Evidence of meeting #101 for Subcommittee on International Human Rights in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was work.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Nidal Ezeddin  Board Member, The White Helmets
Munier Mustafa  Deputy Chairman of the Board, The White Helmets
Mayson Almisri  Medical Centre Officer, The White Helmets

10:10 a.m.

Deputy Chairman of the Board, The White Helmets

Munier Mustafa

There are different parties on the ground. Civil defence is very independent. This is a very good aspect, because we can do our work without being involved with any political party or military organization.

We coordinate in order to reach some places. There are some facilities where the government of Bashar al-Assad and its allies don't allow civil defence personnel to reach those areas. White Helmets are not allowed to go there and do the work properly because of the death sentence against us because we are considered terrorists. However, those areas not controlled by the regime are accessible to us and very easy for us to get to. Some coordination is required, a very simple type of coordination, in order to provide our services very easily to the vast majority of the people.

10:10 a.m.

Liberal

Iqra Khalid Liberal Mississauga—Erin Mills, ON

You mentioned that about 243 White Helmets have lost their lives because of the services they're providing. How do you provide safety for the 3,700 some civilian volunteers that you have? How do you ensure the safety of your volunteers?

10:10 a.m.

Board Member, The White Helmets

Nidal Ezeddin

Honestly, the services we offer are part of the mission of our faith. We're responsible for protecting human life, irrespective of their affiliation, culture, religion, or ethnicity. For us, a victim is a soul that has to be rescued. We are very keen on continuing our work in this regard. Regarding the persons who have lost their lives, I don't know how to explain to you the feeling of losing a friend, a colleague, in the White Helmets.

Today we lost more than 10 volunteers in Ghouta, and before that—during the last four years—233 people have been killed. It's the faith. It's our faith that compels us to be there. We have to keep doing what we're doing in order to give hope to the people. Hopefully, one day, the friends of the Syrian people will feel our agony and open all those files that are in our possession so that people can be paid back and the rights will come back to those people.

10:10 a.m.

Liberal

Iqra Khalid Liberal Mississauga—Erin Mills, ON

Thank you. I know you have many friends here in Canada.

I'll pass the floor to MP Fragiskatos.

10:10 a.m.

Liberal

Peter Fragiskatos Liberal London North Centre, ON

Thank you very much.

As-salaam alaikum.

Thank you so much for being here. It's a true honour to be in your presence. I can only begin to imagine the unspeakable tragedy, the unspeakable violence, and the brutality that you have witnessed.

You have mentioned—and I've noticed you said it a few times—that the White Helmets are fully independent. I go for that. There's no question about that. I've been following the work you've been doing over the years very closely. One of the really important points about the White Helmets is that it's made up of so many folks from a wide variety of backgrounds. We're not just talking about doctors, nurses, and paramedics here. We're talking about former teachers, engineers, tailors, firefighters, and so on. It's a real volunteer effort and a genuine organic movement from the ground up—from the grassroots up, if you like.

While many in the world recognize that, there are those who continue to see you as not independent, but as al Qaeda-linked terrorists. A quick Google search will turn that up. Much of that has to do with Russian propaganda.

I'm just going to quote something here. It comes from a book by a British academic, David Patrikarakos, called War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. He says that in the old days, the Soviets would try to portray the Soviet Union as a model society, but that now it's about confusing every issue with so many narratives that people can't recognize the truth when they see it.

How has Russia tried to carry this out? You obviously know this, but I want it on the record. We're talking about Twitter bots putting out propaganda and untruths about you. The Russian state especially promotes bloggers—many of whom have links to the so-called “9/11 Truth” movement, which continues to say that 9/11 was an inside job carried out by Bush Jr., Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and the like—and they're promoted on outlets such as Russia Today.

For the purposes of the record, and for Canadians who are interested in this, can you go into this and how this propaganda effort has really created a perception of the organization that is completely false?

10:15 a.m.

