Why a photo of a dead Syrian boy touched a nerve on an enduring crisis

The three-year-old boy’s name was Aylan Kurdi. His family was one of many trying to escape Syria’s civil war for Greece when their boat capsized. Eleven others drowned, including his five-year-old brother and their mother.

If you’ve seen the photos, then you know that Aylan’s red shirt, blue shorts and velcro shoes still clung to him when his body was found washed ashore on a Turkish beach. If you’ve heard the interview with his dad, then you know Abdullah Kurdi did everything he could to save his family before they were swept away.

“I tried to catch my children and wife but there was no hope. One by one they died,” Kurdi told the BBC.

The photos of the young boy went viral this week after Human Rights Watch director Peter Bouchard, among others, shared one on Twitter. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a tragic image or story from the Syrian refugee crisis. (Listen to PBS NewsHour’s podcast Shortwave from producer P.J. Tobia to learn more about some of those refugee children.)

But this story, in particular, has seen international response in a way that others have not.

Perhaps the photo resonated with so many because of the stark nature of it — it’s not always the norm for international and national media to run a photo so graphic. Or perhaps it’s because Aylan looks like an normal boy, who is in an ordinary, peaceful setting, not in a war-torn land where violence can be expected. Of course, many children who have left Syria did once lead normal, ordinary lives.

Kate O’Sullivan, Save the Children’s communications manager of Greece’s response to the refugee and migrant crisis, says she thinks the image of Aylan struck a chord because it arrived in the midst of a massive build-up of awareness around the crisis.

In the past few weeks, more than 70 refugees and migrants were found dead in the back of a truck in Austria; hundreds died in transit off the coast of Libya; and in Hungary, thousands are stranded in Budapest.

In the middle of it all, the image of a small, innocent child emerged.

“Obviously it’s tragic. But it’s not unusual, it’s not new … All of us wished it didn’t take something like this to galvanize people.”

If Aylan and his family had made it to Greece, their journey would have been far from over. O’Sullivan says that services are overwhelmed, while the number of migrants are increasing daily.

“People need to know that these people are fleeing. It’s really not a choice.”

After landing in Greece, some are bussed to registration facilities miles away; others, including the elderly, the pregnant and the young, walk the distance in the burning heat.

“Increasingly, more people are sleeping in roadsides or ports. They don’t know what to do, or what is happening.”

Some sleep in tents, some use branches or cardboard for shelter. O’Sullivan says that those who try to find accommodations at nearby hotels typically find them full with tourists.

If nothing else, Aylan’s story puts a face and a name to a crisis so often viewed as a lump sum of faceless individuals.

“Every child I meet talks about going to school, and becoming doctors and engineers. Sometimes the numbers dehumanize people, and that becomes a huge injustice.”