Two mothers, one awful choice, two very different results. How civilian protection rests on luck
On the morning of 2 September 2015, the tiny body of two-year old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach near the resort town of Bodrum. The body of his four-year old brother, Ghalib, lay further along the beach. Alan’s mother, Rehana Kurdi, also lay dead.
The Kurdis are a Kurdish family though they barely spoke the language. Before Syria’s war, they had enjoyed a relatively comfortable life in the suburbs of Damascus. Originally from Kobane, Alan’s grandfather had moved to Damascus after his military service and set himself up as a barber. Life was lived unaffected by politics, summers spent back in Kobane helping the extended family harvest olives. Abdullah, Alan’s father, and his sister Fatima were two of six children. Fatima – Tima – emigrated to Canada in 1992, marrying an Iraqi Kurd (they divorced soon after) and fulfilling her dream of becoming a hair stylist, living on the Pacific coast in Vancouver. Abdullah stayed in Damascus working at the family barbershop. He married Rehana, who also hailed from Kobane, and the two began to think of starting a family. They could not have picked a worse time. It was 2011 and all around them violence, lawlessness, and unease were growing as Syria’s Arab Spring protests turned vicious. They decided that Rehana should return to the comparative safety of Kobane to give birth to their first son, Ghalib. Abdullah spent his time shuttling between there and his work in Damascus. But that became increasingly dangerous as nervous security forces picked people off the streets, especially Kurds, seemingly at random. Some never returned. There were also kidnappings. Abdullah closed the barber’s shop and joined his family in the north. They were safe there in Kobane, out of immediate danger, but without income from the shop they struggled financially. Abdullah got what work he could, travelling to Istanbul, whilst the others sold clothes to make a meagre living. Things were tough but at least they could draw on their extended family for housing and help. There they would have stayed had Kobane been left alone. Rehana gave birth to a second baby boy, Alan.
When Alan was barely a year old, everything changed when the relative safety they had carved out in Kobane was shattered by ISIS. The Islamic extremists, with their foreign fighters from Europe, came bombing, murdering, raping, and enslaving their way to the very doorstep of the Kurdi family’s homeland. Their prized olive trees were put to the torch, their houses destroyed, and eighteen members of their extended family killed. The family network helped Rehana and the boys cross into Turkey and they eventually reached Istanbul and Abdullah. They were safe from immediate harm but unable to find affordable housing anywhere near Abdullah’s work. So, he took another less well-paid job closer to his family’s one room – earning $9 a day for a gruelling 12-hour shift. Tima wired them money from Canada to help cover the rent and other essentials, but their situation was precarious and grew increasingly so. Abdullah hardly ever saw his wife and boys. They hardly ever went outside. Unable to source good food, the boys’ health declined. Other members of the family were struggling too. Abdullah’s older brother, Mohammed, his wife, and three children were also in Turkey having made the same journey and were in a similar situation. Tima decided she would try to get them out first, since Mohammed’s children were missing school. She filed papers to sponsor their migration to Canada whilst in Turkey Mohammed filed a corresponding application with the Canadian embassy. The application was rejected, the Canadians saying the forms were incomplete. Their savings dwindling, with no hope of returning to Kobane or Damascus, and official channels seemingly blocked, Abdullah and Rehana took the fateful decision to make a desperate bid to reach Europe and from there join Tima in Canada. Tima wired them $5,000 dollars, enough to pay people smugglers for two trips across the water from Turkey to a Greek Island.
The Greek Island of Kos lies just 24 kilometres west of the beaches of Bodrum. Ferries take an hour and a half to make the crossing but the people smugglers left from a remote beach on a peninsula, even closer to the Island. Abdullah paid the people smugglers the money Tima had sent to get his family across the short straight. Two attempts were aborted. Rehana texted Tima. “I’m so scared of the water”, she wrote. “If you feel like you don’t want to go, don’t go” Tima replied. But Rehana was not going to let her fears stop her. On the night of 1 September, she and Abdullah, Ghalib, and Alan were taken to the launch beach and given a life jacket. Only when they needed them most did they discover the devastating truth that the jackets were fake; that they didn’t float. “We are leaving right now” Abdullah texted his sister. Barely 500 metres off the coast, the boat started taking in water, then began deflating, plunging its victims into the water. Tima never received the second text she was anxiously waiting for, the one telling her they had arrived in Greece. 
