An ex-firefighter has driven up and down the country in order to collect firefighting and lifesaving equipment to donate to the White Helmets volunteer civil defence service in Syria.
Phil Richards, now of the UK’s International Search and Rescue (ISR) team, asked search and rescue services all over the UK for unneeded metal cutters, stretchers, drills and protective clothing - as well as the famous white helmets themselves.
The idea came from MayDay Rescue, the charity that the UK funds to train the White Helmets, Terry Jewell of ISR said. “[They] suggested that all this equipment we can no longer use in the UK - maybe the spares not available - be donated to the White Helmets."
The volunteer rescue group, nicknamed for their distinctive safety gear uniform, is made up of around 3,000 people across 114 centres operating in rebel-held areas of Syria. The majority of its funding now comes from Dutch and UK sources.
The White Helmets estimate they have pulled more than 40,000 people from the rubble caused by regime – and later Russian – air strikes since they began as a loosely organised collection of volunteers in 2013.
Arresting images and footage of rescues, including that of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, known as “the boy in the orange ambulance seat,” have resonated around the world.
They have paid and continue to pay a price. Over 100 volunteers have died while carrying out rescues – often because of the so called “double tap”, when warplanes circle back and hit a target again once first responders have arrived.
Last week, seven White Helmets were brutally murdered in Idlib province - increasingly run by extremists - and their equipment stolen.
Ammar Alselmo, who used to head the White Helmets’ efforts in east Aleppo and after the fall of the city ended up in Idlib, told The Independent he believed the shipment was headed to Daraa in Syria’s south.
“It will be very useful there. The support is needed,” he said.
The equipment is now its way to Jordan, where the Department for International Development (DFID) has long funded MayDay Rescue, a not-for-profit which trains first responders such as the White Helmets.
The donation coincides with World Humanitarian Day on Saturday - held every year to pay tribute to the brave men and women who risk their lives to provide humanitarian aid for others.
“Today we thank the men and women who demonstrate the goodness of humanity in places shadowed by despair, poverty and violence,” International Development Secretary Priti Patel said in a statement.
“These extremely brave humanitarian heroes represent the best of us, while those who attack them represent the opposite.
“As we remember those who have unfairly lost their lives doing this incredible work, I want to thank those who continue to take the risks which allow the UK to stand tall with pride and make the lives of so many better. Aid workers should never be targets, every effort should always be made to give them full access to disaster areas and the protection they need to do their life-saving work.”
“I have had the fortune of meeting the White Helmets,” said Phil Richards, who collected the donations.
“They are an extremely dedicated, committed and formidable bunch of volunteers. While it fills you with sadness that this continues, it fills you with hope that there are people who are willing to put themselves in that place knowing full well this could be their last rescue.”
Syria's complex civil war is now in its seventh year. The UN estimates more than 400,000 people have died in the violence, and half of the country's 19 million people have fled their homes.
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