Oscar-winning Syrian group hopes award will stop 'massacres'

AP News
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Posted: Feb 27, 2017 2:18 PM
Oscar-winning Syrian group hopes award will stop 'massacres'

BEIRUT (AP) — A young volunteer in the Syrian search-and-rescue group featured in an Academy Award-winning documentary said Monday he hopes the award will help stop "massacres" in his country, and described a U.S. decision to block him from traveling to Los Angeles for the Oscars as "America's loss."

Khaled Khateeb, a 21-year-old cinematographer and volunteer with the Syrian Civil Defense, told The Associated Press from Turkey that although he had expected the Netflix documentary "The White Helmets" to win, he stayed awake all night smoking shisha with friends and watching the ceremony.

"It is a media prize, it's not a political prize," he said. "But still it sheds light on the tragedy of the Syrian people. Maybe it will help stop some of the massacres," he added. "It is a strong movie."

Khateeb was scheduled to arrive on Saturday in Los Angeles on a Turkish Airlines flight departing from Istanbul, but his plans were upended after U.S. officials reported finding "derogatory information" regarding him. According to internal Trump administration correspondence seen by The Associated Press, the Department of Homeland Security decided at the last minute to block him from traveling to Los Angeles for the Oscars.

"I tried and it didn't work," Khateeb said of his hopes to attend Sunday's ceremony, where the film was named best documentary short. "It is America's loss!"

Raed Saleh, the head of the Syrian Civil Defense — widely known as the White Helmets — said he hopes the award will inspire his volunteers to keep up their work. He called on governments around the world "to stop the bloodshed of the Syrian people."

Speaking in a video recorded in southern Turkey, he quoted from the Quran: "Whoever saves a life — it is as if he has saved mankind entirely."

The film focuses on Syrian first-responders who risk their lives to save people from the civil war, now in its sixth year. It captures the volunteers as they race to rescue people from the rubble of airstrikes, knowing that they themselves could be bombed in a so-called "double tap" attack.

Many of the group's members have been killed by Syrian government airstrikes, and they were among the last rescuers working in eastern Aleppo when it fell to government forces in December after one of the most devastating battles of the war. The group was also nominated for last year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara accepted the Oscar, but devoted most of their short time on stage to sharing a statement from Khateeb.

"We're so grateful that this film has highlighted our work to the world," said the statement, read by von Einsiedel.

He invited "anyone here who hears me to stop the bloodshed in Syria and around the world," and to "show that we all care that this war ends as quickly as possible."

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Associated Press writer Lindsey Bahr in Los Angeles contributed to this report.