He sits, still and silent, in the back of an ambulance. Alone for a minute as aid workers rush back into his home to rescue others, he brings his hand to his face to wipe away the warm blood running into his eyes. He glances at his hand, wondering what was pouring down his forehead. Quickly, he tries to wipe his palm clean on the seat.
If you listen closely to his silence, you can hear the worldwide sound of parents’ hearts breaking as they watched him perform this simple act. It’s not the dirt caked on his body that makes us cry. It’s not the vacant and confused stare in his eyes. It’s not even the blood running down his innocent face that causes us to crumble.
Omran Daqneesh, a five-year-old child who lost his home in the Syrian civil war, wipes blood from his hand on to the seat of an ambulance the way that my children wipe jelly from their fingers on to my blue jeans. He is a child like our own in that moment. He is familiar.
We’ve heard heartbreaking stories such as his many times before, so often that we’ve almost grown to expect them. We were reminded to hold our toddlers closer after seeing the body of Alan Kurdi washed ashore in Turkey. But tales of refugees drowning in foreign seas, children dying in sieges, and families starving in famine remain distant, otherworldly, and unfamiliar.
Broadcasters discussing the latest airstrike in Aleppo becomes background noise as I fix dinner, their voices drummed out by the sound of my children’s hungry whines. I worry if my son is safe as he plays in knee deep water wearing a lifejacket; I do not worry about the shore that he lives on. It’s challenging to wrap our heads around the scale and immensity of the violence tormenting Syria, and it should be difficult to do so. No one should have to understand such horror.
I don’t know how those mothers do it, we think to ourselves as we see pictures of Syrian women clutching their children in the midst of rubble; I don’t know how they raise children in the face of such difficulty. It’s the same thought that pops into our heads after we hear of a young child diagnosed with cancer, or when a friend unexpectedly loses their spouse. We take a step back from them and try to convince ourselves that such burdens are for people who are not us. Those difficulties must be reserved for people who are stronger than us, we think, because surely we have all that we can handle right now.
Perhaps this is what Omran’s mother thought as she rocked her newborn Omran to sleep during the first months of Syria’s civil war. This cannot be happening here. This is not the life I thought that my child would have. No one expects a tragedy.
When we hear news of earth shattering misery, we try to create some distance, to remind ourselves that it is not happening in our home. We don’t want to become too acquainted with the pain and suffering of others. This is not wholly selfish, but necessary, for if we left ourselves open to every heartache we read about, we would be crushed under the weight of the world.
But we must not forget that such pain – be it war, poverty, disease, or famine – is nobody’s normal. The parents of Omran Daqneesh may have watched their son take his first steps while war raged nearby, but they have never grown to accept the sounds of bombs dropping and lives shattering. When they bury their other son, Omran’s brother who passed away in the attack that injured him, they will not be accustomed to the pain.
The silent, dust-covered child wiping a bloodied hand on the seat of an ambulance is familiar to us. He is our child, awaiting stitches in the ER after falling off the monkey bars, or clutching his backpack, scared on the first day of school. The circumstances he has grown up in are unfathomable, and the challenges he faces still are beyond our comprehension. But we know his face, and that has bound us to him. We have stepped, perhaps unwillingly and only very briefly, into his world and the world of his parents and pictured what it would be like to see our own child sitting in an ambulance parked next to the rubble of our home.
Our tears will not solve the crisis in Syria, and our compassion alone will not bring about peace. Our grief, instead, should be a reminder that despite the pervasiveness of violence, we can never accept it as normal. It is not normal for black Americans to worry about being shot and killed as they drive home from work. It should not be commonplace for women to fear walking alone at night. It is not acceptable for children who have moved to our country from a different shore to be looked down upon because their skin is dark and their language is foreign. It is not tolerable for a couple in love to feel the need to hide, lest their employer find out that they are gay.
Although we have grown accustomed to hearing about it, we cannot let ourselves believe that the unrest and agony experienced by so many vulnerable communities, at home and around the world, is an acceptable status quo. And so when we see the face of Omran Daqneesh, a face that looks so utterly familiar, yet experiencing a tragedy we cannot understand, we must remember that while tragic stories such as these may be common, pain like his should never be.