BEIRUT – The head of the Syrian search-and-rescue group featured in the harrowing Oscar-winning Netflix documentary The White Helmets said on Monday he hopes the award will serve as an inspiration his volunteers to keep up their mission in the war-torn country.
Raed Saleh of the Syrian Civil Defence – popularly known as White Helmets – also appealed on governments around the world “to stop the bloodshed of the Syrian people.”
Speaking in a video recorded in southern Turkey, he quoted from the Qur’an: “Whoever saves a life – it is as if he has saved mankind entirely.”
The Oscar for the best documentary short “will inspire our volunteers with the moral support to continue rescuing civilians in Syria,” Saleh said.
In a written statement, Saleh also said the White Helmets “are not happy to do what we do.”
“We abhor the reality we live in. What we want isn’t support to continue, but rather support to end this work,” Saleh said.
The film focuses on Syrian first-responders, rescue workers who risk their lives to save Syrians affected by the civil war, now in its sixth year. The film often captures the highly dangerous moments when the White Helmets arrive at the scene of an airstrike, which may be imminently bombed for a second time in a so-called “double tap” attacks.
Many of the group’s members have been killed by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s war planes. The volunteers’ struggle to reach those bombed in the rebel enclave of eastern Aleppo, just before the city completely fell to the government forces in December, was especially poignant. The group also was nominated for last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
The White Helmets did not have a representative at the Los Angeles Oscars ceremony after U.S. immigration authorities barred entry to a 21-year-old Syrian cinematographer who worked on the film.
Director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara accepted the Oscar, but devoted most of their short time on stage to sharing a statement from the absent Khaled Khateeb.
“We’re so grateful that this film has highlighted our work to the world,” said the statement, read by von Einsiedel.
Khateb told The Associated Press on Monday from Turkey that though he said he had expected the documentary to win, he didn’t sleep all night but smoked shisha with friends and watching the ceremony.
“It is a media prize, it’s not a political prize … But still it sheds light on the tragedy of the Syrian people. Maybe it will help stop some of the massacres,” he added. “It is a strong movie.”
Khateeb was scheduled to arrive on Saturday in Los Angeles on a Turkish Airlines flight departing from Istanbul.
His plans were upended after U.S. officials reported finding “derogatory information” regarding Khateeb. According to internal Trump administration correspondence seen by The Associated Press, the Department of Homeland Security decided at the last minute to block him from travelling to Los Angeles for the Oscars.
“I tried and it didn’t work,” Khateeb said of his hopes to attend the ceremony. “It is America’s loss!”
Associated Press writer Lindsey Bahr in Los Angeles contributed to this report. With a file from Global News