It’s Monday lunchtime and I sit waiting for a plane to take me from Adana to Istanbul. I have never been this close the Middle East. The Syrian border is just two hours drive away, but here everything seems ‘normal’. It’s hot (for a western girl used to freezing mid-March temperatures of Europe). People talking on the phone, drinking coffee, waiting for flights. So what brings me to Adana of all places? The White Helmets.
The White Helmets – officially known as the Syrian Civil Defence – is a group of volunteers made up of local people from various backgrounds. In a place where public services no longer function these unarmed volunteers risk their lives to help anyone in need – regardless of their religion or politics. Some are farmers, shopkeepers, taxi drives, the ordinary hard working guys that are the life-blood of any community. These are the fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, breadwinners and stalwarts of society. These every-day-Joes have almost overnight become everyday heroes. The White Helmets are the unsung heroes you see on the news dragging people, children, and old ladies from the rubble that was once their home. Trained by Mayday Rescue Foundation, these are the people who are first to a bombsite, who are the first responders and are the ones now responsible for saving so many lives.
Five months ago I was contacted by the Mayday Rescue Foundation and invited to pitch to them to complete a piece of fundraising research to help with their long term fundraising plans to become self-sustainable. Little did I know then how all-consuming this work would be, taking-over the way I watched and interpreted the news and how it all suddenly was not some war somewhere in the middle-east but overnight how it became so very ‘real’.
The pitch was accepted and work began. I flew to Istanbul together with a colleague to meet the key stakeholders and conduct interviews to understand more about the organisation and what we had taken on. Two intense days of research, Skype calls and interviews took place, together with experiencing some amazing food and the grand bazaar. Ground work done and back to the office for the rest of the research, report writing, and the recommendations. At the time of doing the research, things were relatively calm in Syria, and the report was written with optimism, assuming that the war was coming to an end, and focusing on how fundraising would continue for the clean-up and rebuilding operation. Just after finishing and submitting the report in January, Gutah happened and so a new phase of terror began.
Previously, much like so many other people, I would have watched the news saddened by the events unfolding, but the programme would swiftly move on to local news and weather, and in a moment, trials of daily life in Aleppo were forgotten. Now, after meeting just a handful of these extraordinary people I really felt emotional about what was happening on my TV screen. I felt compelled to dedicate even more time and care to helping in the way I had been asked. I couldn’t go to Syria and pull people out of the rubble and save their lives, but I knew a man who could, and I was going to help him to do his job by doing mine well.
All reports complete, I was in Adana, to meet this unassuming looking bunch of men and explain to them what they needed to do to so that they could raise some money to carry on with their work. This was a bunch of big burley guys, probably not much older than me, with families, friends and livelihoods waiting for them back in Syria. How difficult it must be for them to return from the luxury and safety of sleepy Adana, to their day-to-day lives of war. But return they must later to face who knows what.
For them, they have the double-edged sword of their ‘cause’ being current, relevant, understandable and emotive, which are all good motivations to encourage donations. On the flip side, there shouldn’t be this need for the White Helmets. Why are innocent people being bombed in their own homes for seven years now? When will it end?
My work with the White Helmets hopefully will continue as this was only the very first steps in a long yellow brick road that they need to follow to hopefully reach on-going financial self-sustainability. They understand that this is the long game and were kind, open and accepting to our suggestions. Growing pains for any fledging organisation is difficult, but they have taken the first step in acknowledging that they need help and are open to how to go about reaching their goals. In an ideal scenario, the White Helmets will in time be re-trained to be able to stabilise and re-build their homes, lives and society in Ghutah, Damascus, Aleppo and all of the other towns affected by this long complicated war.
I leave Adana with admiration and respect for this bunch of unassuming unsung heroes. Be safe guys. Until next time we meet. Inshallah.
Helen Maynard-Hill is Director of IFC Netherlands, the Dutch arm of the International Fundraising Consultancy (IFC).