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of a  migrant child after a number of migrants died and a smaller number  were reported missing after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/DHA) TURKEY OUT

Photo credit: Nilufer Demir, Reuters
These photos show a three year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, being picked up by a rescue worker after his body was washed up on the shores of Turkey when the boat carrying himself and his family sank, killing him, his brother, his mother and several others.
Again I struggled to know whether to put these photos in, especially as they seem to be everywhere you look at the moment, and because I myself find them so distressing. But photography is a powerful medium, and it takes images as shocking as these sometimes to galvanise complacent people (again including myself!) in to action where it is so easy to ignore other people’s suffering as we go about our relatively comfortable lives.
I have been thinking about why it is these photos in particular which have troubled people, when photos of utter desperation from the same situation have hit the news repeatedly for such a long period and I believe that it is for several reasons. Firstly I think that this has become and will likely continue to be the iconic image from this episode in history. Photographs which reflect the struggle do this, and are seared into the collective memory forever, like the man standing in front of the tanks in Tianenmen Square, Kim Phuc, the child running naked from the napalm attack during the Vietnam war, Dorothea Lange’s powerful black and white photograph of a struggling mother during the Great Depression, and many many more.
Secondly because this image humanises this particular struggle in the way that none other has done yet. It is easy to think of refugees (do not dare to call them migrants) as “other”, even as sub-human – politicians must do that in order to be as heartless as they continue to be, but when we look at these images we can’t do that. This kid looks like one of our kids. He is obviously well cared for and loved. He is well dressed. He looks like he’s been playing on the beach and has fallen over. But he is dead, he has drowned because his family have been so desperate in their current situation that they have risked, and lost everything trying to get to a place where they can find safety and security. There are other photos like this one, many others. They should be hard to ignore, but we do. It shouldn’t take a photo like this to make things different, but it does. We should have compassion always, but we don’t. We are all racist to some extent and we all have to switch off at least some of our compassion to continue to function in a Western society in light of what is happening in other parts of the world. But these photos challenge our normal defenses which keep out other peoples’ sufferings, and they will not let us ignore them, they make us look again. Every mother I know who has seen these cannot talk about them without tearing up. I found myself sobbing in a DMV line (queue) yesterday. We are waking up. Maybe these images make us realise that “Shit, if circumstances were a bit different this could be me, my children, my family. My baby boy”. And we have to respond to that. Or at least we should. It is GOOD that we are heartbroken by this.
But why is this touching people’s hearts in a way that other crises haven’t? For people in the UK, there is a massive political disillusionment which feeds into this – our current government’s approach to those who are poor and those with disabilities, and particularly to people seeking refuge is despicable. And people are fed up of it, and fed up of not knowing what to do in a situation like this, and want to come together to make a difference. Our Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent comments about how the response that we as a country are taking are being a part of working towards a political solution in that region are so hollow. Could he look Aylan’s father in the eye and say that as he faces having to continue life as the only surviving member of his family? The UK has always prided itself on being a bit “other”, and so far have totally refused to be a part of any Europe-wide plan for providing safety for refugees. There is ongoing political and media rhetoric about a “swarm of migrants”, and the implication that it would be utterly crippling for our country to take in any number of the people who need help. There is a horrific refugee camp in Calais in France where thousands of desperate people wait hoping to get in to the UK, and where conditions are absolutely appalling, and the UK just spends more and more money on fences and security to keep people out. It is understandable that people are afraid, particularly with our social healthcare system and social security provisions (slowly being dismantled by the same government), but no-one is asking the UK to take in ALL the refugees, just our fair share, and now even local authorities are coming forward and saying that they will take a certain number of refugees and provide housing and assistance. The pressure on the top politicians is rising, as it should be.
