Most of us are aware, in some way, of what’s happening in Syria.
For nearly 5 years, this Levantine country has been embroiled in one of the worst civil wars ever fought in the Middle East, between various rebel groups and the loyalist Syrian army of Bashar Al-Assad.
The facts and figures behind this terrible war are astonishing and terrifying. Over 6.4 million people have been displaced. 11 million Syrians have fled their homes, and over 4.8 million Syrians are now refugees – more than any other single group of people in history.
The death and injury tolls are staggering, as well. Estimates are difficult to verify given the nature of the conflict, but various groups put the total death toll from 150,000-470,000.
Medical care is extremely difficult in the area given the anti-medical sentiment of the loyalist government forces. It’s estimated that half of the country’s 30,000 doctors fled Syria, and the government passed a law that made it illegal to render medical care to members of opposition militias, and over 700 medical personnel have been killed in this terrible war, mainly by the Syrian Army. In 2015, the AMA called Syria “The Most Dangerous Place In The World To Be A Doctor.
But despite this brutality and the danger of administering medical care in Syria, a Syrian civil defense organization has emerged that provides care to the wounded on all sides of the conflict – The White Helmets.
Who Are The White Helmets?
The White Helmets are a volunteer civil defense organization operating in rebel-controlled areas of Syria. The original rescue teams that became the White Helmets formed in 2012, as Bashar Al-Assad began to lose ground in Syria and his forces began to target non-combatant civilian areas in an attempt to destroy support for the opposition.
Western governments began funding the White Helmets shortly afterward, in 2013, providing training and organizational structuring in Turkey.
Volunteers were trained in rescue techniques, trauma care, crisis management, and other important life-saving techniques that enable them to safely rescue civilians that are injured, trapped under buildings due to aerial bombardments, and save lives.
These independent rescue teams soon formed into a united front – the SCD, or “Syrian Civil Defence”, established in its current form in 2014. The SCD is now composed of over 3,000 volunteers on 111 individual civil defense teams and operates in 8 separate provincial directorates across Syria.
The Mission Of The White Helmets
The mission of the White Helmets is to save as many lives as possible – regardless of political affiliation.
To accomplish this, the White Helmets primarily undertake search-and-rescue missions, searching for civilians in bombed buildings, responding to government attacks, performing medical evacuations in dangerous areas, and delivering essential medical services to both combatants and noncombatants.
Originally, the primary bombings conducted on Syrian rebel-controlled cities were performed by Syrian government forces, often dropping “barrel bombs” – improvised explosive devices – from helicopters, destroying civilian infrastructure and demoralizing the populace.
However, since Russian intervention in Syria began in 2015, The White Helmets have primarily been responding to bombings by Russian aircraft, providing medical aid to those injured, and searching for survivors among the rubble of destroyed buildings.
The White Helmets aren’t just focused on immediate medical care of injured civilians and combatants, but also on undertaking repair work such as securing damaged buildings to prevent further loss of life or injury, reconnecting electrical supplies and other public utilities, clearing roads of hazards and IEDs, and conducting firefighting operations and other storm relief efforts.
“The Most Dangerous Job In The World”
159 White Helmets have been killed since the inception of the program, representing a 5% mortality rate for members of this civilian medical relief group.
The dedication, bravery, and heroism of this group of civilians cannot be overstated. Truly, they have a courage that we can aspire to – an unwavering dedication to humanitarian relief, medical care, and saving lives on both sides of the conflict, regardless of ideology, political beliefs, or governmental affiliation.
These unarmed volunteers risk their very lives to save even those who wish them dead – to rescue soldiers who would, in any other circumstance, surely take their lives. And they do this for no other reason than their motto. – “to save one life, is to save all of humanity”.
So take inspiration from these courageous men and women. The next time you have to change a filthy bedpan, deal with a difficult patient or pull a double shift, think of The White Helmets.
Think of the bravery and heroism of these men and women, and let it inspire you. You may not be saving lives in Syria, but you are doing your best to help your patients – just like they are.
And sometimes, that’s all you can do.