It’s Monday lunchtime and I sit waiting for a plane to take me from Adana to Istanbul. I have never been this close the Middle East. The Syrian border is just 2 hours drive away but here, everything seems ‘normal’. It’s hot (for a western girl used to freezing mid-March temperatures of Europe). People talking on the phone, drinking coffee, waiting for flights. But what brings me to Adana of all places? – The White Helmets.
The White Helmets are a group of volunteers in Syria made up of local people from various backgrounds. Some are farmers, shopkeepers, taxi drives, the ordinary hard-working guys that are the lifeblood of any community. These are the fathers, sons, bread-winners and stalwarts of society. These every day Joe’s have almost overnight become everyday Hero’s. The White Helmets are the unsung heroes you see on the news dragging people, children, old ladies from the rubble which once was their home. Trained by Mayday Rescue Foundation, these are the people who are first to a bomb site, who are the first responders and are the ones now responsible for saving so many lives.
Five months ago I was contacted by the Mayday Rescue Foundation and invited to pitch to them to complete a piece of fundraising research to help with their long-term fundraising plans to become self-sustainable. Little did I know then how all-consuming this work would be, taking over the way I watched and interpreted the news and how it all suddenly was not some war somewhere in the middle-east but overnight how it became so very ‘real’.
The pitch was accepted and work began. I flew to Istanbul together with a colleague to meet the key stakeholders and conduct interviews to understand more about the organization and what we had taken on. Two intense days of research, skype calls and interviews took place, together with experiencing some amazing food and the Grand Bazaar! Groundwork done and back to the office for the rest of the research, report writing, and the recommendations. At the time of doing the research, things were relatively calm in Syria and the report was written with optimism assuming that the war was coming to an end, how fundraising would continue for the clean-up and rebuilding operation. Just after finishing and submitting the report in January, Gutah happened and so a new phase of terror began.
Previously, much like so many other people, I would have watched the news sadden by the events unfolding and being explained by the BBC, but the program would then move on to local news and the weather and in a moment, trials of daily life in Aleppo were forgotten. Now, after meeting just a handful of these extraordinary people I really felt emotional about what was happening on my TV screen. I felt compelled to dedicate even more time and care to help in the way I had been asked. I couldn’t go to Syria and pull people out of the rubble and save their lives, but I knew a man who could, and I was going to help him to do his job by doing mine well.
All reports complete, I was in Adana, to meet this unassuming looking bunch of men and explain to them what they needed to do to so that they could raise some money to carry on with their work. This bunch of big burly guys, probably not much older than me, with families, friends, and livelihoods waiting for them back in Syria. How difficult it must be for them to return from the luxury of the safety of sleepy Adana, to their day to day lives of war. But return they must later this week to who knows what faces them.
For them, they have the double-edged sword of their ‘cause’ is current, relevant, understandable and emotive, which are all good motivations to encourage donations. On the flip side, there shouldn’t be this need for the White Helmets. Why are innocent people being bombed in their own homes for seven years now? When will it end?
My work with the White Helmets hopefully will continue as this was only the very first steps in a long yellow brick road that they need to follow to hopefully reach ongoing financial self- sustainability. They understand that this is the long game and were kind, open and accepting of our suggestions. Growing pains for any fledgling organization is difficult, but they have taken the first step in acknowledging that they need help and are open to how to go about reaching their goals. In an ideal scenario, the White Helmets will in time be re-trained to be able to stabilize and rebuild their homes, lives, and society in Ghutah, Damascus, Aleppo and all of the other towns affected by this long complicated war.
I leave Adana with admiration and respect for this bunch of unassuming unsung heroes. Be safe guys. Until next time we meet. Inshallah.