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Life as a female volunteer in the Syrian White Helmets

Life and death as a female volunteer in the Syrian White Helmets
5 min read
27 April, 2023
Shattered and exhausted, the Syrian White Helmets refuse to give in and continue to be a lifeline for Syrians under duress. Amina Al-Bish, one of the organisation's female volunteers, tells The New Arab her story.

For almost a decade living in Syria, I would go to sleep every night knowing that at any moment a warplane might approach our area and I’d have to get up as fast as I can, pick up my kids and get them as far away from bombs as possible.

Maybe living in such a constant sense of emergency prepared me for that night when an earthquake of 7.8 magnitudes hit Syria and Turkey in the early hours of February 6.

At first, I thought it was a raid by warplanes and I woke up to a terrifying sound as the walls were heavily shaking. It took me a few seconds to realise that it was an earthquake.

Amina has been a volunteer with The White Helmets for almost six years now 

My husband and I rushed outside with our five children. I felt terrified. I was afraid for my children, my neighbours, my family, and my people. I immediately called my older sister Dalal who lives in another city in northern Syria and was relieved when I found out she miraculously survived with her family.

Having been a volunteer with The White Helmets for almost six years now, I learned that at times of disasters, we need to always be ready at the frontlines to provide what’s needed, to act and act fast to save lives.

As the sun rose that day, and once I made sure that my children were in a safe place with my neighbour, I joined my colleagues to respond to this catastrophe. Dalal had told me that our relatives in Salqeen are trapped under rubble and that we need to head there immediately.

It’s hard to find words to describe what I saw once we arrived in Milis village, on our way to Salqeen. Buildings had completely collapsed into massive piles of rubble. The only thing that we could recognize from all the destruction around us was the voices of people screaming for help. It was only then that we realized that every second and every minute of us working could literally save a life.

Abir Moussa, a colleague of Amira's, sits next to fellow White Helmet volunteers in Daraa [Getty Images]

Aid access to northwest Syria was completely cut off and no UN or international help arrived at all in the area until four days after the earthquake struck. When aid started trickling in it was completely insufficient. We felt abandoned.

We knew that we didn’t have enough rescue teams nor the heavy equipment needed to respond to such a large-scale disaster, but this only pushed us to work around the clock for days to save as many people as we could.

Over a week after the earthquake, after saving nearly 3,000 civilians and retrieving the bodies of those who died under the rubble of their homes, including my cousin’s entire family — we moved to the next phase of response, healing and recovery. Thousands of families were left homeless, and hundreds of injured needed medical care. 

The White Helmets are now managing the temporary shelters housing people whose homes were destroyed in the quake and providing the survivors with much-needed medical care and psychological support. 

As women teams at the White Helmets, we manage centres across northwest Syria that provide basic health services to our communities, especially at camps as well as running awareness campaigns on different dangers that people face such as cholera and unexploded munitions. 

Our services are needed now more than ever. The earthquake has had a devastating impact on the infrastructure in northern Syria which has already been weakened by years of bombing and displacement and inadequate international support.

My colleagues and I receive people at our centres or provide visits to households and camps to offer basic medical services in order to take some of the burdens off of the overwhelmed hospitals.

What we’ve survived during the past decade, the heavy bombardment by the Syrian regime and Russia, the chemical attacks, the besiegement, forced displacement and now the earthquake have exhausted us physically and emotionally.

My life wasn’t easy at all. I lost both my parents when I was a child and had to drop school and get married at an early age. But a few years ago I decided to go back to school and worked really hard to balance between being a mother to five children, leading a women’s centre and being a student. The day I learned that I passed my high school exams and I was eligible to go to university is one of the happiest days of my life. I owe it to my family, my sister Dalal and my amazing colleagues who supported me all the way. They’re what keeps me going.


Despite all the challenges we face as Syrians, and as women, and how the world stood by as the regime committed all kinds of atrocities against us, I still find hope and strength in seeing people here coming together after every disaster to help and support each other with the limited resources they have.

It’s now time for the international community to step up its response to support Syrians and to investigate why the UN failed to get help to the people of northwest Syria after the earthquake.

Amina Al-Bish is a White Helmets volunteer who runs a women’s centre in Ariha in northwest Syria. Before joining the White Helmets she trained in emergency first aid and as a nurse. She is currently completing a university degree in business administration. Amina is a mother of five originally from southern Idlib. She and her family were displaced to Salqeen near the Turkish border in the north after their home was bombed by the Syrian regime and Russia