by Matt Raab
On November 14, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) and the MENA Forum hosted a film screening and panel discussion of the Netflix produced documentary White Helmets, following the efforts of a Syrian civil defense group that seeks out victims of bombings and attempts to rescue them from the rubble of damaged and collapsed buildings. The event began with a screening of the 40-minute film, followed by a conversation between Professor Marwa Daoudy, Free-Syria Director Rafif Jouejati, Syria Campaign Policy Advisor Kenan Rahmani, and Raed Al-Saleh, head of the Syrian Civil Defense, or White Helmets. The discussion focused on the situation for civilians on-the-ground in Syria, and what can be done to make that situation livable.
“There is clearly a need to break through international global indifference combined with perception, the emerging perception and management of the Syrian War as a war against Jihadism, or a platform for regional and international strategic rivalries,” Daoudy said. “Wars bring out the worst [in] people and we’ve seen that the war in Syria has produced the worst that one can imagine …But one can see also that wars can bring out the best in people, and we see an example of that. We see the steadfastness, the resilience, the resistance, and the acts of true courage and bravery that are displayed by the White Helmets.”
Al-Saleh, who is both featured in and assisted with the production of the film, provided insight on his organization and the general situation for people still living in cities like Aleppo, which have been devastated by years of civil war.
“Everything you just saw in the film is now history. The White Helmets facility [you saw] is now just rubble. The vehicles you saw saving people’s lives are now destroyed. All of this has happened in just the past few months after the most recent escalation in the city of Aleppo,” he said, his words translated from Arabic by Rahmani. “As they said in the film, we continue with the hope that tomorrow will be better.”
The panel discussion turned to several subjects surrounding the White Helmets, including how they were founded, their training and motivation to do the work that they do. Members of the group come from a variety of backgrounds, and their dedication to peace and development in Syria was evident in both the film and during the panel.
“The White Helmets began in the year 2015 and the very first team that I worked on was a team of 20 men and 5 women. We continued to develop and build the White Helmets through all of the hardship that you saw,” Al-Saleh said. “Today we have over 3,000 volunteers who operate in 120 centers across the governorates of Syria and we plan in the next four months to increase that.”
Much of the panel discussion focused on the perspectives and desires of Syrian citizens living in war-torn areas like Aleppo. Rather than calling for a particular political solution to the conflict, Al-Saleh and others emphasized that the Syrian people want peace above all, something that is not always accurately portrayed outside of Syria.
“If it’s not ISIS, or chemical weapons, it’s not interesting. If it’s not about the proxy wars or the Shia-Sunni sectarian war, we don’t pay attention,” Jouejati said of media treatment of the conflict in Syria.
Jouejati noted the resilience and vibrancy of Syrian civil society when it was given a chance to take hold during pauses in the conflict. “Civil society exists. There are men and women and children who are taking part. The goal now is to prepare future generations so they can liberate the country,” she said.
“Syrians want to live in freedom and dignity,” Rahmani emphasized. He urged governments and individuals looking for ways to help Syria to focus on its people. “What people outside of Syria should do, we should really look to people inside of Syria and see what they want. Be champions for those people inside.
“One of the pitfalls that we often fall into is that we want to prescribe our own solutions for people and ignore what people on-the-ground are calling for,” Rahmani said.
Rahmani sees Syrian civilians’ desires as “very basic,” saying, “They’re calling for [a] cessation of hostilities that would allow them to go back to organizing and having global governance and having different initiatives that would allow them to continue to be free and live in dignity.”
By shining a light on the human cost of the Syrian conflict and the White Helmets’ efforts to mitigate this cost, the event inspired feelings of solidarity and a hope that the White Helmets’ important work is able to continue.