Skip to main content

Canada urged to support Syria’s White Helmets for Nobel Peace Prize

White Helmets respond in aftermath of Syrian government aerial bombings by digging out wounded and dead civilians
White Helmets say they have saved more than 60,000 civilians since their work began (AFP)

TORONTO, Canada – Canadian legislators are calling on Ottawa to officially back the nomination of the White Helmets, a group of Syrians volunteering as emergency first responders, for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nathan Cullen, a member of the Canadian parliament, told the CBC this week that his New Democratic Party (NDP) caucus voted unanimously to support the White Helmets’ nomination.

And the NDP is now asking Canada’s Foreign Minister Stephane Dion to do the same.

Members of the White Helmets have “for years now [been] going right into the heart of the most dangerous place in the world, right after a bombing, to pull many Syrian civilians out of the rubble,” Cullen said.

The White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defence, respond in the aftermath of Syrian government aerial bombings in an effort to save and dig out wounded and dead civilians.

The group says it has saved more than 60,000 lives since its work began, and much of its efforts take place in opposition-held areas, where the Syrian government has used barrel bombs – makeshift bombs filled with explosives, shrapnel, and other harmful substances.

The White Helmets is made up primarily of Syrians with no first-responders’ training, and includes former construction workers, tailors and blacksmiths. The group, which says it is unaffiliated with any political party, has the motto: “To save a life is to save all of humanity”.

The group was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, which will be announced in October, and it has garnered almost 135,000 signatures in support of the award.

Cullen said Canada has a particular role to play in supporting the White Helmets, given the number of Syrian refugees that have been resettled in Canada since late last year.

Between 4 November 2015 and 11 September 2016, more than 30,600 Syrian refugees were resettled in Canada through private, government-backed or mixed, public-private sponsorship, according to government figures.

“Canadians have a particular connection to what’s happening in Syria, having brought over so many refugees from that conflict. This is helping in honouring people who are on the ground every day, risking their lives, leaving their families behind and going to the places just after the bombs have fallen,” Cullen said.

Global Affairs Canada did not answer MEE’s question about whether the Canadian government plans to publicly endorse the White Helmets. Spokeswoman Jocelyn Sweet said the department was aware of the campaign supporting the group's Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

"The White Helmets in Syria have demonstrated enormous courage and dedication to save innocent lives, while risking their own. They are recognised as one of the most respected organisations operating in Syria," Sweet said in an email.

The group has been the subject of controversy, however, as individuals and groups aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have accused it of having ties to al-Qaeda and receiving funding from the United States and United Kingdom.

A short film about the group premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this week. A small group of Syrian government supporters rallied outside the theatre in downtown Toronto on Thursday in protest.

But Maher Azem, a Syrian activist in Toronto who is critical of the Syrian government, dismissed the protesters as ignorant of the government’s use of barrel bombs against civilians.

Azem said the White Helmets are “angels on earth”, and credited them with saving babies and other civilians affected by the war.

He said people should watch the documentary about the group, released on Netflix on Friday, “to know the true struggle Syrians are facing every day”.

The film – eponymously named “The White Helmets” – opens on a black screen amid the screeching sound of an aircraft, followed by screams and a wave of frenzied activity.

Images then show volunteers scrambling to pluck children from the rubble of a destroyed building. That’s when the second bomb hits, kicking up a cloud of smoke.

In one scene, the White Helmets are eating when they hear an aircraft overhead. They run out of the room to see where the air strike has hit before jumping into a van and racing towards the explosion.

“If you didn’t have some courage, you wouldn’t continue doing what we do,” said one volunteer, Abu Omar, a blacksmith. “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.”