It was a full house at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, when three visiting members of Syria’s White Helmets shared stories of bravery and hope with the Vancouver audience about their conflict-affected home country.
Officially known as the Syria Civil Defence, the White Helmets are an unarmed volunteer organization that conducts urban search and rescue of civilians in bombed out Syrian cities, at times digging injured people out from destroyed buildings with their hands, in an effort to save their lives.
On April 5, 2018, PeaceGeeks had the honour of hosting three visiting members of the White Helmets for our 38th PeaceTalk to date, in partnership with Simon Fraser University (SFU) International and the British Consulate-General of Vancouver. PeaceTalks is a speaker series started by PeaceGeeks in 2012, with a mandate to make critical and timely topics of peace, human rights and technology accessible to all Canadians.
Formerly ordinary citizens, the White Helmets have saved over 110,000 lives since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011. In the process, the volunteers have come face-to-face with barrel and cluster bombs, chemical weapons and indiscriminate attacks.
"To save a life is to save all of humanity,"
The room fell silent as one of the visiting White Helmets, a Syrian journalist named Maisoun Almasri, recounted watching her younger brother get shot by a Syrian regime sniper. No one in her family knew first aid at the time.
“My brother lost his life in our arms,” she said, through a translator. “Looking at me, looking at our mother, all those surrounding him, and we can’t do anything. I was haunted by the look in his eyes.”
It was after this event that Maisoun joined the White Helmets.
“The feeling of helplessness will kill you,” she said.
Mustafa Almahamed, the second visiting White Helmets member at the PeaceTalk, Mustafa Almahamed, shared similar stories to Maisoun’s.
“December 15, 2012. I will never forget this date,” Mustafa said, through the translator.
At that time, he and his brother’s family were forcibly internally displaced from their homes. After waking up that day to the sound of bullets and crossfire in the village where they were staying, he witnessed his 10-year-old nephew get shot and brought the boy with him out of the house in seek of aid.
“He’s looking at me in the eye, asking for help to save his life. And I am completely helpless.” Mustafa said, “That was his last breath.”
Mustafa also lost his first wife to shelling in 2014. His sister also lost her leg due to bombardment from the Syrian regime.
Before the uprising, Mustafa worked in auto parts and car repair. In 2013, he founded a youth volunteer team to help fix damages caused to water and electricity networks and other areas due to the conflict. He now manages the Syria Civil Defence in southern Syria.
When asked if they ever lose hope, the third visiting member, Nedal Izzden, pointed to the White Helmets motto: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.”
Hope, symbolized through their distinctive uniform of a white helmet, is what drives these unarmed volunteers to continue their humanitarian work. For this, they have, as a group, been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 and 2017 for their dedication to search and rescue work.
A recent documentary film about the White Helmets also won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 2017.
Nedal was formerly a dentist and basketball player and is now a Board Member of the Syria Civil Defence, working in the administrative field educating volunteers in International Humanitarian Law.
“We are the only non-armed group doing this kind of work in Syria.” Nedal explained, “Maybe we are the only ones praying to lose our jobs.”
But the White Helmets’ work is not without its controversy. In particular, the Syrian and Russian state media have made significant efforts to paint the group as terrorists and denounce their work as having vested political interests, instead of apolitical as the White Helmets declare.
To this, Nedal responded, “The 4,000 White Helmets are not angels. Our work, just like any other institution, is dictated by a code of conduct.”
He explained that when members do not follow the code of conduct and the four principles of the organization—humanity, objectivity, neutrality and independence—such as if they use a gun or affiliate themselves with a political party, they are no longer considered to be part of the White Helmets.
“Mistakes do happen, but we try our best to address them and respond to them,” Nedal added.
When asked how Canadians can take action to support the White Helmets, Mustafa said, “Our hope is that people here and across the globe will use social media to expose the atrocities in Syria. To show the true killers and show the victims.”
Watch the full PeaceTalk below:
A special thanks to the White Helmets members for sharing these powerful and personal stories, as well as the interpreters, volunteers, attendees, and all those who made this event a success. Thanks to SFU International and the British Consulate-General of Vancouver for partnering with PeaceGeeks to make this PeaceTalk possible.
Written by Sara Kherallah and Cherrie Lam