Driven to help: Singaporean who left ‘privileged’ life to help refugees in Greece

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
Singaporean aid worker Gabrielle Tay with a Syrian refugee family who were confined in Vial refugee camp on Chios island for 10 months, in January 2017. The family was eventually allowed to leave for Athens. PHOTO: Gabrielle Tay

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Athena Centre is located in Athens. It is located in Chios.

SINGAPORE — In January 2016, Singaporean Gabrielle Tay found herself patrolling the beaches of Chios, a scenic Greek island in the Aegean Sea, at the height of the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Alongside other humanitarian workers armed with relief supplies like blankets and clothes, she received boatloads of mainly Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war in their country.

“Chios was receiving, I think, 15 to 20 boats a night,” recalled Tay, now 41. “And each boat was carrying about 80 people. And sometimes it's two, three boats coming at once.”

Amid the chaos and stress of the journey, tragedy was inevitable. “There was a baby that the mother was holding, and the baby suffocated, because (the mother) was so frightened during the journey,” said Tay, a former corporate lawyer.

“We can never forget the screams when she realised that the baby was not conscious.”

Three years on, Tay is the founder of non-profit organisation Action for Women, which reaches out to refugee women. It runs two centres in Chios and Athens respectively: the Athena Centre for Women and the Halcyon Days Project. They provide legal, medical and psychosocial support to victims of gender-based violence.

The former centre has supported more than 1,000 women, while Tay says the latter hosts some 150 people a day. She runs the NGO with a team of seven other women and divides her time between Athens and Chios, which is is just a short boat ride from Turkey.

“I'm the lowest paid I've ever been, but I'm the happiest, if that makes sense,” said Tay over Skype from Chios, a lively personality who laughs often and loudly.

An ‘awakening’

Refugee children behind the fences of Vial refugee camp, often christened 'Vile' by volunteers for its terrible living conditions, on the Greek island of Chios in April 2016. PHOTO: Gabrielle Tay

It all began in the summer of 2015, when Tay returned to Zurich - where she had been based since 2009 - from holiday to see the refugee crisis unfolding in real time on television. Triggered by key events such as the Syrian civil war and unrest in Afghanistan, more than a million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe that year.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), about 5.6 million people have fled Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

Tay told Yahoo News Singapore that she was jolted out of her self-confessed privileged existence by what she saw. “People were walking through Europe, sleeping rough in the train stations in Budapest. That’s when you go ‘What is going on?’”

“Before 2015, I was reading the news like everybody else. For example, you read about the wall that Trump is building along the border, and you go, well, how does that concern me? Not a lot.”

She added, “Until it comes to your doorstep, and it makes you question things.”

Together with a Hungarian friend, Tay asked for donations of supplies to bring to refugees at the Serbia/Hungary border, where thousands of refugees had gathered. So many people contributed - tents, sleeping bags, clothes and more - that there were enough items to fill two six-tonne trucks.

Over an “intense 72 hours”, they gave out all their supplies to entire families camped out in open fields amid freezing temperatures while waiting for transport to Budapest. “You meet somebody that looks about and is the same age as your father, and you just go, ‘This could be us’”.

Having set up an association - which eventually became Action for Women - to better process funds and donations, Tay and her friends next went to Presevo, a town on the edge of Serbia and North Macedonia, where thousands queued overnight for travel visas to move freely around Serbia. They witnessed many hypothermia cases and exploitation by smugglers, said Tay.

“They would get to people in the queue and offer to take them straight to Belgrade for like four or five hundred euros. But the driver drives them, like 20, 30 kilometers away, points a gun at them and says, get out. And then they have to walk back to where we were.”

‘The head of the snake’

After a month and a half in Serbia, Tay decided to go to the “head of the snake”: Greece, often the starting point for Syrian refugees fleeing via Turkey. She chose Chios as it saw the second largest number of refugee boats arriving among the Greek islands receiving refugees.

“I didn't go with the intention of starting the work in Greece. The plan was never ‘Oh my God, I’m going to save everybody coming off the boats’,” said Tay.

