They are the individuals covered in soot, blood, and sweat that volunteer their lives as first responders in the world’s current most violent war theater: Syria. These men are all members of the Syria Civil Defense, also known as SCD or the White Helmets. These individuals help save the lives of those buried beneath crumbled buildings after relentless bombings, and now they might be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
This civil war has escalated since peaceful pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in 2011, calling on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to resign. Since then, the war has taken on different causes and meanings to those supporting the government, the rebels, and those watching it unfold from afar.
Few journalists have had the opportunity to get a look inside Syria and watch the fighting go on first hand. Those who have, like CBS News’ Elizabeth Palmer and Holly Williams as well as CNN’s Clarissa Ward, have returned only to report on devastation and lives lost. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has been given a front-row look at the images of refugees escaping the bombing and some who subsequently lost their lives along their way to sanctuary.
Some may be perplexed to find that there are still Syrians living in the rubble of their once prosperous cities, but as Ward explained in her UN testimony on the situation in Syria, “[…] the ones who have decided to stay, year in and year out, who have braved the relentless bombardment, day in and day out, most of them don’t plan on leaving. They made a decision a long time ago that they would rather die in dignity in their homes, than leave.”
Recently, the conversation has turned from discussing casualties to those heroes who risk their lives to save the remaining Syrians. The White Helmets operate in cities such as Aleppo, torn between the rebels and the government, which are constantly bombarded by air strikes without warning.
That is why over two dozen celebrities, including George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Aziz Ansari, Daniel Craig, Zoe Saldana and Justin Timberlake, have signed the petition to get the White Helmets considered for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. The prize will be awarded October 7th, and with the celebrity endorsement, as well as Netflix announcement of a documentary, the White Helmets are receiving their share of attention for the first time.
In the new Netflix documentary coming out this week, these average men are given a chance at the big screen in “The White Helmets.” Their stories will be brought into viewers homes, giving them the opportunity to watch a day in the life unravel in war-torn Syria. The film follows three men as they risk their lives for their neighbors while constantly living in a state of worry.
Raed Saleh, leader in charge of the SCD, commented to the New York Times on the vast celebrity response, “We deeply appreciate this support and remain determined to rescue as many souls as possible and create the opportunity for peace. This is our mission.”
However, it makes one stop and question whether or not the celebrification of this cause is a good thing. While on the one hand it brings much needed attention to what is going on on a daily basis in cities like Aleppo and Damascus, it also takes away from understanding that there is more to be done.
When the New York Times penned the headline for their story entitled, “After Years of War, Celebrities Find a Syrian Group to Back,” nowhere does it include the air strikes, or the White Helmets, or anything regarding the great work they have, and continue to do. They made this story about how George Clooney found a new cause to support, and not about the cause itself.
This is seen on many occasions when celebrities take on issues. Whether it be Angelina Jolie working with Jeffrey Sachs on a MTV special about Millennium Villages Project in Africa, or Bono walking through the Za’atari Camp in Jordan and tuning into ABC’s Good Morning America. Proving that there is a difference between raising awareness and bringing about substantial change.
As someone who has been on the ground and seen the travesty unravel after years of being a foreign correspondent, Ward concluded her remarks by saying, “I have never seen anything on the scale of Aleppo. There are no winners in Aleppo.” However, she referenced the White Helmets as some of the heroes who have materialized alongside doctors and other military groups who have brought what little light they can to the desolate war zone.
An estimated 60,000 lives have been saved in Syria thanks to these heroes in white. It is critical for media to remember that, just because celebrities can drive news coverage, actions always speak louder than words. The White Helmets prove that.