White Helmets volunteer carrying a child killed by pro-Assad bombing in Aleppo city, October 4, 2016 (Ameer Alhalbi /AFP/Getty)
Louise Callaghan writes for The Times of London:
One night in mid-December a Syrian family sat down for a meal of rice and chicken, delicately seasoned, in their new home in Britain.
Hussein, 4, was practising his English. Jamal and Sara, his parents, were laughing at him. On the sideboard sat a yule log and a packet of mince pies — presents from their new neighbours.
Six months ago they were living in a war zone under bombardment by forces allied to President Bashar al-Assad. Jamal was one of the White Helmets, a volunteer force that rescued people trapped under the rubble.
Whenever a plane passed overhead, Hussein would run to the bathroom and hide, terrified the house would be hit. He could not go to school, and his parents were sick with fear for his future.
Now, after a daring rescue operation that stretched the limits of international diplomacy, they are one of 29 White Helmet families that have been resettled in Britain.
“Like Being Reborn”
“It’s like being reborn,” said Jamal, 28, speaking in the living room of their new home in East Anglia last week. “We were at the edge of death and here everything is so peaceful.”
The White Helmets, who operate in rebel-held parts of Syria, are one of the most recognisable faces of the war in which more than 500,000 people have died. Last year they were nominated for the Nobel peace prize.
Jamal, a shopkeeper before war broke out in 2011, worked in the White Helmets alongside students, lawyers and a professional boxer. They did it, he said, because no one else was going to.
One day he saw a man’s sons die in front of him during a phosphorus attack — illegal under international law. “You couldn’t put the fires out easily,” he said. “They kept burning.”
Their home was in Daraa, southern Syria, where earlier this year government forces advanced to retake the area. The White Helmets, who are hated by the regime — largely because they expose Assad’s bombardment of civilians — faced retribution if captured.
A rescue operation was personally signed off by Donald Trump and Theresa May. Along with their colleagues, Jamal and his family fled over the border to Israel and then Jordan. In all, 422 people made it out,
Three months later the family were in the UK. “There was so much nature, so much greenery,” said Jamal. “But we were so exhausted. We needed to rest.”
They had been worried that Hussein might face problems in school and that people might be unfriendly. But their doubts were soon dispelled.
Sara helped cook a Syrian meal of kibbeh — bulgur wheat and spiced lamb — and other specialities in a nearby church where they have been getting help. And Hussein discovered Christmas, which he had never heard of.
“He came back from school so excited, asking us, ‘What is Christmas?’” Jamal said. “We tried to explain, but soon he knew so much he was explaining to us. He loves the decorations. He’s very happy.”
The rent for the White Helmets’ houses is paid by councils, and each adult is given between £200 and £300 a month to live on while settling in. Soon, they hope, they can start work.
When Jamal showed a local couple pictures of his White Helmets work in Syria they called their son, a fireman, who took them to his station.
“They have so much equipment,” said Jamal. “It’s amazing. In Syria we didn’t have this. Here the firefighters are extremely knowledgeable and specialised.”
“Organized and Calm”
Another former White Helmet, Amer, who lives an hour away, has applied to volunteer regularly with the local fire brigade.
“It’s so normal here,” said Amer, 30, incredulously. “Sometimes I sit here and see the children going past to school. It’s so organized and calm. It’s lovely.
“I would like to thank the British people for accepting us here.”
On other hand, he said, Britain can sometimes feel lonely compared with Syria, where extended families often live close to each other.
Amer is still haunted by memories of the war — such as the day when mortar strikes killed 48 neighbours.
“The blood was like a river,” he said. “We didn’t have a proper hospital for them. We were rushing around, and it was chaos.”