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Syrian boy’s tragic death stops the world

by Daniel Heimpel

A Turkish police officer stands next to a migrant child's dead body off the shores in Bodrum, southern Turkey, on September 2, 2015 after a boat carrying refugees sank while reaching the Greek island of Kos. Thousands of refugees and migrants arrived in Athens on September 2, as Greek ministers held talks on the crisis, with Europe struggling to cope with the huge influx fleeing war and repression in the Middle East and Africa.

It’s Sunday, Sept. 6. I sit on a bench at a San Francisco car wash reading The San Francisco Chronicle. I find the image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down, dead, on a Turkish beach.

I try to read on, but can’t get through a paragraph. I look back at the photo. Aylan could be sleeping; he could be my son. I start to cry. People are all around.

My crying is conspicuous, odd. A woman walks over, touches my shoulder.

“What is wrong?”

I show her the photo.

“I don’t understand,” she says. “What can we do?”

I have no answer, but three ideas are running in my head: two historical and one contemporary.

First, I think about how Franklin Roosevelt’s State Department kept Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany from coming to the United States. The arguments against saving the Jews then were a heavy dose of anti-Semitism, cloaked in a remotely plausible concern that German emigres would conduct espionage.

The other thought revolves around the Hungarian revolution in 1956. Dissidents rose up, the Soviets crushed them, and my father’s wife, Gabriella, then 19, fled across the Austrian border. Instead of being corralled and discouraged from travel west, Gabriella and hundreds of other refugees were given choices of where they could go: Germany, Canada, even Australia.

I conclude my thought with Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. In May, Klobuchar and a baker’s dozen other Senate Democrats urged the Obama administration to allow 65,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S.

Now that sounds like the right idea.

For a moment, in this San Francisco car wash, under a warm, resplendent sun, this stranger and I are closer to Syria and the tortured paths migrants are taking out. Aylan’s photo stopped the world and forced us to think: What is our role in a conveniently distant crisis?


Daniel Heimpel is a Lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

This article was originally posted on The San Francisco Chronicle.