In Syrian conflict, women rescuers are saving lives and changing minds

More Syrian women are working as first-responders in rebel-held areas. Trained in emergency medical care and search and rescue operations, they are winning over conservative Syrians by playing a nontraditional role in the conflict. 

Majed Al-Hamwi / Courtesy of Syria Civil Defense
This photo, taken in September 2014, shows a medical training course of the Syria Civil Defense Units in Idlib Province (The man in the picture is a translator, not the trainer).

Braving a steady rain of bombs in rebel-held areas of Syria, women are quietly proving their mettle as rescue workers and inspiring others to join them in the grueling task of saving lives. Three all-women teams are now part of the “White Helmets,” or civil defense units, in Aleppo City and Idlib Province, two strongholds of anti-regime resistance. 

“The scenes we witness are tragic, there are so many casualties, but with the passage of time we grew accustomed to it,” says Hassna Shawaf, a former math teacher and one of three members of a female rescue unit from Maaret al-Numan, a town on the highway linking Aleppo to Damascus. “This is the reality we live in so we must adapt and act.”

The Syrian Civil Defense is a network of 2,052 volunteers operating as first responders in opposition-held areas of the embattled nation. When bombs bring buildings crashing down, they are the first on scene to clear the rubble, search for any survivors, and ferry casualties to the nearest medical facility.

Ms. Shawaf is on duty eight hours per day, taking part in rescue operations alongside male colleagues. She joined less than two months ago and is already training the next generation of female first responders. Initially, she says her parents opposed the idea, but now they want her younger sisters to follow in her footsteps.

“In the beginning we had difficulties in terms of society accepting the idea. Women working in civil defense? It came across as a strange idea, but after we started working and showed them what we are capable of doing, it became widely accepted to the point that families now encourage their daughters to join too,” she says.

In areas where the victims of violence, and their families, hew to conservative values, the presence of women rescue workers can make a difference between life and death. In one recent case, the owner of a bombed out house in the town of Jisr al-Shugur refused to allow men in to treat women casualties. But the all-female team was allowed to intervene. 

Raed Saleh, a founding member of the civil defense units in Idlib, says the introduction of female units has helped to raise awareness of the risks of unexploded ordnance in the community and providing psychological support after traumatic experiences. 

“They visit homes and schools to provide psychological support to women and children, and they raise awareness on how to deal with the residues of war – cluster bombs and mines planted in rural areas along the border,” says Mr. Saleh. “Women know how to convey ideas to children much more clearly than do men.”

Women are still a tiny fraction of the volunteer forces. They have been trained in emergency medical care and light search and rescue at workshops held in Turkey and Syria. Saleh says the White Helmets aim to scale up that number and have launched a fundraising campaign to raise $90,000 to buy ambulances and equip more responders. 

The rescuers say they have no political affiliation and that rebel groups of all stripes, including Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, let them move unhindered and help out when necessary. They have, however, lost touch with their volunteers in Raqqa, a stronghold of the Islamic State targeted by regime and coalition air strikes.

Nearly 200,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, more than a third of them civilians, according to figures compiled by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which draws on information from activists and medics across the country.

Deaths in the line of duty

In this context of widespread destruction, the White Helmets are credited with saving more than 10,000 lives. Twenty-one male volunteers have been killed in the line of duty, most of them in Aleppo, where the regime has been dropping barrel bombs – steel tanks packed with crude explosives – in areas outside of its control throughout the year.

Shahd is among six women who joined the civil defense units of the shell-shocked city in October – despite her husband’s objections.

“The situation here is very bad. We get no respite from aerial attacks,” she says, speaking over a choppy Internet connection. “Every day we face barrel bombs. They land very near us.”

Despite the risks and responsibility of raising two children, Shahd and her husband, also a relief worker, have decided to stay put in Aleppo.

“The hardest thing we face is not being able to save someone. Of course there is fear, but as long as the possibility of saving just one person exists, we can overcome that fear,” she says.

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