While the name Omran Daqneesh may not sound familiar, his face is impossible to forget. In August he was brought to a hospital after an airstrike in Aleppo. A photo was taken of the 5-year-old staring blankly, covered in dust and blood. The picture immediately struck a chord with people worldwide. It was retweeted thousands of times, redistributed in various forms to raise awareness and was widely understood as a shocking symbol of Syria’s overlooked suffering. Despite this widespread attention, however, the plight of Syrian children and refugees is still too often overlooked.
Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential nominee, was asked what he would do to address the refugee crisis in Aleppo. He, now infamously, responded, “What is Aleppo?” However, in their reporting of Johnson’s embarrassing answer, The New York Times itself had to issue two corrections after misidentifying Aleppo as the de facto capital of ISIS and the capital of Syria. In the first presidential debate, despite addressing several issues of foreign policy and national security, Syria was hardly mentioned at all.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 426 civilians, including 78 children, have been killed from Sept. 19 through to Oct. 4. So, when the election mostly ignores Syria even in the face of this rising death toll, we must ask ourselves: How do we make sure people care?
Various social media campaigns have tried tackling this question. The UN created a virtual reality video, “Clouds Over Sidra,” in which viewers follow a young Syrian girl through a refugee camp. However, even without cutting edge VR technology, Syrians have been able to raise awareness about the plight of Syrian children through Twitter hashtags. One in particular capitalized on the Pokemon Go trend. Children in Syria were photographed holding up pictures of Pokemon, or in some cases, Pokemon were digitally photoshopped onto the photos of children amongst the rubble of war. The juxtaposition of the war-torn buildings and the Pokemon characters is unsettling and forces the audience to reevaluate their own priorities.
However, not all awareness campaigns are created equal. Save the Children, a London-based NGO, created a PSA that imagined London as a country in the midst of a brutal war. The video and its sequel follow a young girl through the traumas of life as a child in a war-torn country and, subsequently, as a refugee. Though the campaign intended to solve the very problem we must confront — how to ensure that people know and care about the conflict in Syria — it builds empathy by placing a white child as the protagonist. This only serves to reinforce the racism that has caused such backlash against Syrian refugees and apathy toward the plight of Syrian civilians.
Social media and all its awareness campaigns can also have the exact opposite effect of generating empathy. Seeing a photo of a child who drowned while escaping Syria shared on someone’s Facebook timeline ad nauseum may generate some level of awareness; however, it also has the potential to desensitize and dehumanize. While videos of children in hospitals may move us more than statistics, it is important to remember that feeling bad is not enough. The empathy generated by viral videos and awareness campaigns must be channeled into organizing, donation and political pressure.
Lena Melillo is a senior majoring in philosophy, politics and law and gender studies. Her column, “’Pop Politics,” runs every Thursday.