The Refugee Crisis: Teaching Aylan Kurdi

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I wanted to spend a couple of posts talking about the Syrian refugee crisis, particularly given the enormous human costs involved.  And I thought I would start with Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose drowning placed a disturbingly young face on this crisis. Photographs of Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach are stark and quite disturbing—perhaps too much so for a first year writing classroom.  I’d like to suggest, then, that one way to teach about Kurdi and the Syrian refugee crisis is to focus on the ways in which the world has reacted to the tragedy of his death.

Art is one powerful way to explore the impact of Kurdi’s death. You might start by having students use a search engine to locate images using the terms “Aylan Kurdi art.” Students can explore images that move them more closely through this approach while also getting a nice, quick overview of how people have represented this boy.  Be warned that even with a focused search some of the original images might appear in the results.

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Several essays in Emerging can frame this exercise.  You might also want to use the material on reading images and visual texts in the introduction.  Then, consider using

  • Arwa Aburawa’s “Veiled Threat: The Guerrilla Graffiti of Princess Hijab” explores the guerilla art of Princess Hijab and in particular the complex intersection of art and politics.  Though it’s never quite clear whether Princess Hijab’s art is politically radical or conservative, that the images can be read both ways enriches a discussion about the political circulation of visual images that could be then fruitfully brought to bear on the art around Aylan Kurdi.
  • Rachel Kadish’s “Who Is This Man, and Why Is He Screaming?” primarily focuses on the intellectual property rights of an image of Kadish’s cousin Noam Galai.  But that the image has circulated so widely—and again with such varied meaning—offers students additional tools to think about the ways in which the art around Aylan Kurdi circulates through social and electronic media and the ways in which those images are used for a variety of political purposes.
  • Steve Mumford’s “The Things They Carry” is one of Emerging’s visual texts, focused on war.  Mumford offers students a direct connection to the art around Kurdi and invites them to explore the ways in which art can contribute to peace.

These essays make a strong core focused on art and politics. If you’re looking for other readings that might work in such a sequence, consider Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Making Conversation” and “The Primacy of Practice,” which focuses on the obligations each of us has in a hyperconnected world; Francis Fukuyama’s “Human Dignity,” whose central and titular concept provides an ethical framework for looking at Kurdi; or David Savage and Urvhasi Vaid’s “It Gets Better” and “Action Makes it Better,” which offer a model for moving from social media to social change.

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About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.