Me and the toddler made a long journey last week, of around 8,000 miles. For some of it we took the refugee route in reverse: sailing above Budapest before leaving European airspace somewhere over Turkey. We crossed continents, sleeping, eating and watching cartoons, landing feeling a bit disorientated but still in one piece. There was a time when it was a little bumpy and I put out a hand to soothe the boy back to sleep, but I think that was really more to allay my fears than his, as he snoozed on through the turbulence.
He is at that age when he loves all forms of transport, happily watching the planes and trucks, even the baggage cars, as they danced around each other on the runways as we waited to board. We were in the air as the latest news broke of the Syrian children who had died in the waters off Turkey. We missed the debate over whether photographs of their lifeless bodies in the surf were indecent or necessary. I went to bed later having read the news, reflecting that possession of that mauve passport is the highest form of privilege, still unable to imagine what it would be like to put your child into an open boat to cross the Med. Trusting the people you have paid a fortune to that they know what they are doing and that the boat is seaworthy and has enough fuel. Hoping to find more safety and security than you currently had. I couldn’t imagine how you would soothe a scared child over miles of dark seas, without life jackets, knowing there is no chance of rescue, no way to save yourself or them if the worst happens.
And then I read this, by The Reluctant Launderer, who was suffering from no such failure of imagination.
My heart breaks for the parent who helped him get dressed, who chose the t-shirt and the underwear and the shorts, who laced up the shoes. Who hoped that today would be the day when their lives might begin again after the nightmares and horrors of God-knows-what, and blocked out the other thoughts of What Could Happen. Who tried to make a game out of getting their 5 year old son into the over-crowded boat, and held on to him as the boat rocked, and sang in his ear and shushed and kissed him as it rocked even more, and held even tighter as they were flipped overboard, and tried to hold him above the waves, kicking and crying and gasping. And who then – just imagine it – couldn’t hold him any more.
Her words left me in a sobbing mess for a good while longer than a wannabe Stoic would like to admit to. All I can think to say to the Syrian mothers is that I thank some deity I’m not at all sure I believe in today that you died with your children and don’t have to face life without them. For forcing you into this choice, putting you in a situation where fleeing into danger was the best option, we – the nations that bombed yours without thinking of what came after – failed you in not creating legal options to get you and your families out of the chaos and devastation we helped to create. I am sorry that my country – whose only members able to recall what it is like to live under aerial bombardment are now dying of old age – can’t find more compassion for you than to say ‘sorry, we’re full’ and move on to the next headline.
But perhaps it is time to leave aside the words and move on to action. Anything we can do is small, but there are thousands of small actions happening all around the world, petitions, donations, aid and assistance that will add up to the necessary pressure on the right hands to Sort This Thing Out:
- This petition asks Theresa May, UK Home Secretary, to allow sanctuary to those fleeing the conflict in Syria.
- Campaigning website 38 degrees has a number of different petitions, separated by local council area, to tell the authorities that refugees are welcome. UK residents, you can search for your area by postcode and then sign.
- Donate to MOAS – the Migrant Offshore Aid Station – an organisation which was set up by philanthropists to work with local coastguards and other authorities to rescue stricken migrant boats in the Med.
- MSF Sea is running similar operations in the Mediterranean.
These beautiful, happy lads deserved better from us, as do all the nameless, faceless ones who have died trying to have a little of all the things we take for granted: safety, shelter and a peaceful future. In their name, please do whatever you can to ensure they are among the last to wash up on Europe’s shores.