Looking back on 2016, I remember feeling the knot in my stomach as I watched the election results. I remember crying as fellow UCSB students stood up and said they were scared that their families would be deported, and how shocked I was realizing that my country had supported bigotry, sexism and racism. I came home to my family in early December, and we didn’t even want to put a Christmas tree up. People are scared and they are angry. I am scared and angry. But I still believe in hope and change, perhaps more than ever, and this is why.
I believe in human kindness because of the White Helmets. In the sixth year of the Syrian civil war, after the near complete destruction of Aleppo and deaths of thousands of civilians, the Syrian Civil Defense continues to save hundreds of lives a day. Also known as the White Helmets, they are a group of volunteers that act as first responders to an area of the city that has been raided. They rescue everyone they can, regardless of which side of the war they fight for. Despite being targets of ongoing air raids, they go back into areas of destruction and remove debris with their bare hands. The group has faced criticism because it rescues terrorists along with civilians, but this only further proves my point. Love and courage exist and discriminate against no one.
Courtesy of Al Jazeera
The White Helmets started as a group of a few brave civilians who helped search through the rubble after each air raid they were in earshot of. Slowly they joined up, as the couple of brave souls who acted as first responders in the chaos, each in their own respective neighborhoods, began hearing about others who went back into the debris. Today there are over 3,000 of them and they wear white helmets to symbolize freedom and peace. Now that they have received recognition, terrorists have adapted their air raids to return for a second round — a wave specifically targeting the White Helmets. One thousand seven hundred air strikes have occurred in just one week.
The White Helmets are clearly brave, exemplary humanitarians. They have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and received the Right Livelihood Award. What makes me believe in hope and change, however, is that the White Helmets never discriminate — even when, arguably, they should. They save Assad’s troops, ISIS recruits, U.S. soldiers, children. Many have argued that this is counterintuitive to U.S. anti-terrorism acts, but I beg to differ. This is the most effective counterterrorism practice I can think of. The White Helmets, in the face of death and destruction, are a united front where individual civilians once were. They are less divided than ever, and they are growing. If every person lived to help anyone in need, regardless of which side of the war they are on, what gender, class or race they are, there wouldn’t be any air strikes.
These Syrians and all humanitarians working to make the greatest of sufferings just a little bit easier put my concerns and ailments in perspective.
I believe in hope and change because before I reflected on the work of these brave Syrians, I didn’t want to help anybody. I wanted to end my friendships with people who voted for the administration against human rights. I wanted to fold my broken heart back up into its hole and weep over the missed opportunity for a female president, equality and representation. I wanted nothing more than to lock my room up, sign Democratic petitions and fantasize about peace and love. But I don’t have to fantasize. In Syria, in the blood-stained debris of Aleppo, there is peace and love. Each child pulled from fallen roofs is hope and change.
Fearless first responders, in their sixth-straight year of turmoil and annihilation, still turn back time after time to save anyone they can. They risk their lives for anyone — even the people creating this horror. I am always surprised and touched to find that the purest acts of kindness arise in the darkest situations. These Syrians and all humanitarians working to make the greatest of sufferings just a little bit easier put my concerns and ailments in perspective. We so easily lose sight of our purpose here. After seeing the bloodied faces of children being carried out from under buildings while white helmets bob quickly and steadily toward the danger zone whilst others flee, suddenly our grades, our money, our political divisions seem so insignificant.
If Syrians in immediate danger can find a reason to run back into the destruction, I can find a reason to believe that my country will become a land of truly equal opportunity. If young men and women can find a reason to resuscitate the soldier who destroyed their home, I can find a reason to hope that our leaders will connect with their innate human courage and kindness and inspire the rest of us to do the same. This new year does not have to divide anyone. This new administration may not allow Syrian refugees into our country, but it will not silence them; no destruction will crush the love we all have inside of us.
Olivia Yazzolino believes the Syrian White Helmets are a much needed bright spot in these uncertain times.