Anyone who even occasionally follows international news knows that the world is far from perfect. Violence, bigotry, and hardship are all too often at the forefront of the international headlines. Most of the time, news of these tragedies does not affect us personally–it is usually happening far away, to places and people that we have never seen and perhaps never will. So we go about our daily lives, armed with a false sense of security and belief that we as a society are doing everything we can to rectify the injustices of the world.
But every once in a while, we come upon personal stories of hardship that make us realize just how difficult it is for those in less fortunate circumstances to live the life of normalcy that many of us take for granted. This month, the world was so moved by the stories of two particular children that it could not help but pay attention.The public dialogue was so influential that it spurred some of our world leaders to take action to alleviate problems that many of their peers continue to overlook.
First was the story of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who drowned along with his brother and mother as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean to escape the violence that has gripped Syria since a civil war began in 2011. The photos of Aylan’s body being carried away by the Turkish police officer who found him sent shockwaves across social media, putting a face to the plight faced by millions of Syrian refugees who put their family’s lives on the line in search of a normal existence.
The story brought to light the issue of resettling some of the over 11 million Syrians that have been displaced by civil war. The public’s demand for action prompted leaders of the UK and Canadian governments to propose plans to expand their refugee programs to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees in the coming years. British Prime Minister David Cameron subsequently visited a Lebanese refugee camp to see into the matter first-hand, and his country has already welcomed the first group of the 20,000 refugees he has pledged to resettle over the next five years.
A few weeks after the story of Aylan broke, social media was buzzing again as people learned about how Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old Muslim-American child, was arrested and ushered out of school in handcuffs for bringing a homemade clock to his suburban Dallas high school. He was then taken to the local police station for interrogation, fingerprinting, and mug shots. The incident stemmed from a teacher who reported that Ahmed had brought an object to school that appeared to them to be a hoax bomb.
“It made me feel like I wasn’t human,” Ahmed said after his arrest. “It made me feel like a criminal.”
It can’t be denied that this incident was escalated because of the United States’ preconceptions of distrust towards Muslim-Americans, a sad reality that has lingered in the country for more than a decade after the 2001 terrorist attacks that rocked it to its foundation. And while we have been discussing these false conceptions ever since, many people do not fully understand just how difficult it is for Muslim-Americans to live in a country where they often feel inherently distrusted, or worse, hated for their ethnic and religious background.
The Twitter hashtag #IStandWithAhmed, coined by 23-year-old college student Amneh Jafari, was used over 1.6 million times in a span of 72 hours as Ahmed’s story resonated with people around the world.
“If his name was John he would be labeled as a genius,” Jafari’s tweet read. “Since it’s Ahmed he is labeled as a suspect.”
Ahmed received waves of support over the next few days, including an invitation from the U.S. government for him and his family to travel to the United Nations so they could meet with foreign dignitaries. President Obama sent Ahmed a tweet inviting him to the White House, mentioning that the U.S. ‘should inspire more kids like you to like science,’ providing a subtle yet effective jab at his country’s struggle with Islamophobia. The reaction tweeted from democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s account was a little more overt.
“Assumptions and fear don’t keep us safe–they hold us back,” Clinton tweeted. “Ahmed, stay curious and keep building.”
The legacy of Ahmed and Aylan are similar in that they both inspired the world to turn their attention to issues that were being left unchecked. In both cases, the powerful emotions their stories wrought within the hearts of the public pressured world leaders to take a stand while continued to just stand by.
But unlike Ahmed, Aylan was not lucky enough to live to see the positive impact of his hardships. Millions of children share similar stories to these two, but for them there is no silver lining. There is only an unfortunate reality that they are forced to overcome on their own, or else be doomed to a second-rate life that the majority of us are far too removed from to fully comprehend.
The worldwide call to action inspired by these two boys is an indication that we are starting to realize that we are the ones responsible for stopping these issues from prevailing in our world for years on end. The truth is, we should have been able to reach these conclusions on our own.
If countries had been more accepting of the millions of families who have been displaced by war, Aylan’s family would not have been forced to embark upon a deadly trip across the Mediterranean. If the citizens of the United States had been more vocal in condemning those who blindly equate Muslims with terrorists, perhaps the faculty and police who mistreated Ahmed would not have jumped to the conclusion that an exceptionally bright student might actually be harboring sinister intentions.
But we do not live in a perfect world; humanity is flawed by its nature. Yet it is also our nature to assist those in need, and this past month has shown us that our voices have the power to help negate the injustices of our society. It has become our social duty to hold our leaders accountable for their policies and how they will affect those who the world has treated unfairly.
If the public makes it clear that it will not let politicians sit idly by while people continue to suffer needlessly, then perhaps one day we may look back at these tragedies as the catalyst that pushed the world to become a better place for all.