Monday, September 7, 2015

The Toddler In The Surf

The Zaatari Refugee camp on the border of Jordan.  Just one of the camps for the more than 4 million refugees from the Syrian Civil War.  Source:  The Telegraph

There is a picture on the internet. (Click through the link if you want to see the picture, but don't say I didn't warn you)  It is a picture that I cannot bring myself to look squarely at, and that I cannot bring myself to put on my blog.

It is a picture of a boy, about three years old, dead on the beach in the surf.  He drowned, along with his mother and brother (though his father survived), trying to reach the safety of a place not torn apart by a civil war of unimaginable cruelty.

Perhaps this picture hits me harder than most because I have a toddler myself, but I don't think that is the only reason.  The photo has inspired hundreds of thousands of words of writing.  The little dead boy has inspired soul searching in Western countries.  The whole world doesn't have a toddler.

I think that this little dead boy strikes a chord because the world knows that the little boy didn't hurt anyone.  He wasn't a rebel.  He wasn't a soldier of an evil regime gassing civilians.  He was not an ISIS militant raping and enslaving women and slaughtering innocents.   He wasn't even a not-so-good guy that littered and cheated on his wife.  He was just a little boy, trying to reach a place where he wouldn't have to worry about people trying to kill him and his family.

But he didn't make it.  Like many refugees don't make it.  But a lot more people have died long before they even started to seek refuge.  And that is what the Syrian refugee crisis is about, people, regular people, seeking refuge from slaughter and depravity.

Syrian Refugees entering Iraq back in 2013.  Source: Times of Israel

If you follow the news superficially it might seem like the Syrian refugee crisis is a new thing.  Like it is some new humanitarian crisis that has blown up out of nowhere like a summer rainstorm.  But it isn't new.  It has been years in the making, and we (the West, the US, the voting public) are not innocent in this crisis.  What is different about this crisis now is that it has expanded to the point where the wealthy nations can no longer ignore the human cost of their apathy and myopic meddling.

Syrian Refugee children from back in 2013.  Source:

The challenge in trying to understand something as vastly catastrophic as the Syrian Civil War, or the concommitant rise of ISIS, is that there is always more context and more factors than can be held in any one mind at one time.  The challenge is exacerbated by the inability of the human mind to truly grasp tragedies on a grand scale.  The horrors of millions displaced and hundreds of thousands dead is so far beyond the scope of our ability to grasp that the human mind just resets back to zero.  The death of one person can touch us profoundly, but when the numbers climb it becomes harder to truly feel the tragedy.  So when we are confronted with a little dead boy face down in the surf, it hits harder than the photos of tens of thousands of tents.

Syrian refugee girl, from 2012.  Source:

The Syrian Civil War may well have been precipitated by social stresses created by a severe drought, and that drought may have been a result of human-caused climate change.  The post-apocalyptic flavor of bloodthirsty tyrants and maniacal murder-cults of movies like Mad Max seems to be made flesh in Syria.  And fittingly, if Syria is an example of a nation brought to collapse by climate change this could be a whirlwind that much of the world will ultimately reap.

But the humanitarian crisis that faces the world right now cannot simply be chalked up to global forces of nature beyond human control.  Global warming may have precipitated this mess, but failures of leadership here in the US and in the West at large have contributed to the ongoing nature of the disaster.

I could harp again on my hobby horse about the way that the failures of the US and the West to deal concretely with ISIS are creating a monster.  But I've already written a blog post about how the US is half-assing its way to catastrophy (and if ISIS has its way we will half-ass our way into armageddon).  But that would be unfair, because at this point ISIS has become too large, Iraq has become too weak, as has Syria, that a military solution to ISIS would require coherent and cohesive military and economic cooperation to avoid creating further regional destabilization.  In short, we half-assed things long enough that we can't just go stomp on ISIS anymore.

A Syrian Kurdish women and children fleeing across the Turkish border to escape ISIS advance in 2014.  Source:  The Atlantic

So instead I will harp on another one of my hobby horses, division politics.  It is seriously arguable that the humanitarian crisis in Syria has reached its current magnitude thanks in large part to US part politics.  The Syrian Civil War did not have to be allowed to spin out into a poly-polar mess of dozens of factions fighting for myriad goals.  Of course avoiding the mess would have required doing two extremely politically poisonous things: One, at least tacitly supporting Assad; and Two, minimally not working against Russia.

Really, in order to avoid this current humanitarian crisis, the US could have simply stepped aside and let Russia more actively assist Assad with the brutal suppression of the Syrian uprising.  It might have seemed heartless at the time, but it was already clear years ago that the rebels were no better, and probably worse, than Assad's regime.

You may recall the debate and bluster about "Red Lines" a few years ago when Obama was wanting to establish boundaries that would be unacceptable for Assad to cross.  Obama was like Gandalf at the bridge in Moria saying "YOU SHALL NOT GAS!!!"

