Israel evacuates 800 White Helmets to Jordan in face of Syria advance

Updated 24 July 2018
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Israel evacuates 800 White Helmets to Jordan in face of Syria advance

  • Israeli military said it had completed “a humanitarian effort to rescue members of a Syrian civil organization and their families ... due to an immediate threat to their lives”
  • The evacuation came at the request of the US and several European countries

AMMAN: Israel has evacuated 800 White Helmets rescuers and their family members threatened by advancing Syrian regime forces to Jordan for resettlement in Britain, Canada and Germany, Amman said Sunday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the operation an “important humanitarian step” and said he ordered it after requests from US President Donald Trump and Canadian premier Justin Trudeau.
Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets, is a network of first responders which rescues the wounded in the aftermath of air strikes, shelling or explosions in rebel-held territory.
Jordan “authorized the United Nations to organize the passage of 800 Syrian citizens through Jordan to be resettled in western countries,” foreign ministry spokesman Mohammed Al-Kayed said.
“The government gave the permission after Britain, Germany and Canada made a legally binding undertaking to resettle them within a specified period of time due to ‘a risk to their lives’.”
The Israeli military said it had transferred the rescue workers and their families to a neighboring country, adding the operation was “exceptional” and that Israel would continue its “non-intervention policy” in the Syrian conflict.
“A few days ago President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau and others approached me with the request to help extract from Syria hundreds of White Helmets,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
“These are people who save lives and now find themselves in deadly danger, therefore I approved bringing them through Israel to another country as an important humanitarian step.”
White Helmets head Raed Saleh said the evacuees had arrived in Jordan after being “surrounded in a dangerous region.”
They had been encircled in the Syrian provinces of Daraa and Quneitra, which respectively border Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, he told AFP.
Israel seized 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) of the Golan from Syria in 1967, in a move never recognized internationally.
Britain’s Foreign Office said it had helped facilitate the overnight evacuations.
“White Helmets have been the target of attacks and, due to their high profile, we judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection,” it said.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told Bild newspaper that Germany would take in eight White Helmets members and their families.
The move was “an expression of my stance of ensuring humanity and order in migration policy,” he said.
Canada will take in up to 50 White Helmets volunteers and their families, totalling up to 250 people, the country’s public broadcaster CBC said citing senior officials.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she had “called for global leadership to support and help these heroes” at last week’s NATO summit.
Israel’s Haaretz daily said the evacuees also included orphans who had been injured in the Syrian fighting.
It was unclear how many White Helmet volunteers remained in both the Daraa and Quneitra provinces after the evacuations.
But a volunteer in Daraa city, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had decided to stay despite being given the choice to leave.
“It’s our country and we have a right to live in it in safety,” he told AFP, however adding he was among a minority who wished to remain.
“We are first and foremost a humanitarian organization, not a military one, or a terrorist one as the regime alleges.”
The White Helmets have rescued thousands of civilians trapped under the rubble or caught up in fighting in opposition-held zones along various fronts of Syria’s seven-year conflict.
Since its formation, when Syria’s conflict was nearing its third year, more than 250 of its volunteers have been killed.
The group’s motto — “To save one life is to save all of humanity” — is drawn from a verse in the Qur’an, although the White Helmets insist they treat all victims, regardless of religion.
Some members have received training abroad, including in Turkey, returning to instruct colleagues on search-and-rescue techniques.
The group receives funding from a number of governments, including Britain, Germany and the United States, but also solicits individual donations to purchase equipment such as its signature hard hats.
On June 19, Syrian government forces launched a Russia-backed offensive to retake Daraa and Quneitra provinces.
Just a month later, regime forces have regained control of most of these two provinces through a combination of deadly bombardment and Moscow-brokered surrender deals.
Militants are not party to these deals, and Russian planes bombarded a holdout of the Daesh group in Daraa province overnight, a Britain-based war monitor said.
More than 20,000 civilians have escaped bombardment on the Daesh-held corner in the past 24 hours, fleeing into regime-held areas, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.


Mardini — refugee from Syria rising fast after fleeing war

Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, the Olypmpia swimmer, escaped conflict in her homeland. A year later she famously competed at the Rio Olympics. (Photo/UNHCR)
Updated 22 July 2019
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Mardini — refugee from Syria rising fast after fleeing war

  • The 21-year-old girl almost drowned at sea fleeing her war-torn country four years ago

GWANGJU/SOUTH KOREA: Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, who almost drowned at sea fleeing her war-torn country four years ago, heaved a deep sigh after failing to set a personal best at the world swimming championships on Sunday.

Representing FINA’s independent athletes team, the 21-year-old looked up at the giant scoreboard and winced at her time of 1 minute 8.79 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly heats in South Korea.
“I’m not very happy actually,” Mardini told AFP.
“I had some problems with my shoulder but I’m back in training. I still have the 100m freestyle and I’m looking forward to that.”
Mardini’s time was more than 12 seconds slower than that of reigning champion Sarah Sjostrom and 47th overall, but she has come a long way since risking her life crossing from Izmir in Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in the summer of 2015.
Refugee swimmer Mardini knows what she is talking about when it comes to family separation for asylum seekers.
In 2015, she and her sister Sarah had escaped conflict in their homeland when the boat they were aboard with other refugees began sinking. They jumped out and swam part of the journey from Turkey to Greece.
They then embarked on an overland trip from Greece to Germany, evading local authorities in countries with immigration policies that barred them from legal entry. Along the way the sisters slept in train stations or wherever they could find shelter.
Mardini empathizes with families currently separated along the US southern border.
“This is the most terrible thing anyone can have — to live without a mom or to live without a family,” she said on Sunday at the world swimming championships where she’s competing as an independent athlete.
“I arrived in Greece in only jeans and a T-shirt,” said Mardini, who also swims in the 100m freestyle later this week. “Even my shoes were gone.”
“In the beginning I refused to be in a refugee team because I was afraid people would think I got the chance because of my story,” said Mardini, who now lives with her family in Berlin.
“I wanted to earn it. But then I realized I had a big opportunity to represent those people — so I took the chance and I never regretted it,” she added.
Mardini was 17 at the time. She is now a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She famously competed at the Rio Olympics a year later under the refugee flag.

FASTFACT

• In 2015, she and her sister had escaped conflict in their homeland when the boat they were aboard with other refugees began sinking. They jumped out and swam part of the journey from Turkey to Greece.

• Mardini was 17 at the time. She is now a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Rio was amazing. It was really exciting to see the reaction of people to the team. Now I’m representing millions of displaced people around the world and it really makes me proud.”
It is a far cry from life back in Syria, where rocket strikes would often shake the pool she trained at in Damascus.
“There were bomb attacks sometimes that would crack the windows around the pool,” said Mardini, who has addressed the UN General Assembly and whose story is set to be told in a Hollywood movie.
“I know people who lost their moms on the way or in the water — that got drowned — and I feel this is terrible,” she said.
Mardini said that from the time she left Syria she lived without her mother for six months. Eventually, they were reunited in Germany, where they now live in Berlin. “I felt so alone,” she said. “So lonely.”
The experience has prompted her to stand up for fellow asylum seekers in similar situations.
“Someone has to do something about it,” Mardini said. “The least we can do is talk about it, not just ignore it like everything else happening in the world.”
Mardini finished 47th out of 52 swimmers in the 100-meter butterfly heats on Sunday. Her other event in Gwangju is the 100 freestyle on Thursday.
She is attempting to again qualify for the Olympics as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team.
“My goal now is just to swim a new personal best,” she said. “And my next goal will be Tokyo 2020.”
Fellow Syrian Ayman Kelzieh was also forced to flee the country before competing at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.
Returning to Korea five years later, the 26-year-old now owns a fistful of national swim records, including the 50m, 100m and 200m butterfly.
“When the war started I had just moved to Damascus and I couldn’t get back home to Aleppo,” said Kelzieh, who now lives on the Thai island of Phuket.
“But even in Damascus bombs sometimes even went off at the swimming pool we trained at,” he added after taking a poolside selfie with his idol, South African star Chad le Clos.
“There were even attacks at the hotel I stayed in — I was lucky.”