About that kid who fled Syria alone…

It turns out a 4-year-old whose image went viral this week didn’t actually stray far from his family

Image of Marwan and UNHCR aid workers. (photo credit: screen capture/Hala Gorani/Twitter)
Image of Marwan and UNHCR aid workers. (photo credit: screen capture/Hala Gorani/Twitter)

A picture purporting to show a Syrian toddler found traversing the desert in Jordan alone rocketed across social media Monday, but the story, like much of the Syrian civil war, is a bit fuzzy on the details.

On Monday, CNN Anchor Hala Gorani tweeted an image of Marwan, a 4-year-old Syrian refugee who was found “crossing the desert alone after being separated from family fleeing Syria.”

The image of the boy’s encounter with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) aid workers, and news of his subsequent reunion with his family, immediately went viral, prompting coverage in major newspapers worldwide.

But rather than showing a small child beating the odds alone in a harsh environment, the picture actually shows a child who wandered a few feet from his family during the chaotic journey away from war, according to a UN official cited by a Guardian reporter.

Gorani, in a second tweet, credited UNHCR photographer Andrew Harper with the inspiring image. However, when Harper tweeted it from the field 24 hours before Gorani, he stated that Marwan had been “temporarily separated from this family.” Further investigation revealed that a tweet sent out by Harper a half hour prior to his shot of Marwan showed a group of refugees within a similar backdrop and location along the Jordanian-Syrian border.

The luggage seen in the left-hand side of the photograph of Marwan suggested that — if Harper took them together — the boy was near the main body of refugees.

Not that Marwan’s accomplishment — trekking by foot from Syria to Jordan — isn’t impressive, but there is disagreement as to how long he was actually alone.

Shiv Malik, a journalist for The Guardian, reported that a UNHCR press officer who was on the scene told him Marwan was only a few feet behind his family.

Still, according to UNHCR, lost children is a serious issue for Syrian refugees traveling such distances. Andrej Mahecic, the international organization’s spokesman in Geneva, told The Mirror, a British tabloid:

The journey across the desert can take one day or several weeks. It’s very dangerous because there is still fighting going on and it’s the middle of winter so it can be freezing cold at night. The journey is long and exhausting, so it’s impossible for a four-year-old to cross the desert by himself. We think Marwan may have got lost during the night. At the moment we don’t know anything more.

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