By Claire Zillman
April 28, 2017

One source of hope in the devastation of the Syrian civil war comes from the group of volunteer aid workers known as the White Helmets, who gained acclaim through the Oscar-winning documentary about their efforts that was released on Netflix last year. Of the 3,000 or so White Helmet members who risk their lives to help others, about 100 are women.

One female member, Manal Abazeed, traveled to the U.S. this week to receive the McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian Award from Refugees International on behalf of the White Helmets—officially called the Civil Defense—and she talked to NPR about her experience as one of the few female volunteers aiding victims of the six-year conflict.

When Abazeed, who used to work in accounting, first joined the group in 2015, she sensed some pushback from her male peers.

“Initially, people were not as accepting of women…so most of my work was just in the actual center or behind the scenes in the ambulances,” she says.

But eventually, the men realized the upside of having women in their ranks. Women are, for instance, more readily able to aid female victims who might be indisposed.

During one bombing, Abazeed helped a woman who’d been in the bathroom at the time of the strike.

“When the lady regained consciousness, the first thing she asked was, are there still positions available? Can my daughter join the Civil Defense?” Abazeed recalls.

She says that in her city of Daraa “there really isn’t life.”

“There’s death and there’s bombing,” she says.

Yet she told NPR she doesn’t feel a sense of danger doing the job.

“Whether you were at home, at work, at the office or at the park, everywhere was dangerous,” she says. “If everyone hesitated and gave in to the fear, then who would be there to help?”

—@clairezillman

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