U.S. denies entry to Syrian aid worker traveling to accept humanitarian award

Aid workers with the Syria Civil Defense provide assistance in Eastern Ghouta, Syria. (SCD)

The U.S. has denied entry to a Syrian aid worker traveling to accept an award for providing humanitarian assistance to tens of thousands of fellow Syrians, work supported by the U.S. government. Raed Saleh, head of Syria Civil Defence, arrived at Washington Dulles airport late Monday night and was told his visa was no longer valid, said his colleague Zouheir Albounni. The decision was swiftly condemned by InterAction, the group honoring Saleh last night, and Relief International.

“I am shocked and saddened to learn that Raed would be turned away by U.S. officials on the eve of being recognized by his peers in the international humanitarian community for his heroic work in Syria to help bring life-saving assistance to communities under fire in Syria,” said Sam Worthington, head of InterAction, in a statement.

Why the U.S. denied entry to a humanitarian who has the backing of USAID remains unclear. Saleh is back in Istanbul, where his journey to the U.S. started. InterAction told Humanosphere that it plans to deliver the award to Saleh in person, hopefully at the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit.

Raed Saleh

Raed Saleh

The 32-year-old leads more than 2,800 search-and-rescue workers across Syria. The group, which takes a neutral stance in the ongoing civil war, says it has saved more than 40,000 lives since fighting began.

A former electrical equipment salesman, Saleh was displaced from his home at the start of the civil war in early 2011. He left for Turkey with his family and soon returned to Syria to provide assistance to other refugees and people displaced by the fighting. He trained in civil defense starting in mid-2013 and rose to be appointed the leader of Syria Civil Defense, also known as “The White Helmets.” The group’s stated mission is to “save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimise further injury to people and damage to property.”

“Raed Saleh is the reason we are involved in humanitarian work in Syria,” said Nancy E. Wilson, president and CEO of Relief International, in a statement. “If he can lead thousands of volunteers – all of them civilians – to rescue those injured by barrel bombs and forced from their homes by violence, the least we can do is ensure that medical attention, food, education and other vital services are available. Raed is truly an inspiration.”

His leadership and accomplishments of the group in the face of continued instability garnered Saleh international attention and praise. He has been called a hero by many and was last in the U.S. in June 2015 when he traveled to address the U.N. Security Council.

Relief International was responsible for nominating Saleh for the 2016 Humanitarian Award presented at the annual InterAction’s Forum. It is a high honor coming from the organization that is an alliance of more than 180 NGOs.  The decision by the U.S. to not allow Saleh to enter came as a complete surprise to people involved in honoring him. His visa was good through September 2016 and the Syria Civil Defense receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“InterAction has continually warned of the consequences of policies that prevent humanitarian professionals from freely traveling, as any other modern global professional must to be effective,” said Worthington. “If the U.S. government won’t allow Raed to be honored in person by the humanitarian community in Washington then InterAction leaders will travel to Raed, on the border of Syria, to ensure his work is appropriately and personally acknowledged.”

Albounni accepted the award on Saleh’s behalf last night. He used the moment to thank InterAction and call attention to the crimes committed against Syrian civilians over the course of the civil war.

“We also would like to take this opportunity to re-affirm Syrian Civil Defense’s commitment to standing united against the perpetrators of crimes against humanity everywhere, particularly those led by the dictatorial regime and other terrorist groups,” said Saleh’s statement. “We would like to call upon the world to stop the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, address the resulting radicalization, and assist the refugee crisis.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.