Chris Alexander killed little Alan Kurdi.
Alan is the three-year-old Syrian boy whose drowned body, washed up on a Turkish beach, has been plastered all over the media, Facebook, Twitter, you name it. His mother, Reham, and older brother Galib, 5, also died trying to reach Greece in an overloaded rowboat. Only the boys’ father, Abdullah, survived the journey.
It was a journey they might never have had to make had they not been denied asylum here in Canada. Abdullah’s sister, already living here, was ready to vouch for them. But the Minister of Immigration, Chris Alexander, refused even to see their claim. So they were forced to take the most dangerous and desperate route: the waters of the Mediterranean, in a tiny and fragile boat not capable of withstanding the rough conditions of that sea, overcrowded with other desperate refugees. On that boat, they were 13 in all.
And three members of the family paid for that passage with their lives.
Alan’s small, pathetic body, still fully clothed and shod, made headlines as a Turkish policeman scooped him up and carried him out of the surf. And the damning pictures from that tragic moment have forced refugee-shy European countries to rethink their harsh immigration policies.
It’s all too little and too late for the thousands of families like the Kurdis, who have been streaming across the Mediterranean from the east and south in a desperate effort to escape various war zones and the dire poverty that stalks countries rich in resources, but made poor by colonialism and capitalism. The same global north, also known as “The West”, that has forced unwanted regime changes upon their lands and invaded them politically and economically in order for its corporations to scoop up all the resources they can, is unwilling to accept the consequences of its actions. Those consequences are human, they are hungry, and they are desperate enough to die trying to get away from what has been foisted upon them. And those who did the foisting are trying futilely to beat them back, any way they can.
In Hungary, trainloads of refugees have been held up for days, for no apparent reason. Hungary is in the grip of a far-right government with a fetish for control, but no clear notions of what to do about the influx of people who just want to get through Hungary and into some more hospitable final destination. It’s an awful irony when you consider that just a few short decades ago, Hungary was itself a civil war zone, and refugees were fleeing from there to other European lands, and across the ocean to Canada. (One of them, Stephen Vizinczey, even worked his refugee experiences into his acclaimed novel, In Praise of Older Women.)
But in a way, Hungary’s irony is emblematic of the shitheadedness that prevails more or less throughout Europe right now. Right-wing governments everywhere, and not one of them can work up a drop of empathy for refugees. German chancellor Angela Merkel was caught flatfooted when a Palestinian girl burst into tears before her upon learning that she was probably going to be deported. The incident was much mocked in the media, and caused a hasty backpedal on the part of the German government. Germany is now a much-sought destination for Syrian and other Middle Eastern and North African refugees. And the German people are clear on where they stand, even as their government waffles ineffectually away; whole cities and towns are stepping up to help the newcomers, and the German internet is buzzing with families opening their homes to refugees, giving them a place to stay until they can make a more permanent home somewhere.
I am a Canadian of German immigrant parentage. My mother, born to ethnic German parents in pre-World War II Yugoslavia, came “home” to Germany after some 200 years in the Balkans when war and the invasion of the Russian army drove them out in 1944. Her family were refugees. That makes me, in turn, the daughter of a refugee. And the descendant of other refugees, too: What was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire once took in Germans fleeing religious persecution back home. My mother’s ancestors, Lutheran protestants, fled a Catholic-ruled land. It was either convert to the local princeling’s religion, or else, back then. They chose “or else”. And that meant moving to the Balkans, where the Austrian queen, Maria Theresia, hoped to stave off the invasion of the Turks by populating the land with German-speaking Christians. It didn’t matter to her whether they were Catholic or Protestant, as long as they kept the Turks out. And then they were forced to flee, and my mother’s family became refugees once more…
And now, in an ironic twist of fate, the Turks are in Germany anyway, and the only parts where it’s truly gone to hell in a handbasket are the ones where local neo-Nazis have terrorized and murdered them. And after the Turks, the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and other refugees have come. Germany hasn’t “gone Muslim” as PEGIDA and other right-wing fearmongers have claimed it would. Rather, the Christian spirit of charity and loving-thy-neighbor is making itself felt. German families are helping refugee families to acclimatize, to make a home, to learn whatever they need to learn, and to find their place in the world.
It wasn’t nearly so hospitable when my mom and her family arrived during the war, though; the refugees, though every bit as German as the locals, were looked down upon endlessly because they came from the Balkans. Whatever refugee-abuse wasn’t the result of Nazism, was down to plain old snobbery. And this went on for years after the war ended, too; the refugees were never fully accepted. My mother ended up going to work in New York for the local Daimler-Benz importer and his family as an au pair, and on a vacation to Canada, in northern Ontario, she met my dad, by then a landed immigrant himself. They married three months later.
I am proud of my ancestral people for having learned history’s lessons so well. And I am ashamed of my home and native land for having turned its back on Syrians, just as it did to Jews during World War II. Clearly, Chris Alexander hasn’t learned a thing from history.
And that is why I call him a murderer. He is just as responsible for the deaths of Alan, Galib and Reham Kurdi as if he had held their heads underwater himself. Because by cold-bloodedly refusing even to see the family’s refugee claim, that’s exactly what he did. By making the rules so that relatives could only sponsor one family member at a time, he ensured that Alan’s father did not even get a look-in. It’s the same, in effect, as denying outright the claim of Alan’s uncle, Mohammed, which he also did. Let’s dispense with inane technicalities here: The truth is that with the Harper government’s cruel changes to our immigration and refugee policy, the Kurdi family was doomed from the outset.
Cursed are those who refuse to learn from the past, because they will be doomed to repeat it.
PS: Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East has a petition up calling for Chris Alexander’s resignation. You can sign it no matter where in the world you are. Please do!