Who are the White Helmets? Explaining the Syrian 'do-gooders'
The volunteer group spirited out of Syria under cover of night has been the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary and was once considered a front-runner for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The White Helmets and their families were rescued by the Israeli military and brought to Jordan, where they will be resettled in Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom.
A total of 422 people were moved during the operation. According to a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, Canada has committed to resettling “up to 50” of the White Helmets and their families.
The group was stranded in the midst of fighting between an Islamic State-affiliated group and Russian-backed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Israeli officials said it was believed that the White Helmets’ lives would be at risk if they were not moved away from the area.
Typically described as a search-and-rescue group, White Helmets volunteers carry out dangerous assignments in bombing zones and areas with little to no typical government services, risking their own lives to save others from attacks related to the Syrian civil war, which is now in its eighth year.
“They really are do-gooders,” Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, told CTV News Channel.
They are also one of the few groups able to document conditions in some of the most dangerous parts of the country, and are often relied on by international agencies for details of circumstances on the ground. They often work in close collaboration with medical and human rights organizations.
Over the course of the war, they have emerged as a group often lauded by western leaders as being unaffiliated with the warring factions and having a sole interest in helping victims of the war.
This portrayal of the group was echoed Sunday by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who called them “heroes” with longstanding support from Canada.
‘‘The White Helmets are courageous volunteers and first responders who risk their lives to help their fellow Syrians who have been targeted by senseless violence,” Freeland said in a statement. “When children, women, and men in Syria flee for their lives, the White Helmets run towards danger, towards the rubble, to save the innocent and the wounded.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has taken a different view of the White Helmets, labeling them as “agents” for foreign powers and accusing them of staging their footage.
According to the White Helmets, their ranks consist of thousands of run-of-the-mill Syrians who have taken a pledge to honour humanity, solidarity and impartiality. With the help of western governments, they have taken training – often online – on everything from basic First Aid to how to enter a building on the verge of collapse.
“These are not rescuers by training,” Momani said. “They were everything from teachers to nurses to doctors who realized during the war that one of the greatest challenges before them was that … many people were trapped under rubble. Many people were innocently caught up in this civil war.”
The group was nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. Its members were the subject of “The White Helmets”, a 2016 film which won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. The documentary showed volunteers rescuing people from buildings demolished in airstrikes.
An estimated 300,000 Syrians have been displaced since fighting in the country’s southwest intensified last month. Many of them have headed for the Jordanian border to seek refuge and safety in that country.
With the White Helmets being taken out of southwest Syria as government forces continue to increase their presence, Momani said, the situation for ordinary Syrians could take a significant turn for the worse.
“The regime is quite willing to pretty much pummel the place to regain it,” she said. “Once the regime forces get in there, they will go after so many innocent people. We really have to prepare for an enormous massacre.”
With files from The Associated Press