A toddler lies on the beach, as still as a rock, his head twisted to one side, eyes shut tight, an ear to the damp shingle. I watch, unsure whether to step forward. Then a wave breaks, sending ripples of cold water splashing towards us and the child can no longer contain his excitement. He squeals with delight, jumps to his feet, and paddles towards his big brother and sister. They link arms and stand together as another wave breaks over them.
This remains one of my most treasured memories as a foster carer. The children had recently come into our lives and we had been stunned to learn that they had never been to the beach despite living close to the coast. So early on in the placement we arranged a special outing to the beach. Soon after we arrived the youngest became so overwhelmed by the experience that he threw himself to the ground to listen to the shingle being dragged by the water. He remained still long enough for us to take photos that would capture the moment for his memory box.
It was this picture, and this moment, that came to my mind when I saw the devastating photos of Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on the beach near Bodrum, before any association with our own children or grandchild. I thought of a toddler who, at that moment, was still a stranger to us. During his short life the child who was now our responsibility had known fear and pain and hunger; he had learned how adults could quickly turn to violence, and could sense his mother's fear. Against his will, he found himself among people he did not know or trust. In a sense, he and his siblings were refugees in their own land, just a phone call away from being asked to move on again, destination unknown.
The deaths of Aylan and his brother Galip may mark a turning point to the way in which Europe, and the UK in particular, responds to the refugee crisis. In Britain we have watched as ordinary people across the continent, moved by the plight of millions of migrants, have offered their homes to complete strangers. It is an extraordinary act of kindness, a demonstration of humanity that transcends our sense of family and community.
And yet, this is precisely what foster carers do. Across the UK there are 55,000 foster families who have opened their homes to strangers, who have made room at their dinner table and shared their food with someone who was hitherto completely unknown to them, and may one day disappear from their lives. That's 55,000 families who at the end of each day provide a warm, comfortable - and safe - bed to somebody else's child and promise to be there when they wake up the next day. Families like yours and mine who also make room in their daily lives for a host of other strangers, including birth parents and grandparents, social workers, health visitors, legal guardians. In time, they too will be gone.
Welcoming strangers becomes a way of life for foster carers. It may happen during the middle of the night, at a moment's notice; or during the day, with barely enough time to make a bed, gather some toys, go shopping for some extra food. There is little time to read and digest the notes explaining a child's background and circumstances. Sometimes there are no notes, no family history, no hinterland. Over days, weeks and months, it is the role of the foster carer to help that child or young person learn how to trust and form attachments, to grow, to find a voice; to lay down the foundations that will enable him to integrate into the community. You fight his corner at school, help him navigate the health system, demand the very best in every aspect of his life.
As for our own child on the beach, he is safe and well. Life will never be easy but he is strong and bursting with energy, and with support and guidance his future is full of promise. He visited us recently, and was received with an extra strong hug, in memory of Aylan. We promise he will never become a refugee in his own land.