Fatimah Aref: Mother, First Aid Responder and White Helmets Volunteer

Fatima Aref starting her day at the Women Center of the Civil Defense, rural Latakia – September 7, 2019 (Enab Baladi)

Fatima Aref starting her day at the Women Center of the Civil Defense, rural Latakia – September 7, 2019 (Enab Baladi)



In a small office, built in a mountainous area, Fatimah Aref spends most of her day, working as a first-aid responder, before going back home, where she is a wife and a mother; a caregiver for a five-member family.

Fatimah, 36 years old, works at the Syria Civil Defense’ Women Center in rural Latakia, in the company of other seven women volunteers, who together consist the First Aid team, which runs the awareness campaigns dedicated to the area and neighboring displacement camps.

“When watching the videos of the Civil Defense volunteers, I do with keen admiration for their work and courage, because despite the difficulties and the danger, they are always there to help people,” Fatimah said, explaining to Enab Baladi one of the motives that triggered her to join the Civil Defense.

Fatimah Aref with her two sons and daughter and a friend during a campaign at a camp in rural Latakia.

Fatimah Aref with her two sons and daughter and a friend during a campaign at a camp in rural Latakia.

From Saudi Arabia to Aleppo and then rural Latakia was Fatimah’s journey, on which she faced many adversities and misfortunes, always increasing the number of those in need for her care, both family members and strangers.

In 2010, Fatimah left Saudi Arabia and returned to Syria, where she settled down in Aleppo, her home city.

“Our life was simple, full of hope and safety. I used to spend my time with my family, neighbors and friends. But when the shelling began, everything changed,” Fatimah, thus, described the last portion of comfort in her life, which was to turn into a series of difficult challenges.

Targeting her house at the onset of the aerial attacks on Aleppo neighborhoods, which the opposition’s factions controlled in 2012, coerced Fatimah into leaving the area with her family to rural Latakia, where her parents in law live.

“The most difficult period was that when my husband got detained for a year and a half, to be released while suffering tuberculosis,” Fatimah added, speaking of a turning point in her life, with which her perspective changed, urging her to pursue her education at the Medical Institute, as to help her husband heal.

The integrated experience of studying and taking care of her husband’s health, created in Fatimah the desire to help more people, especially the sick and wounded during the war— the Civil Defense was the perfect means to realize this desire.

“After a while, I applied for the Civil Defense, when I knew that they needed women volunteers.”

The summer of 2017 marked the beginning of her journey with the White Helmets.

Working daily at the Women Center, Fatimah begins in the early morning till 3 at noon, where she addresses varied medical conditions;  she monitors patients’ blood sugar and pressure levels, provides treatment sessions for asthma patients and muscular injections, stitches wounds and bandages burns.

In addition to first aid, outside the center, Fatimah has awareness-related duties, which mainly target the neighboring camps, both formal and informal.

The fieldwork that Fatimah is tasked with centralizes on healthcare awareness campaigns. “In the summer, for example, we organize campaigns to raise awareness of heatstroke, and others about Leishmania,” Fatimah said, adding that “we hold four campaigns a week. We split into two teams; each team runs two campaigns.”

Fatimah does not participate in a campaign’s organization process, for her job starts at the implantation phase, after the Center’s director contacts the administration of each camp, making appointments for the campaigns and addressing the rest of the logistic details.

“In the case of informal camps, we usually conduct surprising campaigns, without previous arrangements, which warms the hearts of the people residing there and helps them feel that there is someone who remembers them; someone who cares about them,” Fatimah explained, pointing out that the majority of these visits are aimed at the al-Kherba, al-Zouf, al-Masamek and Ain al-Beida camps.

Fatimah also pointed out to some of the challenges that Civil Defense women volunteers face during the campaigns, saying that “some people, driven by everyday life stress and the war, refuse the ideas seeking to raise awareness.”

However, the women volunteers observe a tendency to cooperation among the majority and pleasure with the visits of the team, which bestows value to what she is doing, as Fatimah said.

Fatimah does not have to deal with many safety and security issues, for the area where she works is relatively far from the areas under direct shelling and targeting by the Syrian regime forces. Besides, the tasks assigned to her do not include rescue operations. But still, she is saddened every time a center, near her area, is targeted.

“When we are informed that our co-volunteers are in danger; it feels like being in danger ourselves,” Fatimah said.

As a woman-only space, the work at the center  has a unique thing about it, since spending most of the working hours together creates a sense of familiarity and friendliness between the women volunteers, especially because they have been working thus for a year and two months, from the day the center was opened to the present.

In addition to the director of the center, there are seven women volunteers, who enjoy each other’s company. “When we get the feeling that one of our coworkers is having a hard time,” Fatima said, “we try to make her feel better and create a positive atmosphere to help her forget what she is living.”

Fatimah Aref with her colleagues at work in the Civil Defense Center, rural Latakia

In the second half of her day, Fatimah devotes herself to the family; her husband, children and home become her sole interest. It is only in late midnight that she has time for her own.

“I keep working when I return home; I do the cooking; clean the house and take care of my children.” To fulfill her home-related duties, Fatimah relies on her skill “of time management and prioritization,” dedicating care to her family’s psychological wellbeing as well.

To prevent routine and the work pressure from having a hold of her life, she resorts to entertainment in keeping with the circumstances and her surrounding.

“When my children are bored, I take a day off and join them on a picnic. We last went to a swimming pool. Sometimes, we have lunch at a restaurant.”

Fatimah’s children, Fawzi, Amal and Tariq, love the picnics to the park by the river, where they spend most of their time at the playground, enjoying the recreational equipment there.

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