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Syrian White Helmets win 'alternative Nobel Peace Prize'

The Syrian group were jointly awarded the Right to Livelihood award with three other recipients from Turkey, Russia and Egypt
Syrian Civil Defence Force act as first responders helping Syrians living in rebel-held areas that are frequently hit by government air strikes (AFP)

The White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defence Force, were jointly awarded this year's "Right to Livelihood award" on Thursday at an award ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.

Widely dubbed as the "alternative Nobel Peace Prize", the award was jointly awarded to the White Helmets with three other recipients from Turkey, Russia and Egypt. 

The Right to Livelihood foundation said it had given the prize to the White Helmets for "outstanding bravery, compassion and humanitarian engagement in rescuing civilians."

Describing themselves as a non-partisan humanitarian organisation, the volunteer rescue group was set up in response to the increasing civilian casualties from shelling and air strikes in rebel-held parts of Syria. 

Under the mantra of "to save a life is to save all of humanity," the White Helmets have been at the forefront of helping Syrian civilians who are at the receiving end of indiscriminate bombings and attacks. 

Founded in 2013, the group says it has 2,600 volunteers working as first responders across the whole of Syria. The volunteers work full-time and receive a $150-a-month stipend.

Many of their highly dangerous rescue efforts have been documented and widely circulated on social media; one of their most famous rescue efforts included saving a baby who had been buried under rubble for 16 hours. 

Speaking about the situation in Syria, Raed Saleh who heads the White Helmets told Middle East Eye in July that the longer the international community takes to address the ongoing crisis in Syria, the more difficult it will be to end the war. 

Established in 1980, the Right Livelihood Award aims to honour and support "courageous people and organisations offering visionary and exemplary solutions to the root causes of global problems".

Winners of the award are each given a cash prize of $88,000, with previous award recipients including Edward Snowden and former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.  

Other recipients of this year's award include the Turkish daily Cumhurriyet newspaper for its "fearless investigative journalism", Russia's Svetlana Gannushkina for her "decades-long commitment to promoting human rights," and Egyptian feminist activists Mozn Hassan and Nazra for "feminist studies".

The Syrian group was given the award after judges looked over 125 nominations that were submitted from 50 countries. 

The White Helmets is the first Syrian organisation to win the Swedish prize. 

Saleh was refused entry to the US in April on his way from Turkey to collect an award from an alliance of aid agencies. He was told his visa had been cancelled.

“In any airport, the treatment we get as Syrians is different. The way they look at us, we are suspected,” Saleh told the New York Times after the incident. 

The US government's USAID arm has provided the rescue group with $20 million since 2013. 

The UK Foreign Office has also provided £15 million in funding for the rescue group up to December 2015, including training in search and rescue, fire-fighting and first aid.

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