LONDON -- When disaster strikes in war-ravaged Syria and the world watches from afar, a group of ordinary Syrians don their trademark white helmets and rush in to save lives.
The Syria Civil Defence, better known as the White Helmets, consists of about 3,000 volunteer first responders who "come from all walks of life," including bakers, tailors, pharmacists, firefighters and engineers, according to the organization's website. Unpaid and unarmed, they risk their lives to help those in need "in all areas" of Syria that they "can access," the organization says.
Most recently, the White Helmets has been garnering attention for their vital response to the devastation in rebel-held areas of northwestern Syria after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked the region on Feb. 6, with the epicenter just across the border in southeastern Turkey. The quake and its powerful aftershocks toppled thousands of buildings in both countries, killing more than 11,000 people, according to Turkish and Syrian officials.
The White Helmets says it formed as a grassroots team of volunteers during the earlier years of Syria's ongoing civil war, which began as a peaceful revolution in the southern city of Dara'a in 2011 before descending into a full-fledged conflict by 2012. When the Syrian regime and its allies began bombing civilian targets in opposition-controlled areas, the White Helmets responded by rescuing people from the rubble and helping rebuild their homes. The organization says it has saved more than 125,000 lives "on all sides of the conflict."
Initially, the volunteers had limited experience and equipment, often digging out victims "with only their bare hands," the organization says. In 2013, some volunteers traveled to neighboring Turkey for their first professional training in urban search and rescue. Additional and more advanced training over the years has allowed the White Helmets to develop expertise in using heavy tools, establish specialized teams and open facilities.
In addition to search and rescue missions and the rehabilitation of neighborhoods, the White Helmets says it now provides "a range of essential services" for more than 4 million civilians across northwestern Syria. Those services include firefighting, health care, fixing electrical grids, sewage maintenance, removing unexploded weapons, clearing rubble from roads, as well as educating communities and preparing them for future attacks, according to the organization's website.
The White Helmets operates only in rebel-held areas of Syria, though the organization describes itself as non-partisan.
The White Helmets says its volunteers pledge commitment to the principles of "humanity, solidarity, impartiality," as outlined under international humanitarian law. The organization's motto comes from an oft-quoted verse in the Quran: "to save a life is to save all of humanity." Their work has earned them the 2016 Right Livelihood Award, often described as the "Alternative Nobel," as well as several nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, many volunteers have paid the ultimate sacrifice -- at least 293 have been killed while saving others, according to the organization's website.