On September 2, 2015, the realities of the gravest refugee crisis since World War II came to light after a chilling image surfaced of the lifeless body of a 3-year-old boy named Alan washed up on the shores of Turkey. Alan was only one of more than 60 million displaced people in the world today, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Yet the raw innocence of this little boy in a bright red t-shirt, blue shorts, and tiny Velcro shoes captured the attention of millions. The world was enraged, and this anger demanded action.
Within a day an online petition in the U.K. urging Prime Minister David Cameron to accept more asylum seekers surged to more than 300,000 signatures. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the images showed the need for urgent action by Europe, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey criticized Europe for failing to address the migration crisis and the complex underlying conflicts behind it. Politicians were pressured to speak up and governments were forced to defend their lack of action thus far. Inaction was no longer acceptable, and people wanted answers.
On that solemn September day, the world wept for Alan. His death became a wakeup call to the dozens of nations sitting idle as thousands suffered his same fate. When those photos surfaced, the refugee crisis no longer seemed like an irrelevant issue half a world away, but was now coming alive in their living rooms as Alan’s picture flashed across their television screens. Family members hugged their little ones as they tried to avoid thinking that inevitable thought: “What if this was my child?”
Humanizing an issue in order to genuinely connect with an audience can be extraordinarily powerful. Putting a face to an issue that would otherwise feel lightyears away can be extremely effective in swaying how one views and ultimately feels about the topic, particularly highly charged political issues. As the age-old saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.” Yet we live in a world that makes exposure to global news almost impossible to avoid. Through advancements in technology, the world has become increasingly interconnected, and we are given the extraordinary opportunity to care about something happening hundreds of thousands of miles away. More importantly, we are given the opportunity to do something about it.
A new public opinion survey released June 13 by the Brookings Institution found that a high percentage of Millennials–68 percent–support admitting refugees from the Middle East, and Syria in particular. Interviews revealed that this sentiment is rooted in an increasingly diverse and technologically connected society. Young Americans have grown up watching news stories on countries across the globe and have been surrounded by people of diverse backgrounds. Stories of starvation, desperation, and suffering are being delivered to their smartphones constantly, reminding them of something people tend to forget: These refugees are actual people with feelings, families, and futures.
In a June 16 letter to Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, the Obama administration expressed a belief that it will be able to process many more Syrian refugees in the last half of fiscal 2016 than in the first six months, allowing the country to meet its goal of admitting at least 10,000 by September 30. By mid-May, only 1,736 Syrians had been allowed into the country. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, has criticized Obama’s plan and argues that the program should be suspended, inciting fears that extremists could sneak in among the refugees.
In order for the Obama administration to successfully reach its goal by year’s end, it not only needs to combat Trump’s inaccurate information with truths–such as the fact that the United States has one of the world’s strictest systems for checking the backgrounds of refugees–but also must further the public’s understanding of the problem by putting it into perspective. Personal stories are far more likely to evoke emotional reactions to a problem than abstract statistics. Introduce Americans to the Alans of the refugee crisis. Tell their stories. Putting a “face” on otherwise abstract suffering will force people to weigh the costs of American resistance, and hopefully induce the feeling that as a nation, we can do better.
Melissa Beaty is an Account Coordinator at LEVICK and a contributing author to Tomorrow.