5 min read  | Culture & Society

The woman in the white helmet: ‘I don’t want to be a spectator; I want to save lives’


August 3, 2016

It is 2013. Shells are raining down on Daraa city, and Abeer, eight months pregnant, is running down the street. She’s looking for somebody, anybody to help her husband. Wounded by the bombing, he lies bleeding on the floor of their home.

I didn’t find anybody, and my husband bled to death,” she says. 

Flash forward three years. Bombs are still falling on Daraa, but this time Abeer is running towards them.

It’s hard to see someone close to your heart dying in front of you, and you’re powerless to help them,” Abeer a-Thawra tells Syria Direct’s Israa Sadder.

“That’s why I decided to join the Civil Defense.”

Photo courtesy of Abeer a-Thawra.

Abeer, a mother of five young children, is one of dozens of women across Syria serving as first responders with the Syrian Civil Defense.

As a woman working alongside men, Abeer says that after the pain losing her husband, she is indifferent to what people say about her.

“People’s criticism comes from a place of fear,” she says. “Society doesn’t accept a woman in an ambulance; it’s considered work for men only. But when there’s a bombing, and the wounded person is female, people feel the need for it.”

In her tours around Daraa province to raise awareness about basic first aid, Abeer encourages women to be involved in their communities.

“I call on all women to act, to get out into the field and not limit themselves to staying at home,” Abeer says. “Society is in dire need of you.”

Q: What motivated you to join the Civil Defense?

It started [in early 2013] when our city was being bombarded. I was eight months pregnant. My husband was horribly injured, and I went running in the street, looking for anybody to help him. My children were alone at home, and the shells were falling on top of us.

I didn’t find anybody, and my husband bled to death.

It’s hard to see someone close to your heart dying in front of you, and you’re powerless to help them. That’s why I decided to join the Civil Defense [one year ago]. I don’t want anyone to go through what I did. And if that happens, I don’t want to be a spectator. I want to save lives.

Q: What kind of work do you do with the Civil Defense?

I am part of the White Helmets response team, and we perform all the first aid needed to save lives. We also hold awareness-raising campaigns about how to behave during a bombing. We warn children to stay away from war remnants, unexploded mines and cluster munitions. 

We’ve also held a nursing course for women, which covered first aid, injections, and measuring blood sugar and blood pressure. A specialized nurse oversaw everything in the training. In early August, we’ll hold the course in other areas [in Daraa]. It will cover first aid, injections, allergy tests, clearing veins and CPR.

Under our circumstances, it’s necessary to have a paramedic in every home. 

Abeer (center) leads a first aid training for Daraa women. Photo courtesy of Abeer a-Thawra.

Q: What is the importance of your work? How has it changed you?

My experience in the Civil Defense has made me more self-confident. Now I want to do more, so I took a course in nursing and worked for a while in the field hospitals. I’ve experienced what needs to be done before a patient reaches the emergency room, and afterwards. I know what steps must be taken.

I traveled to Jordan twice to attend first responder courses. I have a great desire to learn, to be a good first responder, and this has caused me to distinguish myself among my colleagues—men and women.

Q: How do you balance your work and family?

I live close to my mother and father, and when I’m running late at work, my children stay over at their grandparents’ house. My family is my biggest support. When I’m not there, my eldest daughter helps out. Despite her young age [12], she cares for her siblings and gives them what they need.

When I’m gone for long stretches, I try to make up for the time that’s passed while I was far from them.

My children realize the importance of my work in the Civil Defense, and they’re happy about that.

Q: Have you faced any difficulties from society for your work? How have you overcome these criticisms?

Society doesn’t accept a woman in an ambulance. It’s considered work for men only. But when there’s a bombing, and the wounded person is female, people feel the need for it. In our awareness campaigns, residents ask that there be a female responder present to educate women in their homes.

Some people say I should stay at home, and some others commend my work and describe it as a struggle. My work is a way for me to be active in society while giving my children what they need.

I don’t care what people say about me. It’s impossible to please everyone. No matter what I do, people would always find something to talk about.

Nobody can feel the pain that I went through when I lost my husband. I didn’t have the slightest clue what was going on, and I didn’t find anybody to stand beside me.

The support of my family, and my father especially, is my greatest motivation. People’s criticism comes from a place of fear of me, and a desire to protect me, since a Civil Defense vehicle drives towards the bombings, meaning it’s vulnerable. Most don’t disagree with that. They see that under these circumstances, we have to overcome fear, which is useless, and give what we can.

Q: Do you support other women working with the Civil Defense? What message do you send to all women who’ve lost their loved ones?

I call on all women to act, to get out into the field and not limit themselves to staying at home. Society is in dire need of you. All of us as women must realize our active role, and the greater responsibility we have after the war, and to contribute something, no matter how small. We must stand alongside men to realize balance in society.

The circumstances that Syria is going through are not an excuse for inaction and fear. Rather, they are the primary motivation to act. Losing those we love, and the pain that comes with that determines how we see things. It gives us two choices: either we give up and live in grief, or we take those moments and turn them into the strength to get up and keep living.

 

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