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White Helmets help rebuild northwest Syria after earthquakes

Volunteer organizations help build back Syria
White Helmets help rebuild northwest Syria after earthquakes 06:11

A series of powerful earthquakes hit southern Turkey and northwest Syria in the early morning of Feb. 6, causing mass devastation in its wake. For many residents of war-torn Syria, this meant dealing with yet another tragedy. These earthquakes further exacerbated the destruction already caused by Syria's ongoing civil war, killing thousands of people, destroying tens of thousands of buildings and costing billions of dollars in damages. The Syrian people must now continue to do what they have done for 12 years: find hope and try to rebuild.

This week on 60 Minutes, correspondent Scott Pelley traveled to northwest Syria and revisited the Syrian Civil Defense, a volunteer organization dedicated to responding and rebuilding after such devastations. The group is better known as the White Helmets

"When we first met the White Helmets, it was sort of a loosely organized group of volunteers. The only thing they seemed to have joining them was the color of their helmets," Pelley told 60 Minutes Overtime. "Now they're one of the bravest organizations I've ever had the pleasure to see working in a situation like this." 

Originally created to help rescue Syrians after attacks during the war, the White Helmets' grassroots organization started small. But as the relentless bombing of apartment buildings and the shelling of neighborhoods raged on, more volunteers began to join the White Helmets, digging through rubble with their bare hands to find the bodies of friends, family, neighbors and other innocent civilians. The group now consists of about 3,000 men and women from all walks of life, bound together by the principles of "humanity, solidarity, impartiality." 

The White Helmets mission has also grown since its early days. It now serves not only to rescue, but to rebuild Syria after any tragedy, whether airstrike or earthquake. 

"In the first phase of the earthquake, we focused on pulling out victims and civilians that were trapped under the rubble," Raed al-Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, explained to 60 Minutes. "The second stage is opening the roads and restoring life to the affected areas… after which we will start the stage of recovery from the earthquake by rehabilitating the infrastructure of sewage, water, schools, hospitals and places of worship to help people to regain their lives again."

60 Minutes first met Saleh six years ago, when he was an electrical contractor in Syria. He then joined the White Helmets and since its inception, has commanded the vast operation. Saleh told 60 Minutes that the recovery process from the quakes is far from over and will take at least another year. 

Crippled from years of war and unequipped to deal with a disaster of this magnitude, the Syrian people and the White Helmets turned to the international community for help and support, only to be neglected. There has been criticism of the international community's slow response time in sending aid and responding to the crisis, to which the UN has responded, stating "the tragic reality is that an effective response was hampered" by challenges related to the conflict. But international aid is essential in Syria's efforts to return to a sense of normalcy.

"We raced against time to rescue people under the rubble amid a severe lack of equipment. To this day, we continue to struggle under these same conditions," Raed al-Saleh said. "...the people in northwest Syria feel besieged by the international community…[there] are shortcomings in the implementation of the humanitarian response for civilians in northwest Syria." 

Video courtesy of the White Helmets and Getty Images

To learn more about the Syrian American Medical Society, click here. To learn more about the White Helmets, click here.

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