For the first time, members of the Argentine White Helmets Commission take part in a humanitarian mission with the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort. A group of Argentine volunteers aboard the vessel provides health assistance to needy communities in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Honduras, and to Venezuelan migrants who fled their crisis-torn country to settle in neighboring countries.
On October 10, 2018, the USNS Comfort departed from Norfolk Naval Base, Virginia, as part of the U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) humanitarian mission Enduring Promise. For 11 weeks, the ship will help relieve the medical care challenges the countries welcoming most cross-border migrants face. The first stop was in the city of Esmeraldas, Ecuador, October 22nd-26th.
“It was an honor for us to receive the U.S. government’s invitation to be part of SOUTHCOM’s mission,” Alejandro Daneri, head of the White Helmets Commission, an organization of the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Culture, told Diálogo. “It’s a significant recognition of our work. We will work to help Venezuelan migrants who are forced to [leave] due to the humanitarian crisis in their country.”
SOUTHCOM partnered with nongovernment organizations and partner nation agencies to carry out Enduring Promise 2018. “The United States appreciates its partnership with Argentina and the invaluable support of the White Helmets during the Enduring Promise mission in the Western Hemisphere,” said U.S. Ambassador Liliana Ayalde, civilian deputy to U.S. Admiral Kurt Tidd, commander of SOUTHCOM. “They represent Argentina’s goodwill and commitment to stability in the region and the international community.”
This marks the sixth deployment of the USNS Comfort to provide health care in the region. According to the U.S. Navy, the hospital ship visited 18 countries since 2007, offering medical services to almost 390,000 people, including 6,000 surgeries. In Ecuador, the mission’s medical specialists provided free care to 4,005 patients and carried out 81 surgeries.
First volunteer group
The White Helmets assigned to the USNS Comfort mission work with different groups of health professionals, who will rotate in each country visited. “Working side by side with our medical professionals on the USNS Comfort, the White Helmets are assisting those countries whose health care systems have been overwhelmed by the migration of innocent citizens crossing their borders, while also bringing much needed medical assistance to their own citizens,” added Amb. Ayalde.
Dr. Paula DalDin, the group coordinator, is a pediatrician with experience working with Venezuelan migrants in the Colombian town of Cúcuta. On June 23rd, the White Helmets installed a health unit in Cúcuta that cared for 2,910 patients over 45 days.
“Besides Dr. DalDin, the group has two dentists, one psychologist, and a nurse specialized in pediatrics,” Daneri said. “It’s a crew of highly qualified, experienced professionals at the service of SOUTHCOM and the USNS Comfort.”
Daneri stressed that the White Helmets’ work was limited to humanitarian aid. “We try to help mitigate migrants’ suffering,” he said. “SOUTHCOM is responsible for the mission’s direction and organization. We just made ourselves available, and we contribute with human, professional, and technical resources.”
More than 400 missions
The White Helmets Commission carried out nearly 400 humanitarian missions in five continents, since its inception in 1994. For instance, in 2010, the unit helped earthquake victims in Haiti. Hydraulic engineers also traveled to Dominica in 2017 to repair the infrastructure after Hurricane Maria’s devastation.
“Recently, Colombia asked us to work with breastfeeding women and children, Venezuelan migrants who cross from Táchira, Venezuela, to Cúcuta in Colombia, through the Simón Bolívar bridge,” Daneri said. “This is another reason we were invited aboard the Comfort. We have experience.”
Daneri highlighted the unique and unprecedented White Helmet initiative. The group is not related to the Syrian White Helmets or the UN Blue Helmets. “The Blue Helmets are service members conducting peacekeeping operations. The White Helmets are a civil organization,” he said. “When a service member works with the White Helmets, they do it as a professional with a specific skill, not as a service member.”
The White Helmets Commission works with volunteers with specific skills. “It is essential to have the attitude, the humanitarian goodwill, and solidarity to help, but also the talent and capability,” Daneri said. “We have engineers, doctors, architects, and people from different fields of expertise to provide an answer to every need.”
The organization is particularly interested in helping children, one of the most vulnerable groups. Volunteers work to make children stronger and resilient when facing crisis. The program Play and Learn with the White Helmets, for example, teaches children through play what to do in case of emergencies. “Through games, we build skills to get them out of vulnerable situations,” he concluded.