Deputy Chairman of the Board, The White Helmets

Munier Mustafa

Yes, frankly speaking, if we look at this propaganda, we see a lot of contradiction in what they say and in the accusations that are filed against the White Helmets. They contradict each other. Sometimes we are AQ-linked. Sometimes we are the medical arm of al Qaeda, or we are a collaborator with the British or the Americans. These contradictory accusations just prove that it's misinformation against the White Helmets who work in Syria.

Also, you may wonder about the reason for these accusations against the White Helmets. The White Helmets, as we mentioned, are the first to reach the places where crimes are committed. They are the first eyewitnesses to such crimes. They take pictures. They convey the truth in a neutral way without any exaggeration, and they just show the facts of what is happening in Syria.

Of course, this is very disturbing to the criminals. When a criminal sees that you are showing the crime that's being committed, obviously you will have many accusations filed against you because you are documenting the crime.

This is one of the main reasons the Assad regime and its allies target the White Helmets using accusations in an attempt to try to prove to the world....

As you mentioned, it's really very little that the world sees. There are very few people who believe in such lies. I believe there are many friends around the world who know the truth, who see the truth as it is, and who receive our documentation. In civil defence, we pay with blood and human life in order to provide help to the civilian population inside the Syrian territories.

10:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

Thank you very much.

We're now going to move to MP Quach, please.

10:15 a.m.

NDP

Anne Minh-Thu Quach NDP Salaberry—Suroît, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you very much for meeting with the committee today. We are humbled by your courage, even at risk to your own life.

You talked about human rights violations aimed at....

The translation doesn't seem to be coming through, Mr. Chair.

10:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

I think the French to Arabic translation is down.

10:15 a.m.

NDP

Anne Minh-Thu Quach NDP Salaberry—Suroît, QC

I was thanking you for your courage and your appearance here today.

I'd like to ask you about the human rights violations aimed at hospitals and schools. Do you know how many of these institutions are attacked and how often?

10:20 a.m.

Deputy Chairman of the Board, The White Helmets

Munier Mustafa

Yes, the White Helmets have reports and documents of all the operations that take place inside Syria targeting schools, hospitals, and markets, as well as civil defence centres. They have full reports along with pictures. They are available, and the White Helmets and civil defence are ready to submit them, upon request, to any organization or place that could participate in helping to stop such crimes.

There are cyclical reports that are done, even when it comes to a small process of rescuing somebody and moving them from one place to another. There are also pictures that prove these reports.

In terms of targeting schools, hospitals, and other vital places inside Syria, all are documented with pictures and reports. Witnesses are willing to testify for individual incidents about when such incidents happened, what happened, what the number of casualties, fatalities, and missing persons was, and what the nature of the targeted place was.

Was it a school with children? Was it a hospital with doctors and health care providers? All of these have been documented with civil defence, and the reports have been available from the beginning of the establishment of the civil defence service until now. We're talking about more than four years.

10:20 a.m.

NDP

Anne Minh-Thu Quach NDP Salaberry—Suroît, QC

Thank you.

I have other questions about civilians, women and children, in particular. I see that women are part of your organization. Do they play a special role in dealing with women and children who have been victimized? How prevalent is sexual violence against women and children?

10:20 a.m.

Medical Centre Officer, The White Helmets

Mayson Almisri

When it comes to sexual violence, these things happen, but in small numbers. There is no society that is free of that, but the numbers are relatively small. For women in general, there are so many risks that we face: the direct shelling, the fact that there is no safe shelter for us.

Even as civil defence, when we go about our work on a daily basis, we are not sure we are going to return to our homes the same day. There's also the problem with arrests. Lots of women have been detained. They're away. We don't know what happens to them. Some people leave their detention places, and they subjected to horrific torture, so basically being arrested and detained is a very major concern.

Yes, we have the shelling, but the detention is very serious, as is the economic situation of women. There are so many women who have lost their men, and now the women find themselves fully responsible for their own families. Sometimes a woman has to be displaced to other places in the hope of finding safety. There are large numbers who hope to find safety and economic resources for the family.

