Empty Chairs at Empty Tables: Les Miserables and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

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Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Miserables. Image courtesy Les Mis Wiki.

Sometimes art imitates life. Sometimes life imitates art. Sometimes this is pleasant and even occasionally fun. But sometimes, the things we find in life that remind us of art aren’t the things that we like about that piece of art. This week, a photo surfaced of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on the shore after attempting to escape his war-torn hometown with his family. Three-quarters of the family did not survive the trip. We are bombarded with images every day, including some very explicit images. Some people even choose to play violent video games or watch gory movies and voluntarily expose themselves to those messages. Some people may not even bat an eye at images of corpses on crime-based television shows or even find detailed stories of serial killer victims interesting. But when the image is of a child, the epitome of innocence, the story changes. There is nothing fascinating or exciting about this event — there is only sadness. There is only fear.

In Les Miserables, many people die. People die of old age, disease, suicide, even as a product of gunfire. There is one death that stands out more than the others, though. In the heat of battle, the young Gavroche (often played by charming actors as young as ten) volunteers to go out in no man’s land to gather bullets for his band of older brothers. He doesn’t make it back over the barricade. This is the moment in the show when the audience goes silent — no more recognizable songs, no more sing-a-longs about shady innkeepers, no more camaraderie. The other students at the barricade realize that they are doomed at this moment. The National Guard has killed a child.

There is a touching moment in the 2012 movie adaptation of Les Mis in which the bodies of the dead students are lined up in the cafe where they used to spend their days. Javert walks along them and places his own Medal of Honour on Gavroche’s jacket. Alan Kurdi didn’t live long enough to receive a medal, but he will be remembered. Both the Kurdi family and the students of the 1832 rebellion died fighting for a better life. His memory will live on in the shocking image on the cover of every newspaper. That photo inspires change. It must. It has to. The people of Paris, suffering in the streets, sing the lines: “When’s it gonna end? When we gonna live? Something’s gotta happen now, something’s gotta give. It’ll come, it’ll come…”

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