Last week the world was shocked and appalled at the sight of a three-year-old boy, dressed in sneakers, shorts, and a red shirt, washed ashore face-down on a Turkish beach. Aylan Kurdi never made it to Europe as his father intended, but his photograph could save the lives of countless others.
I was born in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam eight months after it fell to the communists in April of 1975. After years of brutal warfare, my country’s economy was in ruins, hundreds of thousands had been killed or displaced, and education and social services had all but ceased — much like the conditions in the Middle East today.
After four years of struggling to survive and hoping for changes that might never occur, my parents made the decision to flee Vietnam. They did it for us — their eight children — just as Abdullah Kurdi made the decision to flee Syria for the sake of his two sons.
In 1979 we joined the ranks of the legendary “boat people” and became refugees. On a June night, under cover of darkness, we boarded a patched-up fishing trawler along with 280 others and sailed into the South China Sea. No one in my family could swim; none of us had even seen the ocean before. An unexpected storm, a capsized boat, and all of us would die.
Like Aylan Kurdi, I was three years old.
My parents knew the risks involved. The BBC and Voice of America broadcast warnings to would-be refugees about the dangers of attempting the crossing, just as the Internet does today. The death rate for boat people was estimated at fifty percent: for every two refugees who attempted to cross the South China Sea, only one survived. To this day no one really knows how many perished, because no one counted refugees as they left. The only way to estimate the death toll was by interviewing the fortunate survivors who managed to make it safely to some distant shore.
The same risks are taken today by refugees who attempt the dangerous sea journey across the Mediterranean or into Europe by land through the western Balkans. There are human smugglers who promise safe passage and reliable transport in exchange for large sums of money, then abandon refugees to their fate. The bodies of 71 refugees were recently found on an Austrian roadside, abandoned to die of heat exhaustion or suffocation in a locked truck.
Aylan Kurdi was promised safe passage from Bodrum to Kos; he was one of twelve refugees who drowned when their overloaded rubber boat easily capsized. Last month alone, almost 2,000 refugees attempted to cross the Mediterranean to Greece, and an estimated 200,000 still plan to attempt the passage this year. Many will not be afforded life jackets; many will drown.
The fortunate refugees who survive their journey face the prospect of an uncertain welcome. Our boat ran aground in Malaysia, where 124,000 refugees had already arrived before us, overwhelming social services and straining local economies. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines were just like Hungary, Austria, Germany, and France today. All were struggling to find a political solution to the “refugee problem,” and all were suffering from what was euphemistically labeled, “compassion fatigue.”
European nations have already taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees; Germany alone expects to take in 800,000 by year’s end. Some European nations are voicing concerns that the influx of refugees will overwhelm their social services or upset a delicate ethnic or religious balance. “Now we talk about hundreds of thousands,” the Hungarian Prime Minister said recently, “but next year we will talk about millions, and there is no end to this. All of a sudden we will see that we are in a minority in our own continent.”
For the Malaysians, “compassion fatigue” meant dividing our group of 290 into four groups and loading us into tiny, derelict fishing boats to be towed back out to sea. We were told that we were being taken to a refugee camp on an island just a few miles offshore. We were instructed to leave everything behind, because everything we would need would be waiting for us there. Instead, a Malaysian patrol boat towed us for twenty straight hours back into the heart of the South China Sea, then cut the ropes and left us to die.
We had no food, no water, and there were 93 of us packed into a fragile fishing boat thirty-five feet long. For five days we languished at sea. It was summer, we were barely a hundred miles north of the equator, and it was typhoon season in the South China Sea.
But my family was spared, and it all began with a photograph — just like the photograph of Aylan Kurdi.
In 1977 a photojournalist named Eddie Adams heard about the plight of the boat people and decided he wanted to photograph them. Adams was the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer responsible for the most iconic and best-remembered photograph of the Vietnam War: the image of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong with a pistol shot to the head.
Adams managed to board a thirty-foot refugee boat off the coast of Thailand loaded with fifty men, women, and children who had been suffering at sea for five straight days. For several hours he took photographs, until Thai authorities forced him off the boat and towed the refugees back out to sea.
The boat and its nameless passengers were never seen again.
Adams later wrote of the experience: “No matter when you aim a camera at children … I don’t care if there are fifteen bodies stacked up … the children will smile. This was the first time in my life that nobody smiled, not even the children.” So he called his collection of photographs, “The Boat of No Smiles.”
Adams’ dramatic photographs of suffering refugees were published worldwide, and three remarkable things happened that directly contributed to the rescue of my family at sea. First, the photos were presented to the U.S. Congress, where they helped move the hardened hearts of lawmakers to accept 200,000 more Vietnamese refugees into the United States — including my family.
Second, the “Boat of No Smiles” photos made their way to the desk of President Jimmy Carter, who responded by issuing a presidential directive promising sponsorship in America to all refugees rescued by U.S.-owned fishing vessels in the South China Sea. Prior to that directive, it was virtually illegal to rescue a refugee in the South China Sea.
And most important, Adam’s photographs motivated one compassionate man to take action.
Dr. Stan Mooneyham was the president of a fledgling hunger-relief organization called World Vision. Mooneyham saw one of Adams’ photographs on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, a photograph of a refugee woman cradling her dying daughter in her arms. He later wrote, “The agony on the woman’s face wrenched my heart.”
He couldn’t get the image out of his mind, and he felt compelled to do something. So Mooneyham bought himself a ship, loaded it with supplies, and began to patrol the South China Sea searching for helpless refugee families like mine.
On our sixth day at sea and nearing death from dehydration, he found us.
When I saw the photograph of Aylan Kurdi’s floating body, like Stan Mooneyham before me it “wrenched my heart,” just as it did for thousands of others all over the world. An image has the power to evoke a visceral response, and it’s on that level that we need to approach the European “refugee problem.” As long as refugees remain nameless, faceless statistics to us, we will not be moved to act. We need to be moved — that’s the lesson Eddie Adams taught us.
Before Stan Mooneyham launched his one-man relief effort, he sought the advice of seven different world governments. Each one gave him the same advice: Ignore the problem, leave it alone, wait for someone else to figure it out. Mooneyham decided not to wait for governments to solve the refugee problem; he decided to do what he could do, and for my family it was enough.
We now live in a world where individuals can take significant action. One family launched a crowdfunding campaign to create the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, spending six months a year patrolling the Mediterranean to rescue endangered refugees. An Egyptian billionaire has announced plans to buy an entire Mediterranean island to house refugees.
Those are ambitious goals, but on a smaller level we can all do the same thing: While governments deliberate and committees debate, we can each ask what we can do. Can I send money? Can I sponsor a refugee family? Can I lend my time to join in a relief effort? For my part, I now serve on the board of directors of World Vision, the same organization that once aided in my family’s rescue. Someone sent a boat for us, and now my burden is to send the boat back for someone else.
I share my family’s story not because I have the solution to the international refugee crisis, but to help create compassion and awareness of the human side of the equation. Refugees are human beings, and before we will act on their behalf we have to know them and feel their desperation. We all know the name of Aylan Kurdi now, but no one knows the name of his brother or mother, who also drowned. That is the essence of the refugee crisis.
Aylan Kurdi’s photograph will continue to haunt us, as it should. His death was a tragedy, but his image just might be the spark we all need to get something done.
Vinh Chung is a dermatologist in private practice in Colorado Springs. He is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School and serves on the board of directors of World Vision U.S. He is the author of “Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family’s Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue, and Redemption.”