Just over a year ago, the story dominating the global media was the murder of Alan Henning, the British taxi driver who had chosen to travel to Syria as part of an aid convoy in the hope that he could somehow better the lives of some of the beleaguered people in that war-ravaged country. The praise for Alan was fulsome and overwhelming, as he had been a humorous, easy-going, tolerant guy who was generous with his time and with his skills, without requiring anything whatsoever in return aside from the pleasure and satisfaction of having helped out his fellow man in their time of need.
Some of the warmest and most heartfelt tributes came from Alan’s Muslim friends in Britain, who had organised the aid convoy and travelled with him to Syria, where he met his untimely death. I could continue in this vein for a long while yet, but it’s obvious to me that Alan Henning embodied the greatest virtues that any man alive could aim for, inasmuch as he was an ordinary British father who felt compelled to give up his time and risk his life to try to help other human beings that were strangers to him.
With this in mind, it’s inevitable that I should ask myself the simple question, “What would a man such as Alan Henning do when confronted by the appalling spectacle of the unrelenting misery of the refugees from Syria?” It’s impractical for me to travel to those parts of the world where the Syrians are beginning their exodus, while I possess neither the skills nor the resources to make any difference to their plight, so for now, I’ve done the best I can by signing the petition set up by the writer Sue Hubbard calling on Britain’s Home Secretary to offer immediate sanctuary to those fleeing from war.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s a straightforward matter. As a child, I learned from my grandparents, parents, uncles and others who had lived through or taken part in World War II of how we in this island nation had offered sanctuary to all comers when Europe was being taken over by Hitler’s legions. This part of my heritage is something I’m intensely proud of, so it’s natural that I should want to try to emulate as best I can the admirable qualities of my forebears, when another tragedy of Biblical proportions has presented itself to us. These are the abstract principles that drive me, but those in desperate need of sanctuary have human faces and I would say it’s impossible to gaze upon these myriad countenances without feeling pity.
The best-known photograph of Alan Henning is the one I’ve reproduced at the top of this post, where he’s smiling and cradling a Syrian child. I doubt there can be a single parent reading this who has not known what it’s like to be in charge of a toddler who’s hungry, thirsty, upset and crying because of the circumstances they’ve found themselves in, either on a trip to the seaside, to the countryside, to the shops, to visit grandparents or any one of a hundred other settings wherein they’ve become tired and can’t understand why they’re not safe at home where they can eat, drink, play and rest in familiar surroundings.
In the vast majority of cases we, as parents, only have to console our children for an hour or so, secure in the knowledge that our journey will soon be at an end, but it’s still upsetting to see our kids in distress, when they’re too young to understand or take on board our assurances. Being forced to try to provide for and console our children for months on end, in the case of some Syrian refugees, must be exhausting and heartbreaking, but as things stand, there’s far worse in store for many of these poor, unfortunate people fleeing from the horrific wars that have engulfed their country.
A little while ago, I wrote about the mass drownings that are taking place in the Mediterranean, but neither my prolonged contemplation of the subject matter, nor my personal experience of once having nearly drowned myself prepared me for the horror of this story of two young brothers, Galip and Aylan Kurdi, aged five and three, who were drowned in the sea separating the Greek island of Kos from the Turkish mainland.
Our politicians in Europe are facing a problem of immense proportions when faced with the sheer number of refugees making their way to our continent. I don’t have the answers to the innumerable questions posed by this mass movement of people, but the sight of a young Turkish policeman having to perform the terrible, soul-corroding task of retrieving the drowned body of a toddler from a beach is an affront to humanity. Whatever the social and economic consequences might be to Britain of offering immediate sanctuary to a large number of people fleeing their war-torn country, surely nothing on God’s Earth could be worse than this?
“Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?”