A Syrian first responder's last call to action

By Molly Anders 23 August 2016

via Devex YouTube channel

A groundswell of public support is gathering around the nomination of the Syrian Civil Defense, a group of almost 3,000 volunteer rescue workers commonly referred to as the White Helmets, for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.

Founded in 2013 in Aleppo and trained by earthquake rescue specialists, the White Helmets operate out of 122 bases throughout Syria, working at the center of a roiling conflict. Volunteers locate and extract victims and survivors of the Syrian civil war from rubble and other perilous circumstances. The work involves hours of digging, searching for signs of life beneath collapsed buildings and infrastructure. The White Helmets are also tasked with removing bodies and giving a dignified burial to both combatant and civilian casualties.

Although nominees are not officially announced by the Nobel committee, some 130 nominating organizations have put forward the White Helmets for the prize, according to James Le Mesurier, founder of Mayday Rescue, a nonprofit based in Turkey which helped “incubate” the White Helmets through training, fundraising and capacity building. Another effort by The Syria Campaign, a human rights group, hopes to gather 50,000 public signatures supporting the nomination.

The award could be a fundraising boon for the volunteers, and would mark the first time in history the Nobel Prize is awarded to a group of local humanitarian responders. As the White Helmets try to raise international awareness about the conflict in Syria — including a recent barrage of airstrikes in Aleppo and alleged targeting of civilians by Syrian government forces — the nomination also brings some recognition for their efforts.

But the nomination is bittersweet. Only days before the news reached the teams in Syria, one of the White Helmets’ earliest volunteers, Khaled Omar Harah, known for his filmed rescue of a three-day-old infant from a collapsed building in 2014, was killed amid shelling in Aleppo while removing the dead from a battlefield. It was a reminder to the volunteers that, even as the world honors them, Islamic State group and regime-backed forces kill indiscriminately.

“He was very gentle, very kind, a very happy man, and he felt passionately about what he did,” said Le Mesurier of Harah. After the video went viral, Harah became known in the international media as “the child rescuer,” and traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby U.S. Congress to end the Syrian civil war. When the U.S. government offered to resettle Hareh and his family in the U.S., he declined.

“To be honest, I didn't want to come to the U.S.,” he told Al Jazeera.

“They offered that I go there permanently and take my wife and kid, but I don't want to. I want to come back to Syria and continue doing my work."

Le Measurier said it was difficult to say how many lives Hareh saved since joining the White Helmets in 2013, but estimated, “It must be in the hundreds.” Hareh, who was a painter and decorator in Aleppo before the war, “felt strongly about the work he was doing,” Le Mesurier said.

“The general reaction of the White Helmets [is that] they’re tremendously proud that there appears to be a very broad support base for the prize — from what we understand 133 different organizations signed up behind the [Nobel] nomination,” he said.

“They’re proud as a group, but they also want it to be a recognition of the bravery of Syrian civilians that have been under bombardment for the last four years, and also a recognition of rescue workers worldwide.”

In the interview above with Hareh, conducted by Islamic Relief Worldwide less than 48 hours before his death on Aug. 11 and shared exclusively with Devex, he points out the most pressing obstacles for the volunteers — a lack of fuel, coupled with “nonstop” airstrikes — and describes the difficulty of rescuing victims in densely urban and civilian-occupied Aleppo. Islamic Relief Worldwide is among the organizations that has said it nominated the White Helmets for the Nobel prize.

Another kind of disaster

When the Syrian civil war began in 2013, the international development community working in and around Syria struggled with dwindling resources and supply routes increasingly choked by aid-hostile regime forces. A former official at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom at the time, Le Mesurier was working for a stability consultancy in Turkey.

“We came up with the idea of training a community in Aleppo using earthquake rescuers from Turkey, because we thought if there are people who are able to rescue people from a building that’s collapsed from an earthquake, they must be able to rescue somebody from a building that’s collapsed as a result of a bomb or attack,” he told Devex.

Le Mesurier visited the the local earthquake rescue team in Istanbul and with them put together a very short training syllabus. “Then we pulled some people out of Syria [to be the first volunteers] and trained a small team,” he said.

The reaction to the team from besieged civilians in Aleppo was, Le Mesurier said, “off the charts.”

“From the the get-go, that such a small group of ordinary people could get a response when literally nothing else was working was incredible,” he said. Le Mesurier left his consultancy and began fundraising for the White Helmets as an independent nonprofit, Mayday Rescue.

Now, Mayday operates with a 25-person staff of mostly Syrians aiming to mobilize communities to provide essential services in conflict. The organization currently dedicates funding from the U.K. Department for International Development, U.S. Agency for International Development and Japan International Cooperation Agency, among others, to the work of the White Helmets.

Le Mesurier said the nearly 3,000 volunteers that make up the White Helmets have saved 62,400 lives. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner will be announced on Oct. 7.

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About the author

Molly Andersmollyanders_dev

Molly is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in London, she covers U.K. foreign aid and trends in international development. She draws on her experience covering aid legislation and the USAID implementer community in Washington, D.C., as well as her time as a Fulbright Fellow and development practitioner in the Middle East to develop stories with insider analysis.

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