How One Singaporean is Helping Syria's Refugees - Part 1
If you've followed the news in the last few months, you'll know that the violence in Syria, a multi-cornered fight that involves ISIL, the Assad government and various freedom and independence groups has gotten a lot more international attention. The Syrian war started late 2011, but only this year did the world start to really take notice of its impact to the surrounding countries.
Within Europe, Germany and other members of the EU have agreed to accept refugees escaping the violence and offer asylum to them, while some states are unwilling to come to terms with EU consensus. Hungary has closed off its doors. In other states which are entry points to the EU, whether legally or illegally, various social issues are being faced by refugees. Fear, resistance and bureaucracy are not making their escape from meaningless violence any easier. Many are in need of food, shelter, et cetera. Others are taking the sea route, with incredible risk as various agencies have documented.
Zurich-based Singaporean Gabrielle Tan grew increasingly concerned with refugee issues. She established a group, Action from Switzerland (AfS), and has dedicated resources to providing assistance to refugees coming into the EU through Röszke and Presevo. Through a grassroots movement, AfS is working with various international relief organisations to provide assistance. She tells us how, even 10,000 kilometres away, Singaporeans can provide help, and what the situation on the ground is really like.
Scenes at a refugee camp in Röske, courtesy of Fotomovimiento.org / Flickr
How rapidly are refugee numbers increasing right now?This summer of 2015 saw a huge spike in arrival numbers. There wasn't a hour passed where boats weren't arriving on the shores of Greece (islands like Kos, Lesvos etc), from Turkey, knocking desperately on the door of the first European Union.
Information and Map by Medicins Sans Frontieres
What made you decide to establish Action from Switzerland?When Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel announced that Germany will take 800 000 refugees, it gave many hope and the will to reach Europe.
Unfortunately, not all European leaders are on board with Chancellor Merkel. I watched and read various news sources with confusion as border controls were implemented, fences erected, causing one of the European Union's fundamental concepts (of free movement) to crumble.
On normal days, Keleti is the hub where many Hungarians travel on these trains to Vienna or Salzburg for work and vice versa. When the trains stopped running, it caused many refugees to be stranded, most of them down to their last cent with no access to basic aid or information from the Hungarian government.
I called various bigger known charities around Switzerland, Austria and Hungary asking how I could help. Most of them either took my number and never called me back or said "we have enough volunteers/supplies, thank you." Then I came across Edd's photos one morning. (See Budapest Seen's photos and discover his work.)
Those are all people asleep (or trying to stay asleep) out on the ground...they could have chosen to stay back in the...
Posted by Budapest seen on Saturday, October 24, 2015
With his permission and more information from a Hungarian friend who has already been providing assistance, I wrote a simple Facebook appeal asking for donations of basic items like sleeping bags, tents, blankets.
When I checked Facebook a couple of hours later, my inbox was exploding. My post had gone viral. Friends were sending me messages asking how they could help. After trying to respond to the 18th stranger with a similar message, I decided to set up a Facebook group called "Action from Switzerland" as a centralised way to disseminate information. Within 2 days, we got over 1000 members from all over Switzerland wanting to donate. To date, we are only a month old and we have almost 2200 members. The response has been nothing short of overwhelming. The offers of donated goods could fill more than twenty station wagons.
Image by Fotomovimiento.org / Flickr
We formed a team of various collection points around Zürich where people could drop stuff. A German lady generously offered to sponsor a van. Soon after, another van and an SUV joined us. After an intense week of coordinating donations and with Hungary, we packed the vehicles to the brim and we were off.
What kind of issues did you face on the ground? We had to make sure that we got the most accurate information by sieving through various sources and making reliable contacts, in order to provide effective aid. There was aid pouring in from all over Europe into Hungary - from as far as Sweden - all organised by private civilians. Onsite, the NGOs were outnumbered by private volunteers. We had to determine the more reliable and organised contacts who would be able to help us distribute our goods in a coordinated manner.
We faced the challenge of racing against time: needs changed all the time, storages filled up etc. To ensure that we won't be making a futile trip by being turned away, we kept in constant contact with Hungary, before and during our road journey, and we stuck to certain items that we were fairly confident would be in constant demand, namely blankets, tents, sleeping bags.
Image courtesy of Freedom House / Flickr
We spent a lot of time sorting through donated items and to put aside the broken, spoilt, unnecessary. Some people got offended when I refused to take anything else that I did not list. A good example: a duvet keeps you warm in your bed at night - but not so practical if you are a refugee on the move. It is cumbersome to bring to your next destination. Many things have been abandoned at the campsite contributing to unnecessary waste. Many refugees returned items to us if they didn't fit or could not use it, so others could have it.
I worked mostly in the distribution tent during my volunteering time in Röszke. It was chaos especially when a big group arrives. I am talking by the hundreds: women, men, kids, all trying to get your attention for something warm to wear or a sleeping bag.
We sent over 800 blankets, 400 sleeping bags and almost 100 tents to Hungary, not to mention pre packed sanitary items for men, women and children. I wish I brought more after how many times I had to bite my lip and say "sorry, no more tents." or when I saw an old man in his 60s, shivering in 6 degrees because all he had was a shirt and torn trousers under one blanket. I wish I could give him more. I still think of him till today for some reason.
Gabrielle is heading back to Presevo to provide additional aid this week. To find out how you can support Action from Switzerland, check out their Facebook group for more information, or follow them on Twitter. Donations can be made to them here.
Our #ActionfromCH volunteers are going on Mission this week!!! Lets make it a great one by helping out from Switzerland and abroad. Thank you all :)
Posted by Action from Switzerland on Tuesday, October 13, 2015
We'll be following Action from Switzerland's work in regular posts.