Aleppo Is Us

With the recent “What is Aleppo?” gaffe by Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, the news cycle has long moved on from the child whose image quickly became an icon of that city’s daily disaster. I first saw Omran Daqneesh on the front page of the New York Times, sitting bolt upright in an ambulance. I looked away, but the picture is seared in my mind: the ash-colored dust of his skin against the orange seat. The paper was on a desk next to donated box fans, pots and pans, at the refugee resettlement agency where I work in Connecticut.

I didn’t even read the headline. Twenty refugees were arriving to New Haven that night. My colleagues and I were in for an all-hands-on-deck work day to prepare. With over 450 refugees, many of them Syrian, coming to Connecticut through the agency this year, we haven’t had a chance to talk about how Omran’s picture might affect our work to resettle them. But the phones are starting to ring off the hook again—like they did last September, after the image of a drowned toddler brought the Syrian refugee crisis into stark focus.

This is the power of a horrific, sympathetic image. An image that points to tremendous horror, but you can make out a face, or a body, to relate to. An image that’s as hard to look at as it is to forget.

I’m glad these images reach and move so many people. They bring attention to the Syrian war and can motivate action: support for aid work in the Middle East and for refugee resettlement in the U.S. and Europe. But I worry that the way we consume these images make it hard to empathize with the people they portray. In a time when people from Muslim countries are seen as either victims or terrorists, we lose sight of the human beings they are.

I interact with refugees from the Middle East and Africa every day—at work, on the Green, at Wal-mart. The refugees I know are not terrorists. Neither are they simply victims. They’re the gay man from Baghdad who shows me pictures of his cat, the Afghan single mom who does YouTube yoga, the Rwandan toddler who’s learning to wink, the fisherman who Skypes with his parrot back in Iraq, the Congolese teens who text while they ride their bikes.

Refugees are not victims on the other side of the world, nor are they terrorists in the making. They are people like us, and thousands of refugees are new Americans: Your loud neighbors. Your favorite Uber driver.

The day Omran’s picture was on the front page of the Times was the last day of a summer program for refugee youth in New Haven. We threw a potluck party for students and their parents. We gave out certificates and copies of a zine the teenagers made as the final project of a writing workshop.

One day I brought in a writing prompt from Bill Zimmerman’s “An Indonesian boy leaves a message of hope written on a paper flower outside a mosque on the anniversary of the tsunami that killed thousands of people in his province…What message of hope would you put on your paper flower?”

Explaining the prompt was a lesson in hope to me. I asked the kids if they know what a tsunami is. Another teacher drew a big wave on the board engulfing houses and stick figures. “It’s a disaster,” I said, “like what’s happening in many places in the world.” Then, I realized, I’d have to explain the difference between a natural disaster and the human violence they fled. I didn’t ask what they do when they see images like Omran’s in the news. But they told me, in their messages of hope.

One high school student wrote, “I hope the people who are in Syria [can] be patient and survive. I hope the Syrians will have a good life and…get through this situation in this time.”

His friend wrote, “I hope everyone can return to their family in Syria someday. When I came to America I was sad. My brothers and sisters were very far away. But it gets better. Sometimes I still feel sad. Then I pray for Syria and my family and the world.”

Omran’s image had already gone viral when his ten-year-old brother died. Their parents were found alive. More men, women, and children were hospitalized. These are not just casualties of the Syrian war. They are people who could be your neighbors, if humanitarian action were as rampant as the posts and the shares and the memes.

My favorite part of the zine is an entry by a kid who hopes to live with pandas someday. “Pandas are so good because they are not dangerous,” he wrote. “The pandas have camouflage, they can see during the night.”

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.