white helmets.jpg
Photograph: whitehelmets.org

A group of Syrian volunteers who work to assist civilians amid their country's civil war, often at great personal risk to themselves, were honoured Thursday with a prize that has commonly come to be known as 'the alternative Nobel prize.'

The White Helmets organization won the Right Livelihood Award Foundation for "outstanding bravery, compassion and humanitarian engagement in rescuing civilians," according to the prize-givers.

The Syrian group - the first winner from that country - has about 3,000 members dedicated to: rescuing people from bombed houses; fighting fires; and offering first aid, the jury said.

The White Helmets hailed the announcement as "the best news we have had and is a glimmer of hope in these dark days in which we live ... God has rewarded all of us for our humanitarian work," Ibrahim al Hajj, a spokesman for the group in the besieged city of Aleppo, told dpa by telephone.

Al Hajj said he was speaking from the scene of a recent airstrike, where the group is carrying out rescue operations. He notes that more than 200 raids were launched overnight.

"We are overwhelmed and happy as people outside saw what we do and know our message and reward us," Abdel Rahman Hassan, another volunteer, said.

The group's director, Raed al Saleh, issued a statement saying it was an "international recognition of volunteer rescue workers the world over, as well as the bravery of ordinary Syrian civilians trying to lead life with dignity."

Al Saleh, who was attending meetings at the UN General Assembly in New York, added the group has rescued about 62,000 civilians since it was formed three years ago.

Jury and foundation board member Marianne Andersson met with representatives of the White Helmets in July in Istanbul, Turkey.

Learning of their rescue work and how they "risk their lives every day made a strong impression," she said, adding that al Saleh and his team related how "'seeing a child smile after being rescued was a great reward'."

The White Helmets and three other recipients were each to receive 750,000 kronor (87,000 dollars).

According to Andersson, the White Helmets planned to use their prize money for a so-called Hero Fund for "families of volunteers killed and maimed during rescue work."

The other three winners were: Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina, founder of the Civic Assistance Committee, which offers legal aid and education to migrants and refugees; Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, which has been at the forefront of Turkey's struggle for a free press; and Egyptian feminist activist Mozn Hassan and the Nazra for Feminist Studies organization, which promotes gender equality and rights of women.

The winners were announced by the Stockholm-based Right Livelihood Award Foundation. In all, 125 nominations from 50 countries were considered this year.

Foundation director Ole von Uexkull said the 2016 winners have taken on "some of the most pressing global issues head-on — be it war, freedom of speech, women’s rights or the plight of migrants."

The jury also wished to "celebrate the success of their work, against all odds, and the real difference they are making in the world today," he added.

An award ceremony is scheduled for November 28.

Andersson said it was not clear if Hassan would be able to attend the ceremony, referring to a travel ban issued against her in June.

Hassan said in a statement the prize was "for every woman who has fought for her basic rights, who has combatted and survived sexual violence, for all the women who fight daily to exist."

Past winners of the award have cited how the prize has helped shield them in the face of threats, the foundation said.

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