Alan Kurdi was one of millions of Syrians forced to flee the bloody war in their homeland. That summer, the number of refugees and asylum seekers arriving by boat in Greece and Italy increased dramatically. Europe “watched in alarm” as “hundreds of thousands of people crossed seas, walked great distances, climbed barbed wire fences, forged rivers, endured indignity and ill-treatment, battled the elements, experienced lack of food, water, and shelter, and risked their lives” to gain asylum in the EU. Between March and October 2015,
around one million people arrived, approximately half of them from Syria landing on the small islands of Lesbos and Kos. Just like Alan, many others didn’t make it. Many died that summer on the short journey that most Syrians took across the Aegean. According to one estimate, there was on average one death at sea in the Aegean for every 400 arrivals. That means almost 1,000 Syrians may have died at sea that summer. Their stories – even their fate – will most likely never be known
The arrival of Syrians fleeing war and atrocities was neither unprecedented (more than 1.3 million refugees had fled Yugoslavia’s bloody wars in the 1990s), unexpected (the number of refugees travelling to Europe had been increasing since 2011), or unusually large (Turkey housed more than 2 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon more than 1 million, Jordan more than 600,000, and even Iraq hosted around 200,000). But it unleashed a political crisis across Europe. It was a crisis that not only exposed deep fissures within the EU – always one for the melodramatic, European Council President Donald Tusk warned the crisis threatened the union itself -- but that also revealed that for all the Union’s commitments to human rights and the protection of civilians from grievous harms, the capacity of the actual system for protection it had put in place relied on one thing above all else: luck.
Lama Suleiman was 7-years old when she stepped on to a dinghy with her parents and younger brothers, Joud and Karam, somewhere along the Turkish during that fateful summer of 2015. She had already fled once, from her family home in Raqqa into Turkey. The night before, Lama’s mother had burst into tears as she confessed her fears, just as Rehana Kurdi had done in the hours before she had clambered aboard. “I hope that we’ll all make it or that we’ll all die” she’d told Viktoria Kleber, a German reporter covering the refugee crisis. Unlike the Kurdi’s, the Suleiman’s did make it to dry land and the northwards through the Balkans to Hungary. They walked the last part of their journey, the exhausted parents carrying their children in their arms. Four years later, the Suleiman family live in Berlin – with
a new addition, another baby boy. Syria is just a memory for Lama, a place where a rocket destroyed her home and where some of her aunties and uncles live – others are now in Turkey, Lebanon, and Dubai. She says she feels German and just a little bit Syrian. Naturally, things were tough at times, especially when the family had to move from apartment to apartment searching for stability. Tears were common. But her parents were determined to embrace their new life. “We tried to do everything for our children, but when that’s not enough it really hurts” her dad, Mustapha, says. Lama thrived at school and speaks better German than Arabic. Her report card says she is conscientious, diligent, and interested, always quick to help others and push herself. She says she wants to become a dentist when she grows up, “preferably not too far from here, where my mum and dad are, and my brothers”.
Germany’s stance that summer had its flaws, its limitations, its costs, challenges, and disruptions. Yet the fact that Lama Suleiman can dream of life as a dentist there owes everything to Angela Merkel’s courageous decision to open her country’s arms to refugees and to a large slice of luck. Ultimately Lama survived and Alan didn’t because one leaky boat stayed afloat and another didn’t. That’s not much of a system for protecting the world’s most vulnerable, most terrorized people. The fact that Alan Kurdi never had the chance to dream stands as a damning indictment of the whole system governing civilian protection, refugee policy, and the leaders who policed it. For they oversaw policies designed to suit themselves and not the thousands of families in desperate need of protection that summer.
If protection means anything at all, it surely means that we have an obligation to build a system that does not leave the question of which children live and which children die to luck.
 This account is based on Tima Kurdi, The Boy on the Beach (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018), also Tristin Hopper, “The sad odyssey of Alan Kurdi and his family: Their search for new life ended in death”, National Post, 4 September 2015, Diane Cole, “The aunt of the drowned Syrian boys tells what happened after the tragedy”, NPR, 31 August 2018, Anne Barnard, “Five years of upheaval: the story of Alan Kurdi’s family”, Irish Times, 13 October 2020, Seth Farsides, “Five years after his photo shocked the world, three human traffickers are sentenced to 125 years each over the death of Alan Kurdi”, International Observatory for Human Rights, 16 March 2020,  Dallal Stevens, “Asylum, Refugee Protection and the European Response to Syrian Migration”, Journal of Human Rights Practice, 9 (2017), p. 184.  It was reported that by October, around 507,000 Syrians had registered in Europe. UNHCR, “Europe: Syrian asylum applications”, 19 October 2015.  Heaven Crawley, Simon McMahon, Katherine Jones, Franck Duvall, and Nando Sigona, Destination Europe: Understanding the dynamics and drivers of Mediterranean migration in 2015, final report of the Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis Project, November 2016, p. 4.  Her story is told in Viktoria Kleber, “Refugees in Germany: Lara Suleiman feels more German than Syrian”, Deutsche Welle, 30 August 2020.