Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Female Syrian White Helmets Honoree Had No Hesitation To Join


In the Syrian civil war, a group of volunteer aid workers has rushed in to help wherever civilians are hurt. Officially they are called the Syria Civil Defense.


More commonly, they're known as the White Helmets. Nearly 3,000 people do this work across Syria. A hundred of them are women.

SHAPIRO: And one of those women is Manal Abazeed. Abazeed came to Washington this week to accept McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian Award from Refugees International on behalf of the White Helmets. I spoke with her through interpreter Miryam Klait. And I asked, after a career in accounting, did she have hesitations about taking on such physical, dangerous work?

MANAL ABAZEED: (Through interpreter) I can't say that I felt a particular sense of danger in doing this job. In Syria at the time, everywhere was dangerous. Whether you were at home, at work, at the office or at the park, everywhere was dangerous. If everyone hesitated and gave in to the fear, then who would be there to help? Of course, sometimes I'm really scared, but there's a bigger motivation to keep doing what I'm doing.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the specific work that you do.

ABAZEED: (Through interpreter) I joined the Civil Defense in April 2015, right at the inception, and I started with taking training on first aid. Initially, people were not as accepting of women in the Civil Defense, so most of my work was just in the actual center or behind the scenes in the ambulances. After a while, people started seeing that we could do as much as the men in our teams and sometimes we could do even more.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell me a story about one of those times that a man on your team realized, oh, this is something Manal can do that I would not be able to do?

ABAZEED: (Through interpreter) Once there was a woman that we were going to go help and she just happened to be in the bathroom at the time of an aerial bombardment. And this made us think that oftentimes there would be incidents where perhaps women were indisposed. Perhaps they needed to be covered up before administering first aid. So at the very least we needed to have women on the team who could be the first responders who could be there to help her get dressed, to cover her up and to administer some aid before others could come as well.

SHAPIRO: The woman who was in the bathroom when the bomb fell, can you describe how she reacted when she saw that her rescuer was a woman?

ABAZEED: (Through interpreter) The lady at the time was unconscious. However, her husband was extremely pleased and relieved to see that there was a woman who could be here to help. When the lady regained consciousness, the first thing she asked was, are there still positions available? Can my daughter join the Civil Defense?

SHAPIRO: Really?


SHAPIRO: And did her daughter join?

MIRYAM KLAIT: (Foreign language spoken).

ABAZEED: (Through interpreter) Hopefully shortly because they're increasing the number of positions available to women in the coming few months. So hopefully she'll be able to join the team.

SHAPIRO: The White Helmets are all over Syria. And I understand you live in Daraa, in the southwest, near the border of Jordan. What is life like in Daraa right now?

ABAZEED: (Through interpreter) Lately it's been more difficult in this area. In the past three months, there's been constant aerial bombardments. And I would estimate that if not 100 percent then at least 90 percent of people are leaving their homes and sleeping in makeshift tents. All the schools are currently closed. Kids are receiving a little bit of education in the camps. There are efforts to try and make up for the closures of schools. Simply, all I can say is right now in Daraa there really isn't life. There's death and there's bombing.

SHAPIRO: You boarded an airplane and landed in a place where there is no war, where the birds sing in the trees, where there's enough food, where there is peace. What does it feel like to be here knowing what is happening there?

ABAZEED: (Through interpreter) You may not believe this, but right now all I'm feeling is guilt. How am I here living in peace while my family, my friends, my colleagues are there being attacked? But someone needs to raise the voice of those inside Syria. Someone needs to explain what's happening, and someone needs to talk about our work. Perhaps by doing this we can get our message across.

SHAPIRO: Manal Abazeed, thank you for the work that you do and thank you for speaking with us about it.

ABAZEED: Thank you lots.

SHAPIRO: Manal Abazeed is one of the White Helmets, the volunteer aid workers who help civilians in the Syrian civil war. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.