The Distance Between Syria and El Salvador

By Lauren Horn Griffin

As I scrolled through my Facebook and Twitter feeds yesterday, I was immediately bombarded with the distressing image (or references to the image) of a Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach. The commentary, without exception, was filled with words of grief and sympathy—even calls to action. Mothers, grateful for the safety and comfort of their own toddlers, cried out in sorrow. Christians, invoking Jesus’ command to love and serve others, encouraged each other to make “big changes” in their lives. There was talk of loving one’s own children more fiercely and lots of calls for awareness and perspective.

Meanwhile, thousands of women and children from El Salvador and Guatemala are detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, TX. Like the family of Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, these children and families are fleeing dire situations. Persecution, targeted violence, and gang recruitment have driven them to seek asylum here.

The EU’s immigration crisis, to which Syria is a major contributor, has been in headlines all summer, but this iconic image is rocking the world—it is already being suggested as a possible game changer in the immigration policies European countries. While anti-immigration Europeans encouraged viewers of the photo to resist “sentimentality” and stay focused on “reality and common sense,” American sympathy and understanding flowed freely for this tiny would-be immigrant. At the same time, however, many demand that we send Latin American children back to crisis zones and build walls to keep them out.

Granted, the migration challenges and opportunities of the EU and the US are not identical; different geo-political circumstances and cultural relationships as well as distinctive historical contexts render certain comparisons unhelpful. However, regarding diversity in particular, the picture that changed the tone of the conversation in Europe poses a similar question for the US: How do we think about and talk about migrants? In recent weeks, the discourse has been dominated largely by the likes of Donald Trump, who gives a singular face to white fears of American diversity. By deploying terms like “illegals,” “criminals,” and “rapists” Trump generates an image that maps onto ideas about brown people being disruptors of the comfort of a common culture and language. He offers white middle class Americans an explanation for their economic struggles (despite evidence that immigration is indeed, not.)

Yet the plight of Aylan Kurdi has evoked such an emotional response from my social media contacts, many of whom have expressed anti-immigration sentiments in the past. Perhaps it is because Syria feels so far removed, allowing Americans to take an outsider perspective. Perhaps our own political rhetoric desensitizes us to thinking of people in purely economic terms, while this image communicated the humanity that words simply could not. Or perhaps hearing the harsh words of nationalists like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán puts our own xenophobic fears into perspective. Regardless of the reason, the care and the call to action from white Americans could be fertile ground for fresh conversations about our own asylum seekers.

Can this image—potent and painful—redirect conversations about American diversity and immigration? Currently centered around fears of the loss of “American values” and white middle class disillusionment, can starting with Syria instead of El Salvador help us view refugees in terms of humans fleeing dangerous situations instead of competitors for material resources? Can this photo help educate folks about the injustice of detaining children seeking asylum?

Revisiting my social media feeds, I was struck by the lack of discussion surrounding the actual problem so powerfully captured in that image. No real assessment of EU or US immigration policies was taking place. The only ethical question posed was focused on whether or not the photo should be circulating at all. For example, this piece from the British conservative magazine The Spectator calls it narcissistic moral pornography, describing it as “a snuff photo for progressives, dead-child porn, designed not to start a serious debate about migration in the 21st century but to elicit a self-satisfied feeling of sadness among Western observers.” I disagree. I think that moments like this have sparked serious conversations and actions, and can continue to do so.

But it’s true that Aylan Kurdi’s story cannot simply serve as the sensationalized tragedy that reminded us to pause and be thankful for our “blessings” today— we owe it to him, at the very least, to think hard about the ways in which we think about, talk about, and treat asylum seekers from across the Atlantic as well as across the Rio Grande.

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