On Sept. 2, 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi boarded a small boat outside Bodrum, Turkey with his parents and 5-year-old brother. Dressed in a bright red T-shirt and shorts, shoes velcroed to his tiny feet, he was prepared for the journey that would help him and his family escape from their home of Kobani, Syria, to Kos, Greece. But Aylan never saw the Grecian shore. Before the sanctuary of Europe became anything more than his family’s distant hope for a future free from the horrors of civil war, their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. Aylan, his brother and his mother drowned.
They were just three of thousands to meet the same horrific fate. According to the Missing Migrants Project, a data collection arm of the International Organization for Migration, 2,701 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean between Jan. 1 and Sept. 3, 2015. The images of Aylan’s lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach have since become the international symbol of the crisis facing thousands more migrants and refugees seeking asylum in Europe.
When individuals are confronted with these images — images that disturb with their raw portrayal of human suffering — their first instinct is to look away, to turn the page of the newspaper or scroll past it on a social media feed. While this instinct is strong, it must be overcome.
The stories and photographs of those embroiled in the conflicts and struggles unknown to many in the developed Western world are more than news items; they are searing reminders of humanity’s linked fate and should be treated as no less. Though many are inclined to adopt an isolationist mentality, electively separating themselves from the hardships faced by others, the reality is that everyone, regardless of place or circumstance, is part of a world that is more connected than ever before.
The increasing globalization of society is evident in the mass sharing of information, culture and goods across geographic boundaries. We cannot claim that being citizens of a particular country separates us from those who reside elsewhere when we consume goods manufactured overseas and rely on the Internet for many of our daily tasks. As members of a now global community, it is our responsibility to remain informed of what goes on in the world around us, regardless of how unpleasant it may be.
When we ignore the suffering brought on by civil war, extreme poverty and human rights abuses, we ignore the countless individuals that such suffering affects. To brush aside their struggle in the name of preserving personal comfort is to deny them value as human beings; to otherize those in desperate need of aid is to lose touch with our own humanity.
If we allow ourselves to succumb to these phenomena, we lose the opportunity to make an impact on the world we are very much a part of. Cultivating empathy is the necessary first step in addressing the pressing need for action on behalf of those with few allies. The public outcry in response to Aylan Kurdi’s death is but one example of action spurred by empathy.
Both leaders and citizens around the world were stirred to express their outrage over the fact that European nations were not doing enough to help migrant families circumvent perilous journeys like the one that claimed a little boy’s life. This further pressured national leaders such as British Prime Minister David Cameron to declare that they would do more to address what has become the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
The refugee crisis is only one of many pressing issues our world currently faces — issues that will never be addressed until we commit to make ourselves aware of them. Whether or not we are able to immediately help solve the world’s problems is irrelevant to the question of whether we can make a difference. Meaningful progress rarely begins with a single, dramatic act; it begins with a series of small steps. Being aware is the first of these small steps, taking us away from the apathy that makes us part of the problem and toward the action that will help us be part of the solution.