Mayson Al Misri vividly recalls the day her brother was killed by a sniper at the height of the brutal Syrian civil war.
Her family had just finished picking olives at their farm in Daraa that January day in 2013 when her younger brother, Mohamed, 28, suddenly fell into the arms of their mother, blood soaking his clothes.
“He just got hit by a bullet and his stomach exploded,” says Al Misri, 44, who was just steps behind her brother, holding his daughter’s hand. “No one knew how to do first aid to help him. We just felt so helpless.”
Her brother’s death later prompted her to join the Syria Civil Defence, better known as the White Helmets for the protective head gear they wear, and devote her life to rescuing people caught up in the fighting.
Under constant shelling, civilian volunteers like Al Misri — with training and funding from the international community — provided medical aid, fixed hydro and water supplies, performed search and rescue, evacuated civilians from danger zones and even removed landmines.
That humanitarian work ended last summer when she and the rest of the group, which has been credited with saving hundreds of lives, became the targets of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and needed to be rescued themselves.
Now, more than a year after more than 100 White Helmet volunteers and their families were whisked out of Syria through Israel and into Jordan in a high-profile international rescue, Al Misri is slowly building a new life with her husband, Maan Alaboud, in Hamilton.
But the former journalist with the Syrian Arab News Agency says she still fears for the thousands of White Helmets who didn’t make the escape and were captured by the Assad government.
“Those imprisoned by the regime are always tortured and they go missing for good,” says Al Misri in her modest apartment in Hamilton, where a huge black, white and green Syrian revolution flag drapes the living room wall. “How can you forget them? How can you forget the war when thousands and thousands of innocent people were killed?”
Al Misri, a female leader of the White Helmets in Daraa, is among 26 members of the group and their families, who were brought to Canada as permanent residents last October by the federal government after spending three months in a camp in Jordan. They now live in Hamilton, Kitchener, Halifax, Saskatoon and Halifax — and have been joined by a handful who have since arrived on their own for asylum. Since 2015, more than 60,000 Syrians have resettled here under Canada’s refugee sponsorship programs.
Before the Syrian war broke out in 2011, many of the White Helmets were apolitical and lived a “normal” life under what they call a typical dictatorial regime where everyone stays silent and minds their own business.
“We had a comfortable life. We worked. We had friends and families. We were silent in expressing our opinions because we always feared ‘the wall had ears,’” says Manal Abazeed, 48, who was an accountant before she joined the rescue group in 2014 because of the need for female volunteers to help women and girls.
“Freedom, justice and democracy were taboo words, but everything changed after the revolution and we can talk and don’t have to be silenced,” added Abazeed, whose father and brother died during the war. Two of her siblings are now in Germany and two others are stuck in Syria.
Al Misri and Abazeed are enrolled in English classes and live on government support; both say they are struggling with the emotional trauma from their experience in Syria, the stress of adjusting to a new language and culture, as well being separated from their loved ones abroad.
“We are so happy to be in Canada because our life was hell in Syria and Jordan, but I think of my family all the time because I never got to say goodbye to them,” said Al Misri, who has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and now requires a hearing aid as a result of hearing loss caused by the bombing.
Judy Smith, one of two community members who have befriended and are helping the group of White Helmets in Hamilton, said while she was happy Canada opened the door to Al Misri and Abazeed, the federal government must offer more support to them, given the trauma they’ve been through.
“The honeymoon period is over and the reality has hit. They have lost their families and friends. They came to a new country and started over again. You can’t just bring them in and leave them,” said Smith, a retired English-as-a-second-language teacher at Brock University, who was asked to check on the women by a journalist friend who covered the story about Canada’s rescue of the White Helmets from Syria.
“I’m amazed at their human spirit and resilience. Very few people in the world sacrifice the way they did to save others,” noted Smith, who was actively involved in resettling Indo-Chinese refugees in Canada in the 1980s.
Jihad Alsbeih Almahamid, head of the White Helmets in southern Syria, says he, like many, had not anticipated the Syrian war would have lasted for so long when he and friends started their local civilian defence group, which grew from five volunteers to 700 over time.
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“We have taken many dead bodies, but I remember our search for a baby girl. We used our bare hands to dig through the rubble. We thought she’d have been dead but we found her squatting underneath. She just ran over and hugged me,” recalled Almahamid, 51, a former accountant, who arrived in Canada last November without his family, and now lives in Vancouver. “You know, under all destruction, there is always hope.”
Still worried about the safety of her family in Syria, Al Misri says she never regrets joining the White Helmets though she feels strongly that the world has failed the Syrian people who took to the streets to protest the Assad regime.
“I want to improve my English and work as a journalist again,” she says. “One day, I want to write a book about my life in Syria.”