Of course it wasn't a movie, and Assad did use chemical weapons, but it looked like the rebels did too.

Both parties had been making a lot of noise about Syria and how bad Assad was.  Some people said that we should back the rebels.  Some people said that Obama was recklessly getting us involved in yet another Mideast military mistake.  Some people said Obama was being too soft on Assad.  Some people, who were very much in the minority at the time were saying, "umm, Assad might be bad and all, but this whole Arab Spring thing and the rebels in Syria might not be in our best interests."

But you have to remember that at the beginning, back in 2012, the Syrian Civil war didn't really seem like that big of a deal.  The Arab Spring was bringing democracy to the Mideast.  It was very popular in Washington to hop on the "Democracy good, Dictators bad" bandwagon.  Getting into philosophical arguments about whether or not we should support "democratic" movements that seek to install democratically elected theocracies is the kind of nuanced debate that doesn't make for easily digestible soundbites.  The shorthand we tend to use in this country is "Democracy good," but what we really mean is "Liberal Democracy Done Our Way good."  After all, Hamas is the democratically elected leadership of Gaza.  The Iraqi democracy, that we installed, decided to elect leaders that oppressed the Sunni minority.  The examples go on, but it is the kind of thing that doesn't sound good in political debates.  Whereas calling a political opponent anti-democracy does sound great in political debates.

So against this backdrop, a civil war breaking out in an Arab country that had seemed very stable seemed like...  I dunno, democracy maybe, minor maybe, who knows, where is Syria anyway?

But then news reports started painting a picture of awfulness.  It was sometime in 2012 that an Al Jazeera report first started really scarring my psyche with coverage of the Syrian Civil War.  I had gotten into the habit of watching Al Jazeera reports on current events because the coverage often felt very immediate and raw.  The day that an Al Jazeera report cut to footage of an infant bleeding out from a bullet wound convinced me that maybe I liked my news a little less raw.  But once again it was the children of this war that broke my heart at the start and continue to haunt my thoughts today.

A Syrian Refugee boy in Turkey.  Reuters

With all this awfulness happening, and "Dictators bad" in everyone's mind, eyes turned to Obama.  What was he going to do about it?  And here is where division politics in the US can take a tragedy on the other side of the planet and help it grow into a humanitarian catastrophe that destabilizes a region and then spills out over the world.

Obama couldn't just do nothing, or the Republicans would accuse him of failing to lead.  But Obama couldn't just let Russia pursue their Agenda, especially since that would also help Iran.  Backing Assad would have given the Republicans tremendous ammunition, plus most Democrats wouldn't feel comfortable backing a nasty dictator.  So in order to back Assad, Obama would have had to risk attack on all sides domestically.  But there was never going to be a realistic possibility of the US invading Syria and trying to set up another Iraq (remember, ISIS had not made the news yet, so Iraq was still being sold as a semi-success).  Obama was caught between an emerging crisis and a political opposition that was poised to pounce on whatever action or inaction Obama took.

Obama essentially decided to avoid decisive action.  In order to avoid entering into a politically costly war, Obama simply expanded the use of tremendously expensive air-power.  Our politicians locked in their zero-sum game of musical chairs can all seem to agree that planes are really cool, and gee-whiz sci-fi technology like drones are fun ways to show how powerful the US is.  So Obama "took action" by dropping bombs.

Aww Yiss!!!  Mutha fukin planes 'n shit!!!  Time to drop some liberty on Syria!  Source: The Telegraph

Of course you can't bomb a country into having working infrastructure and the rule of law, and pretty much all of the dozens of factions (other than the Kurds) involved in the civil war are bad guys from the US perspective, so as logic would predict, a bombing campaign that couldn't actually support a side in a conflict failed to make anything better.

Source:  Russia Insider

The US geopolitical position made standing aside a non-option, while domestic political rivalries made any meaningful action problematic.  So the path of least political resistance was to drop bombs and ignore the problem as much as possible.

Back to the kids.  Syrian Refugee children in Iraq.  Source:
All of this writing and finger pointing and political hobby-horsing of mine finally brings us back to the real issue, the human cost of the Syrian Civil War.  I don't want to simply say "tsk tsk, Obama messed up, and the Republicans helped."  I don't think that assigning blame is as important as acknowledging that we all have a share in this problem, and that we all have a responsibility to do what we can about it.

And the good news is that we actually do have a variety of things we can do, even as individuals, particularly in the US.  After several hundred words crapping on the US for hamfisted meddling and apathy, I think it is only fair to remind readers that we do a lot of good as well.  We are far enough away from Syria, geographically, that we don't get a lot of direct refugees (the same goes for the Old World in general); however, the US does lead the world in the resettling of refugees.  Generally speaking, only about 1% of the world's refugees are eligible for permanent resettlement, but the US resettles more than half of that number.  Out of the entire world, the US permanently resettles more refugees than the entire rest of the world combined.

