I remember almost viscerally when the media began to circulate images of a young lifeless toddler in 2015. He had washed up on the shores of Turkey, face down in his red t-shirt, shorts, and shoes. His name was Aylan Kurdi. It was reported that he was from Syria and had drowned on a boat traveling from the Turkish island of Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos. Aylan’s five-year-old brother, Galip, and his mother, Rehan, also drowned. His father, Abdullah, was the only family member to survive.
This image shocked the conscience of people all over the world and in particular, here in the United States. It was Labor Day weekend, and I was curled up safely camping with my own toddler boy.
At the time, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) had been following the reports of increasing migrants traveling from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and parts of North Africa. Only weeks before, we had given our partners in Thailand some assistance as they sought to help a group of Rohingya refugees from Burma that were trying to reach Malaysia on a flotilla.
We recognized that the actual choices families across the globe were having to make – to choose the open sea as their only option for safety over staying on dry land – demonstrated the direness of these situations. At the time, we were also addressing migrant conditions within our own country, fighting against family detention at our southern border and advocating for the federal government to increase the refugee admission quota and budget.
After the picture of Aylan went viral, we received a call from Rev. Dr. Ilona Szent-Ivanyi of the Unitarian District in Hungary describing the situation in Hungary as untenable, with 2,000 to 3,000 people arriving at the Hungary-Serbia border every day. He told us that migrants were met with a lack of compassion from officials and that the government had organized 100 buses to take migrants to the Austrian border – 6,500 people were said to have left Hungary in one day. Conversely, civilians were showing great kindness and helping thousands of asylum-seekers at the Keleti railroad station.
At UUSC, we started calling groups on the ground in Greece, Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia, learning much about how communities were self-organizing and working around local governments to provide direct assistance and hope to weary migrants seeking a future for their families.
Together as a community, with the Unitarian Universalist Association, Unitarian Universalist congregations, and Unitarian Universalists we raised more than $600,000 dollars and mobilized action across the United States to help steer a more humanist foreign policy that would uphold the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. One that understands we cannot turn away from these events.
Our strategy evolved as the situation evolved. As migrants made their way across the Balkans, and as borders began to shut, UUSC catalyzed the efforts of local actors working alongside refugees. You can read more about our approach here. I was heartened to hear the stories and to visit with these partners as they grouped together for a regional convening last fall.
I’ve just landed in Budapest where we’ll be meeting with our partners in the coming days. I find myself curious and excited, and most of all hopeful. The impact our partners have had is vast, ranging from fighting unlawful cases that attempted to break down asylum systems to providing baby sanitary kits to arriving mothers.
I’m hopeful about our journey and look forward to sharing more.