This week, I am fortunate to be attending Interaction's 2016 Forum. The event convenes the global humanitarian and development community, bringing together around 1,000 participants from over 20 countries. Last night was the annual Gala and Award Dinner. Each year, Interaction remembers the many humanitarian and development workers who lost their lives serving others. Unfortunately this year the list was extraordinarily long (and was only a partial list) consisting larger of local staff. It is an important time to reflect on the many dangers that aid workers, civilians and others are facing in the midst of 21st century conflicts.
At the annual forum, a number of awards are offered to recognize significant achievements. Last night's Humanitarian Award went to Raed Saleh Head of the Syrian Civil Defense Force (also known as the White Helmets). The group is dedicated to saving the lives of all, without attention to religion or ethnic background. As explained on their website, " In a place where public services no longer function these unarmed volunteers risk their lives to help anyone in need - regardless of their religion or politics. Known as the White Helmets these volunteer rescue workers operate in the most dangerous place on earth.
As the conflict in Syria worsens, ordinary people are paying the highest price. More than 50 bombs and mortars a day land on some neighbourhoods in Syria. Many are rusty barrels filled with nails and explosives, rolled out the back of government helicopters -- bakeries and markets are the most commonly hit targets. When this happens The White Helmets rush in to search for life in the rubble - fully aware that more bombs may fall on the same site. These volunteers have saved 40,823 lives - and this number is growing daily."
The group does truly amazing work, and since their founding have lost 92 of their volunteers. Unfortunately Raed arrived in the US but was not permitted by the US government to enter the country (he has been to the US previously and the group has received extensive support from USAID). Despite the best efforts of Interaction staff and others, they were unable to secure his admission. As a sign of solidarity and protest, at the announcement of his award, a group of Interaction staff, including President Linsday Coates, put on white helmets. More importantly they announced Interaction staff would travel to the Syria/Turkey border to provide the award directly to the group.
See the video of the award and hear the words drafted by Saleh below.
A big theme of the Interaction conference has been ongoing tragedy of the Syrian conflict, with over 10,000,000 displaced, 400,000+ killed and many more injured. It is almost impossible to fathom this level of suffering and that the world continues to permit the mass murder and exploitation of such a large populace live on TV 24 hours a day. It is clear that although the humanitarian community (locals and internationals) are striving to save lives, provide assistance, support refugees (of course more can be done), until there is a political solution unfortunately it is likely that this suffering will continue.
I have been fortunate to interact with people from Syria on numerous occassions in my work and travels around the world and it is essential to remember they are people just like us. I've met people studying peacebuilding at graduate programs in the US, studying to be a doctor in Syria. Syrians want and deserve a peaceful future and I hope that this will be possible.
But seeing the strain and suffering within the country, the incredible number of Syrians who are displaced internally and externally, many under dire conditions and without sufficient support for basic health, education, sanitation, and housing it is hard to see a more peaceful future happening in the very near future. There are great power politics at play in Syria with various countries seeking to equip, support and train armed actors. To get a small sense of the current complexity see the Carter Center's Syria Conflict Map.
It is essential to remember and support the many individuals and groups within Syria that are waging peace and for nonviolence. While there are many local groups on the ground risking their lives to make a difference, the world is paying much more attention to the armed actors generating the violence, rather than those striving for peace.
Despite the incredible challenges, learning more about groups like the White Helmets, who believe that "if you save one life you save the world". One of Saleh's colleagues was able to share his words with the Interaction Forum.
Here are some videos about their work (note there are graphic images)