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In 2015, Singaporean Gabrielle Tay saw the 21st century's worst refugee crisis in Europe unfold on television in her living room in Zurich, Switzerland, where she'd been since 2009. The scenes of desperate people sprawled out and sleeping on the floor of Keleti Station in Budapest, Hungary - stopped in their tracks as they tried to reach Germany - shocked the Katong Convent alumnus out of her comfortable expatriate life.
What she saw triggered her need to be more than just a passive spectator. After a tentative visit to the Serbia/Hungary border to deliver supplies to refugees, she made her decision. She set up Action From Switzerland and now spends most of her time on the island of Chios, Greece, helping refugees as they wait for their asylum applications to be processed.
How did you get involved in the refugee crisis?
I was watching the news on the day Austria closed its borders to refugees coming in from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places; and I thought how could this be happening? I called the Swiss Red Cross to see what I could do as a member of the public, but I was told very curtly: "We have enough help, thank you."
When a Hungarian friend in Zurich told me she was going back home the next week, I volunteered to go with her and try to take supplies for the refugees. I put up a simple Facebook post asking for donations, and was inundated with hundreds of messages. We first planned to load up a station wagon but in the end, it became two six-tonne trucks! That was a weekend that changed my life. It was so intense. By then, so many more refugees had reached the Serbia/Hungary border. I didn't sleep for 48 hours as the refugees were just streaming in - often with nothing more than a backpack and shredded shoes. I saw a man in his late 60s, shivering in the cold because he had only a thin shirt on, and it struck me that this could have been my father.
How did you set up Action From Switzerland?
When I got back to Zurich, I quickly registered the non-profit organisation in October 2015. A friend in Singapore designed the logo. From Hungary I went to Serbia, where the needs were most, and then to Greece. We had a generous donor who had given us good quality coats and shoes that we could give to the refugees.
We went to Chios - where the boatloads of refugees were coming from Turkey to the Greek islands. At first I wasn't sure how much help I could be, since I wasn't a doctor or a translator, but the volunteers told me to come with milk powder, dry clothes and emergency blankets as those would make a tremendous differen. Refugees arrive wet and scared…and just to greet them with an "Assalamualaikum" and tell them they're safe really helps. I've been based in Chios since January 2016. I'm there for about two months at a time, then I take a break for a week or two back home before returning.
Can you share your experience, and your perspective of the crisis, having seen it first hand?
In Chios, boats arrive from Turkey every few hours. One tragedy I witnessed was this frightened mother who had clutched her baby so close to her during the journey that she suffocated the child by accident. Refugees, many of whom were professionals in their countries, will wait in Chios for at least six weeks as their applications for asylum are processed. This group of people has become a stagnant population instead of a transient one. This has given rise to social problems that come from depression, uncertainty and anxiety.
On the other hand, Chios used to be a tourist destination with about 55,000 Greek residents. But since last year, tourists have stopped coming. So the Greeks there - although they were sympathetic at first - are also quickly getting frustrated.
You set up a "safe house" for women? Why?
Women who are subjected to domestic violence and sexual harassment are the most vulnerable group. With the donated funds, we rented a house for women in Chios in July last year. Athena Centre for Women is a place run by volunteers, so that refugees can come and learn German and English, do yoga, Zumba, and the most basic thing we take for granted - take a shower. Now we've plans to open another day centre in Athens later in the year for the refugees who have settled there.
As a former lawyer, your training must have come in handy in your work now.
Yes. My experience in legal aid, especially in women's issues and domestic violence, has definitely helped me. So has my public relations background, in terms of organising, negotiating and people skills. But really, nothing can compare to what I'm doing now. The biggest challenge is to find committed volunteers. In Greece, everything works slowly as well. Everything I've done has been by instinct and just trusting myself. I'm a very pragmatic person, so I think that's a plus point.
What can Singaporeans do to help?
They can start by keeping track of our activities. Our Facebook Page is where we post updates of the work as well as the situation in Europe/the world on related issues: https://www.facebook.com/actionfromswitzerland/. And here's our blog: https://actionfromswitzerland.ch/blog/