I saw the picture of you in the news this week. I, along with the rest of the world, saw you there – lying on the beach, your body lifeless. Your little red shirt and blue shorts, tiny tennis-shoes. At first my mind didn’t understand what I was seeing until my eyes scanned the caption under the picture which read,
“The two small boys whose bodies washed up on a Turkish beach Wednesday were Kurdish refugees from Kobane, Syria, whose family had been desperately trying to emigrate to Canada.
Galib Kurdi, five, and his three-year-old brother Aylan died along with their mother Rehan and eight other refugees when their boat overturned in a desperate flight from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos.
The boys’ father, Abdullah, survived. His family says his only wish now is to return to Kobane with his dead wife and children, bury them, and be buried alongside them.”
I suppose I did what every parent did at the sight of that photo. I gasped. I thought of my own dear boys. I thought about how I would give anything and everything to keep them safe – and how I’m sure your parents felt the same.
And then I went on with my day, Aylan. I had stuff to do. I had to run some errands and go to a Bible study and visit some people. Later that day when I was scanning facebook I saw someone had posted your picture again. Again, I felt sad. I felt helpless. I felt thankful my own boys were safe and I prayed for your father.
I went to sleep that night and woke in the morning to see your picture again in the newspaper. Aylan, I confess that I didn’t want to see it again. I didn’t want to see it because I felt bad when I looked at it. Even though I had only just heard about you the day before, your little red shirt and blue shorts were old news now. How long was I expected to feel sad for you? How long should I feel bad about your whole situation I knew nothing about? I had plenty other things to think about and plenty other news to read.
But then you started staying near to me. In my thoughts, in my heart.
I’m ashamed to admit to you, Aylan, that I knew so very little before these last days about what is going on in your homeland. I get so busy with my own life and my own cares that too often the news I hear from around the world becomes just noise and I don’t stop to pay attention to what is happening. Of course I had heard things about Syria, about ISIS, and while things sounded bad, I knew there was so much to pray about things right here in my own country. And you and your family sounded so far away. Until I saw you there with your little red shirt and your little blue shorts, tiny tennis shoes. For me and for many, You weren’t just another headline. You were far from the first child to die because of the civil war in your homeland but when I saw you I finally realized –You could have been my boys. My boys could have been you. Except they were born here and you were born there.
So when you started to stay near in my thoughts this week, sweet Aylan, I finally opened my eyes and ears. It’s astonishing how much I can learn when I actually pay attention to things beyond myself and my own zip code. I learned that there are 5.6 million children like you who have lost homes and lives and any sense of safety because of the civil war that broke out in Syria in 2011. Many are now living in over-stretched refugee camps, makeshift shelters or villages. Many have fled Syria on foot, taking only what they could carry. Most fled under the cover of night to avoid sniper fire and shelling. There are Millions refugee children just like you who are exhausted, hungry and terrified.
Thousands of Syrians still flee their country every day. They often decide to finally escape after seeing their neighborhoods bombed or family members killed. The risks on the journey to the border can be as high as staying. Families walk for miles through the night to avoid being shot at by snipers or being caught by soldiers who will kidnap young men to fight for the regime.
Aylan, I read the story of a young mother, Hiba – she recently fled with her daughter and her severely disabled son, following the destruction of her home.
Hiba said, “Once the shells started and we ran…I couldn’t take my son’s wheelchair so I had to carry him, and run. We thought it was better for us to die in the street than under the rubble of our house. We ran at three in the morning and we didn’t know where to go. We were just running because we didn’t want to die under the rubble. I wasn’t thinking – I just wanted to protect my children.”
“In the morning we came back to our home but it was ruined…I cried and I shouted but there was nothing else I could do. There is no human being alive that wouldn’t be sad – we worked all our life to building our home and suddenly we lose it all. “
“There is no place for us to go, no safe space to go to at all.”
I read about how the majority of displaced Syrians are living in Jordan or Lebanon – countries that are stretched beyond their breaking point now and unable to take care of the people who are there. Others have taken to the sea to try to get to other countries where there might be a future. Aylan, I know your family did what you had to do. You had to leave.
And then, not long after your journey began, we saw your picture. Dear boy, I am so sorry. I’m so sad that you had to leave your home and face that terrifying journey over the water. I can’t begin to know the kind of horror that you experienced in your short life.