We have a big group of women and young girls who have had to leave education. They could not pursue their education because the regime would detain women as a weapon, to pressure their families to surrender themselves and to stop participating in the revolution. Women are not able to pursue their education beyond grade 9.

As for health services for women, some pregnant women lost their lives. They died for lack of medical supplies or for lack of medical facilities that could perform surgeries.

We have so many children who lost their parents. There are lots of children who are unable to get an education, and they are unable to read or write. Lots of children have been physically injured, and they have become disabled. There are no centres to rehabilitate such disabled children.

Lots of women, lots of children have struggled psychologically, and they have severe psychological shocks and psychological problems because they have witnessed horrific scenes happening to their families or they have seen their parents being killed.

Imagine a child looking at the head of their mother who was targeted by a rocket when they thought they were safe in the lower level of a building. When the children were rescued, they were covered with the blood and body parts of their own families, so you weren't sure whether they were injured themselves or not. Such children struggle with fear and horror as soon as they hear any noise. Even if it's not loud, they scream.

When I came to Canada, I just heard a bus at one point, and I thought I was in Tehran. I thought there was a plane, and I started looking for shelter. This is the kind of psychological suffering that we have. We are unable to leave that climate of war that haunts us. Imagine women and children who have been subjected to horrific crimes.

10:25 a.m.

Deputy Chairman of the Board, The White Helmets

Munier Mustafa

I have an addition when it comes to sexual violence in Syria. Most of such cases against women in Syria are done inside the detention centres that are run by the Assad regime. There are so many witnesses to this. There are so many women who were detained. Now they're free, and they're willing to give testimony about what happened to them.

March 29th, 2018 / 10:25 a.m.

Board Member, The White Helmets

Nidal Ezeddin

I have personal experience with the situation. In 2013 my wife was arrested from Damascus University. She was detained and remained for about 10 days after that, until she recovered from the physical effects of the detention. Five years later, she is isolated. She is unable to have friends. She does not talk to anybody. She is psychologically destroyed.

I tried to take her to a psychiatrist, but unfortunately her situation has been very difficult, and this is after a relatively short period of detention. Imagine women who were detained for a year or two or three. Some of their futures are not known. Their destiny is not known. Obviously such people would have suffered even more than my wife.

10:25 a.m.

Deputy Chairman of the Board, The White Helmets

Munier Mustafa

There are many instances of pregnancies inside detention centres, because of sexual abuse and systematic rape.

10:25 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

Thank you very much.

We're now going to move to MP Wrzesnewskyj, and then we'll finish off with MP Aboultaif.

10:25 a.m.

Liberal

Borys Wrzesnewskyj Liberal Etobicoke Centre, ON

Thank you, Chair.

As-salaam alaikum.

Saying thank you doesn't fully encapsulate the gratitude we need to express to you for the work you are doing. You're doing God's work in a place where it seems the gates of hell have opened up. These are the most horrific human atrocities of the 21st century, and may God protect you in your work.

Having said that, we have a responsibility as well, and we can't be bystanders. Through your testimony bearing witness, and through your eyes, you have shown us the hell of Syria. Perhaps a starting point for all of us is to be clear, so we aren't just bystanders. We need to call things clearly by what they are, and we need to be clear in stating that what the regime and its Russian enablers—the generals and diplomats—are involved in is systemic, sequential, knowingly and methodically planned and meticulously executed war crimes, including the use of prohibited weapons, the use of prohibited tactics, the targeting of civilians. There have been nine UN-documented cases of intentional mass killings.

As diplomats at the UN discussed what was happening, and as Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov talked of peace, incendiary bombs—white phosphorus bombs—were being loaded on planes to be dropped on places like Raqqa and bunker-buster bombs were being loaded onto Russian planes to be dropped on Aleppo, targeting civilians—the children you described hiding in basements.

I have no questions for you. My question is for all of us: what are we going to do about it?

Thank you.

10:30 a.m.

Conservative

Ziad Aboultaif Conservative Edmonton Manning, AB

Thank you.

