White helmets: Real heroes, Oscar Award winners

White helmets: Real heroes, Oscar Award winners

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White helmets: Real heroes, Oscar Award winners

Amal Al-Sibai

When the bombs rain down, the Syrian Civil Defense rushes in. These unarmed volunteers risk their lives to help anyone in need – regardless of their religion or politics. Known as the White Helmets, these volunteer rescue workers operate in the most dangerous place on earth.

As the conflict in Syria worsens, ordinary people are paying the highest price. More than 50 bombs and mortars a day land on some neighborhoods in Syria. Many are rusty barrels filled with nails and explosives, dropped from the government helicopters. Bakeries, markets, and hospitals are common hit targets. When this happens, the White Helmets rush in to search for life in the rubble. They have rescued infants, still alive and crying under crushed buildings.

One typical scene of what happens after a barrel bomb drops was described by the White Helmet, Mohammad Shamir.

Shamir says, “People’s blood spilled in a farmer’s market after barrel bombs were dropped on the market in Al-Rastan. Our team responded quickly to start the search and rescue operations. There was blood flowing everywhere and scattered body parts. Large pieces of cement were blocking the streets, power lines everywhere, destroyed cars, mothers screaming for their children, and children screaming for their families. There was chaos everywhere. Everyone was scared and nervous. A massacre had just been committed.”

What gives Shamir the courage to keep going is the hope that he will find someone like the little girl who screamed out to him that day, “Sir, I am alive! I’m alive! Please help me!”

The White Helmets mostly deal with the aftermath of government air attacks.

Bakers, tailors, engineers, pharmacists, painters, carpenters, students and many more; the White Helmets are volunteers from all walks of life. 

Almost all official members of the White Helmets were men until two women’s teams were formed in October 2014. These heroic women are trained in medical care and light search and rescue work. They respond to barrel bomb and missile strikes and dig for survivors using tools and their bare hands.

The volunteers serve communities in rebel-held areas facing sustained onslaughts from the regime. They put out fires, find survivors, stabilize injuries, transport casualties to the nearest field hospital, and help rebuild infrastructure. Meanwhile, the threat of double tapping – repeated bombings on the same location – is ever-present. 

Some women also train in Turkey to specialize in pre-hospital trauma life support.

Hasnaa Shawaf, before the war, was a math teacher in her hometown of Maaret al-Numan. When she heard about the White Helmets and realized that there were no signs of the war stopping any time soon, she began volunteering. 

“We are mainly emergency paramedics within the teams,” says Shawaf. “We work from 8am to 3pm, but are always on call. If we are needed to respond to an incident, we will be ready.”

In some cases, these women are the only hope for other women or girls who are trapped under rubble. In Syria’s most conservative communities, some people have refused to let male volunteers rescue women and girls – but the women have intervened to help those who wouldn’t have been helped otherwise. Now they’ve inspired hundreds of people across the world and have succeeded in raising donations of over $100,000 to buy six ambulances that they need for their rescue missions.

The White Helmets are real super heroes that our children should be inspired to follow, rather than celebrities and action heroes.

154 White Helmets have been killed saving lives in Syria.

White Helmets is also the name of a short documentary Netflix film, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, which follows the perilous work 

of these volunteers who brave falling bombs to rescue civilians.  

The film won the Oscar Award for best short documentary.

In his acceptance speech during the Oscar Awards Ceremony, director Orlando von Einsiedel urged the audience to call for an end to Syria’s six year war.

On stage, von Einsiedel read a statement from Raed Saleh, the founder of the White Helmets in which he said, “We are so grateful that this film has highlighted our work to the world. Our organization is guided by a verse from the Qur’an: {To save one life is to save all of humanity.}”

“We have saved more than 82,000 Syrian lives. I invite anyone here who hears me to work on the side of life to stop the bloodshed in Syria and around the world,” Saleh said.

The UN Security Council passed Resolution 2139 in 2014 which banned barrel bombs and other indiscriminate weapons, yet the Assad regime continues to drop barrel bombs on civilian areas in Syria, killing thousands of children.

In 2015, the Council passed another resolution banning the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon. There have been dozens of chemical attacks since the Security Council spoke. Now the White Helmets are calling on the UN Security Council to follow through on their demands and stop the chlorine weapons and stop the bombs.

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