This handout photo courtesy of Tima Kurdi shows Alan Kurdi, left, and his brother Galib Kurdi. The body of 3-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi was found on a Turkish beach after he, his brother and his mother drowned. (Photo courtesy of Tima Kurdi /The Canadian Press via AP)

Most of us have seen him by now, whether we wanted to or not: soaked red shirt, blue shorts, tiny hands in the sand, their palms turned upward. The photos of a 3-year-old lying on the beach of Bodrum in southwest Turkey have gone around the world. Memefied, commented, re-drawn with angels or Arab leaders, they are credited with changing international opinion about the Syrian refugee crisis.

I tried to avoid looking at these photos. As the mother of a 3-year-old, I have little appetite for pictures of dead babies. I had already glanced at other, more horrible images of refugee children who had drowned near the Libyan coast. I did not need more.

[Why I tweeted the photo of the dead Syrian toddler]

The pictures of Kurdi are being shared so widely now, however, that it is no longer possible to avoid them without disconnecting from all media. When I finally looked, I could not stop. I imagined the terror of the night trip, Alan’s struggle and fear. I hoped both were quick.

Besides the horror and the rage so many parents feel, there was a more powerful, visceral response, the desire to take this little boy into my arms and hold him, whisper to him, keep him warm.

Alan Kurdi was not the first refugee child to die this year, nor was he the first one to be photographed. Why did his picture make a difference? Why were so many people able to respond compassionately to his suffering, and to that of his father?

[Hundreds of 3-year-olds have died because of the Syrian war]

The answer, I think, is that Kurdi does not look dead. The Syrian and Palestinian children who drowned near Libya in August, and whose photographs were widely shared on Facebook – then banned, then shared again – look deceased. These pictures are unbearable, and we protect ourselves from the horror by not taking them in. Particularly for parents, it’s a necessary emotional detachment, but a dangerous one to refugees who could use our compassion and righteous anger.

Alan Kurdi, however, looks like a toddler taking a nap. His face and hands are still babyish, still perfect. It takes a few moments to process the reality of what we see in the photo, the fact that despite his serenity, he will not wake up. In those moments, despite ourselves, we imagine how he got there, who he might have been. We write a story.

The literary critic Fritz Breithaupt has argued that we become able to empathize with people when we can imagine a narrative for them. When we envisage their struggles and decisions, we begin to take on their perspective and feel with them. When we are presented with someone in distress, but cannot picture the circumstances, our empathy is blocked.

No wonder, then, that we often read and hear a lack of compassion in Europe and North America for political and economic refugees. We try to imagine their ordeals, but most of us are too comfortable, too safe, too rich to understand the kind of misery that would lead people to risk their lives and those of their children on crowded boats. Supporters of refugee rights argue for our common humanity, but it is not easy to empathize with other people simply because they belong to the same species. Only our shared vulnerability can teach us compassion.

When many of us see Alan Kurdi, we react as parents. As parents, we know that the line between life and death is thread-thin. It only takes one mistake, one moment of distraction, to lose a child. Letting go of a little hand in the midst of traffic, glancing at a cell phone by the pool, leaving glowing embers in the fireplace – all might lead to tragedy. From the moment we become parents, we know that even sleep is not really peaceful, not when a baby could suffocate from SIDS in the middle of the night. Alan’s fate reminds us how limited our power to protect our children is, no matter how wealthy or safe or free we are.

We cannot know what Alan felt that night, nor can we truly understand what his father Abdullah now endures, having lost both children and a wife. Once we begin writing another person’s story, however, we fill it in with our own details. We know the smell of a child’s head, the boisterous laughter, the delight in a naughty word, and we can feel in our gut what it would mean to see those extinguished. The pain we imagine becomes real to us.

Held in the arms of a Turkish police officer, Alan could be any of our sleeping children. Which teaches us a hard but necessary lesson: given the wrong circumstances, any of our children could be Alan.

Irina Dumitrescu teaches medieval literature at the University of Bonn, and writes about literature, food, immigration and dance. She blogs about dance at atisheh.com and about culinary disasters at foodgonewrong.com.

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