I have a question about north Idlib. It's more of a technical question. Idlib is near the Syrian coast, and it's a mix of ethnicities and faith-based groups. Have you noticed in Idlib any displacement of certain groups? For example, have Sunnis been replaced with Alawites in the area? What is the news about this specific region? I'd like to have a brief on that.

10:30 a.m.

Deputy Chairman of the Board, The White Helmets

Munier Mustafa

The people in northern Idlib, whether Alawites, Christians, Sunnis, or Shias, are people. They're Syrians. They did not revolt because of their sect; the revolution was against the regime that deprives them of democracy. Large numbers of the community and society, irrespective of their denomination, have revolted against the regime. Maybe the Sunnis are the majority, but there are also many other minorities, such as Christians. They even with us work in civil defence.

We have people from all walks of life and denominations. They work with the White Helmets. They help the White Helmets. We're brothers and sisters who work hand in hand. Nothing separates us. The common target is that we all are sentenced to death by the regime because we are eyewitnesses to all the atrocities and crimes committed against the people and all the supporters of the regime as well, so I don't think there is a specific group of people who are being targeted in the displacements.

I also know that the Druze in many other villages, as in northern Idlib, have been already targeted, such as in villages like Kaftin. I can't remember all of them. There are seven or eight villages, and those villages are inhabited by different sects. There are Christians also who are still there and nobody is targeting them. There are no problems.

However, we never thought as White Helmets to make statistics based on religious sects and denominations, because this is not part of our work. It doesn't go to the core and nature of our business.

The common denominator here is that we are considered enemies by the regime. Everybody who lives in the north is considered an agent just because we are demanding democracy and reject the false democracy practised by the regime.

10:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

MP Fragiskatos, you may have a final short question.

10:35 a.m.

Liberal

Peter Fragiskatos Liberal London North Centre, ON

Thank you very much.

Canada has provided $12 million to the White Helmets, and six other countries have provided funding as well: Denmark, the Netherlands, the United States, Germany, New Zealand, and the U.K.

Could you go over how that funding is used?

10:35 a.m.

Deputy Chairman of the Board, The White Helmets

Munier Mustafa

I will talk first about the funds given by Canada, and after that I will talk about other donations coming to the White Helmets from other friends.

The Canadian money has been used to make places for women in the White Helmets, and also to increase the number of women volunteering with the White Helmets. The percentage was 0.5% up to 2018. Now it is 10%, and this is thanks to Canadian money and Canadian donations to the White Helmets.

As you know, in all communities women form half of the population. In Syria, maybe our culture is a bit different from western culture. However, we wouldn't have had access to all walks of life and parts of the community without those donations. Since receiving the Canadian support, we've been able to employ around 400 women in different locations in all parts of Syria. We have accessed communities, women, and children, and we've provided our services more efficiently. We've provided medical care. Women have provided medical care and first aid to other women. This was all from the Canadian donations that have been given to us during the last two years.

Regarding the rest of the donations coming from other friends, these have been used for searches and locating people, buying equipment for searches, and also for buying machinery and paying some rewards. We call them “rewards” because they're not large sums. We can't call them “salaries”. This is volunteer work, but some of this money has been paid as rewards or donations to other members and other volunteers who are sacrificing their lives. They all have families. They take care of their families, and they needed this money very badly.

Some of this money has also been used in campaigns to enlighten people and teach them about the systematic aggressions, and about concerns regarding weaponry and bombs and the like.

Also, we use this money to train our volunteers, such as those in civil defence. As you know, any mistake that a civil defence officer commits could make him lose his life, so it's very dangerous work. That's why training is very essential and key in this regard. We offer services. We offer training regarding firefighting services.

There are more details. I don't want to be very long in my explanations, but if you need anything more I'll be happy to add.

10:40 a.m.

Liberal

Peter Fragiskatos Liberal London North Centre, ON

No, you've been very thorough. Thank you very much.

10:40 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

Thank you.

We will close with Madame Laverdière, please.