The White Helmets

Katie Nelson

Since 2011, Syria has been paralyzed by a gruesome civil war between the Assad regime, the Kurds, and rebel groups. The conflict has displaced more than 11 million (both internally and externally) as refugees, and killed nearly 500,000. In 2017 alone, the United Nations requested $8 billion in aid to put towards “the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.” As the fighting intensifies, it is Syrians themselves who feel its weight on their shoulders.

The Syrian Civil Defense (SCD) is at the forefront of the conflict. What started in 2012 as a makeshift series of rescue teams evolved into a more cohesive volunteer-based unit, now colloquially known as the “White Helmets.” The White Helmets come from all walks of life, from students and artisans, to doctors, engineers, and teachers. Their mission is simple: “To save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimize further injury to people and damage to property.” The group primarily deals with the aftermath of governmental airstrikes, but at its core, the SCD is wholly dedicated to providing nonpartisan aid to nearly seven million Syrians. In addition to operating as a first-response unit, the White Helmets’ work spans across a multitude of sectors in the public sphere including distributing information, rewiring electrical cables, and checking the safety of affected buildings. The volunteers’ pledges to the pillars of “Humanity, Solidarity, [and] Impartiality” aligns them with the courageous values of the group, with one another, and adheres them to the betterment of Syria herself in her darkest hour.

In 2016, the White Helmets were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and won the year’s Right Livelihood Award for their service to the international community. That same year, Netflix released its documentary “The White Helmets” featuring the group, produced by the Oscar-nominated team behind “Virunga.” While key players in the battle have continuously flirted with peace negotiations, fighting in its current state seems to be at best an inconsistent ceasefire. Yet organizations like the White Helmets keep hope alive for millions and epitomizes altruistic volunteering.

To learn more about the White Helmets, please check out these links:



1. Durando, Jessica. “Syria’s civil war: Disturbing facts show cost of conflict.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, 14 Mar. 2017. Web. 06 July 2017.
2. “Syria: The worst humanitarian crisis of our time.” Amnesty International NZ. Amnesty International, 7 Apr. 2015. Web. 06 July 2017.
3. “Volunteers to Save Lives.” Volunteers to Save Lives | SCD. Web. 20 June 2017.
4. Campaign, The Syria. “Meet the heroes saving Syria.” Support the White Helmets. Web. 17 June 2017.
5. “Syria’s White Helmets win ‘alternative Nobel Prize’.” BBC News. BBC, 22 Sept. 2016. Web. 23 June 2017.

Why Germany is Not the Only Goldstar of the Syrian Crisis

From the website Dear Pamela: where Pamela Hawley answers questions from Duke University students about social innovations and nonprofits

Germany has been the gold star of helping Syria. The country accepted more than 500,000 refugees, and became the largest advocate for continuing to open the borders to help the refugee crisis. (The Guardian) Despite refusal from other European nations to comply and the emergence of some national push back to the presence of the refugees, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel publicly endorses a policy of open doors and has created programs to help and integrate the refugees. More than 6 billion euros will be devoted to the Syrians. (The Atlantic)

However, the focus on Germany’s involvement in the Syrian Refugee crisis overlooks many important other facts about the refugees, and the truly global scale of this crisis.

The Ongoing Refugee Crisis
We seem to forget ongoing refugee status countries. In Iraq, more than 4.7 million have left their homes since the 1980s. Two million have exited. They’ve gone to Jordan and Lebanon, which brings me to the next point. (The Guardian)

The Crisis Will Quadruple: Twenty Million Need Help

While many people may be “getting tired” of hearing about Syria, we are not even close to nearing the end. More than 4.7 million Syrian refugees have fled. About a quarter are headed or heading to Europe. That leaves 75% of Syrians still in need of a new home. (Mercycorps)

A daunting, new, rushed move to a new land, new culture, with possible disrespect for their culture, fear of their religion and no work permit. Potential, temporary food supplies for their families – if they are lucky. Forget about school for their kids.

For those who might have the option of school, parents can be torn From one Syrian parent who had migrated to another country: “I have to ‘unbrainwash’ my ten-year-old every night. What they say in school about history and culture isn’t correct. I don’t like the way he is being taught to think.” (paraphrase)

Sometimes, there are dirty looks, fear or anger from the local town. “These people aren’t welcome, we don’t know their religion, they are taking my job, and there just isn’t enough.” This is the new “home” they are forced to seek. Three million Syrian refugees need it.

Yet 14 million Syrians in-country need safety, food, shelter, schooling and basic survival. That’s nearly 20 million – not 4 million, who need help. The crisis is quadruple.

So expect the refugees to keep coming.

