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What a Refugee Toddler Can Teach Us about Bearing Witness

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

You’ve seen the tweets and Facebook posts, even if you haven’t seen “the picture.” Yesterday we reacted with shock and horror to the photo of a dead toddler who washed up on a beach in Turkey. Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi and his 4-year-old brother Galip drowned while attempting to reach Europe, along with their mother, Rehen. “I don't want anything else from this world," mourned Abdullah Kurdi. “Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.”


Photos of the boy’s dead body, lying on his stomach on the beach, flashed across the Internet. Liz Sly, a journalist who snapped a photo showing part of Aylan’s face and tweeted it, defended her decision in the Washington Post:

He looks as though he is asleep—perhaps taking a nap before running off to play with his friends. But he’s not asleep. He’s dead. He died because of a war the world can’t or won’t solve and immigration policies that say: We don’t care.

A fierce debate had erupted over whether the act of photographing Aylan’s body honors his plight, and the thousands still fleeing violence, or whether it strips him of his dignity.

This response puzzled me. What, exactly, in this context, is “dignity”? How many photos of dead Syrian children show up on social media every day? Don’t people know what has been happening in Syria?

And then it occurred to me—perhaps they don’t.

My colleagues and I have been writing about Syria’s war for four years, about the desperation of the refugees who fled the country and the 250,000 people, including children, who have died over the course of the conflict….

If it takes photographs of dead children to make people realize children are dying, so be it.


Yesterday, Democrat staffers on Capitol Hill staff walked out of (or simply didn’t attend) a screening of the undercover Planned Parenthood videos. I get that. In July I attended a national conference of grassroots pro-family leaders as some of the first undercover videos from Planned Parenthood were released. We paused our meetings to watch the videos as they came out. These are seasoned veterans in the fight to protect life, but some people gasped in horror. It was tempting to avert my gaze.

But I watched, and I cried. I wept for the millions of lives lost. I cried for the mothers and fathers of those young ones who, whether they wanted an abortion or not, carry a hidden wound that time will not heal. I was broken for the seared conscience of a nation that averts its eyes while this horror is carried out in our cities and neighborhoods, with our tacit blessing or uncomfortable silence.

What can we do for the Kurdi family, and for other refugees so desperate to escape violence? We can watch, and learn, and pray; we can bear witness. Some of us will be called to take direct action, whether by giving or travelling to far-off places, to offer a cup of water to the least of these in the name of our Heavenly Father. A few of us may be called upon to give our lives to that cause. Some already have.


What can we do for the victims of abortion, both the dead and the living?

  • We can watch, and we can pray, but we must bear witness. These are our mothers and sisters and daughters who are being lied to and told that their best option is to exterminate life. We must tell them, in our pulpits and in our homes, that we will love them and support them and help them through one of the most difficult choices they can make. We are surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ that carry a secret anguish over past abortion of which they dare not speak; we must show them that there is forgiveness and healing and freedom. These are our children, here, in America, who are dying at a rate of 2,900 per day, as we go about our daily lives. Death is annihilating some of our weakest neighbors behind the paper-thin, sanitized language of “choice” and “privacy” and “reproductive health.” We must lift that veil.
  • We can intervene. Many people feel trapped by an unplanned pregnancy, and think they have nowhere else to turn, no other option, than to get an abortion. We can volunteer at one of the thousands of pregnancy care centers, offering hope and help and alternatives that will not leave a life-long wound. We can offer love and real alternatives, not just platitudes.

We know what’s happening. Will we bear witness?

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