Leader of Syria Rescue Group, Arriving in U.S. for Award, Is Refused Entry
By Somini Sengupta, New York Times
UNITED NATIONS — The leader of a Western-backed rescue organization that searches for survivors of bombings in Syria was denied entry into the United States this week, where he was to receive an award recognizing his contributions to humanitarian relief.
Raed Saleh, the head of the Syria Civil Defense, was to accept the award from InterAction, an alliance of international aid agencies, at its gala dinner on Tuesday night in Washington. The dinner’s keynote speaker was Gayle Smith, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
But when Saleh, who works in Syria and Turkey, arrived Monday at Washington’s Dulles International Airport on a flight from Istanbul, the authorities said he could not enter the United States. He was told his visa had been canceled.
It was unclear whether Saleh’s name might have shown up on a database, fed by a variety of intelligence and security agencies and intended to guard against the prospect of terrorism suspects slipping into the country.
The State Department declined to give specifics, but a spokesman, John Kirby, said that “the U.S. government’s system of continual vetting means that traveler records are screened against available information in real time.”
“While we can’t confirm any possible specific actions in this case, we do have the ability to immediately coordinate with our interagency partners when new information becomes available,” he added.
Saleh was put on the next flight back to Istanbul.
In a telephone interview from Istanbul on Wednesday, Saleh sought to turn the focus away from his own case to the experience of millions of Syrians who find the world’s borders closed to them.
“In any airport, the treatment we get as Syrians is different,” he said. “The way they look at us, we are suspected.” In his case, he pointed out, he had no intention of staying longer than 16 hours.
His group is widely known as the White Helmets for the headgear its members wear as they rush to bomb sites to rescue survivors and dig out the dead from the rubble. Government supporters have criticized the group for working in some areas held by the Nusra Front, a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaida. But like many internal aid groups, it says it is neutral and seeks to help civilians no matter whose territory they live in.
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, called the denial of entry “a scandal.”
“The White Helmets are one of the few organizations in Syria that have been above reproach,” he said. “They have tried to observe strict neutrality in order to facilitate their humanitarian work and save lives. To do this they have worked alongside all sorts of militias in order to get to victims of the fighting.”
At the dinner on Tuesday night, InterAction staff members wore white helmets in solidarity — and posted a photo on Twitter.
“I really was moved by this moment,” Saleh said. “It was a stance of the unity of humanity — and I don’t mean the international community, I mean humanity.”
Saleh, who once made a living buying and selling electronics, became a search-and-rescue volunteer after the Syrian civil war began in 2011.
He has traveled to the United States several times. He was in Manhattan in September 2014, during the General Assembly’s annual conclave, where he pressed diplomats to come to the assistance of areas controlled by rebels fighting the government of Bashar Assad, Syria’s president.
Last June, he testified before the Security Council on the Syrian government’s use of barrel bombs. The Assad government continues to strongly deny using the explosives.
Smith, the USAID administrator, praised the work of Saleh’s organization in her remarks at the dinner, without elaborating on why he had been denied entry.
“These are people who once led ordinary lives, with ordinary jobs,” she said. “They were teachers, bakers, and drivers. But there is no ordinary in Syria anymore. But Raed and his colleagues don’t run away. They run toward the bombs, protected only by their white helmets and driven by a simple belief inspired by the Quran — to save one life is to save humanity.”
InterAction staff members said they planned to honor Saleh personally next month at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul.
Anne Barnard contributed reporting from Beirut.
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