Alan Kurdi: how one boy came to encapsulate an entire tragedy

Photograph of three-year-old Syrian refugee seen as 'tipping point' in Europe's migrant crisis

(Image credit: Tima Kurdi)

The emotive image of a three-year-old Syrian refugee washed up on a beach in Turkey has been compared to other "tipping point" photographs in human tragedies such as the Sudan famine and the Vietnam War.

Within hours of being taken, the photograph of Alan Kurdi, who drowned on an attempted journey from Turkey to Greece, had circulated around the world and sparked renewed debate about Europe's responsibility to help the victims of overseas conflicts.

After the image featured on the covers of several newspapers yesterday, tens of thousands of people across the UK were moved to sign petitions, donate money, drive supplies to Calais and volunteer to take asylum-seekers into their homes. Charities reported a huge spike in calls and emails from people offering help.

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Prime Minister David Cameron is even expected to climb down from his previously stubborn refusal to accept more than a few hundred Syrian refugees into the country.

For so many, the picture of Alan washed ashore in Turkey has become the "defining image" of the crisis and a "tipping point" for Europe, says NBC.

Crispian Cuss, a defence and security consultant writing for Al Jazeera, says that "occasionally an image encapsulates an entire tragedy". He points to Kevin Carter's photograph of a vulture looming behind a starving child in Sudan during the 1993 famine and that of Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing her village in South Vietnam after a napalm attack in 1972, which came to "symbolise their respective horrors".

The "unsparing image" of Alan Kurdi will do the same for the vast tragedy unfolding across the sea from Europe, says Cuss. "As well as representing a desperate hopelessness, this image, more so than of any other death, seems to have generated an urgency that until now was missing."


Nilufer Demir, 29, was the photographer who captured the image. Dispatched by the Turkish news agency Dogan, she told The Guardian she wished she had never had to take it.

"I wished there was no problem in their country, that they hadn't left it and hadn't tried to leave Turkey, and that I hadn't taken this photograph," she said. "But as I found them dead, all I could do was take these pictures to be their voice."

For Aylan's father, Abdullah, his only wish is to have his son back, along with his other son Ghalib, 5, and his wife Rehan, who also drowned.

"Everything is gone," said Abdullah, who survived the attempt to travel from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos on a cramped plastic dingy.

"I took over and started steering," he explained yesterday. "The waves were so high and the boat flipped. I took my wife and kids in my arms and I realised they were all dead."

Abdullah described his boys as "the most beautiful children in the world". "Is there anybody in the world for whom their child is not the most precious thing?" he asked. "My kids were amazing. They woke me every day to play with me. What is more beautiful than this?"

The family moved several times within Syria, from Damascus to Aleppo to Kobani, before uprooting and moving to Turkey. They had hoped to eventually repatriate to Canada, where Abdullah's sister Tima had lived for several years.

Alan's name was initially spelled "Aylan" by the press, but his aunt Tima has since confirmed that his Kurdish name is Alan and that Aylan was a Turkish version of the name.

In a Facebook tribute, Tima wrote: "My deepest condolences to my brother's family who suffered a tragic death in search of a better life. Where is the humanity in the world? They did not deserve this. My heart is broken. Rest in peace Angels."

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