Maggie Tookey: From the Yorkshire Dales to disaster zones

Maggie Tookey. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Maggie Tookey. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
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In the first in a series about ordinary people with remarkable stories, Chris Bond talks to aid worker Maggie Tookey who has been to some of the world’s most dangerous places.

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FROM the bottom of the street where Maggie Tookey lives the view stretches out towards the verdant fringes of the Yorkshire Dales.

Nestled on the banks of a particularly peaceful stretch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, Kildwick is a picture-postcard village. But its tranquil beauty is far removed from the scenes of death and devastation that Maggie has encountered during her 18 years as an aid worker.

Her job has taken her into the heart of war zones and to remote, often impoverished, places that have been left devastated by natural disasters.

She had spent 23 years working as a school teacher in Skipton, in North Yorkshire, when she decided it was time to do something different. For many people, a career change might involve learning a foreign language or going back to college, but in Maggie’s case it meant putting herself in the firing line.

In 1999, she volunteered to drive a lorry taking aid to southern Kosovo which was in the grip of civil war. “It was the end of the war so the conditions were very poor,” she says. “The Serbs were shooting across the river and that was a bit of an eye-opener for me because I’d never seen that kind of thing before.”

Despite the danger she quickly took to the job and has been a humanitarian aid volunteer ever since. She is now a field director with Edinburgh Direct Aid, her work having taken her to Pakistan, Gaza, the West Bank and Sri Lanka.

She was part of the huge humanitarian effort following the devastating Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. “That was a disaster zone, everything had been flattened and people were living in shelters. The only relief for them was that it wasn’t winter so they didn’t have people freezing to death.”

Maggie also went to Pakistan in 2005 after the earthquake in Kashmir that left around 75,000 people dead. She travelled to Balakot which had been virtually razed to the ground. “To travel there was difficult and it was a horrible scene, people were still being dug out and you had the stench of bodies.”

Many people would struggle to cope with the sheer scale of human suffering, but Maggie says you learn to concentrate on the job in hand. “You’re there and you see what’s going on and your greatest drive is to try and help and I think most people would be the same.”

There is a steely determination to Maggie and it was another dreadful event which, I suspect, sowed the seeds for her future humanitarian work.

In the spring of 1989, she had travelled to China and was in Beijing when students gathered in Tiananmen Square for a pro-democracy demonstration. “I’d been in the square with the students beforehand. At that time it was quite peaceful and you felt it could be the start of something really major.”

She visited Mongolia before returning to the city by train, but on her return the situation had turned ugly. “As soon as I got off the train I was hijacked by a load of Chinese students because I was a westerner and there weren’t many of us round. They said ‘come to the square, we need you to see what’s happening,’ so I couldn’t really turn round and say ‘no, I’d rather go back to my hotel room.’”

By this time she says the tanks had rolled through the square. “We could see the soldiers lined up with their guns and bayonets pointing towards the crowd and people in the crowd were pleading with them to put their guns down. I was at the back and I stood on a pillar to see what was happening over the crowd. Suddenly they started shooting and all the people at the front went down. At that point we just ran to the nearest building and then all hell broke loose.”

The building she sought refuge in was an old hotel. “We hid behind a big sofa because the windows were being shot through,” she says. “We watched for the next three days people being shot in the street below. Most of the killing took place in those three days afterwards, not in the square.”

She made a run for it on the third morning and reached her hotel on the other side of the city and eventually managed to get on a plane back home. But the harrowing scenes she witnessed left a lasting impression. “That had a huge impact because these people were trying to tell the soldiers ‘you’re one of us, put your guns down’, and maybe that is what has kept me going with the work I’m doing.”

Most recently she has been working with teams ferrying aid to Arsal on the Syrian and Lebanon border, which is on the frontline of the battle against Islamic State (IS). The border town, home to Syrian refugee camps that house some 80,000 people, was seized by the jihadists last summer. They were later pushed back by the Lebanese army and earlier this year Maggie returned to the camp to continue the emergency aid effort.

She was well aware of what would probably happen to her if she fell into the hands of IS and admits that in retrospect it wasn’t a good idea to stay there. The camps have so-called “roosters”, people who pass on information, and as the only westerner she could have been a target.

“I slept in a store room very close to the Lebanese Army checkpoint, although I don’t know how much that would have protected me. But we had so much work to do, it was only on the evenings that it got a bit nerve-wracking. A couple of nights there were worrying experiences with vehicles pulling up outside and I thought ‘is this it, am I going to get a knock on the door?’ But it didn’t happen and I was well looked after by my Syrian team.”

She points out that aid workers are often faced with these kind of difficult decisions. “Some people might say this is totally irresponsible, but you take as many precautions as you can and weigh up the advice you’re given. You don’t just go in and say ‘I’ll be all right’, I never do that.

“But of course there’s a risk, all NGOs working in areas of conflict face this, it’s just an accepted part of what we do. You just have to minimise that risk and not be irresponsible. Which is why I wouldn’t stay there again because that would be irresponsible.”

As well as working on the Syrian border she is involved in projects in places like Kenya and Pakistan. “Last year I helped finish a remote mother and child healthcare clinic up in wilds of the mountains in Pakistan and that’s hugely rewarding, because it makes a such a big difference to a lot of people’s lives.”

This is why Maggie, who is now 64, has no plans to curtail her workload any time soon. “I’ll carry on as long as I’m needed and there’s work to do – and that’s not going to run out any time soon.”

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Maggie Tookey was brought up in London and spent four years training in the Lake District to be a teacher.

She moved to Skipton just over 40 years ago to take up a teaching post at Aireville Secondary Modern school. Although, as she explains, it’s down to happenstance that she ended up in Yorkshire.

“I didn’t want to move back down south and in those days you could get a job anywhere so I stuck a pin in a map of the north. Someone had said that Skipton was nice so I went there.”

Maggie taught everything from PE to Geography and later became a year head before quitting her teaching job in 1997 to become an overseas aid volunteer.

In 2012 she was awarded an MBE for services to humanitarian aid.