They are the first to respond to barrel bombs and missile strikes. They dig for survivors using tools and sometimes their bare hands. The "White Helmets" — some 3,000 ordinary Syrians who make up the Syrian Civil Defense rescue group — are the country's unlikely group of heroes.
These volunteers, nicknamed for the color of their headgear, used to be shopkeepers, bakers, and teachers. Now they put their lives on the line every day to save civilians affected by the country’s brutal war.
“These are very normal, ordinary people who now do one of the most extraordinary jobs on this planet,” explained Orlando von Einsiedel, the director of a new Netflix original documentary that offers a glimpse into the lives of these volunteers.
Photo Gallery: Syria's 'White Helmets': Angels on the Front Line
The 40-minute documentary follows three men to Turkey, where they receive training before returning to Aleppo to work together in the same rescue unit. It was at this training site that the filmmakers met Khaled Khatib, a 21-year-old volunteer who has documented rescue missions since the group first formed in 2013.
The footage from Syria mainly comes from Khatib and his colleagues, who captured some of the film’s more intense and intimate moments. “I would like for people around the world to see there are Syrian people working, too, for a Syria in peace,” Khatib told NBC News.
The White Helmets gained international recognition in August when the group helped save Omran Daqneesh, the stunned boy covered in dust and blood whose photo was seen around the world. His image encapsulated the horrors inflicted on war-ravaged Syria and its people.
The filmmakers hope that Netflix’s international reach — the documentary will be accessible in 190 countries and translated in 21 languages — will bring more attention to the rescue group. “The White Helmets are a way for to support ordinary people in Syria. They are an example of the fact that one person can make a difference,” producer Joanna Natasegara told NBC News.
The volunteer rescue workers, who have saved more than 60,000 lives, are nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Some of the biggest names in Hollywood have joined more than 130,000 people worldwide who signed a petition supporting the nomination of the Syrian rescue group.
“For international stars to stand next to the White Helmets’ humanitarian cause raises the spirits of all people doing this work,” said the head of the group Raed Saleh. “We deeply appreciate this support and remain determined to rescue as many souls as possible and create the opportunity for peace. This is our mission.”
“They represent the best of what humanity can be,” von Einsiedel said. “It has given us faith in humanity and has made us want to be better people.”