Transferrable trauma: Syrians are using their rescue skills to help Ukrainians

Protesters demonstrate in a march against Russian military aggression in the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria, on April 16, 2022 in Berlin, Germany
6 min read
24 May, 2022
Syrians are uniquely aware of what lies ahead for the Ukrainian people. This intimate awareness of Russian wartime tactics has concurrently meant that a growing number of Syrians have begun sharing resources of different ways to counter aggression.

With Russia's invasion of Ukraine refusing to subside, Syrians have begun to aid Putin's latest victims of war. 

For many Syrians, witnessing what's happening in Ukraine has reminded them of their own experience.

As both Syrians and Ukrainians seek accountability for the atrocities imposed by Russian forces, a unique bond has since grown among them.

"As Syrians, we have experienced the horror of Russian aggression so are intimately familiar with the situation facing the Ukrainian people"

Lately, more evidence has come to light that Russia is using the tactics from the Syrian playbook in Ukraine.

As a consequence, the Syrian civil defence group The White Helmets has recorded a tutorial video demonstrating how to use rescue skills and how to deal with the Russian bombing.

In one video, members of The White Helmets share their awareness and expertise of Russian attacks.

Ismael Al Abdulla, a volunteer in the organisation told The New Arab: “As Syrians, we have experienced the horror of Russian aggression so we are intimately familiar with the situation facing the Ukrainian people. There are many tutorials we are working on that cover a variety of topics including ambulance, search and rescue, first-aid and UXO.”

These videos include technical and practical training along with training from their own experience in responding to Russian attacks.

With these detailed tutorials, the group hopes to “save lives and prevent history from repeating itself with the arbitrary destruction of human beings."

For members of the group, Russia’s tactics in Syria are all too similar to the ones being used in Ukraine. “Seeing the news, images, and videos coming out of Ukraine, the scenario looks almost identical to what has happened and is still happening in Syria,” said Abdulla.

Syrians understand the plight and resistance of Ukrainians better than most, as both wars have been perpetrated by a common enemy, Vladimir Putin's Russia. 

Forced to flee their homes, Syrians understand the struggle of being forcibly displaced to become refugees. They hope to help refugees fleeing Ukraine overcome the challenges involved and ease the process of adapting to a new place.

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Refugee4Refugees association, founded by Omar Al-Shakal in Greece in 2017 - set up to help the many Syrian migrants and refugees arriving there, is now responding to the Ukraine Refugee crisis in Romania by providing emergency relief operations in coordination with the association’s volunteers.

“Without being selective and prioritizing nationalities, we are more than happy to help anyone fleeing Ukraine as we as Syrians have experienced what it is like to be unwelcomed,” Al-Shakal, told The New Arab.

So far, the organisation has sent over five trucks equipped with food, medicine, and essential items to Ukraine to help civilians.

For Al-Shakal, it was shocking to see the difference in how Ukrainian refugees were treated by European countries compared to Syrian refugees.

“When borders were opened to Syrian refugees, not even 10 percent of the resources provided to Ukrainians were given to Syrians,” said Al-Shakal.

It was a proud moment for Al-Shakal to see how thankful people from Ukraine were, as well as the Romanian authorities who praised him for his efforts.

"Seeing the news, images, and videos coming out of Ukraine, the scenario looks almost identical to what has happened and is still happening in Syria"

Majd Khalaf, a Syrian from Idlib, a city under constant siege and attacks, has been following up on news in Ukraine closely and is using his social media platform to share advice as an ex-ground volunteer in The White Helmets, whose work takes a heavy toll.

Khalaf told The New Arab: “When I saw attacks on civilians and public places in Ukraine, it immediately brought back flashbacks to the attacks I witnessed in Syria.”

For Syrians like Khalaf, several events have carried the heaviest weight of grief, and sometimes it is impossible to convey the level of destruction caused by Russia’s bombardments.

“Watching videos of the 'double-tap' technique really touched my heart as it was the exact same technique used in Syria,” said Khalaf.

In the “double-tap” attack, an initial airstrike is followed by a second airstrike to deliberately target civilians, rescuers, medics, first responders and journalists arriving at the scene.

By publishing the knowledge he gained from the war and Russian tactics experienced in Syria, Khalaf hopes to raise awareness and enhance the understanding of these methods amongst people in Ukraine.

Hospitals in Syria are a vital lifeline for those trying to survive Russia and Assad’s indiscriminate airstrikes, but while ordinary hospitals and health institutions were widely targeted too, Syrian doctors were left desperate and forced to adopt an immediate response skill to apocalyptic scenes.

Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian Doctor and President of MedGlobal, a non-profit humanitarian organisation hope to show the Ukrainians how there is a potential to save attacked civilians through the skills he forcibly gained throughout his career as a doctor in Syria.

MedGlobal was born out of the experience of a group of global physicians who have been involved with Syrian physicians in Syria’s war. It was established in 2017 to address disaster agents and share the health practices learned from the Syrian war.

Sahloul’s speciality is critical care medicine and he has been involved in training Syrian doctors on chemical attacks and emergency responses. In Ukraine, he was similarly asked to share his expertise with Ukrainian physicians on chemical attacks and mass casualties.

Having been a survivor of a chemical attack himself, Sahloul has conducted training at three different hospitals for 220 physicians in Ukraine on chemical weapons used in Syria by the Russian military and the Assad regime.

“Syria is the only country that used chemical weapons against its own population in the 21st century, more than 300 chemical attacks have been documented in Syria by different organisations. Using chemical weapons is of course against international humanitarian law,” Sahloul told The New Arab.

The training was given on the pattern of chemical attacks and how it was used in Syria, for instance, explosive and choking gas attacks and how they impact civilians and healthcare workers.

“This experience that we painfully accumulated in Syria does not happen in any other country in the world, you have experts on chemical weapons but they know the topic theoretically, we, unfortunately, had to deal with it in practice, from the exposure to the protection of healthcare workers in multiple regions in Syria,” Sahloul explained.

For Sahloul, these experiences have meant he is also to share them in detail with his colleagues in Ukraine, but he hopes that they do not have to witness any of the horrific experiences of chemical attacks.

The organisation has also sent medical and life-saving supplies, whilst establishing a supply chain warehouse in Lviv and Poland.

“They reminded me of Syrians as they’re very resilient, especially the healthcare workers,” said Sahloul.


SAMS, a global medical relief organisation that works on the frontlines of crisis relief in Syria and in other war-torn areas has, with the help of a Syrian radiologist, Mohamed Tennari, delivered a shipment of medical equipment to hospitals in Ukraine through the Polish borders.

Dr Tennari along with Dr Sahloul has previously testified to the UN Security Council in 2015 on gas attacks and the horrors witnessed in Syria.

The presence of Dr Tennari in Ukraine had brought him flashbacks of the traumatic lived experience in Syria and he hopes that Ukraine does not become another Syria.

Members of the Syrian community believe that policymakers are avoiding drawing a connection between Syria and Ukraine’s war as they are aware of their failure toward the Syrian people.

Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon.

Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462