Volunteering with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is a commitment. Shifts are long, and the work is hard and dangerous. Most of the Red Crescent’s first aid volunteers are in their 20s, and many are juggling university studies along with their duties.
Volunteers are trained by the Red Crescent for a year before they are qualified to join a first aid unit. Despite the conflict, the Red Crescent has been able to continue recruiting and training first aid and psychosocial support volunteers.
Although their job is often a dangerous one, volunteers speak about their work with passion and dedication.
First aid volunteer Leen, 23, is training to be a pharmacist. In between studying, she finds time to volunteer at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s Damascus branch two days a week. She felt that due to her studies she could contribute more in first aid.
Leen joined two years ago, following the example of her sister – also a volunteer. She says: “My family have been very worried about me, and didn’t want me to join the first aid team in the first place. But they couldn’t stop me. Now they continue to worry, but they are supportive”.
When asked what her friends think of her volunteering with the Red Crescent, she looks sad: “Many of my friends have left Syria – for Dubai, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. I can’t blame them, its hard staying here when it’s like this.”
Hundreds of thousands of people have now fled the fighting in Syria, seeking safety in neighbouring countries.
Also 23 years old, Ousman has been a volunteer first aider in Damascus for nine months now. He is a fifth year medical student. He goes to class in the morning, and comes to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the afternoon. He studies at the station while his unit is on standby, in a small library set aside for the volunteers.
Ousman says: “We want to help. We don’t want to see pain and just sit back and be helpless. We want to do something. It’s a wonderful thing to save someone’s life.”
Asked why he joined the Red Crescent, he replies: “Joining the Syrian Arab Red Crescent was the only opportunity to practice first aid as a volunteer. I benefit from the experience too. When friends and family heard of my involvement, many wanted to join.”
Since Ousman joined the Red Crescent, five of his friends and two family members have also started volunteering here.
Neutrality is invaluable
Until a wide-reaching publicity campaign two years ago, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s first aid and ambulance service was not widely known about by the general Syrian population. However, as violence has escalated, the Red Crescent’s neutrality has meant that people often call on the service for help.
Executive director of the Red Crescent’s Damascus Branch, Khaled Ereksoussi, said: “We made a big effort to publicise our services, and increase our visibility so that people knew the Syrian Arab Red Crescent emergency number – 133. Now people call us when they need first aid services because they know they can trust us to not take sides.”
The Damascus branch service now has 18 ambulances, and is sometimes contacted by both sides in the conflict to evacuate injured people and take them for treatment.
Safe access for the first aid volunteers is the priority, and this must be secured before any aid can be dispatched. The chief radio dispatch volunteer in the Damascus operations room explains: “Ambulances have to radio in after each check point to report back, so that those behind them know the situation on the road.
“If there is trouble anywhere, we can make sure the vehicles and ambulances behind don’t drive straight into it. Our ambulances are our ears and eyes on the streets, and the information keeps us as safe as possible.”
Sadly, despite these precautions, the intensity of the violence in Syria makes the job a dangerous one. Eight Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have now died while carrying out their duties.
In the Damascus branch, there are two small dormitories – one for women, one for men. These were intended as places in which volunteers could rest while on duty. However, in recent months, the dormitories have become somewhere for volunteers to sleep when long shifts are required during times of acute fighting, or when the danger outside means they can’t go home.
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Slideshow images © 1,2&4: ©SARC, Homs. 3: ©ICRC/Ibrahim Malla. 5,6,&7: © SARC, Aleppo.