We are Ignoring the True Leaders

We should be grateful for Germany’s efforts accepting 500,000 refugees. It is a grand, noble and right commitment. Yet why are we ignoring the countries who accept refugees ongoing, through no choice of their own? (The Atlantic)

More than 1.1 million refugees are in Lebanon, a population of 5 million. Twenty percent of their population will become Syrian. (The Atlantic)

More than 800,000 have fled to in Jordan, a population of 6.5 million. 12.3 percent of their population will become Syrian. (Mercycorps)

So while Germany is accepting 500,000, their population is 81 million. It’s only 0.625 percent of their people. And the number of migrants in total to Europe is about 400,000-500,000. That’s less than 1% of the EU population. (The Atlantic)

Countries such as Jordan and Lebanon are the true gold stars. They accepted refugees from the start. They are completely overwhelmed. Who has time for policy and political announcements?

They don’t have a choice. Refugees are streaming across the borders, programs or no programs. Food or no food, health care or no health care, school or no school. The refugees are radically changing a government’s policy and allocation of funds. It revolutionizes a country’s culture, heritage, and way of doing things. Neither Jordan nor Lebanon has a chance to plan or prepare. They have to accept this new normal, and now. (Mercycorps)

Be Grateful
And yet, we need to be grateful. Yes, we need to be grateful for there was a time when no borders were open.

If we look back to 1938, it was on the cusp of World War II. The Germans were aggressively advancing, invading country after country. They had just taken over Austria. Jews were massively exciting everywhere.

A conference was held in France on what to do. Country leaders were not only concerned about their freedom, but also about their ability to take in the Jewish refugees. Thirty-two country delegates were there. Yad Vashem describes the situation:

During the conference, it became painfully obvious that no country was willing to volunteer anything. The British delegate claimed that Britain was already fully populated and suffering from unemployment, so it could take in no refugees. His only offer consisted of British territories in East Africa, which could take in small numbers of refugees. The French delegate declared that France had reached “the extreme point of saturation as regards admission of refugees.” Myron C. Taylor, the American delegate, allowed that the United States would make the previously unfilled quota for Germans and Austrians available to these new refugees. Other countries claimed the Depression as their excuse for not accepting refugees. Only the Dominican Republic, a tiny country in the West Indies, volunteered to take in refugees—in exchange for huge amounts of money. The Evian Conference, France (The Guardian)

Adopt Lebanon’s Courage
Thankfully, we aren’t facing such a draconian 1938. More countries are responding. Services are being set up. Some ongoing life integration programs are germinating. Especially now, given the increasing resistance to supporting the refugees, we need to continue to praising countries who are leading efforts and supporting organizations that have dedicated time and energy to ensuring the refugees receive the care they need.

So if Lebanon can accept that a quarter of their population are Syrians, then we can be courageous too. While I am not Catholic, I agree with Pope Francis:

“Every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe, take in one family.” (The Atlantic)

Jordan and Lebanon are the true gold stars. They take in the families.

Donate to help Syrian Refugees here and visit the Dear Pamela site!

Current Event-Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR)

By Molly Dietrich

western-saharaThe last colony in Africa was not conquered by Europeans, the invasion was by another African country. About 80% of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), formally known as Western Sahara, went under Moroccan control after the Spanish withdrew from the area in 1976. The Sahrawi Polisario front fought for their land through guerilla warfare until a ceasefire in 1991. The conflict is physically illustrated by the “sand berm” or wall built by the Moroccans that stretches 1,700 miles across the length of SADR.

Today, people of SADR are experiencing human rights violations including the torture of Sahrawi detainees and violence against Sahrawi women. Sahrawi refugees have taken shelter in neighboring countries – 165,000 Sahrawi people are in Algerian camps, and 26,000 are in Mauritanian camps. This is a significant amount of SADR’s population which was 587,000 in 2016. The living conditions for these refugees are terrible.

Although the Sahrawi struggle has lasted about 40 years there is a newly ignited international awareness with the admittance of Morocco into the African Union (AU) this January. The conflict is at the top of the AU’s agenda and international powers are pushing for a solution. Unfortunately, Morocco continues to refuse to recognize SADR. Although there is currently a ceasefire, tension is high and Sahrawis believe there is potential for a renewed conflict.

The United States currently supports the Sahrawis in their fight for self-determination.

UniversalGiving stands in solidarity with the Sahrawi people and we ask you to remember how important it is to support emergency response efforts around the world.

“The World Factbook.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

Challenging, Heartfelt Times

By CEO Pamela Hawley

Today, our world seems filled with challenges. Most conversations start with the state of our government, fear for our future, our families and freedoms. We’re facing a tough time in our country and the world. But we must hold to constructive hope.  

We must hold to what we can do, in our hearts, minds and actions.

We’ll take on one area in this discussion. The U.N. recognizes more than 65,000 refugees — but we know there are many more. So, we need to support refugees, human rights, basic freedoms, at home and everywhere. But it doesn’t stop there.

Further, we need to also support host countries. For example, in Lebanon now — more than 50% of students in the schools are Syrian. It’s nearly breaking the Lebanese systems. We need help with refugee absorption, including financial stability, healthcare, and neighborhood integration. It also includes refugees simply feeling welcomed, and host countries feeling they have new friends and partners to strengthen their communities. 