But here’s another problem. Conflict is happening all over the world, not just in Syria. There is suffering and injustice everywhere. It always has been and always will be, this is not new or surprising. Media and the internet means that we know about it, that’s the difference. We have had widespread media coverage of many previous humanitarian crises over the last 20 years such as the Bosnian genocide, the plight of orphans in Romania, the suffering of the famine in Ethiopia, the horrific violence in the DRC, which continues. There are enormous social issues in both England and America which demand our attention, and focus on local  issues which have been largely ignored for years such as institutionalised racism is good. People understandably often balk at helping those in other countries when there is so much suffering right on our doorsteps. The scale of global and local suffering is overwhelming. I AM OVERWHELMED. I am a mother of three young children battling serious mental illness trying to study for huge exams, with a husband who works long hours and various other challenging life circumstances. Even taking the time out to write this blog post contributes to my overwhelm because I am SO pressed for time. It’s easier to be an ostrich, to ignore these issues. But we must not be ostriches, So what can we do?
The best advice I can give is do something. Find some way to help with the immediate problem. There are some incredibly low-bar easy way to do this. The easiest I can think of is to join political petitioning civic movements and organisations like change.org or avaaz.org or citizensuk.org sumofus.org moveon .org,
who raise awareness of these issues on a day to day basis. This takes virtually no time or effort, but these organisations have achieved massive things through the grassroots support of people like us.
Sign these petitions:
and then any other related ones which come through the above organisations.
Join communities like these to give you ideas of how to help. Two examples (among many many others are):
Sponsor a child if you can. We have just started sponsoring a child again after having not done so for a while (not a Syrian child, a child from the West Bank in Jerusalem), and are doing it this time through a charity called World Vision, who work with vulnerable children all over the world, and are particularly open about how the money donated to them is used, which I find reassuring. There are many many charities who do this kind of work. It makes a difference.
Give financially if you are able, any amount helps. There are so many organisations who work with refugees in Europe and beyond, and I obviously can’t list them all, but this list from the Independent is a good start, and also lists more grassroots groups you can join:
This is a BRILLIANT practical article, please read it! Notable things from it if you can’t is that supporting organizations like these – Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders in America) and the MAOS – Migrant Offshore Aid Station are a great place to start. But 
Volunteer if you can – if you have skills which could be useful, are at a life stage where you have the freedom to do so, and can get time off work to go and help. DO IT!
More than this though, I would encourage you to slowly change your lifestyle and attitude to incorporate caring for those less fortunate than yourself in both the local and international community. It’s great to be moved by a critical situation, but it is harder and much more powerful to make a long term commitment  to make small (or big!) changes in lifestyle. You don’t have to do this, and if you can only give to the current situation as a single act of kindness, it is very much still worth it. But if you want to do more, once we’re past the current crisis and looking towards the long term I’d recommend starting really small. Because the overall issue is enormous, trying to do too much at the beginning is likely to mean that you don’t continue it, which would be a huge shame. Yet small lifestyle changes are the kind of thing that, if everyone adopted them, could mean a HUGE improvement in social justice worldwide. Here is a list that I can think of off the top of my head:

