Exactly a decade ago I became a father for the first time. At the very moment I first laid eyes on my daughter I experienced something I had never felt before. It was total. In an instant my life’s mission became: At all costs, whatever it takes, ensure the health and well-being of this human. I went from a guy existing in the goofy, unreal world of impending first-time fatherhood to “parent,” with all the primordial and overwhelming—until it aches—feelings of unconditional love that come with it. These are the reasons why I have been unable to bring myself to read about poor Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian-Kurdish toddler who washed ashore in Bodrum on the southeastern coast of Turkey, fleeing the cataclysm that has engulfed his country. It is why I had to fight back tears at just the sight of his father who has lost Aylan, his older brother, Galip, and their mother. Abdullah Kurdi’s reality is my night terror. So much has been written about the Kurdi family, Europe’s “migrant crisis,” and the Syrian conflict since the photo of Aylan lying facedown on the beach was published last week, but how many little boys and girls have died in the Syria disaster? We have collectively averted our eyes to unbearable suffering. Another picture of Aylan cradled in the arms of a Turkish police officer reminded me that not everyone has, however. Readers of this blog know that I have been routinely critical of the Turkish government, the Justice and Development Party, and especially Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but when it comes to handling the situation of Syrian refugees in their country, the Turks deserve praise.
It is true that the Kurdi family—which no longer exists—was from the Syrian town of Kobani, which is within eyesight of the Turkish border and where Turkish military units sat idly by in the fall of 2014 as forces from the self-proclaimed Islamic State pounded the area. American airstrikes and Syrian Kurdish forces, with help from their cousins in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, eventually beat back the attackers, but at great cost. There is not much left of Kobani, and responsibility for the carnage and destruction there is partly Turkey’s. Still, numbers do not lie. Whereas the United States has taken in 1,500 people fleeing the conflict and Europe has taken in a larger, but still small number of refugees, Turkey has accepted over 1.9 million. That is an official number. There are believed to be many more. Even so, it represents about half of the people who have fled Syria—most of the rest have found refuge in Jordan and Lebanon. The number of Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey is such that according to my friend and colleague, Soner Cagaptay, in the five Turkish provinces where these people are concentrated, they now comprise 6 to 59 percent of the population. (Those numbers are from the summer of 2014). It is not so much that the Turks have let people in; it is the way they have done it. In contrast to past refugee crises like the Iraqi Kurdish rush to safety in Turkey in the spring of 1991, Ankara has upheld internationally accepted practices and norms for the care of refugees. I would not want to be a Syrian refugee in Turkey; who would? Yet to be a Syrian refugee in Turkey is better than being a Syrian in Syria or a Syrian refugee in other places.
It has not been easy for Turkey. The recognition that Syrians—many of whom are Kurdish—might be in Turkey for a very long time has produced some political tension, though for the most part Turks have taken the refugees in their midst with a good deal of equanimity. That said, there seem to be few in Turkey who have an appetite for getting more deeply and directly involved in the conflict across the border and question their government’s aggressive posture toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This does not change the fact that whatever criticism can be leveled against President Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for their approach to Syria—and there are many—Turkey has borne the brunt of the conflict there and acted responsibly. Late last week Davutoglu said he was “proud” that Turkey had taken in so many refugees. His words came in the context of scoring cheap political points in an address to business leaders representing G20 countries, but Davutoglu was correct. Europe, the United States, and the Gulf countries—the wealthiest countries on Earth—have left Turkey (and Lebanon and Jordan) to deal with the “greatest humanitarian disaster since Word War II,” as we have been told several times over this weekend. True, the United States and its European allies have contributed $1,112,683,736 to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, but at some point writing checks is not enough.
I hope there will not be more Aylan and Galip Kurdis in the future, but I know better. Thanks to Turkey, there have been fewer than there might have been.