But I’m so thankful that whoever took those pictures let the world see them. Forgive me that for even a moment I wanted to turn away and not see the picture. We need to see it. We need to hate your death and the violence in this world that caused it.
You were just three years old – but your life mattered in countless ways – to your parents, to your whole family, to God – and though we did not meet, now you are so near to me each day.
Aylan, you were with me when I was studying the texts from the Bible for this week. When I read the prophet Isaiah speaking the word of hope to the exiles in Babylon and talking about the waters breaking forth in the wilderness and the streams in the desert, I wondered where the hope was for you when the waters enveloped your sweet little head.
And when the psalmist sang of giving justice to the oppressed, I hung my head and contemplated how your young life knew of no justice. While other children were busy sleeping in a few more times before school gets started again, while other children were busy riding their bikes around the block or staring at a video game, you were dreaming of a safe place to live for your family, of being done riding in that boat.
Even when I read the gospel for today and heard Jesus talking to the Syrophoenician woman who came to him begging for help for her child and at first he turns her away and only helps her after she holds on tight and keeps asking him, not letting him get away with turning her away – because a parent will do anything to help their child – maybe then I thought of you the most. Sweet boy, you deserved better than what happened to you. You deserved safe passage and a warm bed to sleep in. You deserved a full tummy and to be able to grow up along with your brother, sharing memories and life with your parents. You deserved laughter and education and hope and a future.
Aylan, what can I do for you now? A 45 year-old white preacher in Minnesota. What can I do for you – for children like you? I feel so helpless sometimes. The gospel is so extremely clear about how Christians must care, not only care, but help those who lack anything. The gospel compels us to welcome you and all refugees – with no stipulation or hesitation. And yet, borders rise up everywhere – between lands, between hearts, between peoples – keeping us all in our place, until ultimately we feel threatened by anything or anyone different. I want to help, but I just don’t know how?
Of course, one thing I must do is never ever forget that my ancestors were refugees, too, in their own way. Aylan, it’s true. They left Norway because they were so poor and there was no land and no opportunity. They weren’t in the middle of civil war like your family was – but they did come with a hope for something better – just like your family did.
It was a different time, to be sure, but there’s nothing in the gospel of Jesus Christ that allows me to reserve compassion for when it is easy or when it makes sense or when it doesn’t put me out of my way too much. God doesn’t allow us to see your picture or hear the news about what is happening to you and your people without compelling us to take action. Wherever we are.
And Aylan, in addition to remembering that my own people were once people traveling on the sea looking for a new home, I’m going to do something else.
So, Aylan, I have been thinking about your picture and about how helpless I feel to really do anything for children like you. But then I realized how far from helpless I am. You actually were – you were a child fleeing a war-torn country. But I am not a victim here. I am not helpless. God help me if I act like I am. Because I can use my voice to talk about you. I can encourage others to do the same. I can use my money to help support organizations that can help other children like you. I can stop putting any energy at all into feeling so dang helpless and remember that I may not be able to do everything, but I can do something.
Aylan, when my boys were very little and they wanted me to hold them, they would stretch their arms up to me and say, “Hold you, hold you.” It was the dearest thing in the world to me. Those sweet, trusting faces and knowing they were looking to me for comfort and some sense of assurance in their world. I had the power to give that to them. And so I would reach down and pick them up and hold them close.
And when they are asleep, then and still now, I put my hand on their heads and I bless them and ask God to watch over them now and always. And I trust that no matter what, God will. It’s not trusting that they will always have good luck or that nothing bad will ever happen to them – it’s trusting that no matter what happens, God will be with them. That even on their worst days they will know they are loved – by God and by their family.
Aylan, you are loved, by God and by us. Your death showed me a glimpse of the worst of sin and evil in this world – and now I pray that as I remember you, I‘ll be moved to show a glimpse of something quite different. I will show love and mercy. Generosity and bravery. I’ll not just speak about how awful it is that you died, but I’ll do my best to help where I can because you lived.
I pray you rest in peace.
With love in Christ,
p.s. I’ve encouraged our congregation to support the work of Lutheran World Relief among the Syrians – to learn more or to contribute check out http://www.lwr.org