This Singaporean chose to live in Iraq, helping refugees for 6 years now. This is his story
A health crisis in 2014 made Willy Tan realise he wanted to make a difference in the world. He went from a career in banking to humanitarian work in the Kurdistan region, helping victims of a genocide.
KURDISTAN, Iraq: There was a week in Willy Tan’s life when he was completely blind.
He had been living with one functioning eye since 1999, when a stroke caused the loss of sight in his left eye at age 33. Then in 2014, his right eye failed him.
Willy, now 56, remembers praying in desperation, “God … please use me for the rest of my life.” He did not know what would happen, but he “didn’t want (his) life to go to waste”.
“I wanted to make a difference in this world,” he says.
About a week later, he regained the sight of his right eye, after an ophthalmologist had recommended a drug that could help him.
It turned out that he had macular degeneration, an eye disease that can result in severe, permanent vision loss. In his case, the condition could be managed so long as he injected the drug into his eye every two months.
What sustained him, however, was the conviction that he should do something with his life.
He was in California and working in banking at the time, having moved from Singapore to the United States in 1986 and living there since then with his wife and two adult children.
But the incident marked the start of a journey that took him to the Kurdistan region of Iraq in 2016. Today, home for him is Zakho, a small city of over 200,000 people.
Willy is co-founder of Habibi International, a humanitarian organisation providing healthcare and education for internally displaced persons (IDPs) — those who are forced from their homes but remain within the same country — and refugees.
He is one of four Singaporeans living in unusual places who are featured in the On The Red Dot series, Are You The Only Singaporean Here?
‘PLEASE COME AND HELP US’
Around the time of Willy’s struggle with his condition, a genocide was happening halfway round the world. In August 2014, the Yazidi people, a religious minority living in the northern Iraqi region of Sinjar, were attacked by Islamic State (Isis) militants.
It has been estimated that within the first month, about 3,100 Yazidis were killed and about 6,800 were kidnapped to become sex slaves or fighters. Many more left their homeland and fled to refugee camps in Iraq and Turkey.
Isis has since been defeated. But the Yazidis, whose faith shares some elements with Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism, are unable to return to Sinjar, which lies in ruins and remains a conflicted area.
These were the people Willy found himself called to help when he received a random email about six months after he had regained his sight.
The email was an appeal to people, particularly healthcare professionals, to serve as volunteers in a refugee camp in south-eastern Turkey. “The email wasn’t directed at me,” he says.
But somehow, when I read (it), I felt the nudge.”
He persuaded a doctor friend to go with him and, within two weeks, boarded a flight to Turkey. The refugees he met in his six months there were “quite desperate”, he remembers, and many begged him to come back.
But it would have been a challenge continuing to serve there, he says, because of the country’s “sensitive and volatile” political situation then.
He returned home to think what to do next. The answer came in late 2015, when he received a text message from a Yazidi teenager he had met in Turkey, who was back in the Kurdistan region.
All that the message said was: “Uncle Willy, please come and help us.”
The teen also sent some photos of his surroundings — and the photos, says Willy, “broke (his) heart”. The teen’s family were living like squatters in an unfinished home, with a blue tarp covering their lodging.
“These homes were basically just bricks,” he describes. “Nothing was done inside or outside.”
That, he says, was the moment when he knew he should go.
CHAOTIC BUT REWARDING
When Willy arrived in 2016, he was the only Singaporean there.
He knew that in itself, the Kurdistan region — an autonomous part of Iraq with a separate government and economy — was safe. But Isis was still active in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and Syria.
“The atmosphere … was very tense. The Yazidis were very nervous,” he recalls. But he and two of his friends “plunged in and started”. Danger was not on their minds, which he says, on reflection, was “a bit naive”.
“This was new (and) exciting, and we didn’t understand the (severity of the situation),” he says. “I got scoldings from friends and family … People around us were more worried than us.”
WATCH: Are you the only Singaporean here? (23:32)
In the war-ravaged country of Iraq, a few Singaporeans have made the region of Kurdistan home. Host Rozz Lee travels to the small city of Zakho to learn why they are there.
Their first medical clinic was held in an unfinished apartment. “Everything was mobile (and) makeshift,” he describes. “We simply moved our doctors in there.”
Many of the Yazidis were still squatting in unfinished homes or open areas, as not all the IDP and refugee camps were completed. It was tough and “quite chaotic” then, but also “very rewarding”.
“People were crowding outside to … be seen by the doctors,” Willy recounts. “They were desperate, and they needed someone to help.”
In 2017, he co-founded Habibi International. The non-governmental organisation provides healthcare such as dental and surgical services, rehabilitation and mental health support. It also runs English and computer classes.
As word of his work spread in Singapore, he was joined by other Singaporeans.
Most of the Singaporeans in Habibi’s field team are volunteers who could spend anything between two weeks and six months in the Kurdistan region. There are also some who have joined Habibi full-time. One of them is Heidi Tan, 34.
She met Willy in 2019, when he returned to Singapore to speak at a conference her parents attended. She had always been interested in volunteering in the Middle East, so her mother suggested she meet him and hear his story.
The former civil servant is now Habibi’s director of operations and has lived in Zakho for about one and a half years.
“It’s not that life wasn’t good before, but … this is what I’d wanted to do, or felt called to do, for the longest time,” she says. “I feel like, when I came here, my life started.”
IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL
Today, Habibi actively serves in four camps — which have a combined population of about 40,000 to 45,000 people — while Willy’s main roles are in fund-raising, strategic planning and recruiting volunteers.
The Yazidis have settled in their camps, and the housing situation has improved. In one of the camps, Habibi recently built a community centre at a cost of around US$160,000 (S$217,000).
But they still need help, and Habibi has met their needs “only (on) a very small scale”, Willy stresses. For example, in Duhok governorate, which Zakho is a part of, there are 16 other camps.
“They’re a forgotten people,” he says. “Because of their status in the society, so many … services aren’t accessible to them.”
Medical services remain a huge need, particularly in specialised areas such as orthopaedic and cataract surgeries. To this end, Habibi flies in medical teams from round the world, and they work with a large local team to provide free healthcare.
“These kinds of refugee crises … come and go, and (it) all depends on who’s grabbing the headlines,” Willy says. “(It) has been eight years (since the genocide), so naturally the world has sort of moved on.”
At the height of the crisis, there were many more NGOs in the area. Most have left to deal with disasters in other parts of the world.
Habibi, however, is staying “for the long haul” and hoping to do more so the Yazidis know “they haven’t been forgotten”.
WATCH: The Singaporeans in Iraq helping Yazidi refugees displaced by Isis (3:41)
“I made this long-term commitment … to help the people here and, basically, to give my life to service,” Willy says. “I’ll continue on until I can’t, then it’s time to pass (it) on to the next generation.
“My work will be done, but Habibi’s work won’t be."
Watch this episode of On The Red Dot here. The programme airs on Mediacorp Channel 5 on Fridays at 9.30pm.