Life has transformed for 30-year-old Horani since he arrived in the UK last autumn from Syria. But there is one British tradition in particular that has stuck out.
“People in the UK, they have a lot of biscuits and tea,” he says, speaking in Arabic through a translator. They drink tea in his home time of Daraa too, he says, “but here they add milk to the tea, milk to the coffee – they add milk to everything.”
Horani, his wife and children spent eight years under bombardment from the Syrian army when they lived in rebel-held areas. They finally escaped to a field, where they lived for two weeks before being rescued by a bus that took them to Jordan. From there, the family travelled to the UK.
We haven’t identified where exactly they live to protect their safety, because Horani is a member of the White Helmets, the Syrian search and rescue organisation that found themselves subject to global fame – and at the centre of a global disinformation war – when footage of them rescuing civilians from bombed-out buildings was shown around the world.
Risking everything to help rescue civilians across the country, the group have found themselves in ever-shrinking pockets of land as the Syrian army lay siege to rebel-held areas.
“We’d been saving lives for five years – now it was time for someone to save ours,” Horani says. “We’d been sleeping in the open and were exhausted – we couldn’t believe our eyes. The next thing I remember is arriving in Jordan.”
Horani is one of around 100 members of the White Helmets who were evacuated with their families from Syria, and have made the UK their home.
Friday marked eight years since the ‘Day of Rage’, widely regarded as the start of the uprising that lead to the civil war that has torn Syria apart. It was a day people across the country took to the street to protest against the imprisonment and torture of 15 boys, just for the act of spray-painting graffiti on a wall.
With the Arab Spring unfolding across the Middle East, some Syrians dared to believe that the Assad family, which has ruled the country for 40 years, would enact sweeping reforms to bring a measure of democracy to the police state.
“People started calling for more than just the release of the children,” Horani explains. “They called for their rights that they were deprived of during the years of Assad’s family controlling the country.”
“Me and my friends volunteered to help – if a fire started because of a bombing we would go and help the injured and take them to hospital”
Instead, the government of President Bashar al-Assad ordered his army to attack cities and towns where people were demonstrating, sparking a war that has to date killed around half a million people.
Russia has been fighting alongside the Syrian government since 2015 and between them the two powers are responsible for 94% of the more than 200,000 civilians killed in the conflict.
As the government pulled out of rebel areas, it was left to civilians to provide their own services, everything from schooling to legal services. And with the Syrian artillery and Russian jets destroying residential areas, someone had to rescue those caught under the rubble of their homes.
“Me and my friends volunteered to help – if a fire started because of a bombing we would go and help the injured and take them to hospital,” Horani says.
This ad hoc rescue service became steadily more organised until eventually it received funds and training from western countries, including from the UK. The group of rescuers were formally known as the Syria Civil Defence, but became famous as the White Helmets.
An essential part of the White Helmets toolkit is a headcam. James Le Mesurier, the founder of Mayday Rescue, the NGO that trains the White Helmets, told HuffPost UK: “We issued helmet cameras to the team initially as a training tool so we could take those videos and make recommendations to the way they could improve their technical capabilities.
“We then started posting those videos on social media, others then picked those videos up – that’s not the White Helmets pushing them out there, that’s them being picked up by other news and media entities.”
The group became a thorn in the side of the Syrian and Russian governments as the very nature of their work meant they were on the frontlines of the assaults on civilian areas, which include a well-documented pattern of targeting civilian infrastructure, particularly hospitals.
Horani says that being a White Helmet was his life, and no matter how hard or how dangerous it got, saving a life from under the rubble was everything for him.
But the realtime documentation of the atrocities of war combined with the ease of broadcasting it on social media made the White Helmets a target themselves.
Many times when the regime would bomb a place and the rescuers would rush in to save people, the regime would strike it a second time. This became known as ‘double-tapping’. As recently as this week, a White Helmet working in Idlib captured a Russian “double-tap” on video which resulted in the death of one of his colleagues. More than 260 White Helmets have been killed so far in the conflict.
Eight years on, and Assad and his Russian allies are close to winning the war – only the area of Idlib remains in the hands of rebels and the Islamist groups that flooded the country to take advantage of the chaos.
Around three million people currently live there under the bombardment of the Syrian and Russian militaries.
White Helmets like Horani and Amer, a 30-year-old who has also been resettled in the UK with his family, were being forced into ever smaller areas of land and faced being detained by the government.
“In Syria, even before the uprising everybody who lived in Syria knew that if the regime arrested someone they would be tortured or they would just disappear,” Amer says.
Guarantees by Russian and Syrian forces that they would be treated fairly if captured did not convince many White Helmets to stay.
Horani doesn’t know the fate of some of his colleagues who were arrested. He says some were killed under torture, and others were forced to go on national television and say the regime “was right, we were terrorists”.
Papers seen by HuffPost UK support Horani’s claims. A so-called “reconciliation document” that must be signed by any Syrian male who crosses from rebel to Syrian territory includes “pledges” not to “act or say anything against the police or army”, “always work under state institutions” and not to “provoke demonstration or disorder”.
“All I can do is remember all that has happened during those eight years and pray for the safety of the Syrian people”
With few options left, Amer, Horani and their families found themselves on a sliver of land near the Israeli border with seemingly nowhere left to go. But a last-minute international effort meant that they have found themselves in the UK where they’re gradually adapting to their new lives.
As well as taking regular English lessons, Amer has volunteered with his local fire service and Horani helps out at a local foodbank.
For Amer, it’s the simple things about the UK that are the most noticeable. “In the UK you can send your child to their school without being in fear that something is going to happen to them,” he says. “In Syria families didn’t have this because they would send their kids to school fearing it would be bombed.”
Both men will mark today’s anniversary in their own ways – Horani plans to attend a solidarity event in London.
Amer feels helpless being so far from home. “All I can do is remember all that has happened during those eight years and pray for the safety of the Syrian people.”
*Some names have been changed and specific locations withheld for security reasons.