It was the sound of children chatting on their way to school that startled Amer on his first morning in England.
For the past eight years, the 30-year-old Syrian, one of the White Helmets rescue workers, had grown more accustomed to seeing children trapped under rubble after a government airstrike than peacefully walking to school with friends.
Even switching on lights in his home has been a novelty for Amer, who did not have access to reliable power since the war began in 2011. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced about half of Syria’s pre-war 22 million population.
“The day I arrived in Britain, I put my head on a pillow to sleep, and in the morning I was woken up by the sound of children outside,” said Amer, who did not reveal his full name or location for fear of reprisals.
“So I peeked out the window and I could see mothers dropping their children off at school – and that’s just not something I’ve seen in eight years,” he said from his home in northeastern England where he has lived since September.
With the help of Western powers and Israeli soldiers, Amer was among hundreds of White Helmets evacuated last July from southwest Syria to Jordan, during a government offensive.
The White Helmet, known officially as Syria Civil Defence, was established as a rescue service in rebel-held areas of Syria, where its civilian volunteers have often worked to save people trapped under the rubble of government bombardment.
Its members, known for their white helmets, say they are neutral. But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers, including Russia, have dismissed them as Western-sponsored propaganda tools and proxies of Islamist-led insurgents. Read more