clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Image of drowned boy 'a knife in the heart of humanity,' Syrian-born Utah physician says

SALT LAKE CITY — The heartbreaking image of a lifeless 3-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a beach in Turkey gave the world a gut-wrenching look into the ongoing conflict in Syria.

"It's a knife in the heart of humanity," said Syrian-born Dr. Mohammad Alsolaiman, a physician in Utah County who has family in Syria.

"Shame on any human being to watch this and do nothing, to be silent," he said.

As a number of European countries prepare to accept tens of thousands of refugees, just 1,500 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the United States in the past year. Millions of people have fled the country or are internally displaced.

Syrian refugees in Utah? You can literally count them on one hand.

"So far, Catholic Community Services settled one refugee family last year in November. This year we have not resettled anyone yet. That’s why we’re a little bit concerned," said Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement for CCS of Utah.

Resettlement agencies across the country have asked the Obama administration why so few Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States for resettlement.

"Every time we ask, the administration is saying there's a security issue from the region. That's not a good excuse," Batar said.

A global response to the highly complex conflict is needed, both in terms of a humanitarian response and political solutions, he said.

"I think that it’s time the administration take a leadership role in this situation, as we always have been in accepting the largest number of refugees in the world. We could do better," Batar said.

While some describe the 4-year-old conflict in Syria as civil war, Alsolaiman said the term does not adequately describe the crisis.

"It’s not civil war. It’s genocide against civilians, against the Syrian people. Over the last five years the government keeps killing the people. It’s not really a civil war. People are defending themselves against the government," which has had increasing support from Russia, he said.

A Reuters report published Wednesday quoted two U.S. officials that Russia has sent two tank landing ships and additional aircraft to Syria in the past day.

As horrific as the image of the lifeless Kurdish boy face down on the sand on a beach in Turkey was to most people, Syrians have endured years of senseless killing with no relief, said Alsolaiman, who is a naturalized American citizen.

Members of his family are scattered about Syria, elsewhere in the Middle East and in Europe, he said.

Alsolaiman's brother is attempting to get to Europe after fleeing Syria. He's lost track of other relatives. "Most of them we cannot reach. I don't know what happened to them. Some of them are lost or kidnapped. Some are dead. Some are still alive," he said.

Alsolaiman, who is a gastroenterologist, has three other brothers in the United States who are also physicians. They want to bring their brother to the U.S. but they have been stymied by the refugee resettlement process.

"Can you imagine the heartbreak and shame for us? We can’t bring our own brother here. Now he’s trying to flee through the sea to Europe," he said.

Batar said the photograph of the boy brought back memories of his own 2-year-old son who died when Batar's young family was internally displaced in Somalia.

"For a parent to see their child die and they can't do anything about it, that's really hard. That child shouldn't have died. He was innocent. He hadn't done anything wrong. I'm sure his parents were just trying to get a better life for him," he said.

Batar, his wife, and their son were "urban refugees" in Somalia. Families shared living space and prepared their meals outdoors. One day, his son Mohamed tripped, fell into a pot of boiling water and was severely burned.

There were no doctors or hospitals to treat the boy so the couple did their best to care for him. He died five days later.

"That was the day I decided to leave. I didn’t want any other lives to be lost," he said.

As frustrating as the nation's response to admitting refugees from Syria has been, Catholic Community Services and International Rescue Committee's Salt Lake office are on track to resettle about 250 refugees by the end of September, Batar said. This is the last month of the federal fiscal year and typically, the busiest for resettlement agencies.

Flights with new arrivals land in Salt Lake City daily, and the agencies need help to make the refugees' resettlement successful.

"They could help us by donating money or household items — anything that would help us resettle refugees already coming to Utah," Batar said. "We need a lot of help, people to volunteer their time, donations, whatever. Every little bit helps."

International Rescue Committee is also asking for donations for its international relief efforts.

With respect to the United States' response to admitting Syrian refugees, Batar encourages Utahns to contact their federal representatives.

"They can contact their congressional representatives to encourage them to do something about this crisis and to pressure the administration to admit more Syrian refugees and other refugees in need," he said.

Kholoud Abou Arida, a refugee from Syria, was resettled in Utah last year after living two years in Lebanon. She, her husband and three children, are grateful to be in Utah, knowing how few Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States in recent years.

She is also happy to be in the U.S. because her husband had been imprisoned by the Syrian government "for no reason."

Her family is safe in Utah and her children are doing well in school, she said.

Still, she worries about family and friends back home.

"It’s hard. It's hard. When I see the boy on the beach, all the time, I cry," Arida said.