The White Helmets: Syria’s First Responders
The goal of the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, is to save as many civilian lives as possible in areas plagued by the destruction brought on by the Syrian Civil War. Established in 2013, the organization has saved over 70,000 lives and counting. The group was founded by a former English teacher, Ammar Salmo who is from a region southeast of the major city of Aleppo. Upon being released from prison for participating in the anti-government protests, Salmo felt a renewed sense of duty to promote change. Those who wear the white helmets are not specialized or methodically-trained military or medical personnel. The organization is comprised of about 3,000 civilian volunteers from all walks of life such as sailors, teachers, and tailors who have put their lives on hold to join. The group provides training which covers everything from how to control fires to how to navigate damaged buildings. After airstrikes, these volunteers rush to site of the collapsed buildings to search for survivors. In miraculous cases, volunteers have found young children alive amongst the rubble. With initial funding from the US, UK, and Japan, the group carries out daily operations with donations from around the globe. The White Helmets, as stated in their mission statement, draw their inspiration from a quote in the Quran, “Whoever saves one life, saves all of humanity.” However, not all believe in the work they do. When asked about the organization in a recent interview, President Bashar al-Assad replied, “What did they achieve in Syria?”
Looking to movements that led to the toppling of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the midst of the “Arab Spring,” Syrians began to lead peaceful protests against Assad’s oppressive government five years ago. Assad’s government swiftly cracked down on the peaceful protesters by killing and jailing scores of participants. In the summer of 2011, military defectors formed the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow Assad’s government. Several complex, intertwined elements catalyzed the onset of war. Economic hardships and the lack of basic freedoms coupled with the inhumane treatment of protesters resulted in the eruption of violence. Over time, countries began to take sides in the conflict. The governments of Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran sided with Assad while countries like the United States and the United Kingdom supported the rebels. Adding to the complexity of the situation, in 2015, the Russian government launched a campaign against "terrorist groups" which included ISIS as well as the US-backed rebels. Several fragile ceasefires later, the fighting continues.
Since the war began, over 450,000 Syrians have been killed. The conflict has resulted in a mass exodus into other areas of the Middle East and Europe by those who are able to flee, raising questions on how each country should handle the influx of refugees escaping the horrors of the war. The White Helmets are looking forward to the day their work becomes obsolete as they are hoping the war will finally come to an end. In the meantime, they are providing civilians with a first response system that would otherwise be nonexistent in the war-torn nation.
“Syria’s Civil War Explained,” Al Jazeera, Dec 14 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/syria-civil-war-explained-160505084119966.html
Malsin Jared, “The White Helmets of Syria,” Time, http://time.com/syria-white-helmets/
Serhan Yasmeen, “Who Are the White Helmets?,” The Atlantic, Sep 30 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2016/09/syria-white-helmets/502073/