When I glance through our family photo collection, I relive a wealth of cheerful moments. In the pictures, my two young boys frolic on playgrounds, blow out birthday candles, and pose with giant, walking versions of their favorite cartoon characters. They throw their hands wide in celebration, or put them around each other to show fleeting brotherly love. They hike a trail in Maui, climb a mountain in British Columbia, splash in a lake in northern Wisconsin.
In between those moments, their lives are occasionally marked by endurable hardships and imperfections we don’t tend to capture digitally. But for the most part, the pictures accurately portray the lives of comfort, safety, and security my children are fortunate to enjoy.
They did not earn this life—it was bestowed upon them.
As I scanned the news headlines and images a few days ago, I came across a very different sort of family picture. In the photograph, a young girl and an even younger boy frantically cling to each other as they are swept up in a sea of heavily armed men in helmets and fatigues. The children’s mouths hang open while their eyes clench tight in mid-wail, the looks of sheer, blind terror shrouding their little faces. Nearby stands a man who is likely a father or relative, but his presence seems to bring them no comfort—he is as powerless as the children in the face of the soldiers.
The picture captures the one family’s attempt to cross the border from Greece into the country of Macedonia, whose soldiers had clearly received orders not to welcome the foreigners with open arms. Though the nationality of these particular children is unknown, the majority of refugees attempting the crossing are Syrians fleeing the relentless violence in their home country, part of a civil war that began in 2011 and shows no signs of ceasing anytime soon.
These two innocent children and hundreds of others like them appeared at the Balkan back door because they wanted to survive. To know a life in which buildings stay upright, schools stay open, and loved ones stay alive.
Like many people, I have become somewhat inured to the headlines and pictures documenting the myriad civil wars, terrorist acts, and crimes against humanity taking place all over the world. At times, I have been guilty of skipping over such articles in favor of lighter fare, celebrity-focused stories that my brain and my heart can handle.
But the smallness and the palpable terror of these children grabbed hold of me and won’t let me go. The children in this picture cannot possibly understand what is happening to them. Why their tiny little bodies are being battered and jostled, why the grownups won’t protect them, why the men with the big guns won’t let them pass.
They cannot understand why they are so unlucky.
All of which reminds me of what my own children cannot yet understand. That but for some inexplicable stroke of luck, they could have been the ones fighting their way across a dangerous border guarded by scary men with coal-black weapons. Or the ones treated as unwelcome outsiders simply because of where they were born. Or the ones living under the threat of expulsion back to a homeland torn apart by genocide, famine, and war.
For now, they are just the lucky ones.
Recent articles about Syrian refugee crisis: