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The White Helmets' factory in northwestern Syria.

The White Helmets media team

Syria’s famed White Helmets, known for rushing to pull civilians from bombed buildings, will start manufacturing personal protective equipment to help protect thousands of Syrian health care and humanitarian workers in northwestern Syria against COVID-19.

The pandemic has exacerbated the already grim humanitarian situation, as the near decade-long conflict has destroyed hospitals and homes, and has left over four million people in northwestern Syria living in dire conditions that don’t allow for physical distancing or proper hygiene. Since the conflict began in 2011, more than five million Syrians have fled the country and over six million are internally displaced, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Save The Children warned last week that COVID-19 was surging in northwestern Syria, with more than 20,338 cases reported in that region. Those numbers are likely underestimated, the aid group said, because of limited testing capacity.

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Northwest Syria is the last holdout in the ongoing civil war against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. The White Helmets, officially known as Syria Civil Defence, is a volunteer rescue group operating in parts of opposition-controlled Syria.

The White Helmets have been awarded $1.6-million from Humanitarian Grand Challenge, a program that funds innovations that help people affected by war, to increase its efforts to make PPE. Humanitarian Grand Challenge partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Netherlands’ foreign affairs office on the project.

The White Helmets’ deputy general manager Farouq Habib, who is based in Canada, said the French government initially provided funding to help expand their garment factory, where volunteers made uniforms, to manufacture PPE. With France’s support, and that of private donors, the White Helmets were able to establish the first factory inside Syria producing PPE. Their operation was limited, however, as they could only produce masks.

The new funding from Humanitarian Grand Challenge, which is expected to last for eight months, allows the White Helmets to scale up their efforts and manufacture full PPE such as gowns, medical masks and face shields, Mr. Habib said. They will be able to provide PPE to health care workers, humanitarian aid workers and White Helmet volunteers, and hire more staff to work at the factory.

“When the pandemic erupted, we felt really shocked and so worried because we didn’t know what to do. There are developed countries with functional governments who couldn’t deal with the situation,” Mr. Habib said.

“So imagine how the people would feel in Syria, especially in the northwestern areas where there is no government there. And there is no functional system to take care of people and provide health care … we needed support from outside to help us to deal with the situation and we felt very much grateful,” he said of the new funding.

The PPE will be provided free of charge, White Helmet liaison officer Muzna Dureid said, adding that 10,000 health care workers will receive PPE each month.

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The White Helmets have been awarded $1.6-million from Humanitarian Grand Challenge, a program that funds innovations that help people affected by war, to increase its efforts to make PPE.

The White Helmets media team

Chris Houston, director of innovation at Humanitarian Grand Challenge, said locally manufacturing PPE was one of the most impactful proposals his organization thought they could fund, particularly in northwestern Syria, where needs are especially high.

He said the funding will go toward staff wages, operations, cost of raw materials and extra machinery to help White Helmet volunteers increase their efforts.

“I’m optimistic that this will make people feel more hopeful, and at a time when the ten-year anniversary of the Syria conflict looms,” he said.

Ten years on, civilians in Syria feel “abandoned,” Mr. Habib said.

“The main challenge for people there is security. People keep saying that their priority is not to send food, ambulances or medicines. First, they want to feel safe and be able to return to their homes.”

Khaled Kattab, a White Helmets volunteer who lives in northern Syria, said he has visited the workshop that produces PPE. He notes that Syrians, living in poor conditions surrounded by camps, are more concerned about an end to the ongoing crisis.

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“We hope that everyone will contribute to finding a solution for the Syrian people instead of sending aid to them. Everyone here in tents wishes to return to his home,” he said.

Meanwhile, a small group of refugees, some from Syria and Iraq, have received the COVID-19 vaccine in neighbouring Jordan.

Rula Amin, UNHCR senior communications adviser and spokesperson for the Middle East and North Africa who is based in Amman, said Jordan began its vaccination program on Wednesday, and on Thursday UNHCR learned of at least 45 refugees who had received an inoculation.

Ms. Amin said Jordan is prioritizing health care workers and vulnerable citizens, and the first group of refugees who were chosen for vaccination met that criteria.

Given the heavy impact of the pandemic on northwestern Syria, plans are under way to get the vaccine to the population there, Ms. Amin said, though she could not specify a timeline for when that might happen.

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