The heartbreaking story of a missing 5-year-old Syrian refugee child named Azam has inspired an online search campaign that is holding out hope that the boy might be found alive somewhere in northern Europe.
Azam Aldaham was last seen by BBC journalists at a hospital in the Serbian city of Belgrade. His face was bruised and badly swollen; bandages covered his jaw, which a medic told the journalists was broken and severely infected.
In a story that aired on the show Panorama, BBC’s John Sweeney was at a Serbian refugee camp when his team stumbled upon the injured Azam and a man who identified himself as the boy’s father. The crew saw Azam once more, but this time the man wasn’t there. They began asking questions about whom the boy was travelling with, and why he wasn’t getting the medical attention he clearly needed.
“It felt odd for a dad not to be around when his child was screaming in agony. Our interpreter had a quiet word with the boy, and something didn’t add up,” Sweeney wrote in a subsequent article. “Azam was in pain and didn’t speak clearly because of his jaw wound, but the gist of it was his ‘father’ wasn’t his father, but an uncle. His real father was still in Turkey.”
Dr. Radmila Kosic, who was running the refugee camp, told Sweeney’s team that Azam was being taken by an ambulance to a nearby hospital where he would be treated over the course of several days. When the team followed up on Azam’s whereabouts, however, they learned that he and the mysterious man claiming to be his father had vanished from the hospital without getting the treatments that Azam needed.
Weeks later, the fate of Azam is still unknown. After the airing of BBC’s Panorama, social media users began a viral rescue effort using the hashtag #FindAzam, which was eventually distributed across U.S., Serbian, Spanish and Australian media outlets. Social rights activist Bianca Jagger also joined the effort.
But the damage has already been done. Our world leaders have sat on their hands as the refugee catastrophe evolved from the Syrian civil conflict. Too little too late, our governments are now making last-ditch efforts to relocate some of the 9 million Syrians who have been displaced since the war began in 2011.
Meanwhile, world powers are throwing their mandatory chip-in to the relief effort, maybe announcing a prospective plan to take in a tiny portion of those displaced, then patting themselves on the back for “doing their part.” And yet, innocent children like Azam, separated from their families with no home or hope for a normal life, suffer an unknown, and perhaps tragic, fate.
The result is shameful. The relief funds being donated are of little help, as many of the refugee camps that receive this money are overcrowded with inhumane living conditions. Refugee transfers are commonly unregulated and poorly documented, resulting in a human migration where literally thousands of children go missing at a time.
And with billions of dollars in donations coming in over the last three years, you would think that our relief effort have included hiring proper officials to organize, record, and safely transport refugees from one place to another. Instead, thousands of migrants continue to perish simply because they are seeking a normal life for their family.
In 1990, Nelson Mandela said that “to deny any person their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”
“To impose on them a wretched life of hunger and deprivation is to dehumanize them.”
It’s time that we band together as a society and declare that we will no longer tolerate the apathetic, wait-and-see approach to solving the refugee problem. It’s time that we treat these people as if they were one of us, and not just faceless statistics to shake your head at while you’re watching the evening news.
First and foremost, we need to find Azam. While it’s true there is no rectifying the way we’ve grossly mishandled the situation up to this point, we need to find him because this is our opportunity to declare that we will no longer stand by and allow the world to neglect these people in need.
Imagine for a second that Azam was your child; missing, badly injured, and last seen on video travelling with a suspicious group of strangers. What lengths would you go to in order to find your child?
In the United States, a missing child case of this nature would prompt the government to issue an AMBER Alert, instantly sending photos and information in a swift and organized attempt to recover the child. Missing refugee children are not given the benefit of this clarion call. With the exception of Azam and a few others, the world takes little notice as thousands of families continue to be torn apart by our neglect.
The scale of this tragedy is so great that an overwhelming majority of the conversation is centered on the number of refugees that are homeless, missing, or dead. But the truth is, the effects of this ordeal will scar the refugees who survive this migration for years to come. Over 2 million refugee children are not attending school; UNICEF reports that the decline of education in Syrian children is the most rapid in the region’s history.
Not to mention the lifelong psychological trauma that will be caused by the separation of the countless families, whether by distance or death. Sometimes I wonder: when all is said and done, will the world look back at this as the worst tragedy of our era? Will we be ashamed for not having done more?
Let Azam be the symbol that we can rally behind. We must let those who wish to ignore the suffering know that this is where we draw the line. Let this be the moment we stop turning our backs to our fellow man in need.
Finding Azam urgently requires worldwide action and commitment from each one of us. We need to issue a worldwide AMBER alert, we need full cooperation of local authorities, interpol, and the members of the international community to stop this disaster and prevent it from happening again.
There is no way of knowing how much time, if any, Azam has left. But we owe it to him, to his people, to his family, and to our own humanity to not rest until we find him. Because there is no child in the world who deserves to live more than Azam does.