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Syria's First Responders Welcome Female Recruits

The women of the Syrian Civil Defense have to stabilize patients on the back of pickup trucks amid missile showers while dealing with a culture that says such situations are no place for women.

by Flaminia Giambalvo
Apr 20 2015, 4:00am


In Syria's most conservative communities, people have refused to let male volunteers rescue women and girls—but women have intervened to help those who wouldn't have been helped otherwise. All photos courtesy of the Syrian Civil Defense

From October to December 2014, the Idlib Governorate in northern Syria endured 60 days of air raids. Bombs dropped by the regime of Bashar al Assad transformed entire neighborhoods into piles of rubble, trapping civilians underneath the concrete and steel that had once been their homes and workplaces. The Syrian Civil Defense (SCD), a group of nurses, firefighters, and first responders, were always the first ones on the scene, triaging victims and helping to transport them to local hospitals.

An airstrike launched in July 2014 on the Idlib district of Maarat al Numan left dozens of civilians injured, many of whom were trapped under the bloodstained cement. "A woman was stuck underneath a collapsed roof," said Ebaa, a lithe 20-year-old woman with deep, dark eyes who is now one of three women working for the SCD in this rural area. "Her clothes were torn, and she was embarrassed by the presence of men." Ebaa and her team extracted her and quickly stabilized her on the back of an old pickup truck. "Her life depended on us [women] being there," Ebaa told me.

I met Ebaa in February at an SCD training center in Ceyhan, in southern Turkey, about a two-hour drive from the Syrian border. About 25 SCD volunteers, including nine women, had gathered to discuss outreach and how to train others in their community. The facility has also been used for search-and-rescue training, which includes simulations of every peril they might face in responding to government air strikes—barrel bombs, collapsing rooftops, spontaneous fires. According to Ebaa, the only thing that differentiated the session from real-life scenarios was the absence of fear.

When the first strikes hit Idlib, in 2013, Ebaa stopped studying for her law degree and began to work as a nurse inside a makeshift hospital—the traditional role for Syrian women to take during war. But after both of her uncles were killed while trying to rescue injured civilians caught in an air raid last November, she felt there had to be something more she could do. An SCD team had recently formed in her area, and even though she knew from the start that many would disapprove of her choice to perform a "man's job," she decided to join the group.


While 60 women work with the Syrian Civil Defense in Idlib, there are several areas in Northern Syria where they are not allowed.

At the end of 2012, just over a year after the Syrian uprising began, the government pulled troops out of many of the northern provinces, where militant opposition groups had gained control, and started instead to shell the area from above. In response, some Syrians picked up guns; others picked up stretchers.

The SCD began as a local response—groups of about a dozen people coming together to dig through the debris, looking for life underneath. Today there are more than 2,500 SCD volunteers in eight provinces across Syria. Each province has an area commander, who coordinates the local groups and liaises with foreign NGOs that are providing assistance to the teams. The SCD has recovered civilians caught in the air strikes conducted by the Syrian government and, more recently, by the international coalition fighting the Islamic State. They have also rescued Assad soldiers injured in shoot-outs with rebel groups. In a little more than a year, the SCD has saved the lives of more than 12,520 people, even as 85 SCD volunteers have died on the job.

But for Ebaa and the other women of the SCD, many of whom are working in areas controlled by Al Nusra—an Al Qaeda offshoot—the challenges go beyond stabilizing patients on the back of pickup trucks amid missile showers. Hasnaa, a 25-year-old former math teacher, began training with the SCD this January after regime forces began to target her town of Maarat al Numan with multiple air strikes a day. The reaction from many in her community, a conservative rural village, was far from encouraging. "At first, it was difficult," she said, carefully choosing her words. Most of the women at the training center admitted they had faced some challenges when joining the force but didn't want to discuss them in depth. Many men have been wary of the presence of women in the SCD, who they believe are not up to the job. In some parts of Idlib, women are forbidden to join the group.

An episode of the popular Syrian sketch-comedy show Om Abdo al Halabiya was devoted to the "issues" faced by women wanting to join the SCD. One skit set in Aleppo showed two young female civil defendants embarking on their first search-and-rescue mission. The actors try to lift the rubble, but they find that it is too heavy for their "soft and gentle hands." Frightened by the horrors of war and useless to the teams, the SCD members return home. At last, they have learned that spending hours digging for life amid shells and collapsed rooftops is no job for a woman.


THE SYRIAN CIVIL DEFENSE

The SCD are 2,221 volunteer search-and-rescue workers from local communities who risk their lives to save others and bring hope.


When the revolution began, women took on a greater role than they had previously enjoyed in Syrian society. They became the face of many of the protests, in part because they were not subjected to the same scrutiny by government forces as men. One of the earliest people demanding that Bashar Al Assad step down was a woman named Muntaha al Atrash. But as the revolution turned into a deadly civil war, many men began to urge women to stay at home. Although women were well represented in the SCD at its inception (25 percent of the recruits at the first formal training session were female), after a few months women stopped joining. Nearly one year went by with only male recruits. The absence of female recruits worried many of the coordinators, who began to think the SCD was destined to become an all-male force. But the intensity of war soon challenged those who believed women had no purpose in the group. Especially within the more conservative communities, many began to value the presence of women, who could rescue other women who were "indecently clothed" when their homes had been shelled. Gradually, having women in the force became a necessity. Many families began to encourage their daughters to join and cheered on the women. "'Come on sisters,' people now chant when they see us," Ebaa told me in a proud voice.

Today, 60 women work with the SCD in Idlib, and 15 have joined the team in nearby Aleppo over the past five months. But there are still several areas in northern Syria where they are not allowed, because of fears that their presence would endanger the teams. Far from deterring the women, these attitudes have spurred many to defy the bombs and find new ways to negotiate their presence within their communities.

"Everyone here believes that the Syrian Civil Defense will one day be responsible for rebuilding the country," Ola Suliman, a training coordinator at Mayday Rescue, a Turkey-based NGO that provides funding for the SCD, told me. "Building houses, reconnecting electricity—this is what they wish they were doing, but they are being bombed every day," she said while sifting through reams of incident reports at the organization's headquarters in Istanbul. "Only yesterday there were twenty barrel bombs in Hama, sixteen in Idlib. The figures are the same across every province. But when the war stops, we will help people return to their normal lives, and women want to be part of it."

Last November, the women of the SCD explained the need for female members to the organization's male leaders during a strategy meeting. "One of the women put a photograph of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani female-education activist who was shot by local Taliban groups on her way to school, on the conference table," Suliman said. "This is the road we are going down. If today we choose to keep our women at home, in twenty years our daughters will be shot on their way to school. What we need to do instead is rebuild our country, hand in hand with our men."

Hasnaa would probably agree. When I asked her about the future of her country, her eyes instantly brightened. With a defiant smile she told me, "Women should be the main component in rebuilding Syria." She paused for a second, and with the slightest touch of mischief in her voice, added, "In cooperation with the men, of course."

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