Citizen Journalism Summer 2018 Student Stories
The following article was reported by a student in Paper Airplanes' online Citizen Journalism class in the summer of 2018. The subject matter and quotes do not represent or reflect Paper Airplanes' views as an organization.
After government airstrikes rained down on the town of Urum al-Kubra in the western Aleppo province on August 10, it looked like there was not an occupied building in sight. The houses were covered under a whirlwind of dust and rubble. Crying voices could be heard from the people who got stuck under the debris.
Humanitarian aid teams, like the Syrian Civil Defense, headed to the town to help even though they knew that there could be another missile strike. Groups of people started digging and searching for any dead, wounded or still-alive civilians, whether they were dead, wounded, or still alive.
In one video that was posted on the Syrian Civil Defense’s YouTube channel, also known as the White Helmets, shows the rescuers pulling out an infant, who was still alive and crying. Its face was covered in dust from the fallen concrete. Within 24 hours of the airstrikes, the White Helmets were able to pull out more than 23 people, many of whom were still alive, as reported by Orient TV.
When the opponent factions were fighting among themselves, the White Helmets were known for not being biased towards one faction or the other, and their popularity grew in several areas under the Syrian opposition. The popularity of the White Helmets wasn’t just limited to the Syrian borders. They have also become well-known and loved throughout the Arab and international communities for their selfless acts of courage and for providing a much-needed service in Syria, which fits their motto: “To save one life is to save all of humanity.”
After the Syrian regime forces targeted areas in Syria where people were revolting, small groups of people started evacuating, as well as searching for and rescuing civilians from dangerous areas in response to bombings. These volunteers included tailors, blacksmiths, and doctors. They were then trained by foreign, elite disaster teams, such as the Mayday Rescue Foundation and AKUT Search and Rescue Association.
In 2013, during one of the search and rescue exercises that were given to young Syrians in the north of the country, Raed Al-Saleh, a trader who comes from the region of Jisr al-Shughur, met with one of the trainers who changed his life. On October 25, 2014, Al-Saleh was elected head of the White Helmets, which included 3,300 volunteers. Their main mission was to save as many lives as possible in the shortest possible time, in addition to rebuilding damaged or collapsed buildings.
“The White Helmets was the alternative of the government departments to serve the torn-war areas,” said Talal Mustafa, a former professor of sociology at Damascus University in Syria.
“The members of this organization knew already that joining this kind of work is risky and helping the civilians for free gives the organization a high moral picture,” he continued. “The government's media is trying to visualize the White Helmets as the second face of terrorism because this organization is the only neutral witness for the regime’s terrorism.”
The American sociologist, Talcott Parsons, said, “The social status of someone is being determined through a bunch of the values and the social ties, which is common and accepted culturally and socially. Also, from the roles that are being performed by someone to accomplish some activity.” This was illustrated when international organizations recognized the life-saving work of the White Helmets as valuable to their communities. As a result, local Syrians gave each member of the White Helmets a high social status.
The White Helmets achieved this high status by searching for and rescuing civilians who had nowhere else to turn for help.
Because of their high status in the community, the White Helmets have also gained support in the Arab and international communities. This is illustrated by the high number of international prizes they have won, including the Right Livelihood Award and a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. They were also honored with the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law in 2016. Their work was also turned into a documentary called The White Helmets, which details the dangerous lives of the volunteers. The film was distributed by Netflix and won the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary in 2017.
As the war rages on, the volunteers continue to put their lives on the line to save as many lives as they can. Abu al-Majed* was one of the White Helmets administrators in the suburbs of Damascus, and he said the time from his work in the organization has left “too many scars” in his memory.
One day on the job, a, occupied building fell after missiles were dropped on the area and more than 40 people got stuck under the debris, al-Majed* said. While the White Helmets were trying to clean up the debris and search for civilians, the missiles targeted the area again and another building fell down. “The catastrophe had become worse and it’s hard to forget that day,” he said. “When the civilians saw that we save their souls, they were pleased from us.”
Abu al-Khair,* one of the civilians who used to live under the siege in the suburbs of Damascus, said he remembers the work the White Helmets did when they came to his community. “The Syrian Civilian Defense built earthen berms to avoid the snipping gun which was targeting the civilians,” he said. “Building earthen berms was a tough mission.” al-Khair said one of the volunteers lost his hands and legs during his work helping people. He said, “Their roles were vital and fundamental in our town.”
*Names changed for privacy.