Singaporean helping refugees in Greece overwhelmed by emotion
Two Singaporeans are among volunteers in Greece helping with the influx of refugees from war-torn countries. They recount their experiences...
The temperature was 3 deg C.
Thousands of refugees - cold, hungry, exhausted and desperate - had just arrived in Athens by ferry from the Greek islands.
Among them were children who had lost fathers, mothers and siblings. The children, many of whom would have been in kindergarten here, had to survive the terror of a sinking boat in pitch darkness.
When Ms Madeleine Png, 37, saw their sad, worry-lined faces for the first time at the port, she cried.
"Nothing could have prepared me for this," said Ms Png, who arrived in Athens on Jan 19 and will be there for three months.
In a telephone interview with The New Paper on Tuesday, she said: "This is not a 'YouTube story'.
"I have read a lot about the crisis before coming but I was overwhelmed with emotions when I saw what was happening for myself."
Ms Png works with Christian organisation Operation Mobilisation in Athens and helps to distribute daily necessities to the refugees, pack food and organise the store.
She said: "We also speak to them, give them a hug and put a smile on their faces."
She paid for her trip with her savings and spends about $2,000 a month on food and lodging.
Ms Png, who is single, took three months of unpaid leave as a customer service manager in an engineering firm for her trip.
She said her colleagues told her not to worry and that they would cover her work duties.
She said of the refugees, who are from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Pakistan: "They all have their own stories to tell. Some of them have lost their families, others have walked miles to reach Turkey, where they can take a boat to Greece."
According to the United Nations refugee agency, Greece has received 83,233 arrivals by sea since the start of this year.
Most of the crossings are made from Turkey but the route separating the two countries is deadly, having claimed the lives of 320 people since the start of the year, said Xinhua news agency.
Many are eager to get to the Macedonia border, where they hope to continue on to Germany and other European countries.
Ms Png recalled meeting a man from Nepal, who spent four months trying to reach Athens. A new border policy implemented last November meant that only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are allowed to cross the Macedonia border.
Ms Png said: "I could tell that he was a strong man but when I asked 'What next?', he started to tear. He is trapped. He has nowhere else to go and sleeps in a park in Athens now."
In her four weeks in Athens, Ms Png has forged close friendships with fellow volunteers.
She spoke of a Syrian volunteer who seemed extremely reserved and did not smile.
"I later learnt that he had seen his wife and two young children die before his very own eyes. He was the only one who could swim when the rubber boat he was in sank."
They are now close friends and he took care of her when she was ill.
Ms Png also had to teach a Syrian child, whom she estimates to be about five, to smile for the camera.
She said: "I was taking a selfie with the child but she did not know how to smile. I had to teach her to smile by asking her to mimic myself."
While it is easy to feel depressed, Ms Png said she tries to look at her work from a different perspective.
"Rather than me helping the refugees, I think that they have helped and inspired me instead.
"I have met numerous refugees who are selfless and full of compassion for one another," said Ms Png, who is going to the Greek island of Lesbos this week to help refugees arriving from Turkey.
Charity work is not new to Ms Png .
Last year in Singapore, she did a 100km charity run and a 12-hour charity skip to raise funds for cancer patients and the poor respectively.
"When I meet women and children who have walked for miles to seek a better life, I think to myself, what is 100km?" said Ms Png.
Since launching an online appeal called "Mercy Appeal for Refugees in Europe" about a week ago, Ms Png has raised about $1,300 on crowdfunding website GIVEasia and will use the money to purchase and prepare lunch boxes for the refugees.
Her mother, Madam Nancy Goh, 66, a retiree, said: "I am very proud that Madeleine is so loving and has the desire to help the needy."
Ms Png hopes to organise projects to raise funds for the refugees after she returns to Singapore. She also plans to return to Greece.
She said: "Many friends asked me why I would put myself at risk to help people I don't even know. But I don't just live for myself, I live to make a difference in the world. Living only begins when you start loving."
'I wanted to help in any way I could'
Another Singaporean braving the tough conditions in Greece to help refugees is Mr Wayne Abdullah.
Mr Abdullah, 41, who paid his own way there, has been in Greece since Jan 28 and will return to Singapore later this month.
He spent the first two weeks of his trip on the Greek island of Lesbos, where refugees arrived from Turkey, crammed in rubber boats.
In a telephone interview with The New Paper, he said: "We see up to 7,000 refugees a day, including infants as young as three months old.
TEAMWORK: Mr Wayne Abdullah, with fellow volunteer and Lesbos resident, Ms Anna Aberg Moutzourelli. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WAYNE ABDULLAH
"We go into the water to help stabilise the rubber boats when they arrive at shore."
From Lesbos, the refugees walk from camp to camp before taking a ferry to Athens, where Mr Abdullah is now based.
He is working with non-governmental organisation Lighthouse Reliefin Greece. He helps in the kitchen and distributes food and necessities to the refugees.
He stays in a motel and has spent about $2,500 so far on accommodation and food.
Said Mr Abdullah, who is engaged and who runs a car wash business and a training consultancy firm in Singapore: "I did not want to 'post on Facebook' and 'do nothing' about the refugee crisis.
"I wanted to come here, see the situation for myself and help in any way I can."
He said he draws inspiration from other volunteers.
"The volunteers here come from all walks of life. Some of them are here for the long term and have made huge sacrifices, such as quitting their jobs back home."
Mr Abdullah also donates to help refugees pay for boat tickets from Turkey to Lesbos, which costs 60 euros (S$94) each.
He channels the money through Lesbos resident Anna Aberg Moutzourelli, who sponsors boat tickets for refugees.
He said: "Through Anna, I found out about an elderly man who wanted to flee Turkey. To pay for his boat ticket, he sold one of his kidneys."
Mr Abdullah has been doing humanitarian work for the past 10 years.
He went to Aceh, Indonesia, to help at migrant camps during the Rohingya crisis last year.
His late mother, who used to cook extra food and distribute it to neighbours, is his main source of inspiration for doing charity work, said Mr Abdullah.
He said: "I have known since young that I wanted to help others.
"This is the main reason I started my businesses - to give me the flexibility in terms of time to help others in need."
His family and friends were not surprised when he decided to go to Greece, he said.
"They know that helping the needy has almost become my 'job'," he said.
In January last year, he set up Relief Mission, a non-profit group that aims to raise awareness of different causes and find sustainable ways to help the needy.
Members of the public can donate through the group's Facebook page.
He hopes Singaporeans will gain better awareness of the refugee crisis.
He said: "It is sad that we only discuss about the refugee crisis when a child dies.
"When we understand the lives of these refugees, we will realise that ideals about chasing the next dollar are pointless.
EU-Turkey summit to discuss migration crisis
The European Union (EU) and Turkey will hold a special summit early next month to push forward a deal to stem the migration crisis, EU Council President Donald Tusk said yesterday.
EU leaders meeting in Brussels also unanimously opposed "unilateral actions" by member states after Austria said it would cap the daily number of asylum claims, reported AFP.
"We agreed that our joint action plan with Turkey remains a priority and we must do all we can to succeed," Mr Tusk told a press conference after the first day of a two-day EU summit.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany - the EU country that received the most refugees last year at over one million - said the EU "must see quickly if measures work" under the plan agreed at another summit where Turkey agreed to cut migrant flows in exchange for 3 billion euros in aid.
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