After Oscar win, head of White Helmets says ‘in Syria, there is still life, hope’

The White Helmets, a documentary that follows a group of Syrian Civil Defense volunteers who carry out search-and-rescue operations across the country, won an Oscar award for Best Documentary Short at the 89th Academy Awards on Sunday.

The documentary, directed by British filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel, chronicles the work of the opposition’s Civil Defense, the search-and-rescue teams, first responders and paramedics all of whom wear white helmets across rebel-held Syria.

But the head of the Syrian Civil Defense, who had planned to attend the Oscars ceremony, and one of the film’s cinematographers were visibly absent from the ceremony for different reasons.

Raed al-Saleh, head of the Syrian Civil Defense, cancelled his trip in light of increased regime bombardment across opposition-held Syria.

“I recognize the importance of the Oscars as a platform for our message,” al-Saleh told Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani, “but the decision [to cancel] was clear after I saw the latest escalations of bombardment in Daraa, al-Bab, East Ghouta and Homs.”

Khaled al-Khatib, a Civil Defense member who worked as a cinematographer for the documentary, was barred from flying to the United States. Just before he was scheduled to depart from Turkey, immigration officials informed that he was not authorized to fly because his passport was invalid. Al-Khatib had obtained a US visa for the trip the previous week.

Though Raed al-Saleh did not attend the award ceremony, he recorded an acceptance speech on behalf of the White Helmets. The video is embedded below:

 Raed al-Saleh’s Oscar acceptance speech. Video courtesy of the Syrian Civil Defense.

Raed al-Saleh, head of the Syrian Civil Defense, who lives in both Turkey and Syria. Al-Saleh oversees the rescue organization’s efforts across opposition-held Syria.

Q: Could you tell us about your decision not to attend the Oscars ceremony on Sunday?

I made a last-minute decision not to attend, even though the Oscars ceremony really means a lot to us. We’re under a lot of pressure right now, and there are challenging situations that I need to tend to personally. At first, I was hesitant [to cancel the trip], but the decision was clear after I saw the latest escalations of bombardment in Daraa, al-Bab, East Ghouta and Homs.

[Ed.: A small contingent of Civil Defense volunteers continued to operate in al-Bab, a northern Aleppo city, though the Islamic State (IS) controlled the area until last week. Despite IS suppression, White Helmets members continued to carry out rescue operations, particularly after the launch of a Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army offensive on the city.]

I also had several meetings lined up with Civil Defense leaders from across Syria. These meetings have been backed up for months, and we need to prepare ourselves for the year ahead.

I recognize the importance of the Oscars as a platform for our message, but I chose to answer the humanitarian call instead.

  White Helmets leader Raed al-Saleh in Paris. October 19, 2016. Photo by Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Q: You mentioned the Oscars ceremony as a platform for the message of the Syrian Civil Defense. What message do you hope this documentary film brings to the international community?

The main message is that there is still hope. In Syria, there is still life. There are heroes working to build a society, to restore security and stability.

This message is a candle in the darkness. We light it to say ‘we are here.’

Syria is not just the Islamic State and Assad. We weren’t able to say everything [with this film], but were able to get across the most important message.

Q: Could you talk about what this documentary and the international praise it has garnered means to you as the leader of the Civil Defense? Has the film had an impact on the White Helmet volunteers?

Throughout the filming process, we tried to show the team spirit that the Civil Defense is known for. We tried to show the courage of those Syrian citizens who volunteer to help their people. This [documentary] process strengthened our moral convictions. It motivated us to develop our work and improve our team’s service to civilians. 

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Khaled al-Khatib, 21 years old, photographer and cameraman for the Syrian Civil Defense. He served as one of the cinematographers for the documentary The White Helmets.

Q: You planned to attend the Oscars ceremony on Sunday as a cinematographer for The White Helmets. However, you were barred from flying to the United States, even though you had a visa. Could you tell us about what happened when you tried to travel?

I obtained a US visa last Friday, February 17. I was supposed to travel to Los Angeles on Tuesday, but I was stopped at the airport in Turkey and informed that my passport was not valid. From Tuesday until Sunday morning, I tried everything possible to get approval from the Turkish authorities to travel. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any authorization.

 Khaled al-Khatib. Photo courtesy of Laha Magazine.

Q: When you were informed that you would not be given authorization, what was your immediate reaction?

Of course, I was very sad. However, thousands of Syrians struggle with this problem. Many have lost their papers and documents in the bombings. As a result, they’re deprived of many opportunities to work, to travel and to obtain medical treatment. I hope this issue will quickly be resolved, but there doesn’t seem to be anything in the works.

Q: What do you want viewers to take away from the film?

What I want to pass along to the international community is the credibility of the Civil Defense. We are telling the truth about the suffering of the Syrian people and the tragedies of daily bombardment.

After you watch this film, you have a role in helping us spread the news of what is happening in Syria. You have a role in working to stop the unending bloodshed.

Q: The film you worked on has received widespread praise. At the same time, you’re unable to attend an event that recognizes this accomplishment. Is this frustrating for you?

We’re just happy that this film has been nominated for an Oscar. For me, that is more important than my presence at the ceremony, even though I tried as hard as I could to go. Just the nomination itself means that this film will be seen by many. It will echo around the world. That is why we made this film.

For us, the important thing is that the world sees the struggles of the Civil Defense and the necessary work they do saving lives. We also want the film to shed light on what has happened to the people of Syria, who are being bombed and killed.

The fact that there are people behind us, encouraging and supporting us, is a source of optimism. It motivates us to keep doing our humanitarian work, which will culminate in peace, God willing.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.

Huda Abdulrahman

Huda worked as a teacher in Latakia before fleeing Syria in 2012. She volunteered briefly at a hospital in Turkey before moving to Jordan. Huda joined Syria Direct to spread the truth about what is happening in Syria.

Eyad mohammed Madhar

Eyad is from Outer Damascus and graduated with a BA in Philosophy from Damascus University. He worked as teacher in Syria before moving to Jordan in 2012. Eyad was also active in the theater community in Syria.