Cairo-based Gilbert Goh risks life helping displaced Palestinians, believes S’pore can do more

Gilbert Goh of Love Aid Singapore channels aid to Palestinians

Singapore is a sheltered country.

Thanks to its geographical location, it is shielded from natural disasters by its bigger neighbouring countries.

On top of that, the nation’s low crime rates and stringent safety policies means that its people rarely have to worry about internal strife or external threats.

As such, it is easy for Singaporeans to feel that ongoing wars, conflicts, and troubles in the rest of the world are too far away to care about, let alone try to render assistance to those in need.

However, Singaporean Gilbert Goh decided that if these people are too far away, the next best thing to do would be for him to close the gap and travel to these areas himself.

The 63-year-old social activist based in Cairo has facilitated millions of dollars worth of donations from Singaporeans to help those in the Middle East.

That said, he feels there is much more work to be done.

Gilbert Goh on being a Singaporean activist in the Middle East

Gilbert Goh is the founder of the social activist non-governmental organisation (NGO) Love Aid Singapore.

He has been focusing on coordinating humanitarian aid in the Middle East since 2015, mainly providing assistance to Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

“When we started, I found that there was a lack of humanitarian representation from Singapore in that region. Our exposure to humanitarian work is limited, even though we have the resources and we are so educated,” he told MS News.

Image courtesy of Gilbert Goh.

The activist explained that one of the biggest reasons behind the lack of Singaporean humanitarian efforts in the Middle East is due to the presence of red tape for NGOs there.

This is due to the region’s link to terrorism, which Gilbert thinks is a “stigma” that prevents lay people from accessing the help they need.

“Constant checks and balances for NGOs operating in the Middle East deter many from flexing their muscles there,” he observed.

Plus, the chaotic situation in the Middle East means that it is not entirely easy for Singaporeans, who enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, to get used to.

Additionally, Gilbert pointed out that the “follow-the-crowd” sentiment of most Singaporeans means “it takes a maverick to be able to operate out of the box” in the Middle East.

Source: @zuanjalikakamisgunnulfsen on Instagram

Gilbert said he aims to be the person who changes the status quo. “I want to plant the Singapore flag in this field, in this region, but it has its risks. I want to bring more people in, but for now it’s a one-man show because bombings and gunfire are part of the norm in this area.”

Gilbert Goh has been based in Cairo for over half a year

For Gilbert, helping those in the Middle East from Singapore wasn’t enough — he felt that he had to be as close to the action as possible.

It was imperative for him to base his operations there so that he can get a realistic sense of what the people needed on the ground.

Prior to October 2023, Gilbert would typically visit Lebanon during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and in the winter, during which he would bring food, clothing, necessities, and fuel to those who needed it.

But, after the war between Israel and Hamas came to a head late last year, Gilbert has been based in Cairo, Egypt for about half a year and counting. He makes trips to Beirut in-between, to provide aid to displaced Palestinians and assist with bringing in food and supplies to the camps in Gaza.

Calling this his longest stay in the Middle East save for a two-week break back in Singapore in April 2024, Gilbert remarked that this mission is a “special” one, as more people require humanitarian assistance in the wake of the crisis.

Singaporeans have donated about S$2.8 million to Love Aid Singapore

Gilbert told MS News that Love Aid Singapore has collected close to S$2.8 million in donations from Singaporeans since the war sparked last October.

“Every month, we consistently receive about S$30,000 to S$40,000 from donors. We then saw a huge spike during Ramadan, when we collected almost S$1 million in donations to our efforts.”

These efforts include providing funding for essentials such as infant baby milk — an “expensive and highly sought-after product” — and diapers.

Source: @loveaidsg on Instagram

The generous donations from Singaporeans also help fund Love Aid Singapore’s hefty operational costs.

Gilbert broke down the rough monthly expenses he incurs for Gaza alone, amounting to about US$100,000 (S$135,142), as follows:

  • Food kitchens – about US$50,000 (S$67,571) for at least three mobile kitchens.
  • Orphanage sponsorship programmes – US$40,000 (S$53,844) for about 700 children.
  • Funds given to wounded Palestinians who left Gaza to seek medical attention during visits – US$100 (S$135.14) per person.

On top of the recurring payments, Love Aid Singapore had undertaken a special project back in March to outfit a Gazan hospital with solar panels.

These panels, which cost US$44,000 (S$​​59,469.08), were meant to restore power to the hospital and its operations.

Aid trucks stuck at Rafah border for a month

While Singaporeans have been generously giving what they can, the main challenge Gilbert faces right now is getting food and supplies into Gaza.

The supply trucks for the kitchens have been stuck at the Rafah border for about a month, he said.

Source: @loveaidsg on Instagram

This comes as a result of the Israeli forces seizing control of the crossing between Egypt and Gaza, where many displaced Palestinians initially set up camps after the October attacks.

On 27 May, the situation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah reached a fever pitch after a fatal Israeli strike that reportedly killed at least 45 people. Among the dead were women and children, reported BBC News.

The assault on Rafah has also destroyed most of the solar panels Gilbert had installed, and refugees had to flee once again, carrying their refugee tents — which weigh about 15 kg each — along to other encampments near the coast.

