Three years ago, millions of people were exposed to haunting photos of Alan Kurdi – a three-year-old boy who drowned in the Mediterranean while fleeing war in Syria.
The images inspired Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini to write Sea Prayer, an illustrated story paying tribute to families forced from their homes by conflict and persecution.
To mark the publication of a UN report investigating the stories of those seeking refuge in Europe, Mr Hosseini writes about how we can help prevent such future tragedies.
On 2 September 2015, three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi drowned in the Mediterranean.
As a father of two, when I saw the photo of little Alan’s body lying limp on that Turkish beach, I tried to imagine how bludgeoning the loss must be to his father, who also lost his wife and another son on that same fateful day.
How did he endure seeing again and again photos of his boy’s lifeless body lifted from the sand by a stranger, a person who did not know Alan’s voice, or his laughter, or his favourite toy?
In my own way, I wanted to pay tribute to him, to Alan, and to the thousands who have died in their attempt to find sanctuary away from violence, conflict, and persecution.
In Sea Prayer, an imagined letter from a father to his son on the eve of making the sea crossing to Europe, I hoped to create a picture of the unfathomable despair that forces countless families to risk all they have in search of hope and safety on foreign shores.
On a recent visit to Lebanon and Italy with the UNHCR (The UN refugee agency), the images I saw when writing Sea Prayer were played out again and again in the lives of the refugees that I met.
In Lebanon, I spent time with families splintered apart by one or more members travelling to Europe in hope of bringing their families safely to join them through family reunification mechanisms.
Several years on and these families remain separated, living in limbo, and uncertain of their futures.
I learned from them that the decision to cross the sea to Europe was never taken lightly. It was always tortured, always heart-wrenching, and always borne of desperation and fear for the future of their children.
In Sicily, I met survivors of the sea crossing from Libya and Turkey who described to me harrowing journeys on overloaded, unsafe boats.
Bodies crammed together, waves towering overhead, night skies so dark you can’t tell where sky ends and sea begins, a relentless fear of capsizing.
And always, children who can’t swim, who are hungry, exhausted, and burnt badly from exposure to sun, seawater, and the toxic fuel that collects inside rubber boats.
At a cemetery in Catania, Sicily, there is an area that at first appears to be a wasteland of withered grass, weeds, and trash. It is in fact row after row of unmarked, unkempt graves, beneath which lie the remains of refugees and migrants who perished in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe.
There are no loving tributes chiselled into marble in this cemetery, no groundskeepers, no flowers.
On top of Plot 2, PM 3900 01, sits a grimy little ceramic plate, oval-shaped, no bigger than the palm of my hand. On its surface, a light-haired little boy smiles.
His face – and the red polo shirt he wears – reminds me, inevitably, of Alan Kurdi.
Although sea arrivals in Europe have dropped dramatically since Alan Kurdi’s death, the public debate around this issue has heightened, and grown ever more divisive.
Amidst all this, the memory of Alan’s tragic end has been fading, as has the collective outrage that gripped the world when photos of his dead body went viral.
According to UNHCR’s Desperate Journeys report, more than 1,500 people, including many children, have died at sea this year alone on journeys similar to that of Alan and his family. Yet the global response is now far more subdued.
Despite all this, I always come away from my visits with UNHCR deeply overcome. Overcome by the power of human resilience, by the deep and inexhaustible well of human courage and decency, overcome by what people will endure to protect their families, look after their children, and secure a measure of dignity.
And I am always encouraged to see the efforts of the many who work to receive and welcome those who make these desperate journeys.
I am inspired by UNHCR and those others who work tirelessly to expand legal pathways that allow families to remain together, and that make it possible for refugees to travel in safety and dignity. And I applaud all who stand in solidarity with refugees and help them in myriad ways to rebuild their lives.
The third anniversary of Alan Kurdi’s death is an opportunity for us all to reflect on how we too can help prevent such future tragedies.
:: Khaled Hosseini is a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.