I Am Grateful for Aleppo’s Suffering

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December 23, 2016

I used to wonder why some humans do not seem to mind inflicting pain on others.  Why can’t we all try to get along with each other?  Why can’t we, especially if we are religious, practice what we were taught in churches and temples and mosques that everyone should try to be kind and loving and project that image of God?

How can many of us live happily as if the sufferings of others do not exist?  It’s holiday time again.  I was going to a mall near my house last week trying to get a new laptop computer, and all around me, people were running frantically with bulky shopping bags, as if there would be no more dresses or shoes left on sale tomorrow.  Did they think of Aleppo when they were hurrying to the biggest sales? Did they think of the thousands of parents who were dragging their hungry children through the burning streets of Aleppo to some place where they could simply survive, not to shop for the holidays, not to shop for food or a new laptop, but to be alive. The desire to survive is strongest when the challenge is biggest, an irony indeed.  

How can we not think or remember Aleppo? It was a puzzle to me when Mr. Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, initially didn’t recognize the word “Aleppo.”  It was a teaching moment to see how, either his brain froze out of anxiety, or maybe he truly didn’t know what “Aleppo” meant because he did not spend time following the daily tragic news about a place so far away from his own country.  Many of us are shielded from tragedy by not facing tragedy directly.  When we watch someone else drowning, it is not the same as if we ourselves are submerged under the water.

I am grateful to Aleppo’s suffering, as it reminds me how randomly good or bad our life might turn, depending on where we live.  Years ago, in 1975, South Vietnam could have been Aleppo.  My parents could have dragged us through the burning streets of Saigon to somewhere we could survive.  Indeed they did, by helping me and my siblings climb over the gates of the American embassy so we could get into one of the last helicopters out of South Vietnam to avoid living under communism.  It was an unplanned act of my father that saved my entire family from suffering under a horrible, abusive communist regime.

Years ago, the U.S. could have been full of suspicious people who would not have wanted to accept refugees like us into their country.  What if “they” are communists in disguise? What if “they” come to take jobs away from us? What if… We were lucky to come at a time when many Americans were more generous and tolerant than they are today.  It was our stroke of luck.  We were more lucky than the large boat filled with Jews who arrived at the port in NY to escape the Holocaust, only to be turned away and returned to Europe.  What a terrible stain on this country’s history.  We were more lucky than the teenagers of Aleppo who this year perished under burning buildings.  We were more lucky than the other Syrian teenagers who arrived somewhere they deemed safer than their country, but then struggled in various refugee camps, including those in Australia where they were treated inhumanly and had to live in hell after just escaping from another one.  It is a stroke of good luck or bad luck that determines who would have a better life.

I am grateful for Aleppo’s suffering to remind me how all of us can have a dark side.  I now know better as an adult, that human nature has a dark side, no matter how long that human sits in his place of worship listening to his preacher.  Maybe this dark side exists so we can differentiate good from evil. We have to be aware of our dark side and cultivate ourselves to move toward the light of humanity.  After all, as many of us know, Syria’s President Assad was a physician, an ophthalmologist.  Were there those who were helped by Assad as patients yet have been perished under his regime?

During this holiday season, while hurrying our children through the mall for another gift for another person we love, think of Aleppo and be grateful that we are rushing through a warm mall, full of holiday lights and decorations, full of gifts that we might want but not need.  Think of the children refugees who walk with no shoes, huddling in the camps with few blankets, living their days without schools or toys or all the necessities they need for their interrupted childhood. 

During this holiday season, do not have “compassion fatigue” and ignore the images from Aleppo.  As Michael Kimmelman wrote in his very poignant New York Times article “Aleppo’s Faces Beckon to Us, To Little Avail,” that we have done nothing to help the people in Aleppo, but the very least we should do is to look at the images of the suffering and acknowledge their plight and their desire to live.  Dr. Salem Abou Al-Nasr, a dentist from Aleppo who posted a video on Facebook to plead for global intervention, summed it up in his scream for help:

 “The situation here can’t wait.  Everyone should know, we, the people here, we love life and want to live.”

I am grateful for Aleppo’s suffering, because it reminds me that I too, love life, and have the privilege to live in peace.