First Person

What does it take to spark compassion for Syria?

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Tala, 2, from Ghouta, near Damascus in Syria, waits as her father collects drinking water from an Oxfam supplied water tank in Zaatari camp in Jordan, which is home to around 80,000 Syrian refugees. Half of the camp's residents are under 18. Oxfam helps some 25,000 of Zaatari's residents by providing drinking water, toilets and showers, community centres, hygiene promotion and waste collection. Photo: Sam Tarling / Oxfam

As Oxfam publishes its latest ‘fair share’ report on the international response to the conflict in Syria, Maya Mailer, Oxfam’s head of humanitarian policy and campaigns, reflects on the recent display of public solidarity with refugees and asks what, if anything, a single photograph can change. 

A few weeks ago, a single photograph appeared to have woken up the world to the reality of the conflict in Syria.  The image of little Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body spoke to people in a way that thousands of words hadn’t or couldn’t.

I didn’t know what to make of the public reaction to that photo and indeed my own. On the one hand, I was baffled and frustrated: Really? It took a dead toddler washed up on a beach for there to be a groundswell of compassion for Syrians?

I’ve visited the refugee camps and sites in Jordan and Lebanon and I’ve spoken to families devoid of hope. I know that Aylan’s family’s tragedy is one devastating story among so many.  Since the start of the crisis four and a half years ago, millions of Syria’s children have been forced to flee their homes.  A recent study suggests that 9,400 children have been killed. Who will remember them and those that will follow them? Their names, fears, dreams, their potential and their future have been lost to the world.

I understand why Syrian artist Neda Kadri drew this cartoon, which shows Syrian children welcoming Aylan to heaven: ‘You are so lucky Aylan! We are the victims of the same war but nobody cared about our death.’

But I also understand why and how we become immune to the reporting of war and why it takes a picture of that kind to make an emotional connection—for a seeming far away conflict to feel close and personal. As a mother of children the same age as Aylan and his older brother Ghalib, who also drowned together with their mother, I felt the power of that image. The photo of Aylan was eerily familiar; it reminded me of a sleeping child. I couldn’t get the picture out of my head and I couldn’t stop thinking about what it must have taken for their parents to take the risks they did. Aylan and Ghalib were children like mine, except, the roll of the dice, meant they were born in a country ravaged by war.

Days after the picture appeared on our phones, screens and TVs and a public outcry ensued, several countries said they would resettle more Syrian refugees. But how much has really changed? A new report published by Oxfam today, Solidarity with Syrians, shows that the world’s rich and most powerful countries continue to fall badly short in helping Syrians inside and outside their country.

The report tells of the 10 million Syrians without enough to eat, as siege warfare is waged in a conflict that has cost more than a quarter of a million lives. It tells of a country in which more than half of the population has fled their homes.

It tells of individuals whose stories, like Aylan’s, should be shaming for us all—a man like Ahmed, a refugee in Jordan who struggles to feed his family, is forbidden to work legally and whose food rations are dwindling as aid declines. Is it any surprise he tells Oxfam he is contemplating the dangerous route to Turkey and beyond?

But as Dima Salam (not her real name), a young Syrian refugee now working for Oxfam in the UK, explains so movingly in another blog today, nobody wants to be a refugee. What she wants above all else is an end to the bloodshed.  And yet the violence in Syria rages on and is intensifying.

Oxfam doesn’t pretend to have an answer to how the conflict can end, but we do think that providing ever more arms and ammunitions to the warring parties, and dropping more bombs won’t get Syria any closer to peace. And we know that more civilians will be killed, and more children will have their lives cut short or scarred as long as that continues. Today we are calling for the world’s most prosperous countries to provide their fair share of humanitarian aid and resettlement spots for Syrian refugees. But, there can be no substitute for a political solution, and rich countries, many of whom are embroiled in Syria’s civil war, must search for one.

Tell the US government to do their fair share and resettle at least 100,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year.

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