A year ago, Tima Kurdi was just a suburban mother, a hardworking immigrant in British Columbia who had knocked on many doors in a helpless effort to bring over her siblings and their families from war-torn Syria.
On Sept. 2, 2015, the Port Coquitlam woman’s life was forever changed because of the drowning deaths of her nephews, Alan, 3, and Ghalib, 5, and their mother in the Aegean Sea while fleeing to Greece. The tragedy thrust her into a new role: appealing to the Canadian conscience over the long-standing refugee crisis.
Overnight, Kurdi was thrust into the spotlight, becoming a spokeswoman for millions of Syrian refugees to people in Canada and around the world shaken by the image of tiny Alan lying facedown and lifeless on a Turkish beach.
The plea she and other Syrian Canadians had been making for years to politicians was finally heard.
Just weeks later, the new Liberal government swiftly opened Canada’s door to thousands ofSyrian refugees, and community sponsorship groups sprang up to embrace them.
“I would never have imagined that after that image of Alan, something would happen for the better,” reflected Kurdi, who came to Canada in 1992 and lives in Port Coquitlam with husband, Rocco Logozzo, and their 23-year-old son, also named Alan.
Related: ‘Alan Kurdi changed the world and saved many lives’
“It was very hard and emotional for me with the reality we live it, that it took a tragedy until somebody would take action. It’s the power from God to wake up the world to help the suffering people,” added Kurdi, who until then had been unsuccessful in bringing her two brothers — Abdullah, Alan’s father, and Mohammad, to Canada.
Over the past year, Kurdi has been invited by non-governmental organizations to travel to Germany, Belgium and Turkey to advocate for Syrian refugees. Mohammad, his wife and five kids have now joined her from Turkey. They have since opened the Kurdi Hair Design salon.
Before Alan’s death, Tima Kurdi had been unsuccessful in bringing her brothers – including Alan’s father – to Canada. “I just want to remind people that there are still many refugees out there who need our help. Please keep your door open. Keep your heart open,” said Kurdi. “Remember Alan.”
Before Alan’s death, Tima Kurdi had been unsuccessful in bringing her brothers – including Alan’s father – to Canada. “I just want to remind people that there are still many refugees out there who need our help. Please keep your door open. Keep your heart open,” said Kurdi. “Remember Alan.” (JEFF VINNICK)
For months, Kurdi was showered with media attention, forgoing her privacy and sharing her grief in public.
But she and her family weren’t the only people whose lives were changed by little Alan’s death: Syrian refugee families have been given the opportunity that Alan didn’t have to build a new life in Canada. Members of Muslim and Arab communities who have felt disenfranchised in Canada have a renewed sense of belonging. And ordinary people who rolled up their sleeves to engage in refugee issues feel a fresh pride in being Canadian.
“There has been a profound shift among Canadians in terms of our idea of refugees. For all of us on the ground, we were used to reaching out to religious groups and labour unions for help,” said Janet Dench, of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
“Now, all organizations suddenly are trying to find ways to offer help for refugees. People are proactively thinking from the perspectives of refugees — not just the Syrian refugees but other refugees as well.”
Dench called Alan Kurdi’s death a defining moment that shifted Canadians’ attitude toward the distant refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East. The Liberals’ decision to change the name of the federal department — from Citizenship and Immigration to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada — underscored that shift, said Dench.
Brian Dyck, chair of the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holder Association, said few people would have expected the refugee crisis to become a campaign issue in last October’s federal election.
Then prime minister Stephen Harper was forced to address the Conservative government’s record on the refugee crisis, while Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, who eventually lost his seat in the election, suspended campaigning to return to Ottawa to deal with the fallout.
“It’s hard to say if it changed the outcome of the election,” said Dyck, “but Canada’s response to the refugee crisis was certainly discussed a lot for several weeks.”
It was during that time when 41-year career civil servant Deborah Tunis was tapped by Alexander to co-ordinate the federal government’s Syrian resettlement project.
Tunis was then 15 months into her retirement, busy taking university courses in Islamic architecture and post-colonial literature while spending time with her seven grandchildren.
“It was the second week of September. I hesitated when I got the call. It was not the task. It was not too daunting at that point. There was a longer timeline and a more modest target,” said Tunis, who was the immigration department’s director general of the integration branch when she left the office in June 2014.
“The hesitation was, it seemed at the time the whole issue around the refugees was politicized. But I believed in public service. I remember Alan Kurdi’s photo, but I had no idea it would tap into this wave of Canadian interest and support.”
Soon after the Liberals won the election, the resettlement project shifted into a higher gear, as the new government was adamant about bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015, a difficult deadline that was later extended.
Tunis travelled across Canada to meet with provincial officials, sponsorship groups and settlement organizations, amid constantly changing timelines due to delays in overseas refugee screening and transportation. She worked through Christmas and New Year before finally getting a break in February. Her appointment ended in May.
“It’s constant troubleshooting and problem-solving,” she said. “But in my 40 years in government, I’d never seen that kind of communication effort between government departments. I am so impressed by the generosity of Canadians, and I’m proud of being part of this historic national project.”
Dyck said sponsorship agreement holders across the country have been overwhelmed by demands from small community groups for refugee families. Some have had to hire more staff to handle calls and inquiries.
“We are seeing other refugee populations benefiting from it. This has woken up people on what we can do,” said Dyck. “There have been a lot of grey-haired people in the refugee resettlement circle, but now we have captured the interest of the next generation. It’s exciting to know things have changed.”
Raja Khouri, president of the Canadian Arab Institute and one of the founders of Lifeline Syria, said Canadian Muslims and Arabs have felt a tidal change in the tone of the country toward the community.
“It’s a 180-degree change from the tone of rejection under the previous government to a new government that says, ‘These people need help. They are not a threat and are contributing members of the society.’ It’s no longer the rhetoric of fear,” said Khouri, who came here from Lebanon in 1988 and currently serves as an Ontario human rights commissioner.
“The welcoming of Syrian refugees felt like a welcoming for all of us of Arabic and Muslim backgrounds. We feel like we are included, again.”
Kurdi said Canadians’ response has helped the family’s healing. It kept her moving until this summer, when she crashed into a deep depression.
“I just didn’t want to talk to the media and anyone. I just wanted to hide myself. I had kept pushing myself to talk about Syrian refugees and finally broke down,” said Kurdi. “I was trying to be a ghost from the public, so I could grieve.”
As the anniversary of Alan’s death approached, Kurdi said, her thoughts were with Abdullah, Alan’s father, who is on his own in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Mourning the loss of his wife and two boys, he decided against moving to Canada.
“I just want to remind people that there are still many refugees out there who need our help. Please keep your door open. Keep your heart open,” said Kurdi. “Remember Alan.”
During a visit to Toronto on Canada Day in July, Kurdi said she was recognized and greeted everywhere by strangers.
“I was at this restaurant, and the owner gave me a hug and said, ‘I’m so proud to have you in.’ Someone at a coffee shop just came up to me and said, ‘Thank you, Tima,’ ” Kurdi recalled. “Alan has changed the life of everybody.”