Source: @loveaidsg on Instagram

Getting the funds into Gaza is another pain point, as it is a highly risky operation which can be “life-or-death” for those attempting to render aid.

For these areas, they have to deal in cash. But, if someone is caught trying to get money from Egypt into Gaza, they might get killed or shot. Unfortunately, I am unable to share more due to the risks involved, but this is something the world needs to know.

“It brings very serious consequences, but because I’m coordinating from Lebanon or Egypt, my hands are tied too. My trucks are stuck – what can I do? All we can do is pray for the trucks to be let in eventually,” Gilbert sighed.

Gilbert said that the war is likely to last for at least seven more months. With his supply trucks stuck at the border, his food kitchens are in trouble as they have no idea when they will be receiving their raw ingredients.

Resilience & positivity of wounded Palestinians keep him going

Having visited many wounded Palestinians during his time in Egypt and Lebanon, Gilbert revealed that his drive to help them comes from the inspiring people he has met along the way.

One interaction that stuck with him was a young Palestinian girl he visited in hospital.

“You look at her and you’d think nothing is wrong because she was smiling and so cheerful, but then you’ll realise that both her legs are amputated. Despite that, she’s still so calm,” he shared.

I look at the wounded and I often wonder: ‘Why? Why did they have to go through this?’ There are a lot of Palestinians losing their limbs, having burns all over their faces and bodies. But, they are calm, they are graceful, and don’t really complain a lot. Their positivity, composure and resilience are marvels to me, and I really admire that.

Seeing the perseverance these refugees exhibit helped change Gilbert’s perspective on how he wants to help them further, he noted.

“Their strength gives me impetus to keep me going in Cairo, and it gives me the drive to help them more.”

Gilbert Goh on feeling guilty about deaths of 9 food kitchen workers

On the other end of the spectrum, the 63-year-old experienced the lowest point in his humanitarian journey when he lost nine workers when an Israeli air strike hit one of the food kitchens Love Aid Singapore co-runs in Jabalia, North Gaza, with the International Relief Organisation (IRO) back in March.

“After learning of the news, I was just lying in bed trying to process the information. I was in denial, but after awhile it sunk in” Gilbert recalled.

“It took a couple of days to get back on my feet. We reached out to the families of the deceased workers and gave them compensation of US$1,000 (S$1,346.41) each, but no money can bring their loved ones back to life.”

On his end, Gilbert had to grapple with the fact that this was his first time losing workers — and nine of them at once — to wars in almost a decade of humanitarian work.

He reflected: “I’m quite the ‘task-master’ and I tend to push. But after the incident, I have moments when I wonder whether I am pushing too hard. I feel guilty that I might have contributed to their deaths.”

At the same time, Gilbert acknowledges that it is crucial to focus on assisting those who are still alive.

“If I pull out now and return home to Singapore, I’m very sure that our food kitchens and other aid projects will not continue. So, I have to persist and see this through, even though I’m alone — it’s really not easy,” he continued.

Gilbert Goh plans to visit injured Palestinians at hospitals near Rafah border

Being a lone Singaporean trying to make a difference in the Middle East, Gilbert believes that the nation’s good reputation and strong passport puts him a head above other international organisations.

He said that the Singaporean passport allows him to travel in and out of Cairo quite easily, and enables him to do his work without any additional headaches.

“Singaporeans are generally quite well-respected and known to be resourceful and responsible, so I enjoy a lot of open doors and many people want to work with me,” he said.

“Clearing customs is very smooth with our passport. I’ve received the thumbs-up from many officers when they see the red passport. It makes me very proud to represent Singapore, and to have done something good in this part of the world on behalf of our people.”

This does not mean that there are zero issues when it comes to travelling near the active warzones, however.

For an upcoming trip to visit wounded Palestinians in hospitals in Sinai and Al Arish, near the Egypt and Rafah border, he had to jump through some hoops.

Source: Google Maps

The paperwork took about two weeks to process, and he received clearance on 4 June. He will hence set off for Al Arish later in the month.

Once he is there, he plans to give each wounded Palestinian US$100 (S$134.64) to help with their recovery expenses.

Encourages Singapore to expand humanitarian presence in Middle East

Gilbert hopes that Singaporeans can continue to donate to Love Aid Singapore and help support its ongoing relief operations.

He also hopes that the Singapore Government will do more to provide aid for the affected areas, specifically in helping to rebuild homes and healthcare facilities along the Gaza Strip.

“Singapore and its Housing Board have the resources and experience building housing blocks for more than 50 years. Perhaps we can consider building 10 housing blocks and a hospital to help the affected people get back on their feet,” the activist posited.

“For example, there is the Indonesian Hospital and the Kuwaiti Hospital in Gaza. Maybe we can have a Singapore Hospital — I think that would be wonderful. We have the expertise and the resources, why not use that to expand our humanitarian presence here in that way?”

He therefore urges Singapore to do more as a country: “We always think we are just a small island, cannot kacau (disturb) the ‘big brothers’ — I feel that has to change. When we pool our resources together and make a huge difference so long as we believe we can.”

“Let’s not look down on ourselves and see ourselves as just a small country. We need to see ourselves as peace-loving, giving, and caring about, not just caring about our GDP and finances. If one guy like myself can do it, then all of us can.”

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Featured image adapted from @loveaidsg on Instagram and Instagram.

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