Buy an extra item at the grocery store for a foodbank,  or volunteer for a foodbank.

Before you take kids clothes/shoes to the charity shop/consignment store check if your local womens’ refuge needs clothes in those sizes. Please check, places like this often have very little stiorage and big donations of items they don’t need are actually unhelpful.
As I said before, sponsor a child or children
If you are part of a faith-based community give to your local church/mosque/synagogue or other. Make sure they have a commitment to give a significant percentage of their income to support the vulnerable in the local and international community. If they don’t, be part of making a change to that, or move to another place. We have finally found a church that has this as a fundamental part of their ethos, and think that this is so important. Fulfil the mandate to care for the poor and needy that should be a part of your expression of faith.
Volunteer at a soup kitchen or related community project.
Get involved with mentoring vulnerable young people in your community.
Encourage yourselves and your kids to give out of your plenty – give some of the money you receive for birthdays and Christmas and other occasions away to people who need it more than you. Our kids are encouraged to give a percentage of their pocket money and actually take a lot of delight in doing so. They also recently gave some of their birthday money to a friend of ours who is working in India who used it to help buy resources for a summer school that they were running. It’s so important that we involve our kids in things that give them an international outlook.
If your children are moved by a particular issue (because kids are so often better at noticing social injustice than we are, they’ve not yet built up our defenses against it), then encourage it! While we were in England recently, we were walking through Manchester City Centre, and it was the first time that our kids had ever noticed homeless people since they were of an age where they could understand the concept. Maya particularly was really moved with compassion and very distressed about realising that there were people who are in such a vulnerable situation. With homeless people it is often very difficult to know what to do that will be helpful, and while it is good to give to charities helping to combat homelessness, sometimes a practical response is also helpful. I saw an idea to create bags of mini-toiletries to give to people who we come across, and shameless stole it to produce these with my girls:
FullSizeRender (5)
(The differentiation between the sexes is because we didn’t think that men would appreciate being given tampons or sanitary towels!). If people are interested I can post a list of what we put in them. Please know that I am REALLY not trying to big up our family by posting this, we are still extremely complacent much of the time, but we are trying and that is good. I have learnt a lot from others who do this kind of thing so I hope that it is helpful to share.
If you have faith then pray, but don’t JUST pray. Take action, however small it is.
These are only a few ideas and I am by no means an expert on these things. If anyone has other suggestions I will happily update this post to reflect them (I’d also like to know if any links aren’t quite right).
This has turned into a bit of a marathon post. If you’ve read this far, well done for sticking it out!
Jenn
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~ by jennkeast on September 4, 2015.

4 Responses to “Responding to Aylan”

  1. Hi Jen, wanted to share with you something my old yoga teacher once shared with me. She said we should think globally and act locally as that is where our impact is greatest. And if everyone did this then the whole world would be a better place. I have carried that with me for a long time and although I do respond to global issues I decided when I retired to act much more locally to make an impact. Clearly caring for David is a local solution and is very challenging. I also give up a day each week to work with our local Salvation Army, they manage our local food bank, care for the homeless people in Preston and work at supporting a lot of people with drug, alcohol and mental health issues. They are excellent. I have learnt such a lot being with them but most of all to be totally non judgemental when faced with the reality of people’s situations and also to completely trust them as an agency to do the best with the donations we make. As well as time we also give a weeks food to them each month and I cook in the kitchens. We are now planning together a community cafe three days each week, mother and child groups and also I am planning a cooking course for people who come into the centre for food to help them make meals from the donations we share. It’s amazing how many young people don’t know how to cook. Many of the people who use this service are from the EU, living rough and just holding themselves together. It will be interesting to see over the next few months how many people start to appear who have been through the dreadful experiences many are now facing. Working with the SA in this way is challenging, you are faced with the reality of other people lives and its demanding and upsetting but it is all I can do. Also I think sometimes people forget that for me to have the freedom to act in his way I am dependent on Richard to care for David fully in the times I am not there. This is his major contribution to the situation, it’s invisible and not praised by others but without that contribution from him I could do nothing. It’s something I hold onto a lot, we don’t very often manage to do anything without the support of others. Help in small ways that you are able to do and love those closest to you so they can also one day help in any ways they can.

    • That’s absolutely true Alison, and I think that’s often true of carers of people with additional needs and those caring for young children who either do not have a lot of extra capacity or are being the backup for people who then are able to serve in the community. I think the think globally and act locally is a very good principle, but I also think giving globally is great and one day maybe Peter and I may be able to volunteer with MSF or something when the children are grown. Maybe. But if we can’t, and can help locally that isn’t any less valuable.

  2. That’s so true Jen. It is always a lovely idea to work globally and who knows it may be possible for you. But if not it is no less important to act locally. I have been so touched by the simple handshakes and touches I received from homeless men in Preston when I started making home made cakes for them once a month. They were truly emotional that someone would be bothered to do something nice for them and wanted to tell me. Cakes didn’t change their lives but for that one day and maybe others they had something really nice to enjoy and remember. That they are also part of a community that cares about them and thinks about them. Also I love making cake so making cakes for 90 people satisfied that need, made my house smell yum and avoided me getting very fat. See everyone’s a winner.

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