Hamza al-Yousef with the White Helmets
Hamza al-Yousef lives in the countryside outside the city of Aleppo in Syria with his wife and two young children. At thirty-one years old, Hamza al-Yousef volunteers for the Syrian Civil Defense, a search-and-rescue organization that offers life-saving services to people in the aftermath of an attack.
“Our duty is to provide help to people and to act urgently,” Hamza says, “and save someone’s life who otherwise may die if they aren’t helped immediately.
The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets for their distinctive headgear, have saved more than 115,000 lives since the beginning of the conflict. They conduct medical and civilian evacuations, as well as urban search and rescue missions in response to bombings.
Hamza has seen bombings as they happened during his work with the White Helmets. “In the first moments of any attack, these are very sad moments,” Hamza says, “moments of fear and horror.” Before the dust has yet to settle, Hamza has walked among debris and the mangled bodies, the lost victims of the attack. He has searched through the rubble of collapsed buildings for survivors in order to provide them with emergency care.
“The thing that breaks the barrier of fear and horror is the will to help and save people,” Hamza says.
From the People, For the People
The White Helmets is made up of regular citizens who began organizing themselves in late 2012 when the Syrian regime began bombing civilian areas. This tactic has continued through the conflict with the help of the Syrian regime’s ally, Russia. These attacks target hospitals, schools, and homes, and have killed more than 500,000 thousand people and spurred a mass exodus of more than 5 million Syrian refugees.
The White Helmets provide their services to anyone in need of help, regardless of political affiliation, operating outside of the Syrian regime. Their work has expanded in response to community needs. In addition to saving lives, their work includes fixing electrical grids, maintaining sewage works, clearing rubble from roads, removing unexploded weapons, as well as community education.
However, the brave deeds of the White Helmets have not gone unpunished.
Since 2013, over 252 White Helmets volunteers have been in “double-tap” strikes, where Syrian and Russian warplanes returned to the site of bombing to target the rescue workers. In addition, online disinformation campaigns have been launched by Russian bots in an effort to spread mistrust and confusion about the work of the White Helmets.
Since February, the Syrian regime and Russia have escalated airstrikes on the region, killing at least 190 people and displacing 106,000 more. As the conflict continues into its ninth year, the work of the White Helmets has become all the more vital. They are one of the few organizations still able to operate in northwest Syria, where 2,850 volunteers, like Hamza al-Yousef, carry out lifesaving search and rescue operations.
Hamza al-Yousef knows that his children are too young to understand the importance of the work that he does with the White Helmets. He hopes that someday soon they will reap the benefits of it.
“I hope my children will grow up in peace and safety,” Hamza says, “with all Syrian children from all denominations and religions, because they are all Syria’s children.
Written by Emily Fishel and Edited by Ionut Gitan
Syrian Voices is a video series created by MFA to share the personal stories of people affected by the crisis. By letting Syrians speak in their own words, Syrian Voices aims to help us all better understand the impact of the humanitarian crisis and share the lives, challenges, aspirations, strengths, and successes of the Syrian people.
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