Exactly five years ago, the images of a Syrian toddler lying dead on a Turkish beach shocked Canadians into action and set his aunt in Coquitlam, B.C. on a path that would change her life.
But for many, the refugee crisis has moved to the back burner since then, if they even think of it at all.
Seeing the body of her tiny nephew, Alan Kurdi, alongside his older brother Galip and their mother shocked Tima Kurdi on Sept. 2, 2015. She has spent the years since advocating for refugees and forming a foundation to advocate for others fleeing war-torn homelands. On Wednesday, the small businesswoman was in Germany to mark the grim anniversary at one of the many nation-wide vigils and memorial demonstrations for Alan and other refugees lost at sea.
“To be honest it is not very easy for us to see the image and the name of my nephew all the time but we know if it brings a positive effect and it’s going to help other peoples' lives, we are honoured and happy to continue and support that call…If I couldn't save my own family, let's save the others," Kurdi said at a press conference held by Sea-Eye.
The organization is dedicated to rescuing refugees and migrants at sea and named a new vessel after Galip Kurdi on the anniversary of his death, which Tima Kurdi helped commemorate; a rescue boat named “Alan Kurdi” has been operating for several years and the organization claims in 2019 alone it saved 443 people from drowning.
A prominent Syrian-Canadian author and advocate says while the Syrian refugee crisis has fallen off the radar of many Canadians in the years since, the sad anniversary of Alan’s death is an opportunity to remember and reach out to their neighbours.
"It's understandable that the media, that folks and the conversation out there in Canada has moved on from the Syrian refugees, but we keep forgetting that Syrian refugees are impacted with the same issues we are impacted with right now. They are impacted with COVID-19, they are impacted by the political situation that we see globally,” said Danny Ramadan in Vancouver. “I'm sure that we can still build that empathy, that connection between us as Canadians who are privileged with the way that we live, with the places that we live, and connect with them and see them as they are trying to build their hopes and dreams for the future, just like us."
More than 60,000 refugees have settled in Canada since Kurdi’s death in 2015 and while some have faced challenges with employment and language barriers, others have successfully opened their own businesses and integrated into the community and most are happy they came.
Thousands of Canadians offered support ranging from cash donations to homes for the refugees to live in, and an immigrant settlement society in Montreal thinks that’s directly related to the heartbreak sparked by Alan’s photos.
“I think part of that reaction is that child could be my grandson," said Paul Clarke with Action Réfugiés Montréal. “This was a family that had attempted to come to Canada, had filled out paperwork, Canadians said, 'We must do something, there are many people in this same situation and this can't carry on.'”
Clarke said not only did individuals step up, but foundations and corporations came to his organization offering the kind of help and prominence his organization had been struggling for years to find.
“It really awoke, I think, for the Canadian population that we have a role to play,” he said. “Yes, it's people on the far side of the world, but they're people like us who need safety."
As many Metro Vancouverites struggle with financial issues or uncertainty around the pandemic, Ramadan points out support for Syrian refugees doesn’t have to be financial – especially when you realize they are our neighbours.
"There are a lot of folks living here in Canada who are impacted by COVID-19,” he said. “They’re looking for belonging, for community, for a job, for a home and they are brand-new to this country and they can also be helped by us -- be it finding a home or a job or even just being friends with and building that community that will definitely help quite a lot."