All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of the Migrant Aid Crisis

  • By Dana Sachs
  • Bellevue Literary Press
  • 304 pp.

People in dire straits find allies amid the chaos.

All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of the Migrant Aid Crisis

It may not surprise you to hear that when I started Dana Sachs’ All Else Failed, I expected it to be dark. After all, the 2015 European migrant crisis was a time of great chaos, heartbreak, and confusion, one in which international aid organizations notoriously dropped the ball and left thousands to fester in makeshift camps for months.

Instead, Sachs offers a portrait of hope, albeit one tempered by despair and frustration. Through the eyes of families and individuals, she reveals the ways people fleeing for their lives take time to care for one another in the midst of panic and heartbreak.

The author sets the scene by chronicling the journeys of two families, the Khalils and the Halabis, from their homelands. While the Khalils travel as a family from Syria, Rima Halabi is bringing five of her children to Germany to reunite with her husband, who has taken another of their children and gone ahead to try to establish residency for them all.

These journeys are harrowing. At the border to Turkey, smugglers pressure Rima to climb the fence first, promising they’ll send her children after her. Realizing there’s a significant possibility the kids will be left behind, she stands her ground:

“At this moment, her family remained together in one country. As soon as she climbed the fence, however, she would be in Turkey and her children in Syria. What might happen then? The smugglers could drag her forward and leave the kids behind.”

Insisting, “My children go first,” Rima holds up the line of refugees until the smugglers give in.  

The Khalils, too, suffer nearly unimaginable deprivation. At one point, the patriarch, Abu Omar, attempts to find his family a tent to sleep in within Idomeni, one of the makeshift camps erected by non-governmental organizations. After waiting in a long line to apply for one, he is told, “UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] wasn’t handing out tents. ‘Go to MSF [Medecins Sans Frontieres],’ an official replied. He left one office, walked to another, and got in line. The heat had become oppressive, but he was determined to wait. Finally, he reached the front. ‘I need a tent,’ he said. The MSF officials shook their heads. ‘Go to UNHCR.’”

Overwhelmed by the inability to provide even basic shelter for his loved ones, Abu Omar breaks down, panics, and has a heart attack. Although he eventually recovers, it’s clear the lack of control over their circumstances is affecting him, his family, and the other refugees in deep and lasting ways.

Both the Khalils and the Halabis eventually make their way to the Second School Squat in Athens, an improvised shelter that, while far from perfect, has been modified to meet more of the refugees’ needs than the camps were equipped to do.

“How do you illegally transform an abandoned building into housing for homeless people?” Sachs asks, concluding:

“In Greece in 2016, if you knew what you were doing, it wasn’t so difficult…Activists broke the locks and went inside…People with knowledge of plumbing connected the pipes to the city line. Those with electrical skills rewired the place to the neighborhood grid. One group installed a kitchen, while others painted, repaired ceilings, and put a new wood floor in a room that would serve as a play area for children.”

The author intersperses these narratives with the stories of three women volunteers — two English, one Kiwi — who start as casual helpers but quickly establish themselves as battle-hardened warriors mindful of the needs on the ground. She also shares the extraordinary tale of Ibrahim Khoury, an Iraqi refugee experienced in humanitarian relief who chooses to stay in Greece and help. The frustration of these grassroots leaders over the failure of more established organizations is palpable.

Amid these tribulations, however, are moments of hope. When Abu Omar sees Rima Halabi working nonstop to cook for the inhabitants of the squat, for instance, he reminds her to take care of herself. Even the author forms a lasting bond with the Khalil family, who eventually succeed in reaching Germany. In moments of desperation, goodness shines. This book is a testament to that.

Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights at @hapahaiku.

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