Border host countries don’t decide how many refugees they take in. People just flow over the borders. People in serious need, people who face daily threats to their lives and children — every day. You don’t put a quota on that. You have to accept them, and you do. So, these countries need support, too. They have amazing courage as the make-up of their country is changing every day.

So, at UniversalGiving, we’ll take a strong tack on all the above that focuses on what you can do in a small way. People are so overwhelmed and we want to help lift the oppression. We can be a positive force that uplifts people. What we suggest allows people to make a difference right now: small acts, such as simply smiling at others, helping someone across the street, or even cleaning up after someone spills something! That is an action, and it’s free to all, and immediately “givable.” On the same front, what you do with your hands is equally important. You can take simple, practical, profound actions. You can tap on a new neighbor’s door from El Salvador and write a note to welcome them if they have newly arrived. You can cook a meal for a new teacher who has arrived from Sri Lanka.

We can be depressed and scared and angry — and you pass those thoughts on to someone. Or you can pass on peace. What you do with your mind can have a profound impact. Therefore, we can bring a peaceful mind to every conversation, and a peaceful action in every moment of your day. We can expect the best, and act for the best, for a better world. 

Through the eyes of a child

By Lubna Javed

I was allowed to stay up late and watch The Muppet Babies movie on television by myself on the night of 16th January 1991; I was 12. I went to bed quite late, only to be startled shortly afterwards by my mother. She was attempting to awaken my father and yelling, “The War has started.” Years later I can still clearly recall the fright with which I got up. The haunting sound of the sirens still rings in my ears when I think about that night.

I wrote the following a few days into the War, perhaps as a means to cope with a new emotion:

Missile Attack Siren

So frightening when heard,It is what we all feared,

It is what we all feared,

Alarming too,

Quick you have to seek refuge,

To avoid casualties, small or huge,

Perhaps you have to wear the gas mask,

Agreed is a difficult task,

It is a great relief when all is clear,

Then, it is not the missile attack to fear.

My father worked as a civil engineer in Saudi Arabia for a number of years. We were expats. We lived very close to the city of Dhahran when the Persian Gulf War broke out. Most of our neighbors and friends had left the city before the War started. Our apartment building was deserted. WE had never felt more alone.

My parents had “sealed” the master bedroom in preparation for the War. Windows had been taped up with layers upon layers of duct tape. The minute opening under the air conditioning unit was sealed with old rags and then plastered with duct tape. We all slept in the master bedroom. Every time the siren sounded, we would seek refuge in that room. My parents would close the bedroom door and put wet rags under the gap beneath the door. We would then proceed to wear our harrowing gas masks and await anxiously for the All Clear signal to be broadcasted on radio. My 7 year old brother would, without a doubt, refuse to wear his gas mask and my parents would engage in a scrimmage to put it on him. My baby brother would be donned in some sort of a yellow suit that resembled a space suit. Not knowing what the outcome would be after the sirens were sounded was a horrendous feeling. My mind could not help but regurgitate the question, “Will we live?”

Every time the Scud missiles were intercepted by the Patriot missiles, the windows of our home would rattle just as if they were about to shatter onto the ground. It felt like an earthquake. There was one Scud that fell at a barracks housing, merely a few kilometers away from our home, killing 28 soldiers.

There were reports that there may be a water shortage or the supply could be tainted, so we filled a few buckets and our bathtub with water. For weeks, we used to bathe outside the tub since it was being used for the water storage.

Schools all over the city had been closed for more than a month after the War started. I had not stepped outside the house for that duration. And when my school finally opened, with only a third of its population, gas masks were a requisite. Imagine carrying a gas mask to school instead of carrying a lunch bag.

I penned another poem during the War. It should provide further insight into the multitude of first-time emotions I was experiencing at the time.

No War, Please

We don’t want to live with wars,

It’s like being stuck behind bars,

Really annoying to hear jets and explosion,

It’s so much of a tension,

Nice it would be…

To be again free!

War causes great destruction,

Enormous loss of population,

Our homes should be filled with happiness,

Not loneliness and sadness,

Better to have peace,

We don’t want wars, please!

We were lucky that the War did not last long and the casualties were not visible. There are others who are not so lucky. They just happened to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time. We were also fortunate to not have been forced out of our home as the War was short lived. It spanned a total of only about 6 weeks.

Each day war forces thousands of people to flee their homes: people just like you and me. They are forced to leave everything behind, sometimes even their hope for a future. I had to neither leave my home nor my belongings behind. I still to this day have many of my toys from my childhood, including my Barbie dolls and countless pieces of Barbie furniture. I recently gave my Barbie treasures to my daughter and she was simply ecstatic. She does not realize yet that I am lucky to have been able to pass them on to her.

By the end of 2015, an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. This means that one out of every 113 persons in the world were forced to flee their home. IN other words, every minute 24 people are displaced.

As individuals, we may not be able to necessarily change the dynamics of war or alleviate the terror that child caught in the middle of a war feels. However, we can make a difference in the lives of refugees. There are many organizations in place that provide support for refugees. UniversalGiving connects donors and volunteers with such organizations.