Syrian female volunteers change society’s negative view of women’s role

Volunteers in the Syria Civil Defence returning from responding to a fire in rural Idlib - December 21, 2023 (The White Helmets)

Volunteers in the Syria Civil Defence returning from responding to a fire in rural Idlib - December 21, 2023 (The White Helmets)


Enab Baladi – Reem Hamoud

Amid the needs of more than 15 million people for health services in Syria, the medical sector in northwestern Syria faces numerous crises affected by reduced humanitarian support and the spread of diseases, especially after the earthquake that hit four Syrian provinces and southern Turkey in February 2023, despite the already tense situation due to the war.

The heightened needs for health services led the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue an emergency appeal about the health situation in Syria for the year 2024. The funding requirements for operations in Syria totaled more than $79 million, while the organization needs $53,428,000 for emergency operations.

Amid these needs and figures issued by international organizations, Syrian volunteer women are working in civil society organizations in the medical sector in northwestern Syria, taking a step to contribute to covering the need and shortage and meeting the needs of the people in the region.

Volunteering within the medical sector in particular was not fully available and acceptable in society. Some volunteers faced “annoying” attitudes from people around them, while others received acceptance and support from their environment, encouraging them to continue providing assistance.

The desire of Syrian volunteer women in northwestern Syria to respond to distress calls was stronger than some opposing attitudes. The motives for choosing the medical sector were not different for three volunteers who spoke with Enab Baladi while preparing this report, despite the difference in tasks and civil society organizations they work with, while they all shared the goal of saving lives, according to them.

A mixture of feelings

Emotions and feelings when responding to a distress call or seeing cases in need of medical aid play an important role in affecting the volunteers, but this is not a justification for the volunteer’s weakness, whether male or female, or for reducing the speed of their response to the event. On the contrary, it should increase their determination, according to what Khadija Khatib, a first aid volunteer within the Syria Civil Defence (The White Helmets) team, told Enab Baladi.

Khadija Khatib, from Maarat al-Numan in rural Idlib, explained to Enab Baladi that she has completed six years of work within the Syria Civil Defence team and has never felt broken and weakened by the horrors she sees. On the contrary, she uses them to find another reason to confirm the correctness of her choice of this no-return path.

In most first aid operations that Khadija works on and succeeds in, she receives prayers from the patient or looks of joy that express the joy of being saved from death. These results reflect positively on the volunteer, enhancing her sense of role and contribution in saving lives.

Khadija, a graduate of the Anesthesia Institute, draws her strength from helping children and the elderly during rescue operations after Syrian regime forces and their Russian ally bomb areas in northwestern Syria. She conducts conversations that alleviate the horror and pain they have experienced.

The feeling of motherhood affects the determination of 24-year-old volunteer Khadija Khatib, who is also motivated to continue volunteering in the medical sector. She expressed her wish for her daughter to be well towards other children, as the Khadija told Enab Baladi.

At the White Helmets point in the al-Kafir area west of Babsqa, volunteers including Khadija help the camp inhabitants to cover their medical needs, as it is located among camps that include hundreds of civilians in need of medical help, as discussed by Khadija.

Souria al-Khaled, from Maarat al-Numan, has undergone several training courses over the years, including a three-month nursing course at the Basamat Institute in 2015. Her main motivation for volunteering in the medical sector is to provide help, even if it is simple, to the displaced people.

Speaking of her passion for her profession, she told Enab Baladi that her entry into the field of volunteering and specializing in the medical sector was caused by her father’s death in 2018 after being hit by a missile shrapnel. He passed away before her eyes without her being able to save him, so she made a promise to provide “support” for patients so as not to repeat what happened to her father.

Souria has been living in the Harbanoush camps since 2017 with her 11-year-old daughter and joined the al-Yamamah Volunteering Team in 2023 in the medical sector and monitoring cases after fundraising, without receiving any compensatory amounts due to the absence of financial support for the team, as Souria described.

Dreams continued

The inclusion of women volunteers in the fields of emergency response, midwifery, and nursing has contributed to the success of many medical facilities. They have proven their existence in this field and others, such as relief, educational, and developmental, which complement one another, according to the volunteers.

Among the successes achieved by female volunteers in civil society organizations in northwestern Syria, volunteer Amina al-Bash who was classified by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as one of the 100 inspiring women around the world for the year 2023.

In 2017, Amina decided to become one of the first volunteers in the Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, to save lives and provide assistance to civilians who are injured.

Ruwa Kanawi, speaking to Enab Baladi, highlighted the role of women in the medical sector, which faces significant challenges due to the war in northwestern Syria. She mentioned that the role of women cannot be ignored or denied, with their ability to fill the void in covering the need for medical personnel in an area filled with camps and diseases.

The need for work alone was not what pushed Ruwa (30 years old) to spend shifts that sometimes lasted four days, as she cares for patients and women about to give birth, after volunteering as a midwifery and emergency nurse in a private hospital specializing in maternity and childbirth for the Violet organization in the city of Azaz. Rather, her love for the nursing profession and her certainty of its importance were the main and strongest motivation for her.

Ruwa, from the rural area of Azaz north of Aleppo province, graduated from Aleppo University from the technical diploma branch in medical sciences in 2019, after a seven-year hiatus in study. Her aim was to increase her experience and obtain a certificate to strengthen her expertise in the medical field, which she practiced within youth volunteering teams that emerged in the first years of the Syrian revolution that broke out in March 2011, as she told Enab Baladi.

Results change ideas

Based on the testimonies of the volunteers in the medical sector, the role provided by women in northwestern Syria has contributed to changing the stereotypical image of women and their role among the people.

Since the beginning of the protests in Syria, many volunteering teams have been established by young men and women eager to volunteer in the field of humanitarian work.

According to the volunteers, confronting negative societal ideas and trying to overcome them came only through the results achieved on the ground, and the conviction of women’s effective role within these organizations.

The motives that drove the three volunteers to persist in the medical sector and the humanitarian field were not different. The desire to help was stronger than all the challenges, and from the “conservative” societal view, which has changed over time.

Souria al-Khaled pointed out in her talk to Enab Baladi that the surrounding community’s rejection of her work and the “vague” talks from both males and females were more prevalent in the early periods. However, today, she is requested by the camp residents where she stays, for injecting needles and helping with bandage changes, as well as other specializations in the medical field. Her work does not stop in the medical field, as she helps families with everything possible to support the camp residents and places close to her work area.

The beginning of the volunteer Khadijah Khatib’s work with the White Helmets faced widespread criticism from her community, amidst expectations that women would not be able to work in civil society organizations, especially in the midst of shelling, rescue operations, and first aid activities that Khadijah was involved in.

The societal perspective did not affect Khadijah’s desire to continue her activities for two reasons; the first was her commitment to the principles she started with, and the second was her prolonged reflection on the notion that a society refusing women’s work would still prefer a wife or daughter to visit a female doctor.

Khadijah concluded that those who once rejected the presence of female volunteers in hospitals and medical clinics, among others, now praise her role and support her, noting that achieving this result was not easy, but persistence and determination ultimately reaped positive results.


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