All My Children
My two boys preferred to share the mattress that pulled out like a drawer under the bottom of the bunk bed. They piled it high with blankets soon kicked off in the heat, and each enfolded a stuffed shark under an arm. My boys are the kind of kids naturally enthralled with the teeth and roar of sharks. On their wall is a mural I painted after hunting down an image of the toughest looking shark that wouldn’t terrify them. After all, I wanted them to sleep without fear of being eaten alive. They love the mural, but I love the security of these walls, the cariño knitted into the blankets by their bis-abuela, and the gentle chaos of scattered clothes, single shoes, stuffed animals and blocks.
But, while my children sleep in their safe bedroom beneath a wall of pretend sharks, some children hide under crumbled walls. It was September 2nd, 2015 when my brother first mentioned a photo making its rounds of the internet. The photo was breath-robbing, There he was: dark-haired, little red shirt, those shoes big enough to grow into, and hands curled just like my boys when they sleep. Three-year-old Alan Kurdi was the same age as my youngest son. Alan’s family was trying to escape from Syria when his body washed up on the Turkish beach. Staring at that photo, I was struck by the thought that beaches are for sandcastles and kids exhausted by waves and sunshine, not for this. The sharks aren’t supposed to be real.
I don’t think I was alone in my response to that picture of Alan Kurdi. The world’s collective gasp was practically audible. I still can’t look at that photo of the beach for longer than a couple of seconds before I must close my browser. Alan looks like my boy. And as much as I am free to turn away, changing the photo on my computer screen won’t change the truths of our world.
I witness Omar as if in photographs–the small snapshots of his life that I can see. But, I can only imagine the context. Omar always seemed to live lurking on the corner of Independenciaand Juan Terriquez, where I’m told one can also acquire illicit products in our little town.I like to shop in the bustling frutería from the same corner. We had met Omar at the public pool there, and a few times we paid the 40 peso ($2) fee for him to enter the pool. He swims like a seal, wearing only his underpants because he doesn’t own a bathing suit. He never tired of catching my little boys as they leapt into the pool, thrilled at his playfulness. Sometimes I wouldn’t see him for a few months at a time, but then he’d be back, smelling of even more neglect. Covered with more bruises, more ill-fitting clothes. Once, I bought him a crepe with strawberries and he inhaled it. After that he told me he had dropped out of primary school.
Maybe they pretend they’re sharks when they swim, but since my boys love water I take them to swimming lessons at the corner pool. I pay also for the lessons for the children of my friends who don’t have the money to pay. My friends say they will pay me back when they can. “No,” I tell them. “I’ll be paid back if your kids grow up and never drown.”
Swimming is a life skill, so I don’t care how much it costs me. Those children are mine too because of the invisible threads that tie together the women who love them.
I want to pick up Omar at that corner and take him to swimming lessons too. I wish that swimming would offer him an escape, a way to bring him back to safety when the ground seems so unstable for him. I want him to be safe and clean and full. I scan the streets as I buy my groceries, but I haven’t seen him in ages. I fear that he’s been swept up by the local cartel for cheap labor.
The British-Somali poet Warsan Shire wrote, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,”giving voice to the experiences of refugees. Sometimes it seems that there are infinite varieties of sharks. Sharks in Syria and sharks in Mexico and so many reasons to run for safety.
Maybe the walls of my house will crumble too one day. Still, the photos from around the world, and here at home keep coming, keep piling up, keep reminding us of the reality of other humans: kids in snow-covered UNHCR tents, kids still in boats, kids still in war zones, disappeared students from Tonalá and Guerrero, and Omar.
Shire continues, “no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”The sharks are everywhere. But, what should happen when mothers see other mothers with their children in unsafe waters? I know the answer. I have decided to live as if there are no children who aren’t my own.
Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Because I believe we are all tied together, I want my kids to know that I view the world’s children as also my children. That I’ll do my best to keep sharks at bay for all of them in the small ways that I can. And, I want to tell Alan Kurdi that the darkness that we see now is just the moment before dawn. My grief—our grief—can have hands that might just change everything. It’s not just wishful thinking. I know that too many of my children have already drowned in unstable life rafts. Too many of my children have disappeared here in Mexico. But, I also know that, in my own backyard, there are children who are already learning how to swim.
Lisa López Smith lives and writes from her home in rural Mexico, which is flooded with lots of kids and rescue dogs! Her recent and upcoming publications include Sin Fronteras, CuiZine Food Cultures, Animal Literary, and Lacuna Magazine.