By MICHELLE ZILIO AND MARK MACKINNON
Saturday, October 20, 2018
OTTAWA; ISTANBUL -- Some of the famed White Helmets, a group of volunteer humanitarian workers the Canadian government helped rescue from war-torn Syria, have arrived for resettlement in Canada, and more will be on their way soon.
A senior Canadian government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said some of the refugees have resettled in Canada. The government declined to say exactly how many White Helmets have already arrived or the total number Canada plans to welcome, citing security concerns for the Syrian refugees.
The White Helmets are a group of unarmed volunteers who have been credited with saving more than 100,000 civilians during Syria's seven-year-old civil war.
Canada sparked a daring overnight mission in July to evacuate 422 people - members of the White Helmets and their families - from Syria, where they faced increasing danger as the Syrian government encircled them. The Israel Defence Forces led the rescue effort, which was done at the request of Canada, Britain and Germany, who all committed to resettling evacuees. The United States also supported the operation.
In a joint statement on Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said that more White Helmets are going through immigration processing overseas, and security screening will be completed before the refugees are allowed to fly to Canada.
Ms. Freeland told The Globe she has been personally engaged in the White Helmets rescue and resettlement.
"What is happening in Syria is so tragic that I don't want to emphasize one small positive story.
But I do feel the fact that a group of the White Helmets and their families were able to escape from Syria and are now finding refuge around the world is a real example of not cursing the darkness, and lighting a small candle," Ms.
Freeland said in an interview.
For the safety of the refugees and their family members still in Syria, Ms. Freeland said she could not disclose where the White Helmets are and when they are coming to Canada.
In the statement, the ministers thanked all of Canada's international partners supporting the White Helmets initiative, including Jordan, where the refugees are undergoing processing before being resettled in other countries, and Israel. The statement also called on the Syrian regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, to "immediately cease all attacks on civilians in Syria."
A spokesman from Jordan's Foreign Ministry, Majed al-Qatarneh, told Reuters on Wednesday that 279 of the 422 people who took sanctuary in the kingdom had left, with 93 others due to leave by Oct. 25. Mr. al-Qatarneh said another group's departure would be delayed until mid-November, as there were newborn babies and people receiving medical treatment among them. The report did not say how many refugees are headed to Canada.
The airlift is the latest chapter in a dramatic saga that began in July, when Canada took the lead in responding to an appeal from the White Helmets to help rescue hundreds of the group's members and their families, who were trapped in southern Syria as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad closed in.
It was believed that Mr. al-Assad and his Russian allies would show no mercy to any White Helmets they captured. Eyewitness videos posted online by White Helmets rescuers have been pivotal in highlighting the use of chemical gas and other illegal weapons by Mr. al-Assad's forces, and Syrian and Russian media have accused the White Helmets of working for Western intelligence services and co-operating with "terrorist" groups opposed to Mr. al-Assad.
Raed Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, said the operation to rescue the trapped volunteers sprang from a July 4 conversation he had with Robin Wettlaufer, Canada's Istanbulbased special envoy to Syria. Mr.
Saleh credits Ms. Wettlaufer for focusing the Canadian government's attention on the plight of the White Helmets, and says Ms.
Freeland - with whom he met ahead of the July 21 operation - played a key role in convincing other countries to join in the rescue.
Initially, there were 2,275 people - a full 1,400 more than previously reported - that Mr. Saleh hoped could be brought across the border to neighbouring Jordan from Syria's southern Daraa and Quneitra provinces. But the number of people that could be saved shrank as Syrian and Russian forces routed rebel forces faster than expected, and took control of the Syria-Jordan border before the Jordanians gave permission for the White Helmets and their loved ones to cross.
Finally, in an operation co-ordinated in part by the Canadian embassy in Amman, 422 people - 106 White Helmets volunteers, as well as their families - crossed from Syria into the Israel-controlled Golan Heights during the night of July 21 and early morning of July 22. They were then put on buses and driven to Jordan, where they have spent the past three months in the Azraq refugee camp, which is home to 40,000 other Syrians.
While concern was high for those White Helmets and their families who didn't make it out in July, Mr. Saleh said the worst fears never materialized. Under an August ceasefire deal, civilians and fighters willing to surrender their weapons were allowed to leave Daraa on buses bound for the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in the country.
Mr. Saleh said the remaining White Helmets were also able to board the buses.
"We believe that for them, maybe they're not 100-per-cent safe from the war in Idlib, but they are in a place where the regime and the Russians can't kill them," Mr. Saleh said in an interview at the White Helmets headquarters in Istanbul. "They are continuing their work, working with the White Helmets centres in Idlib."
A September ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey - which supports the rebels and has its own military "observation posts" in the region - has brought a measure of calm to Idlib in recent weeks. Mr. al-Assad has repeatedly said he intends to reconquer all of Syria.
Mr. Saleh said Mr. al-Assad "controls a ruined country," one that millions of people have fled.
Mr. Saleh said that Canada and other Western countries should not participate in the reconstruction of Syria until there is a political solution that removes Mr. al-Assad from power. "Assad committed war crimes," Mr. Saleh said. "How can countries like Canada have relations with such a regime?" More than 400,000 people were killed in the first five years of Syria's civil war, which began in early 2011. There are no reliable estimates of how many people have died in the past two years of fighting.
Syrian Civil Defence volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, rescue children from a damaged building in Idlib after an air strike targeted a bus in January, 2018.
OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES