Fire training for the White Helmets
The White Helmets pause during fire training for a group photo. Assisting volunteers like these “White Helmets,” shown in 2016 near Damascus, was life-changing. Broches stands in the second row, fourth from left.

When James Fromson ’13 and Emma Broches ’14 took the same Arabic class at Amherst, they’d yet to learn the words that would cram their vocabulary a few years later. Like al-bahth w al-enqath, for instance, which means “search and rescue.” Like sayarat al-etfa’a, or “fire truck.” Then came the Arabic equivalents for “bandage,” “stretcher,” “gas mask.” For “front-loader,” for “ambulance.” These terms became all too familiar after first Fromson and then Broches wound up in Amman, Jordan, to spend a life-transforming year at the organization Mayday Rescue.

In NGO-speak, Mayday is an “implementing partner.” It raises funds, donates equipment and provides training for Syria’s remarkable wartime first-responder group, whose formal name is the Syria Civil Defence.

Its informal—and now famous—name is the White Helmets. Dubbed for the protective headgear furnished by Mayday, the White Helmets have been much in the news. There are some 3,000 men and women, fanned across this ravaged country, who sprint to help those injured by bombs or missile strikes or chemical attacks, hauling people out of the rubble, tending their wounds, dousing fires. The White Helmets are former bakers, electricians, tailors, farmers—average Syrians who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave their country. They are unarmed and neutral. They rescue anyone, no matter the person’s role in the conflict. Their motto is, “To save one life is to save all of humanity.”

Nicholas Kristof from The New York Times said it right: “Who would have thought there could be an uplifting story from Syria?”

James Fromson ’13
James Fromson ’13 double majored in history and Asian languages and civilizations at Amherst. Now he is a master's student at Princeton. Photo by Beth Perkins.

In 2016, the group won the Right Livelihood Award, considered an alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2017, their story charged two powerful films: The White Helmets, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject), and Last Men in Aleppo. Since being founded in 2013, the White Helmets have, as I write this, saved 114,431 lives.

To define the role played by these two young Amherst alumni, it makes sense to cite an old Syrian proverb: “He who has his hand in the water is not like him who has his hand in the fire.” Broches and Fromson never had their hands in the fire, did not enter Syria, did not risk their lives on rescue missions.

It was inspiring to help people who were a “light in the darkness.” But the work could also be hard and depressing.

Rather, they helped those who did. Each pulled off an intense, surreal, improvisatory range of support work at White Helmets emergency rescue training facilities in areas just outside of Syria. Fromson signed on from 2015 to mid-2016, and Broches stepped in as he left, staying for a year.

When I asked what a typical day was like at Mayday, each laughed kindly at my foolishness. “There was no typical day,” said Broches. “Every day was totally a new day.” They did everything from role-play bomb victims so the White Helmets could hone their rescue techniques, to puzzle out how to spirit donated fire trucks across the beset Syrian border. One day, Broches would wrangle a shipment of bandages; the next, she’d meet visiting luminaries. One day, Fromson would negotiate with an ambulance salesman trying to rip him off; the next, he’d rush an ailing White Helmet from the desert to the hospital, and trot out another Arabic term not so useful at Amherst: modad ladghat al-aqrab. That means “scorpion bite antidote.”

While Mayday’s emergency response and firefighting experts trained groups of 50 or so White Helmets one month at a time, “Emma and I kind of represented everything that’s not technical,” explains Fromson. “So, the research capacity, the translation capacity, translating in meetings, sequential translation, procurement, all kinds of stuff.”

And tons and tons of logistics. “‘Logistics’ sounds really bland,” concedes Fromson. “But logistics is where all the stories are.”

The three of us had a long, lively conversation by Skype: me in a conference room in Amherst; Broches in Cambridge, Mass., where she is a law student at Harvard; and Fromson in Muscat, in the Sultanate of Oman, where he is a Princeton master’s student on a fellowship, studying foreign policy and intensive Arabic. During our call, Fromson’s face sometimes went cubist as the connection faltered—there are some 7,000 miles between us, after all—but no glitch could hide the pair’s easy friendship. It seemed to be partly based on temperament: Broches is calmer, Fromson more effusive, but both are charming, funny and full of heart. It’s also based on an uncanny skein of shared experiences.

Emma Broches ’14

Emma Broches ’14 is now a student at Harvard Law. A history major at Amherst, she studies Arabic and arrived in Jordan on a Fulbright. Photo by Jessica Scranton.

They’re both native New Yorkers, history majors who speak impressive Arabic. (Fromson double-majored in Asian languages and civilizations.) Both have lived in the Middle East and wrote Amherst theses set therein: Broches researched how the Muslim Brotherhood views women, while Fromson studied the minority Shia communities in Iraq and Lebanon. Both remain in close touch with Amherst’s Monica Ringer, professor of history and Asian languages and civilizations, and Mohamed Hassan, senior lecturer in Arabic and director of the Five College Arabic

The parallels kept spooling out after Amherst. After leaving first jobs (Broches restless as a paralegal, Fromson itchy at the Council on Foreign Relations), they both got Fulbright scholarships to pursue further study in the Middle East, loosely based on their Amherst thesis topics. They separately headed to Amman but lived in the same apartment building, brightly full of Fulbrights, in the city’s Weibdeh neighborhood. Fromson joked to Broches, “On paper, you and I are basically the same person.”

And how did they end up at Mayday? Because their Fulbright research plans gave way, understandably, to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Amman is only an hour’s drive from the Syrian border. On the ground, the refugee crisis was hard to ignore. While supported by her Fulbright, Broches signed on at the Jordan office of Humanitarian Research Services, a consultancy that works in conflict zones. Broches’ area of responsibility was Southern Syria, and her resulting expertise “was perfect for a transition to Mayday.”

Meanwhile, at the Council on Foreign Relations, Fromson had connected with Steven Simon, who was on the National Security Council staff in the Obama White House, where he was the senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs. Simon now teaches at Amherst as the John J. McCloy ’16 Visiting Professor of History. Years ago, Simon had worked in Abu Dhabi with a retired British army officer and United Nations member James Le Mesurier, who is the founder of Mayday. Simon recommended Fromson to Le Mesurier as someone who could help with translation and whatever else came up.

I asked Fromson what I thought was a softball question: What was your title at Mayday? He had to think for several beats. “I think it was ‘project officer.’ But Mayday was very much a startup kind of feel, so your title is not really relevant to your responsibilities. I had never worked in anything operational. I had always done research. I’m fundamentally a nerd. Doing something that was actually programmed delivery was totally new and different for me.”

White Helmets training to put out fires

This photo from Broches shows a fire training. She and Fromson each served as the translator for the training director.

Many of us have powerful memories of that early job that changed everything: the one where you did scut work because it had to be done, because it was for a meaningful employer, maybe for a cause you believed in. Even if there were days when you wondered why, with a college education, you were fetching coffee or, in Fromson’s case, moving heavy equipment, you’ll trade on those stories for the rest of your career, and the glow only deepens.

Several times, for instance, Fromson and Broches had to run out in the middle of the night to buy clothes and toiletries for a new group of White Helmets who’d arrived late and exhausted with only the shirts on their backs. At the border, they’d been relieved of some or all of their belongings (long story). Recalls Broches: “They would make requests like, ‘Emma, I can’t brush my hair. I can’t look good for you or anyone else, because my hair has been unbrushed for a month. Could you please, please buy me a hairbrush?’ What was I to do but laugh and go out and buy a hairbrush?”

Buying hairbrushes for people who are saving lives while risking their own: who could brush off that privilege? In fact, all the logistics took on a kind of electrified meaning. I asked Fromson and Broches if their Amherst education was relevant or not when it came to something so matter-of-fact as ordering bandages or inspecting backhoes. Broches turned thoughtful: “I think the Amherst education provides a lot in terms of the critical thinking,” so even for the most logistical questions—“How can we fit 10 ropes into this tiny compartment,” for example—“I’d really think about it and try to figure it out rather than act rashly and just throw it all in.”

“There’s no way I can express,” Fromson says, “the respect and awe that I have for the volunteers.”

Neither Fromson nor Broches wanted to act rashly—but sometimes a little recklessness was a good thing. That training month was rigorous, and Mayday wanted to offer something that was sorely missing in the White Helmets’ hard lives: namely, sheer play.

“There is a big culture of bowling at the malls in Amman,” began Fromson, and Broches smiled, knowing what was coming. “None of the White Helmets had been bowling, much less been in a mall. We would get on our bus, and they’d all be singing, and it was sort of this raucous party atmosphere, and we’d take them up to the bowling alley, and then you have to explain bowling to them. There I am stretching my Arabic vocabulary to its very max. Then you have guys that are throwing the ball overhand or throwing it at each other.”

Broches jumps in: “But having the time of their lives.” Then Fromson: “It’s the most fun they’ve had in a long time.”

Returning trainees told the other White Helmets back in Syria all about bowling, and each new group now asks for the same tradition, the same happiness.

James Fromson
“Words travel worlds. Translators do the driving.” So said the Italian translator Anna Rusconi, and Fromson and Broches found this così vero (so true) by translating between English and Arabic speakers day in and day out. “There were a lot of words that I had never used before or had to learn,” says Broches. “It was a work in progress always, but any Arabic-only speaker was always very willing to work with me. We would always end up laughing together when I would say something wrong.”

Broches and Fromson each acted as the main translator for Mayday’s director of training, a firefighter from Belfast who joined Mayday after retiring from the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service. His name is Paul Murphy, and while he knew all about saving lives and hacking through red tape, he hadn’t lived in the Middle East and didn’t know Arabic. I emailed Murphy at Mayday to ask him about his former translators. “I can guarantee they had life experiences in Mayday that may never be rivalled,” he wrote. “James’ Arabic was essential for us to operate as a small unit and on many occasions, he was forced to translate many awkward jokes and requests from myself! He gained the respect and friendship of anyone he met. I have no hesitation in asking my young friend for his analytical viewpoint or advice.”

Emma Broches in the field
And Broches? “Emma was extremely intelligent, hugely personable, self-motivated and industrious. I hope I was not a task master but if I needed something done, I would approach Emma. She was my ‘go-to’ person because I knew she would do it perfectly and on time. And unlike James, Emma can make a good cup of tea!”

To get hold of equipment and supplies for the White Helmets, Murphy was not shy about confronting
recalcitrant contractors and many times threw a wobbler, as they say in Belfast: he seriously lost his temper. His adamant body language and raised voice would tell one story, while Fromson and Broches would boil down a tirade to something more anodyne, like, “My boss disagrees.” Laughing at that retelling, Fromson compared it to the great Key & Peele sketch “Obama’s Anger Translator,” in which the former president speaks in even tones while his “anger translator” voices the seething frustration behind the diplomatic façade. Murphy mercilessly teased Fromson about this cool delivery, calling him his “cyborg translator.” Even “C-3PO.”

If you Google Mayday, the White Helmets and Le Mesurier, some of the first results you’ll see are conspiracy theories. These sites appear to be tools of the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and, ostensibly, his allies. They claim that Le Mesurier is using Mayday as an imperialist front, that the White Helmets are a tool of al-Qaida and that their rescues are staged.

A training exercise in rescuing a victim

During this training exercise, Broches is on the stretcher, role-playing the victim as White Helmets hone their rescue techniques.

I asked Fromson what’s going on here. “The White Helmets are so profoundly threatening to the regime precisely because of who they are,” he said. “They are who they say they are, and I have seen this up close. It is a functional, legitimate, popular organization, and it is responding to the bombings carried out by the regime, and as part of that it’s also publicizing those atrocities.”

Mayday and the White Helmets go well beyond the standard NGO business ties. “It was a very intimate, close, emotional, actually working relationship,” said Fromson. Mayday “is not just your average contractor.” Indeed, Broches and Fromson were relentlessly communicating via WhatsApp or Facebook with these first responders.

“We were all constantly talking,” said Broches. “Instead of one organization being in charge of the other, it was very much a working relationship, and when we would need something, they would give it to us, and when they would need something, we would give it to them.” Fromson soon learned how invaluable the White Helmets were, beyond their tremendous humanitarian imprint: “Just through the nature of their work, they have the best information, in a tactical, kind of granular, operational sense, on what’s going on in Syria.”

Because Fromson and Broches spoke so frequently to the White Helmets in Southern Syria, and also during the training sessions in Jordan, they became friends with many—and mourned the death of one in particular. The White Helmets have, as I write this, lost 204 in their ranks. Sometimes this is in the line of duty, because of the “double tap,” in which the second bomb targets those trying to save victims of the first. Broches mentioned especially Abdullah Sarhan, the leader of the Southern Syria White Helmets. “I would describe him as my friend. He was just a really lovely guy. And he was assassinated.” After I expressed my condolences, I asked Broches and Fromson how they coped with the sadness in the midst of this incredible, historical experience.

Said Broches, “It was a constant feeling of being happy and so inspired and thrilled to be working with this group that was like this light in the darkness of Syria. And then, at the same time, it was also incredibly hard and depressing when things like, for example, Abdullah being assassinated happened, or you see all of these amazing happy, heartwarming individuals and that they have to deal with everything on the ground. It just seems completely unfair and unjust.”

If you Google Mayday, the White Helmets and Le Mesurier, some of the first results you’ll see are conspiracy theories.

Fromson nodded in agreement. “There’s no way I can express the respect and awe that I have for the volunteers. How generous and kind and, as Emma said, kind of happy despite the circumstances. For me, there was quite a cognitive dissonance, because what these guys are going through is incredibly painful and traumatic, and yet we were bringing them in for training, and you interact with them in a totally normal, daily, functional way. It’s inspiring, but also quite emotionally confusing.”

We were coming to the end of our Skype call, Fromson glad that it was “only 95 degrees” as night fell in Oman, Broches and I resigned to a rainy day in the Bay State. None of us really wanted to hang up. They told me, again and again, that their experience with Mayday and the Syrian Civil Defence had meant the world to them, how grateful they were for it. Which reminded me to ask: Did the White Helmets express gratitude to the two of them?

“So much,” said Broches. “Endless.” She would call them courageous, tell them that they bring hope to the world. And in turn, they would thank her. “It was like a constant relationship of thanking each other, trying to make each other happy and make each other laugh. They were always joking with me. They were always asking me things about America or telling me things about Syria. There was endless gratitude, and I just wanted to reverse that on them and say, ‘No. No. This is totally your doing. All of this. Thank you.’” 

Katharine Whittemore is Amherst magazine’s senior writer.