Relief International supported the Syrian humanitarian organization Syria Civil Defense with words and actions this week after the group’s leader was denied entry to the United States as he arrived to collect a prestigious award.
Raed Saleh, head of the civilian search-and-rescue organization know as The White Helmets for their distinctive headgear, was turned back after landing at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. Mr. Saleh said he was told upon arrival that his visa had been cancelled. He was scheduled to attend a conference hosted by InterAction, the largest U.S. alliance of nongovernmental international organizations, and to receive their 2016 Humanitarian Award. Relief International nominated Mr. Saleh for the honor
“There are many committed humanitarians all over the world, but Raed is doing what he does in the middle of a major conflict that touches the whole world,” said RI president and CEO Nancy E. WIlson. “We feel it’s important to remember the incredible courage of the people living – and acting – in the middle of it all.”
During the awards ceremony, Relief International staff and colleagues from InterAction donned white helmets in solidarity with Mr. Saleh.
Mr. Saleh, 32, leads more than 2,800 intrepid search-and-rescue volunteers as head of Syria Civil Defence. These unarmed and neutral civilians have saved more than 40,000 lives in Syria.
"I am shocked and saddened to learn that Raed would be turned away by U.S. officials on the eve of being recognized by his peers in the international humanitarian community for his heroic work in Syria to help bring life-saving assistance to communities under fire in Syria," said InterAction CEO Sam Worthington.
RI's Turkey team works closely with Mr. Saleh to conduct lifesaving safety trainings for staff and community members at RI-supported health facilities across Northern Syria. These safety trainings are aimed at raising awareness of what to do immediately following an airstrike, and how to conduct search and rescue operations. Mr. Saleh also helps RI coordinate structural assessments of health facilities to evaluate how to strengthen them to withstand airstrikes. With Mr. Saleh's assistance, RI is able to protect civilians and health facility staff during airstrikes, ensuring safety and secure access to essential, lifesaving healthcare.
“It is a sad reality of the situation inside Syria that health facilities are actively targeted by military forces,” says RI’s Tom Evans, a program manager in Turkey, whose team works closely with Mr. Saleh. “The White Helmets are doing their best to ensure that vulnerable people on the front lines of conflict are still able to access health care.”
Mr. Saleh’s experience underscores an emerging reality for humanitarian workers. Many of these professionals face tighter restrictions on travel, sometimes triggered by itineraries that take them to fragile and conflict-affected regions.
"InterAction has continually warned of the consequences of policies that prevent humanitarian professionals from freely traveling, as any other modern global professional must to be effective," said Interaction’s Worthington. "If the U.S. government won't allow Raed to be honored in person by the humanitarian community in Washington then InterAction leaders will travel to Raed, on the border of Syria, to ensure his work is appropriately and personally acknowledged."
Mr. Saleh had previously traveled to the United States in June 2015, to give an address at the UN Security Council.
Before the Syrian civil war, Raed was a businessman who sold electrical equipment. After the start of the popular protests in March 2011, Raed began organizing peaceful demonstrations in his home town Jisr Ashughour. Just weeks later, the Syrian Army entered his town, forcing him to go into hiding in Turkey. He returned to Syria in 2012, after parts of Idlib were liberated from the Syrian army. There he worked in the humanitarian field helping refugees and displaced persons.
In June 2013, he attended a civil defence training course in Idlib. Tackling the difficult exercises with grace and leadership, Raed was elected by his teammates to be their representative. Over the following 12 months, he created 20 more teams in Idlib, and was appointed as head of the Syria Civil Defence. Raed is married with two children, a daughter aged 10 and a son aged 9.