The White Helmets may have lost out on the Nobel Peace Prize, but the Syrian rescue workers have won admirers around the world for their work. A petition calling for them to win the prestigious award for which they were shortlisted had garnered more than 325,000 signatures by Friday morning, leading some news outlets to call them the “people’s choice.”
In areas of Syria where public infrastructure and medical services have almost completely collapsed, White Helmets first responders risk their lives to reach victims of bombings and airstrikes. The group’s volunteers rush into burning buildings, dig through heaps of rubble and rush wounded Syrians to what medical facilities remain.
There are nearly 3,000 members of the White Helmets, which is officially known as the Syria Civil Defence. The group’s volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds and receive training on how carry out their work, traveling to a location in southern Turkey that is undisclosed due to security reasons. After learning techniques to free people buried in the rubble, they leave the relative safety of their training facility to go back into conflict zones.
The organization emerged in 2013 ― two years into Syria’s civil war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced over half the country’s population. It grew from a small group of around 20 volunteers into a well-organized operation working in regions of the country outside of regime control. None of its volunteers were rescuers before the war began, and its leader, Raed al Saleh, sold electrical supplies.
The group estimates it has saved over 60,000 people during the course of the conflict.
Saleh, 33, sat down with The WorldPost last month in New York while on a speaking and press tour coinciding with the release of a Netflix documentary on the group. Along with colleague Farouq al Habib, who acted as his translator, Saleh wearily described the increasingly difficult work his group faces.
“The regime has been targeting the communities which are out of its control indiscriminately as a kind of collective punishment to prevent them from using any alternative to the government,” Saleh said. “This has increased remarkably during the past year, especially after Russian intervention.”
The group works under constant threat of Syrian regime and Russian airstrikes, which over the last year have struck numerous hospitals and humanitarian facilities ― including the White Helmets’ buildings.
An escalation in airstrikes on the Syrian city of Aleppo following a failed ceasefire in September took at least 19 White Helmets vehicles out of commission and significantly reduced rescue capabilities, according to Saleh. The government has also begun an immense ground assault to take rebel-held Aleppo, potentially putting White Helmets volunteers at even greater risk.
“We will face the same fate as the other civilians, who will be either killed, arrested or might have the opportunity to escape,” Saleh said when asked how the group may cope with a ground offensive.
Airstrikes and fighting have killed 141 White Helmets members since the group began its operations. Many of the deaths were from “double tap” airstrikes, in which jets strike the same location twice with a short break in between. Syria’s government accuses the White Helmets, which receive funding from western governments, of aiding militant groups that oppose the regime. Saleh has rejected the allegation as absurd.
The White Helmets have received an increasing amount of media attention over the course of the conflict, which has only grown with the release of the Netflix documentary. The 41-minute film, “The White Helmets,” is a front-line look at the work the group carries out, and primarily follows three rescuers as they work to save people in Aleppo amid bombardment. Many of the scenes show firsthand the urgency and danger these rescuers face on a regular basis, as well as the toll it takes on them.
“What these guys do makes you question yourself. If this happened here in New York, would we stay? Would we not pick up a gun and would we decide to risk our lives to rescue strangers?” director Orlando von Eisendel told The WorldPost.
Since the filming, at least one volunteer featured in the film has been killed by an airstrike.
The group also has its own media campaign that releases videos from rescues and tries to show the human toll of the conflict. One of the group’s volunteers, 21-year-old Khaleed Khateeb, even took on the role of videographer for the Netflix documentary.
That film, along with the media attention the Nobel nomination brought, has also given Saleh and the White Helmets a larger audience to appreciate the group’s mission.
“Our main message is that there are still heroes in Syria. Good people, working to build peace,” Saleh said.