Journalist Behind Drowned Syrian Toddler Photo Tells Her Story: "We Were Shocked"

Nilufer Demir - H

Nilufer Demir, a photojournalist from Turkey, describes the heartwrenching scene from the frontlines of Europe's migrant crisis, which has sent shockwaves around the world.

The Turkish photojournalist who captured the heart-wrenching photograph of a drowned Syrian toddler on a Mediterranean beach this week, sending shockwaves through the global media, spoke with the press for the first time Friday about the story behind the indelible image.

"At that moment, [when] I saw three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, I was petrified," said Nilufer Demir, a journalist who has been covering the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean for Turkey's Dogan News Agency (DHA) for over 10 years (the photograph can be seen here).

Demir and her colleagues were covering the illegal transition of migrants to the Greek island of Kos in the early morning of Sept. 2. Demir says she had just finished capturing footage and photographs of a group of Pakistani migrants crossing into Greece, when she came upon three-year-old Aylan and his five-year-old brother Ghalib, lying lifeless, face-down in the surf.

"We recognized the bodies belonged to toddlers," Demir told a colleague at DHA in an interview. "We were shocked, we felt sorrow over them. The best thing to do was to make this tragedy heard."

Demi's images of the drowned children were published by DHA Wednesday morning — and by Thursday the photo of the younger brother was on front pages and leading newscasts around the world. Turkish media identified the young victims as Aylan and Ghalib Kurdi, of Syria. The boys and their parents were attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Greece Tuesday when their boat capsized. The father, Abdullah Kurdi, survived, but the rest perished. 

"I have [photographed and] witnessed many migrant incidents since 2003 in this region — their deaths, their drama," said Demir. "I hope from today, this will change." 

The shocking images appear to have initiated change, at least in the public discussion of the refugee crisis in Europe. In the U.K., shortly after images of Aylan Kurdi hit the front pages of every major British newspaper, refugee charities and NGOs reported a surge in donations and volunteers, with tens of thousands of people across the country signing petitions, offering to drive truckloads of supplies, or to take asylum-seekers into their homes.

Apparently under the new political pressure, UK Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday pledged Britain would take in thousands more Syrian refugees. 

The refugee crisis has dominated news and political discussion in Europe since at least April, when a series of boats carrying asylum seekers capsized in the Mediterranean and more than 1,200 people died. Many thousands more have since perished. 

But the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of new asylum seekers has also sparked a political backlash in much of Europe.

There were shocking images out of Hungary showing Syrian refugees being beaten by police and of a father and his children clinging to train tracks being forcibly removed. Thousands of refugees have camped outside of a railway station in Budapest, hoping to be allowed to travel to Germany, the European country that has by far taken in the most asylum seekers. 

The governments of Germany and France have called on the rest of Europe to take in a "fairer share" of the new refugees, an idea that, while still opposed by several European governments, appears to be gaining ground. 

But, faced with the human tragedy made evident in the picture of Aylan Kurdi, many across Europe have decided not to wait for government solutions but to take action now.