About 100 women volunteer with the Syrian Civil Defence, better known as the White Helmets, across Syria
While members of the Syria Civil Defence group in Syria, better known as the White Helmets, have been celebrated as brave humanitarians across the world, little is known about the contribution of their female members.
"Women are an essential part of the rescue work," White Helmet volunteer Manal Abazeed told Middle East Eye, while sitting at a quiet café near London’s River Thames.
"We will continue to do our part for as long as it takes," said Manal who will be heading back to the frontlines of Syria's southwestern city of Daraa in a couple of days.
The 46-year-old radiated pride as she spoke about the work she and her fellow female volunteers do as search-and-rescue workers.
Along with her fellow volunteer, Gardenia, Manal accepted an award of recognition on Tuesday on behalf of 100 female volunteers working with the White Helmets across Syria.
“I was honoured to receive this award on behalf of my sisters,” Manal told MEE. “But it pained me to receive it while so many people continue to die back home.”
Manal Abazeed has been a volunteer with the White Helmets since April 2015 (Olivia Alabaster/MEE)
The White Helmets operate a rescue service in rebel-held parts of Syria, which have been subjected to fierce bombardment by the government and Russia’s air force during the country’s civil war that has levelled whole city districts.
Sarah Brown, president of Theirworld, the children’s charity which gave Manal the award ahead of International Women’s Day, told ITV news on Wednesday: "Whilst most times people think of the men of the white helmets rushing in to save lives, today we wanted to honour the women, who have worked tirelessly and courageously."
Within a few months, we were with the men in the ambulances and on the frontlines
- Manal, White Helmet volunteer
Originally an accountant, Manal has been volunteering as a paramedic with the White Helmets for the past two years. She decided to dedicate her time to saving victims of the war when her father died of cancer due to a lack of medical care in her hometown.
“We couldn’t take him to hospital because of the siege and air strikes,” said Manal while fighting back her tears.
“When he died, I decided to join the White Helmets so that I could learn how to help myself and others around me,” she added.
During the first few years of the war, many search-and-rescue groups formed by Syrian civilians operated across Syria under different names. However, in October 2014 the various groups agreed to a single statement of principles and code of conduct, uniting to form the Syrian Civil Defence Force, with NGOs and fans later dubbing them the White Helmets.
Awareness raising campaigns
Manal specialises in public education awareness of safety in case of attacks, education on explosive weapons, trauma counselling and childbirth.
She says raising awareness has been especially important in helping families deal with the war and learn how to keep themselves as safe as possible.
“Children would be picking up and playing with explosive weapons not knowing what they are…killing themselves and those around them,” explained Manal. “We went around teaching them about these things.”
Like Manal, 33-year-old Gardenia, who also began volunteering with the White Helmets in Daraa in 2015, said that the role of women has also been unique in helping transport medical supplies from one location to another.
“Although it is no longer the case, when we first started, it was less likely for the police to stop and search a woman. And so we were the ones responsible for carrying aid and supplies to field hospitals and clinics,” explained Gardenia.
Although the first women to join the rescue group weren’t readily accepted, the community gradually recognised the vital role women played, said the women.
“At first, we only went around schools and homes to help raise awareness, but within a few months, we were with the men in the ambulances and on the frontlines,” said Manal.
Manal Abazeed (R) and president of Theirworld, Sara Brown, in London on 7 March (Theirworld)
According to Gardenia, both men and women take the same responsibility to help save victims when an air strike hits.
Gardenia, who learned the basics of first aid and rescue work while volunteering with the Red Crescent before joining the White Helmets, now helps coordinate the work of the Syrian Civil Defence group’s work from abroad. She had to leave Syria after she felt increasingly threatened while in Daraa.
“After working with the group for several months, I eventually became known to the authorities and I could no longer stay in Syria,” she explained.
Despite the dangers she has faced for working with the group, Gardenia said that joining the White Helmets was a natural step for her as well as many women who continue to join the rescue group today.
“When doctors and nurses were being targeted and detained, normal people like us had to step up and do what we can,” she said.
Despite a documentary about the civil defence group winning an award at the Oscars this year, some people have accused the group of siding with rebel groups against the Syrian government.
Responding to those claims Gardenia said: “As humanitarians, we don’t stop to ask an injured man or woman what their affiliation is.. we don’t have time for that and we don’t care about that.”
“We help everyone, anywhere, regardless of their political or religious affiliations,” said Gardenia. “These infuriating and totally unfounded claims have been used to tarnish every good effort in Syria.”
Although both women have come face to face with death many times during their work, they carry hope for the future and say they will continue to do their part, even after the war finally comes to an end.
“We will help restore our country and bring our people back to Syria,” said Manal. “We’ve done a lot of work, but there is a lot more to be done.”
Additional reporting by Olivia Alabaster