It was just before Canada Day when the ambassador to Jordan received the desperate plea from a Syrian White Helmets representative in Amman. “Canada, we need your help,” she told him.
Bashar al-Assad’s regime was rounding up the White Helmets, and sealing up the southern border with Jordan. Meanwhile, the remnants of ISIS were on the move.
This is Part Two of a two-part CTV National News investigation by Sally Armstrong, who travelled to Jordan to report on the mission. Click here to read Part One.
Ambassador Peter MacDougall knew that time was running out for the brave rescuers who have saved countless lives during the seven-year Syrian Civil War.
“I could see in her face the look of despair, of even panic,” he recalls. “As an ambassador, you get people coming all the time to ask you all kinds of things. This one stood out, so I immediately got on the phone with our colleagues in Ottawa.”
MacDougall assumed that Canada would be willing to help, even though the logistics were daunting. “It’s what we do,” he says. But the situation was deteriorating daily.
“We didn’t have months to do this.”
Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland quickly took up the cause, putting out a request for assistance at a July 11 North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Brussels.
Robin Wettlaufer, Canada’s Head of Syria Political Affairs, says Freeland “pounded the table” and “made an impassioned plea to all the other foreign ministers, saying we have to do something, we have an obligation to these people.”
NATO allies Britain, Germany and France agreed to join Canada in resettling some of the rescuers and their families. The White Helmets were given the go-ahead to start organizing their secret escape through encrypted emails and WhatsApp.
But just as the NATO allies came on board, Assad’s troops had pushed far enough into southern Syria that bringing the refugees across into Jordan was no longer an option. MacDougall was worried the mission would fail.
That’s when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appealed directly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for military assistance. Netanyahu agreed to provide Israeli troops.
When the day of the mission finally arrived, MacDougall worked with the Anthony Hinton, deputy chief of staff at the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv to co-ordinate the effort with Israel and Jordan. They coaxed the Jordanians to accept imperfect identification and making sure that no one got left behind.
“It was quite an effort and fortunately it all worked out and we were able to save such a number of people,” Hinton said.
In the end, 98 White Helmets and 324 of their family members crossed into Israel. They then boarded buses to Jordan, which has already taken in more than 670,000 of the 5.6 million Syrians refugees registered with UNHCR.
MacDougall felt elated. “I think another day and we might not have made it,” he said. “Certainly fewer people might have made it over.”
Former White Helmet Farouq Habib says that while they are thankful, they did not intend to be refugees. “We were looking to live in peace and dignity in our hometowns,” he said.
The refugees are now undergoing medical and security screening in a safe location as they prepare for their new lives in the west. Canada is expected to take about 30 families.
Wettlaufer, who was also instrumental in the rescue, says “there’s no way” the successful mission should have worked, “and yet it did.”
“It did because of a committed minister prepared to make a tough decision and do the right thing,” she said.