On doing ‘something’ … as academics

3 September 2015, 2021 EDT

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Yesterday the picture of little Alan (previously identified as Aylan), lying dead in the sand on the shores of the Mediterranean, circled the world. It provoked strong reactions from those who ‘witnessed’ his death in this manner and, not unlike the debates following some of the images shared after 9/11 (I wrote about that then), people questioned the ethics of sharing the images particularly without warning (see replies by some who shared here, here & here and note that his father wants the image to be shared if it can provoke action).

Indeed, it was  this tweet Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 11.35.40 AMfrom fellow Duck Megan MacKenzie that prompted today’s post (you can read our full exchange here). Her concerns are echoed, and expanded, in this piece (which also links to issues I discuss in a previous post on the #BBOG campaign). Of course there are things that we can do, even from the comfort of our own homes: We can sign petitions, such as this one from Avaaz or this one to force a debate in the UK parliament. We can share lists of things to do such as this one – and maybe get involved locally in Greece, Germany, or Italy (no matter where you are you can get involved locally – there are needs in San Francisco, where I am, and Sydney, where Megan is. If you have information for your local area, feel free to share them in the comments).

But …

… I would argue that, as scholars, we can and must do more.

What if we made a commitment to tell the story of Alan, his brother Gilan [correction: his name is Ghalib/ Galip in Kurdish], and mother Rehan who all drowned and his father Abdullah Kurdi who now has to go on without them (and who wants his tragedy to spur action)? Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 10.45.10 AMWhat if we used our knowledge of global affairs to connect the dots and lay bare how Alan’s story is also the story of the global community’s failure to successfully address the conflict in Syria? A story that also highlights anti-immigrant policies adopted by Canada (Alan’s aunt had been doing all she could to support his family and get them to Canada), a settler-colonial state that neglects its indigenous population? Alan’s death is also a consequence of U.S. foreign policy, first in destabilizing the region starting with the invasion of Iraq and incubating ISIS, and more recently supporting (albeit inconsistently) Turkish ambitions to prevent any Kurdish independence exemplified in the fight in Kobane, Alan’s hometown. His is a death that might have been prevented had there been some pathway to safety other than a dinghy. Let us remember, what it means to be a refugee (and how problematic it is to speak only in terms of migration, though that also quickly gets complicated [EDIT: see this great post on TDOT also that goes into some of the more technical details] ). As Warsan Shire exclaims, “you have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land” (click here to hear the full poem, really, do it!).

So, maybe there is ‘something’ that we can do indeed – let us tell the stories of all the children who died crossing the Mediterranean – and their parents, and grandparents, and aunts, and uncles. Let us use our knowledge of global politics to find out who they were and carefully disentangle how our policies influenced their journeys. Let those stories inspire us to offer a helping hand – but also to identify points of resistance and demand policy changes.

Stories Matter.
Many stories matter.
Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign,
But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.
Stories can break the dignity of a people,
But stories can also repair that broken dignity.

(Chimamanda Adichie)