Why Did the USA Just Deny a Visa to a Heroic Syrian NGO Leader Visiting to Pick Up an Award?

The head of the Syrian Civil Defense, or White Helmets as they are popularly known, has won a prestigious international humanitarian award. Raed Saleh was chosen by InterAction, an umbrella group representing humanitarian NGOs, for their Humanitarian Award 2016.

Raed Saleh
Raed Saleh

The annual InterAction forum and award ceremony is a major event for the NGO community in Washington, DC and the USA more broadly. It is often attended by dignitaries and development leaders, and this year’s award winners also included a United States Senator, Lindsey Graham. The administrator of USAID, Gayle Smith gave a keynote address at the ceremony.

It is a prestigious award at an important ceremony. But Saleh never showed up to accept his award. Rather, when he arrived at Dulles International Airport on April 18 to he was put on a plane back to Istanbul. His visa had inexplicably been revoked. The US government has not stated a reason for doing so.

Amid the Depravity of the Syrian Conflict, White Helmets are Saving Lives

The White Helmets are a 2,800-plus group of volunteers in Syria who perform search-and-rescue operations. Civilians are used as pawns in the 5-year conflict in which regime, rebel and extremist groups alike have heavily bombed civilian areas. Rebel areas in towns Aleppo, Daraa and Idlib have been particularly badly hit. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimate that 95% of civilians killed in Syria were by the regime.

The range of weaponry used by the Syrian regime against civilians is astounding – barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and cluster bombs are among them. Thousands of Syrians live in cities under government siege or where rebels, regime and religious extremist groups violently fight for control. Public services have collapsed in many areas. Often, the only organised help is from the White Helmets.

The White Helmets were established in 2013 to perform rescue operations. Volunteers receive training and group is neutral and unarmed. Women and men both volunteer, with women playing a crucial role in some conservative communities. Since the start of the conflict the volunteers have saved more than 40, 823 lives, according to the White Helmets. They have become a powerful force not only for saving lives, but also reporting and providing information about the conflict from some of the most dangerous areas of Syria.

Before the war began in 2011, Raed Saleh was a businessman. He joined protests against the regime in his home town Jisr Ashughour, but was forced into hiding in Turkey. When he returned to Syria in 2013 he attended a civil defense training course. In 2014 he was appointed head of the Syria Civil Defense.

The work of the volunteers is dangerous. The aftermath of a bombing often involves digging through rubble chasing sounds of survivors, and there is always the risk of repeat bombing or building collapse. Almost 100 volunteers have died in the five-year conflict.

Access, Denied

On 18 April, when Saleh was prevented from leaving the airport, the CEO of InterAction said ‘I am shocked and saddened to learn that Raed would be turned away by U.S. officials on the eve of being recognized by his peers in the international humanitarian community for his heroic work in Syria to help bring life-saving assistance to communities under fire in Syria’.

Saleh is currently in Istanbul, Turkey.

In remarks prepared for the event, Saleh said ‘This award is a significant symbol  of the interdependence and human brotherhood between the peoples of the world’.   Those in attendance wore White Helmets in solidarity.

“I really was moved by this moment,” Mr. Saleh told the New York Times. “It was a stance of the unity of humanity – and I don’t mean the international community, I mean humanity.”

Meanwhile, bombings in Aleppo and other Syrian cities by regime forces in the past two weeks have turned the ceasefire agreed on 27 February into little more than a fiction for many people. And this week Human Rights Watch documented the regime shelling of two displaced persons camps near the Turkish border.

The work of the White Helmets as important than ever.