When airstrikes rain down on rebel-held parts of Syria, a group of 3,000 civilian volunteers are usually the first to respond.
The Syrian Civil Defense, known commonly as the White Helmets, is a volunteer corps of Syrians who act as first responders in the Syrian civil war, which is now in its sixth year. Established in 2013, the group’s charter is simple: to carry out search-and-rescue operations to save the maximum number of lives.
Inspired by a Quranic verse that says “to save a life is to save all of humanity,” the group has rescued more than 60,000 people—a feat that earned them the Right to Livelihood Award, commonly known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” in recognition for their “outstanding bravery, compassion and humanitarian engagement in rescuing civilians.” It has also put them in contention for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Although it has received support from many organizations and high-profile figures, it has been criticized by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime—and by Assad himself—for its ties to Western governments, from which the group receives millions of dollars in funding.
At least 141 White Helmets have been killed during rescue missions and three of the organization’s four centers in Aleppo were bombed last week. As the Syrian government’s latest bombardment of Aleppo intensifies, the organization warns it may not be able to continue as it once has.
“We are abandoned,” Raed al-Saleh, the head of the organization, said Wednesday at UN headquarters in New York.
I spoke with Joanna Natasegara and Orlando von Einsiedel, the Academy Award–nominated filmmakers behind Netflix’s latest documentary, the White Helmets, which provides a firsthand look into the organization’s work from the perspective of three of its members. Our conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Yasmeen Serhan: Who makes up this organization?
Joanna Natasegara: They come from everywhere and every walk of life. Some of them are students, some of them are professionals, and many, many of them are not. Lots of them are blue-collar workers doing very ordinary jobs who just want to be involved in something that’s positive. The three we focus on are—
Orlando von Einsiedel: A taylor, a blacksmith, and a builder.
Natasegara: It’s a sweet trio of jobs.
Serhan: With such an assortment of people coming together, one can imagine their individual backgrounds lend themselves useful in one way or another. But as the film shows, you have volunteers extinguishing fires and pulling people out of the rubble—not exactly your everyday skills. How are they trained?
Von Einsiedel: These guys all made this decision to not flee Syria, to not pick up a gun, and instead to every day risk their lives to save others. It’s quite an extraordinary decision they’ve all made. And the reason they do the training is because they don’t necessarily have those skills—they’re normal people just like me and you. There’s an organization called Akut, a Turkish organization which became well known during the earthquake in Turkey a couple of years ago, and they sort of specialize in that kind of rescue. And the reason it’s very applicable to what White Helmets are doing is because when those barrel bombs are chucked out the helicopters, the effect on cities like Aleppo is sort of like an earthquake—buildings collapse, people need to be pulled out of the rubble—so the skills are very transferable.
Serhan: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was asked in an interview last week about whether he thought the White Helmets deserve to win the Nobel Peace Prize, to which he responded asking, “What did they achieve in Syria?” How would you answer his question?
Natasegara: They have 120 centers in non-regime-controlled Syria, and that’s because they are not allowed to work in regime-controlled Syria, not because they don’t want to. They have saved 60,000 lives, and those are the ones that they can record, so the real number that they must have saved is actually bigger. And while so many people talk about the lives they save, they also deal with infrastructure and they bury the dead, which is not very well talked about—the amount of dignity that they give to those who lose their lives in Syria also has to be noted, I think. But for us, in terms of what they’ve done for Syria, I think that doesn’t come to question at all. They’re absolutely heroic and driven by this almost unbelievable integrity that everyone in war should be given as a sign of dignity.
Serhan: As filmmakers, what effect are you hoping this documentary has?
Von Einsiedel: Syria is such a hard issue for people to engage with because it’s gone on for so long, and it’s so upsetting, and it feels very hopeless, and that’s a problem. The White Helmets and what they do is a story of hope and these guys are, they are real heroes. And that’s not just hyperbole. We’ve been very fortunate in our work to be able to travel a lot and met lots of extraordinary people, but there’s not very many people on this Earth I’ve ever met who are as incredible as these men and women. And we think their story resonates—it cuts through everything else. It cuts through politics. It’s a pure human story.
Serhan: What do you think international audiences misunderstand the most about this conflict?
Von Einsiedel: Over the course of the last couple of years, the narrative coming out about Syria has very much been focused on ISIS, and terrorism, and the refugee crisis. Those are clearly important stories, but what’s happening to the millions of civilians left inside Syria, especially in non-regime controlled areas, and the daily bombings that they face—that narrative has shifted down the headlines. And the story of the White Helmets brings that very much back into focus.
Serhan: How did you first hear of the White Helmets?
Von Einsiedel: Some friends showed us the video of Mahmoud the “Miracle Baby” being rescued ... I think it even had more resonance when we realized who the actual rescuers were, this group of civilian volunteers. And from that point on, it just felt like a story that we really needed to tell.
Serhan: What has the reception of the film been so far?
Natasegara: It’s been very encouraging. Particularly the response from young people is for me heartening. You can see that young people are very interested in issues, they are very interested in foreign affairs and what is happening around the world. They want to engage in a way where they don’t feel patronized or that the news doesn’t represent them or doesn’t speak to them, and I think documentaries really do that—they bridge that divide.
Von Einsiedel: There was a moment early last week where we listened to a podcast done by two young guys somewhere in the Midwest, and they couldn’t even pronounce Syria because they obviously knew very little about it. But how they responded to the documentary … talking about how they had all these stereotypes about what Muslim guys from the Middle East might be like and how the film had broken down a lot of those preconceptions, that was really, really fascinating and says a lot about what we hope this film might be able to do.
Serhan: The White Helmets have gotten considerable international attention for their work. When you spoke with the volunteers, did you get the sense as though they felt they were finally being heard?
Natasegara: If they felt they were being heard, they wouldn’t need to be rescuing as many people as they are. Certainly there is an onus on us all to witness that in a more significant way. It’s probably one of the worst wars of our lifetimes and what we see in this documentary is Syrians acting to save themselves—and not only trained Syrians, but ordinary everyday Syrians— acting to save themselves because there is nobody else. I think that says everything we need to know.