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Syria Earthquake: Meet White Helmets, The Leading Humanitarian Group In War-torn Syria

The humanitarian group White Helmets was formed early in the Syrian Civil War in 2013-14. The decade of war and conflict prepared the group, also known as Syrian Civil Defense (SCD), for the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey this month.

White Helmets personnel rescuing trapped people in earthquake-hit Syria
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When the Syrian Civl War began, Mohammed Farah first picked up the gun to fight the Syrian government but soon realised his true calling was elsewhere. 

A tailor by profession, Farah left the forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and joined a group of volunteers who would go on to form White Helmets under a former British Army officer's leadership and his Syrian co-founder.

In Netflix documentary The White Helmets, Farah says he realised saving lives was better than taking lives.

He says, "Before joining the White Helmets, I was with an armed group. I fought for the Opposition for three months. But I saw that teh regime's campaign was targeting civilians. And I thought it's better to do humanitarian work than to be armed. Better to rescue a soul than to take one."

The story of Farah is the story of several volunteers who are part of the White Helmets, formally known as the Syrian Civil Defense (SCD). The group over the years has become the main humanitarian organisation in war-torn Syria, operating in areas outside of Syrian government's control that have faced the dual brunt of Syrian-Russian attacks and jihadist presence as groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS are also active there. 

In the wake of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked Syria and Turkey, the White Helmets have made calls to the international community for aid. While the world converged on neighbouring Turkey, the affected Syrian territories have received a trickle of aid. 

Here we explain the origin of White Helmets, their role through the Syrian Civil War, and their rescue and relief activities following the Syria earthquake.

Origin of White Helmets

The formal name of White Helmets is the Syrian Civil Defense (SCD). It's a humanitarian organisation in Syria formed early in the Syrian Civil War in 2013-14.

Ironically, it was training from Turkish earthquake rescue specialists that led to the emergence of the first batch of White Helmets volunteers. The volunteers were deep into rescue in Syria where Syrian and Russian air and artillery strikes destroyed homes and took lives regularly. After a decade, the war-veteran rescuers are now back to rescue operations in an earthquake — in a sort of coming in full circle. 

British Army veteran James Le Mesurier and Syrian Raed al-Saleh are identified as the founder of White Helmets. James was working on Syria-centric humanitarian projects from Turkey at the time of the group's founding. Raed is currently the chief functionary of the organisation. 

The BBC notes in an article that James was working for a Turkish organisation Ark of Alistair Harris when he began training White Helmets.

"As head of the Istanbul office of Harris's organisation, Ark, one of the projects Le Mesurier's took on focused on training young Syrians to act as firefighters, ambulance drivers and rescuers...He brought them all together in one organisation and got them professionally trained by the Turkish earthquake rescue specialists, Akut," notes BBC.

The BBC goes on to explain how the name White Helmets was totally unintentional and how the fame also came out of supervision requirement. 

The article says, "There weren't enough of the red helmets meant for firefighters, so they ordered white ones - and these helmets would eventually earn the rescuers their nickname.

"While rescue operations were taking place in Syria, Le Mesurier was in Istanbul, hundreds of miles away. The only way he could find out what was happening on the ground was by watching videos of the new trainees in action. So he equipped the White Helmets with Go-Pro cameras attached to their hard hats. Before long, films of the White Helmets' daring rescues were going viral on social media...Much of the footage showed the destruction caused by Syrian and Russian war planes," says the BBC article. 

Relief and rescue activities of White Helmets

The White Helmets are not trained or professional rescue personnel. They receive short training in Turkey before diving into work in Syria. 

Like Farah mentioned earlier in the story, the volunteers come from a wide a range of professions, not necessarily from a police or military background.

The White Helmets' website says, "Former bakers, tailors, engineers, pharmacists, painters, carpenters, students and many more professions besides, the White Helmets are volunteers from all walks of life. Many have paid the ultimate price for their compassion – 252 have been killed while saving others."

The volunteers are often self-organised and lack specialised equipment that developed countries would otherwise have for rescue.

"In the areas under attack public services no longer functioned so groups of volunteers formed to provide emergency response in communities across Syria. These self-organised groups would respond to the cries of their neighbours and friends trapped under the rubble. They had no specialised equipment or training and were powered only be their concern for human life," says the White Helmets' website about their early phase. 

Since the humble origins in 2013-14, the White Helmets have now evolved into a sort of a multi-purpose organisation that almost fulfils the role of a local government — there is no established authority in large parts of war-torn Syria.

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The White Helmets' website says, "The work of the White Helmets has expanded in response to the needs of the communities they serve, now providing essential services to millions of people. Their work includes fixing electrical grids, maintaining sewage works, clearing rubble from roads, removing unexploded weapons, as well as community education and preparation for future attacks."

White Helmets in Syrian earthquake

White Helmets volunteers are actively working in rescue and relief work in Syria. Now after weeks as chances of finding survivors becomes slim, they are engaged in clearing debris and finding the head for proper last rites. 

Since the earthquake hit Syria and Turkey on February 6, the White Helmets have accused the international community of not doing enough for Syria. In sharp contrast, personnel as well as resources have poured into neighbouring Turkey.

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Even when the help arrived, it was financial aid and not equipment or personnel that was immediately required, reported Reuters.

Reuters reported, "The overwhelming scale of the disaster has been met with a trickle of help from the international community, who have donated money but sent little physical aid and none of the heavy equipment required to save lives in the week since the quake."

White Helmets co-founder and head Raed al-Saleh has accused the United Nations (UN) of failing to respond properly to devastation in Syria.

Diplomats in the region have highlighted that the international community's operations in the region are limited by the security situation in Syria.

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Reuters reported, "Two regional diplomats said international support to the region was limited by the fact that it was a conflict zone outside of government control, and discomfort with the area's ruling faction which has links to Al-Qaeda.

"Aid organisations have said they face security problems operating in the region, while the European Union's envoy to Syria said it was "absolutely unfair" to accuse the EU of failing to provide enough help."

Even though the White Helmets are involved in the earthquake relief, the primary job —the Syrian Civil War— continues and volunteers simultaneously work on that front as well. 

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Just on Saturday, White Helmets shared on Twitter the report of artillery shelling by the Syrian government. The earthquake is just the latest and the most sudden tragedy in the region. The Civil War continues with no idea when it would end. 

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