For Ismail Alabdullah, a volunteer first responder who has worked with the White Helmets in Syria since 2013, his job for years has been to rush toward the scenes that immediately follow a bombing or airstrike.
This has led him to save many lives, but it has also repeatedly exposed him to incidents that exact a lasting mental and emotional toll. He said one incident that haunts him occurred in 2014 in Aleppo when the forces of Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Assad were bombing the city every day.
He said that, at the time, there was only one route out of the city for the convoys of people trying to escape to safety. “We received the report that Assad’s air forces targeted that, if we can say, those cars,” Alabdullah said. “Our response was to go. We responded.”
When Alabdullah and his other colleagues with the White Helmets arrived, he said the scene was full of blood, bodies and body parts. “You know when I say parts of dead bodies you can see a head here, a hand there and something here.”
What cemented itself in his memory the most, however, was what he saw in one of the burned-out cars. He said he found the remains of a mother clutching her child.
“Her normal reaction was just to hold him tightly to protect him from everything,” he said. “Unfortunately, you know, bombings have no mercy so the explosion, both of them were burnt. Completely.”
Alabdullah said this horrifying scene and the many others he has witnessed over the years have impacted his mental health as it has for the thousands of other volunteers working with the White Helmets, officially known as Syria Civil Defence. According to White Helmets communications manager Mohamed Shebli, there are approximately 3,000 White Helmets volunteers in Syria and most of them have seen events similar to what Alabdullah has.
“Everyone with the White Helmets now has trauma and they were traumatized by those incidents,” Alabdullah said. “No one can imagine how we are dealing with this, seeing blood, seeing parts of bodies, seeing people burning.”
And, even though Alabdullah thinks it’s important for White Helmets volunteers and Syrians in general to receive professional help for dealing with this trauma, the reality is that help from mental health professionals is hard to come by and people rarely seek it out.
Culturally and socially in the Middle East there is a stigma surrounding therapy and psychiatry. Few are willing to ask for therapeutic or psychiatric help, few are willing to talk about struggling with mental or emotional health and few enter the profession instead of a more widely accepted field of medicine.
Alabdullah said even the term “mental health” is not something that’s commonly known or used. “In our community and in our area, we don’t have such mental health supporters or something like that,” he said. “In our culture it is something difficult to understand. People might call you crazy if you ask for something like that.”
Combine these challenges with the difficulties of getting foreign aid into a country that has been destabilized by 11 years of war and the end result is a desperate need for services that won’t be arriving any time soon.
Some international organizations like the United Nations and its agencies are actively working to address this issue but it’s an uphill battle. In a report released in March 2022, UNICEF noted that one-third of children in Syria show signs of psychological distress including anxiety, sadness, fatigue or frequent trouble sleeping.
Alabdullah, a married father of two, said he regularly thinks about leaving Syria for the sake of his family, even though he feels a sense obligation to stay and continue volunteering as a first responder.
He said, “Maybe I’ll leave the country, leave the suffering and go to a safe place. Not because I want to but because I have a family and I have children now. It’s my duty to provide them with a normal life without bombings, without fear, without a state of panic.”
In the absence of help from a therapist or another licensed professional, Alabdullah said what helps him deal with the horrors he has witnessed is his family. He said that when his family is safe, their lives are stable and they have a future, he feels content and at peace.
But Alabdullah also emphasized that there are many Syrians who have been affected by their traumatic experiences far more than he has. He said he feels a constant level of restlessness and stress, but he knows people who simply could not cope with what they went through.
“In our daily language we say they went crazy. They were good men, good people, but because of the stress, because of the trauma, because of witnessing people dying … ,” he said, trailing off his sentence.
Despite the stigma surrounding therapy and discussing mental health, Alabdullah said that in the future he hopes to see more support for Syrians and White Helmets volunteers who are struggling with the trauma they have experienced. If online counseling was widely available, for example, he said there are thousands of Syrians who would benefit from it.
And above all, Alabdullah said it’s important for people to pay attention to what has happened in Syria, what its people have gone through and that the people who work as first responders in Syria or elsewhere receive the support they need to save lives.