We are a country of superlatives, usually it seems like the superlatives that get focused on are things like most money spent on military, and most shootings (that one is popular to say, but not actually true by a long shot, even among developed countries), and other negative superlatives; but we are also an exceedingly generous country, and we do integrate the most refugees into our society.  And unlike many nations, the US focuses on integration, not housing refugees.  In many countries refugees never get to own property or integrate into society,  For instance, there are many Palestinians who are third and fourth generation refugees still living in refugee camps since the 1947 war of Israeli independence.  For those refugees, almost 70 years later, they are still people without a country.

And the comparison to Palestinians is potentially quite apt, because the nature of the Syrian Civil War is such that it is very possible that millions of the Syrian Refugees may never have a home to return to.  Usually, most refugees are able to return to their countries of origin after some period of time, however some refugees are permanently unable to return to their homes out of fear of death and/or persecution based on religion, political opinion, race, nationality, or membership in a particular social group.  Considering that both ISIS and the Syrian government seem intent on persecuting and killing large swathes of the Syrian population, it is likely that an unprecedentedly large number of Syrian Refugees may become as permanently stateless as the Palestinian refugees have.  What this means in practical terms, is that the permanent resettlement of potentially millions of Syrians may be necessary to avoid an ongoing intractable conflict like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Syrian refugee from Deir Ezzor with his children in tears of joy after arriving in an inflatable boat crammed with about 15 people.  Source: Mirror

It is too late to avoid the Syrian Civil War.  We can't go back and undo the circumstances that led to this crisis.  What we can do is try to keep this crisis from turning into a crisis that never ends.  I wish that I could say that it would be possible to avoid this sort of calamity occurring again, but short of direct intervention by an omnibenevolent omniscient omnipotent force, I fail to see how all future humanitarian crises can be avoided.  The best we can do is the best we can do with what we know and what we have now.

In the immediate term, here in the US, if you want to do something to help, but you don't want to spend money, you can make a difference by writing to your congresspeople.  It might seem trite, but it really is a meaningful step you can take with a minimum of effort.  Far more meaningful than any shared statuses or retweets.  If you want to use a preset form, here is one all ready for you.  That link is to support bills to help refugees, the site is the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants at

If you want to do more, and you can afford to give some money there are a number of worthwhile options.  Here is an PRI article listing a number of organizations doing vital work on the Syrian refugee crisis.  There are good options for donations.  This article also contains a link to the Save the Children PSA which I will link to below, I think this video is profoundly affecting.  It captures the reality of an everyday existence torn apart, and I think that is important to bear in mind when thinking about the Syrian crisis.  Syria was not some turbulent backwater, it was for decades one of the most stable of Middle Eastern countries.  It had one of the worst human rights records in the world, but it was stable.  Stable enough for people to build lives that have been torn apart by this war.

Another option, if you are willing to truly take on some personal obligations, is you can consider sponsoring refugees.  The US Department of State deals with Refugees, however the sponsoring of refugees is done through nine non-governmental organizations (NGOs)(per the State Department website), but as an indication of how opaque this process is, I cannot seem to find out what those "nine NGOs" are.  There is some worthwhile information to be found, but the US system is confusing and decentralized enough that I feel it is beyond the scope of this blog post to try to explain how to sponsor people.  That said, if you are in Oregon (as I am) Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees (SOAR) through the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon seems to be a viable option.

The refugee sponsorship option might actually be a better fit for organizations that you may be a part of, whether a religious community or social organization.  If you are a member of an organization consider getting your organization involved in trying to help.  The focus should not even necessarily be on sponsoring refugees at this time.  Europe (and countries like Germany in particular) are currently seeing an enormous surge in refugees.  Supporting groups like Refugees Welcome is a way to help soften the impact of the costs of caring for refugees in countries like Germany and Britain.  And Charity Navigator offers a handy cheat-sheet for NGOs to donate to.

I wish that I could offer a workable solution to the entire Syrian Civil War, but I can't.  But we can all do little, and not-so-little things to help.  We can apply pressure on our politicians to seriously address the Syrian crisis.  We can donate.  Geography means that we here in the US can't give our time or labor to assist this crisis as easily, but we can try to assist those helping the refugees.

We can't make all the problems go away, but it is good to find ways to do something.  There will undoubtedly be more awful images that will come from this war.  The Syrian Civil War is ongoing.  The refugees overflowing the Middle East and spilling onto the shores of the Mediterranean are largely landing in countries still reeling from financial crises.  When we see refugees struggling with police it can feel bewildering, and that bewilderment can leave us feeling helpless.

When we are faced with images of toddlers face down in the surf it is a sickening feeling to be unable to do anything.  We can't do as much as we might like, but we can do some things.  I hope that this post helps you identify something that you can do.  Because when we can help other human beings it makes the darkness of these kinds of tragedies feel a little lighter.

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