The White Helmets comprise an unarmed, neutral organization of more than 3,000 volunteer rescue workers operating in opposition-held areas of Syria. When airstrikes rain down on civilian targets in the war-torn nation, the men and women of the White Helmets carry out search-and-rescue operations to save as many lives as possible.
“Any human being, no matter who they are or which side they’re on, if they need our help…it’s our duty to save them,” explains Abu Omar, a former blacksmith and current member of the group, in the Oscar-winning 2016 Netflix documentary “The White Helmets.”
Under the direction of its current leader, Raed al Saleh, a former electronics trader, these ordinary citizens—who in previous lives were engineers, pharmacists, bakers, tailors, carpenters, students and more—do extraordinary, difficult work. Since Syria’s civil war began in March 2011, dozens of bombs land daily in neighborhoods throughout Syria, leaving dead and injured in their wake. The White Helmets deal with the aftermath. They dig for survivors using tools and their bare hands. They evacuate the injured. They help bury the dead and notify victims’ families. The group says it has saved more than 99,000 lives.
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In addition to lifesaving, White Helmets deliver public services such as securing damaged buildings, reconnecting electrical cables and offering safety information to children. The group, also known as the Syria Civil Defense, takes its nickname from the color of its personnel’s protective hard hats.
When possible, they travel to Turkey to be trained by AKUT, a voluntary, non-governmental organization involved in search-and-rescue efforts after natural disasters. At these trainings, the White Helmets receive life-saving instructions and exposure to new equipment. Then they return to Syria—and to their daily mission of responding to barrel bomb and missile strikes.