Tima Kurdi awoke on Sept. 2 at home in Vancouver to dozens of missed calls on her phone from relatives in Syria. The news was grim: Her brother Abdullah’s wife and two children had drowned crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece. And within hours, her nephew — three-year-old Aylan Kurdi — would become the world’s most famous casualty, a dead toddler in a red T-shirt and black sneakers washed ashore on a Turkish beach. “Every day kids have drowned,” Kurdi says, sitting in a Brussels hotel room on Monday. “But before Aylan died, people read it and moved on. That boy, that picture, meant something.”
Two weeks on, it has become clear how much Aylan Turki’s death meant. The image of Aylan’s body, in his neat clothes and a fresh haircut, jolted leaders into action after months of dithering over one of the biggest refugee crises in about 70 years. Within days the U.S., Germany, and France offered to settle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, for the first time in the five-year war. On Monday and Tuesday European Union ministers met in Brussels to discuss Europe’s first unified asylum policy. Although they battled to agree on binding quotas to host those who’ve flooded across E.U. borders, refugee advocates says Aylan’s death has nonetheless marked a sharp turning point for Europe. “If Aylan had not happened I don’t think Europe would be having this existential discussion,” says Sam Barratt, campaign director for the New York-based activist organization Avaaz, which financed Tima Kurdi’s Brussels trip. “Without that photo, the E.U. would have kicked the issue into the long grass.”
For Aylan’s aunt, 44, who works as a hairdresser in Vancouver, it has been a bitter price to pay. Sunk into an armchair, Kurdi wrings her hands as she describes how the loss of Aylan, his brother Galib, 5, and their mother Rehana, has shattered her family, leaving them exhausted with grief and uncertain about their future.
Her brother, deep in mourning, returned home to the war-ravaged town of Kobani to bury his wife and children. He sits for hours in the cemetery, where he has put toys on the boys’ graves. Kurdi says that he sometimes talks to his children in their bedroom where they lived until they fled, arranging their toys as he pretends to put the boys to bed and kiss them goodnight. “I am really worried about him,” says Kurdi, who remains determined to bring Abdullah to Canada. His asylum application sits in her desk drawer in Vancouver, and she says she will submit it soon. Abdullah will yet not contemplate leaving his family’s graves. “He says to me, ‘leave me alone with my pain right now,'” she says. “I will give him the space right now. But I am sure he will come.”
Since Abdullah could not afford the $5,000 or so needed to flee Kobani, Kurdi sent him money to pay smugglers to take his family across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. They hatched that plan after it appeared that Canada would not grant the family asylum; a previous attempt to bring her older brother Mohammed to Canada stalled because the Canadian authorities required official documents that had been impossible to obtain in Syria, she says. Mohammed is now a refugee in Heidelberg, Germany.
Kurdi says she remains overwhelmed with a sense of guilt and anguish, believing that her generosity towards Abdullah directly caused the three deaths. Kurdi says when she first reached Abdullah after the drownings, “I was screaming, ‘I am sorry, so sorry, it is my fault.’ He said, ‘don’t blame yourself. You are the best sister in the world.'” Yet those words have been little help. “If I didn’t give them money they would be alive today,” she says, choking on tears, and explaining that she had been desperate to help the family flee Syria, after her father, who lives in Damascus, described Galib suffering. “Well, he is not in pain anymore,” Kurdi says in a near whisper.
Kurdi has seen her own relatively carefree life drastically upturned since Sept. 2. She says about 3,000 emails, mostly unopened, have poured in from strangers across the world; one European woman wrote that Aylan’s photo had so shaken her, that she ran to her daughter’s day-care center to hug her.
Kurdi’s sudden, unwitting celebrity is a highly unlikely twist of fate. She moved to Vancouver 22 years ago to marry her first husband. There she raised her son Alan, little Aylan’s anglicized namesake, who traveled to Brussels with her this week. She says that until the Syrian war erupted in 2011 she thought about her homeland only “now and then,” traveling to Damascus every two years or so, for summer visits.
Now Kurdi is a voice in the fraught political debate about refugees, and one of the few recognizable Syrians speaking on the issue. She became a public figure just hours after her nephews and sister-in-law had died, when she gave a tearful press conference in Vancouver.
On Tuesday, Kurdi addressed E.U. politicians in the union’s Brussels headquarters, pleading with them to take in Syrian refugees. And on Monday she met the U.N.’s refugee chief António Guterres and Jean Asselborn, Foreign Minister of Luxembourg, which currently holds the E.U. rotating presicency. For Kurdi, it is one way to find something positive from her family’s huge loss. “I’m doing this to honor them,” Kurdi says. “It is too late to save Aylan, Galib and Rehana. But it is not too late for millions of other refugees to be saved.”