Syria’s White Helmets obtain US visas to attend the Oscars

Since it emerged in 2013, White Helmets has attracted over 3,000 volunteers and says it has saved more than 78,000 lives [Thaer Mohammed/AFP]
Al-Jazeera – Rescue workers from Syria’s White Helmets – the subjects of an Oscar-nominated documentary – have received US visas to attend next week’s Academy Awards ceremony.

Raed Saleh, leader of the group, and cinematographer Khaled Khatib have been given visas for the February 26 ceremony in Los Angeles, producer Joanna Natasegara said.

For weeks, the rescuers and the film’s staff nervously watched the fallout from President Donald Trump’s now suspended temporary travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria.

“We got our visas yesterday [Friday], but we’re not yet sure if we’ll be able to travel or not,” Saleh told the AFP news agency by phone on Saturday.

“We don’t want to have problems at the borders or the airport.”

“The White Helmets”, nominated in the Oscars short subject documentary category, gives a glimpse of the daily lives of the group, whose members volunteer as rescue workers in the rebel-held parts of Syria.

“They both have valid visas. We remain cautious about the physical part of entering the country,” Natasegara said. “The White Helmets are among the most inspiring humanitarians we have ever known, and it is the greatest honour to share a global platform where their incredible work can be recognised.

“In these uncertain times, their story is one of the most moving of our generation,” she added in a joint statement with director Orlando von Einsiedel.

Last month, it looked as if the Syrian filmmakers would be unable to get to the Oscars because of Trump’s executive order that barred entry to the US for people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days.

US appeals court judges last week blocked the ban, but the Republican president has said he plans to issue a new order soon.

“It is important that people understand that Syria has people who want the same things they want: Peace, jobs, family, and to live without the fear of bombs. This is what I hope the film does,” Khatib said in a statement on Friday.

Since it was founded in 2013, the White Helmets has attracted over 3,000 volunteers and says it has saved more than 78,000 lives.

The group is named for the distinctive white hard hats worn by its volunteers and has gained international attention for daring rescues that are often filmed and circulated on social media.

“The documentary took a lot of effort to make and we’ve been working on it for a long time. People who are featured in the film have since died. There’s equipment that you see that has been destroyed,” Saleh said.

“This film is history for us. We hope that we win the Oscar, because that would provide moral support to the White Helmets and show them that their sacrifices weren’t for nothing.”

The UN estimates that nearly 400,000 people have been killed since the Syrian war began in March 2011, and more than half the population have been forced to flee their homes.

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