Then on 20 March 2016, the European Union and Turkey signed a deal that “changed everything”. Refugees arriving on the islands would no longer be allowed to move to the mainland as they would be returned to Turkey.

“Nobody was allowed to leave the processing centre at Vial for 35 days. They just crammed and crammed people in the hot spot. And at that time, you still had a lot of boats coming. So that camp just got more and more full,” said Tay.

This culminated in a week-long standoff in April, when about 200 Syrians broke out of Vial and occupied the port of Chios, demanding to be allowed to take the ferry to Athens. The police arrived, as did members of the far-right, anti-immigrant party Golden Dawn, who attempted to intimidate people, said Tay, who watched events unfold.

On one “chaotic, crazy” night, someone threw a petrol bomb into the port, which caused the refugees to scatter into another camp in the centre of town.

According to a recent Guardian report, as of September 2019, at least 24,000 refugees are trapped in extremely overcrowded camps on the Greek islands, given that the rate of return of refugees to Turkey has been exceedingly slow.

And the refugees continue to come - in July and August, more than 13,000 people landed on Greek shores.

According to an Amnesty International report in October 2018, “The effect of the EU-Turkey deal is to trap thousands of people for months on the Greek islands in inhuman conditions. Their lives are on hold, and this is having a tremendous impact on their mental health.”

The extra vulnerable

Refugees on Chios, Greece protest their forced repatriation to Turkey. PHOTO: Gabrielle Tay

Tay eventually decided to focus on helping refugee women, calling them the “extra vulnerable” among an already vulnerable group. “Within women, there are different nationalities, ages, sexual orientations. It's already so complex,” explained Tay.

“For example, how you deal with survivors of gender-based violence, who have very specific needs, who have been through tremendous trauma. That group needs extra support.”

According to Amnesty International, “Some have fled sexual and physical violence and discrimination in their countries of origin only to face further violence and abuse on the road at the hands of people smugglers, border guards, state officials or relatives.”

One beneficiary of the Athena Centre is 35-year-old Hiba, who fled Homs, Syria in early 2016. The former English teacher told Yahoo News Singapore via email that she took a “difficult and dangerous” 20-day journey to Greece.

Now resettled in Germany with her three children, she recalled the centre as a “super place” where women had a place to rest away from their kids and, among others, learn English and German and take yoga lessons.

“Gabby (short for Gabrielle) helped me and all (the) other women a lot. She helped us financially and gave us a lot of advice and also helped many to find a place to stay in Athens.”

Another beneficiary is Firooza, 34, a mother of four. According to Amnesty International, the Afghan hid in a hotel on Chios to escape her husband’s beatings. Then, a woman from the Athena Centre came to Firooza. “She told me that I deserve a better life.”

At the Athena Centre, she found support and help from other women. Now, she has custody of her children and lives in Athens. “I am completely different now. I am not afraid anymore,” said Firooza.

Vicarious trauma

What did Tay’s friends and family think when she decided to help refugees full-time? “My friends thought I went a little crazy. I believe one of the comments was ‘midlife crisis’”.

But does the weight of all that Tay has heard and witnessed take an emotional toll on her? “You have no idea,” she replied. “I think vicarious trauma and secondary trauma is extremely real. I was becoming so impatient with people with first world problems...and that kind of made me (not) fun to be around.”

Not to mention the guilt. “There was one time I took the plane back and I felt so guilty for having that (Singapore) passport, to be able to just leave.”

It was only when Tay moved from Chios to Athens to set up the second centre that she realised the impact on herself. “I contracted chickenpox at 39. I literally spent 14 days battling the fever, which is supposed to go in like two, three days. You feel humbled.”

Asked how long she intends to keep doing the work, Tay declared, “I don’t think I will ever be able to go back to a corporate job.”

Alluding to her former role in public relations, she added with a laugh, “I don't think I will be able to go back to doing something like this, where my client calls on a Saturday and goes, ‘Oh, my God, there is something wrong with the press release.’ No, it's not a catastrophe.”

You can find out more about Action for Women’s work or make a contribution to them here.

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