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. 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 a populated 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.
In one video that was posted on the YouTube page of the Syrian Civil Defense, 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 who were still alive, as reported by Orient Tv.
At the time when the opponent factions were fighting among themselves, the White Helmets were known for not being biased towards one faction or another, and were able to build a popular base in several areas under the Syrian opposition. The popularity of the White Helmets wasn’t just limited to the Syrian borders. They also gained attention and popularity throughout the Arab and international communities for their selfless acts of courage and for providing a much-needed service in Syria, which fits within their motto of “to save one life is to save all of humanity.”
After the Syrian regime forces targeted the revolting areas in Syria, small groups of people started evacuating, searching 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 the 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 include 3,300 volunteers. Their main mission was to save as many lives as possible in the shortest possible time, in addition to improving 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 said. “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 international concession accorded the organization a distinct social weight, thus the local foster gave the members of the White Helmets high social status, and that interprets what the most influential structural functionalists, 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.”
The status is achieved through the roles performed by the White Helmets by searching and rescuing civilians who had nowhere else to turn for help.
Because of their high status and profile in the community, the White Helmets have gained support in the Arab and international communities. This is illustrated by the high number of international prizes they 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 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 populated 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 that used to live under the siege in the suburbs of Damascus, said he remembers the work of 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.
“Their roles were vital and fundamental in our town,” he said.
*Names changed for privacy.