When the bombs rain down in Syria, the White Helmets - the Syrian Civil Defence - rush in to look for life in the rubble. These medics and search-and-rescue workers operate in the most dangerous places on earth but in the past year alone, they’re responsible for saving 10,229 lives.
Until October, almost all of the official members of the White Helmets were men. But now, as of only a few weeks ago, women’s teams were established in Aleppo and Idlib. 56 women are seizing the opportunity to volunteer for their communities — putting their own lives at risk in order to save others. More are waiting to sign up.
The White Helmets are unarmed and impartial. They ride in vehicles to the scenes of barrel bomb and missile strikes and dig for survivors using tools and their bare hands. They give them medical care and transport them to safety. These women risk their lives to help anyone in need – fully aware that rescue sites are often targeted with a second round of bombing.
The existence of the women’s teams is crucial. In the most conservative parts of Syria, communities are uncomfortable with women and girls being rescued by men, especially when strong blasts or chlorine attacks strip them of their clothing. Bare women have refused to be seen or even saved by male volunteers from the White Helmets in their time of need. The women volunteers are vital to saving lives during some of these tragedies.
Yet the women volunteers are dealing with some stigma. While the male White Helmets are incredibly supportive of their new colleagues, some in the wider community are skeptical of these women doing a “man’s job”. They are however determined to prove themselves and let the work speak for itself.
Volunteers join the White Helmets with a myriad of life experiences: school teachers, housewives, French language teachers, nurses, and university students studying chemical sciences and engineering. Despite the risks, the women of the White Helmets want to be a part of Syria’s reconstruction, working side by side with men rebuilding their war-torn country without being hampered by gender constraints.
“With both men and women taking part in rescues, we will change the way Syrians see themselves and their role in society…We will rebuild, and we will build, spreading values of equality, dignity and freedom” says Shahd, a housewife-turned-White Helmet volunteer in Aleppo.
It is not just the practical rescue work of the White Helmets changing Syria, but also the actions of peace and hope exemplified by the volunteers every day. They are symbols of hope known by adults and children alike.
With incessant bombing over Aleppo and the need to rescue victims of both regime and US coalition airstrikes in Idlib, the White Helmets job is becoming harder than ever.
The volunteers need all the help they can get, and they’ve put out a call for more life-saving equipment. From Peru to Pakistan, donors have responded to their appeal and contributed to a campaign to buy the teams six ambulances they need to save lives. The funds for one ambulance have already been raised and the teams are hopeful that another five ambulances can be bought ahead of the campaign deadline on January 16.
The White Helmets have a saying: “to save one life is to save all of humanity.” At a time when so many have chosen to kill, these Syrian heroes have chosen to protect life.