If there was ever a place of darkness in the world today, its home is Aleppo.
If you don't know what that word is referring to, then here is the fast-and-dirty version of what is becoming a long and horrible story.
Aleppo is - was - the largest city in Syria. It has been the site of constant warfare between Syrian government forces of the Assad regime and various rebel militias since July 2012. This has been the worst case of civilians being caught in and targeted during armed conflict in a long time. All hospitals and schools have been destroyed, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, and there is no end in sight. Here are a couple of before-and-after photos.
The people trapped in Aleppo live and die entirely at the whims of the fighters on all sides. Most cannot flee to the dubious safety outside the city, even if they wanted to leave friends and family and homes (if they are still standing).
Aleppo is the worst humanity has to offer, but also some of the best. That balance changed for the worse a couple of days ago, when Anas al-Basha was killed in a Russian/Asad missile strike. Anas was better known as the Clown of Aleppo.
Who was this guy and what did he do? Those questions are dead easy to answer yet almost impossible to put into words. And that's coming from me: a verbose word-smith with an occasionally defective "off" switch, a veritable font of really great words...tremendous words...all the best words...what is the one I'm looking for???
He was caring and altruism and empathy and self-sacrifice and courage all rolled into one magical package. He was the embodiment of what humanity should aspire to be.
Anas could have left with his family, but chose not to. And he did so for the best of all possible reasons: to help some of the estimated 100,000 children trapped in the Hell that used to be their home. His brother Mahmoud describes what he did:
"(Anas) decided to do something special and different than the others are doing. All the NGOs, they are focusing on the food baskets and the medical stuff but Anas wants to always do something special for the children. Especially in this war, since five years, nobody is caring about these children. If they are happy or not. If they have hope or not. So Anas joined a team. They called themselves Space for Hope. They organized parties and trips for these children."
At 24 he was a man with everything to live for and everything to lose, his whole life ahead of him. He put all that on the line for the sake of making children laugh and experience some joy in their otherwise terrifying and desperate lives.
Then, a few days ago, we heard from Mahmoud again.
It is too easy to admire Anas in his clown paint, bringing smiles to children's faces in bombed-out Aleppo. There is no challenge in lionizing a young man who risked his life to bring joy to orphans, because everyone looks the same in a clown costume.
Here is the man beneath the Clown.
To those people who would look at Anas minus the paint and see nothing but MUSLIM, JIHADIST, TERRORIST: don't just look and judge and dismiss. Take the time to SEE the person and understand the inherent selfless goodness there. You will discover the best that humanity has to offer on display, all too briefly, in an arena filled with the worst darkness that we as a species can spew forth.
Look at him and try to bring that same sense of admiration and wonder and gratitude and sorrow to Anas al-Basha THE MAN, that you did for the Clown of Aleppo. Then, maybe, you will have received a spark from his light. Then, maybe, Anas' light can spread outside the bombed and burned ruins of a once-great city. Then, maybe, we will realize that these desperate people actually need and deserve some help.
I wish I hadn't felt the need to include the word "maybe".
This deserves to end on a hopeful note.
At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us. - Albert Schweitzer
Thank you, Mr. Anas al-Basha.