Story Behind Emotional Photo of Refugee Dad Carrying Sleeping Daughter

·Senior Editor

Abdul Haleem al-Kader with his daughter Abdelillah, 4, who was tracked down on social media after this photo, showing him selling pens on the street, went viral. (Photo: IndieGogo)

A single father of three struggling to raise his two young daughters in Lebanon has sparked an online fundraising frenzy after a photo of him selling pens and holding his 4-year-old daughter struck a major chord on social media — bringing in more than $66,000 in donations in less than 24 hours.

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The photo, of Syrian-Palestian refugee Abdul Haleem al-Kader, was posted, along with the hashtag #buypens, on Twitter by Norway father and activist Gissur Simonarson. The picture was retweeted more than 3,400 times, and followers flooded Simonarson — who had procured the photo for his website, Conflict News, but was not sure of its origin — to track the family down and help them. He was able to do so quickly, also through Twitter.

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Turns out that al-Kader had been recently living with his children, 4 and 9, in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, which is known for its horrific conditions. Now, according to BuzzFeed News, the three live in Lebanon, where al-Kader has not been able to find work. “So I have no other options to feed my kids but selling stuff in the streets,” he told the website on Friday, explaining that his wife left the family after they were all living in Egypt, and she wanted to return to Syria but he refused.


Al-Kader and his daughter, after someone helped track him down. (Photo: IndieGogo)

“The kids live in dire conditions,” tweeted Lebanese for Refugees activist Carol Malouf on Friday regarding the trio’s current residence, a “modest apartment” in Beirut. “They need our help.” Malouf got involved with the family’s cause and went to visit them on Friday, according to a series of tweets.

After al-Kader and his son and daughter were located, Simonarson launched a fundraising campaign on IndieGogo, raising $5,000 in just half an hour and more than $66,000 in 23 hours. He’s reportedly enlisted the help of UNICEF, which has not yet responded to a request for information from Yahoo Parenting.

The donations, according to a breakdown tweeted by Simonarson, have so far come mostly from the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. And now, it seems, al-Kader will be able to start a new life for himself and his children — and the unemployed dad can hardly believe it.


Gissur Simonarson, who first posted the image of al-Kader and his daughter. (Photo: Facebook)

“I was surprised to know that people abroad heard about my story and care about my kids,” al-Kader told BuzzFeed News. “I couldn’t hold my tears, I kept saying ‘thank god, thank god’ and hugging my kids. I don’t need money, all I want is to educate my kids, send them to school, help them to get their education.” His hope, he said, was to take his kids to live in Europe, where they will have “a much better chance for a good education. I really hope I can do that.” But if that’s not possible, he says, will rely on what he’d learned by working in a chocolate factor in Syria: “Plan B will be opening a chocolate shop in Lebanon.”


Activist Carol Malouf with 4-year-old Abdelillah. (Photo: IndieGogo via Twitter/Carol Malouf)

Simonarson has been blown away by the response to the photo, too. “My goal was to get him some help,” he told the BBC. “I really didn’t expect the large support that we’re getting now.”

Amidst all the happiness over the support of al-Kader’s cause, another Lebanese-refugee activist, Abdel Rahman Zaylaa, took the opportunity to remind folks that the father and his two children are just the tip of the iceberg. “Unfortunately, the harsh reality remains that there are thousands of cases, most of them [which] did not find [their] way to the world,” he tweeted in Arabic on Friday.

But tuning into one person’s suffering rather than that of the masses is a common reaction, because of the way empathy works, Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom has noted many times. It’s what’s been called the “identifiable victim effect,” as being affected by the plight of millions is often too difficult for us to comprehend.


Al-Kader and his kids at home. (Photo: IndieGogo via Twitter/Carol Malouf)

He discussed the issue in a recent New Yorker article on “the case against empathy.” In it, Bloom (who was unavailable to speak with Yahoo Parenting on Friday) argues, “moral progress involves expanding our concern from the family and the tribe to humanity as a whole. Yet it is impossible to empathize with seven billion strangers, or to feel toward someone you’ve never met the degree of concern you feel for a child, a friend, or a lover. Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family — that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”

Luckily, the kindness shown to al-Kader by people around the world this week will likely be passed on to others — at least according to a tweet by Malouf, in which she says she was moved to tears. Because upon meeting al-Kader and discussing all the money that’s being raised, she says, he told her this: “I want to help other Syrians.”

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