It’s a typical morning for Khaleed Khateeb. He rolls out of bed, makes a coffee, grabs his camera, and heads to the streets where he flags down a cab with a wave of his hand.
He travels down the crumbling cobblestone streets, alongside what used to be imposing buildings and flourishing markets. He drives 20 minutes to his destination, the Syrian Defense Centre in the heart of Aleppo.
Upon entering the centre, Khateeb is greeted by the friends, neighbours and strangers that he now calls his brothers of hope.
Khateeb and his team wait patiently, making sure their rescue equipment and emergency vehicles are in working condition, catching some shuteye, and hydrating as they wait. Suddenly, the roar of a jet plane shakes the city. The crew rush to gather equipment, and quickly jump in their vehicles, awaiting the damage they will soon encounter.
The scene they arrive at is something from a horror movie. Collapsed buildings, children crying, sirens screaming. Khateeb and his team are there for one reason. To save everyone and anyone. They’re first responders to bombings across the country, known simply as the White Helmets.
The White Helmets are a volunteer group of 3,000 civilians across Syria who have become first responders to bombings, fires, and any rescue mission required. Starting back in 2013, when the Syrian crisis began, the first centre for the White Helmets to open was the Hanao Center in Aleppo.
When they’re not on rescue missions, the White Helmets can often be found within the communities giving instructional seminars on safety and evacuation procedures, as well as attending their own rescue seminars and training in Istanbul, Turkey.
The scariest day of Khateeb’s life was July 27, 2014.
Khateeb was filming his colleagues working to save civilians stuck underneath the rubble, when the all-too-familiar roar of a jet flew over Aleppo and dropped a barrel bomb just 20 metres away from where he stood.
“I survived a double bombing,” said Khateeb in a Skype call, recalling the event.
With the job of a White Helmet comes a lot of heartache and danger. For instance, Sept. 3, 2014., holds a heavy place in Khateeb’s heart.
“One of the worst moments for me was when I lost three of my colleagues [in one day] during a response,” said Khateeb. They were in Aleppo city, responding to a call, when a jet flew back around and dropped a second bomb. “[They were only] helping the wounded,” sighed Khateeb.
But some days are worth that risk, Khateeb insists.
“The happiest moments were when we could save lives,” said Khateeb.” “One of them [we saved] was an eight-year-old boy named Yamen.”
It was January 2014, when the Hanao team responded to a rescue call in Al-Miyasar, where Assad regime forces dropped eight barrel bombs on the city. When Khateeb arrived on the scene he asked the locals if everyone dead or alive was accounted for. Everyone was, except for Yamen.
The White Helmets searched frantically for 10 minutes, digging through the rubble until they heard Yamen’s cry for help. A swarm of rescuers clawed away the debris to expose Yamen, and after three minutes of digging Yamen was free.
Khateeb watched his country crumble before him over the years due to destruction from organized crime and corruption in the government. Yet his dream was always to document himself and his team saving lives of the people of Syria. He’d then post the videos to Youtube where U.K.-based filmmaker, Orlando von Einsedel discovered a diamond in the rough.
Von Einsedel reached out to Khateeb and the two discussed a plan to create a documentary called The White Helmets. The 41-minute Netflix special came out in late 2016. The documentary is a mixture of raw footage of rescue missions and monologues by White Helmets, all captured by Khateeb.
Although Khateeb wishes to continue his work as a videographer, his dream has been altered slightly. “I now dream to finish my education as a journalist and to study media,” said Khateeb. “And to always work as a cinematographer and do work for my country.”
Khateeb and Von Einsedel are working currently on a new documentary called The Last Man in Aleppo, which will come out later this year.