By Michael Collins
“These were weeks when international media regularly published photos of refugees walking along rural roads in Europe – a girl with a teddy bear, two boys pushing a third in a wheelchair. The images captured the strangeness of the situation and, to some extent, its pathos, but not the hours of physical exertion that walking demanded from people who were already hungry and exhausted” (103), Dana Sachs writes of Syrian refugees trying to make their way to new homes in All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of The Migrant Aid Crisis. One overarching moral aim on which the book certainly delivers is to bridge such gaps for readers with no direct experience of the crisis, whether between received images and their contextual stories or, even further, to include the inter-complexities among those stories.
Sachs weaves together life stories of refugees and volunteers, some of whom are both, who fled the war in Syria to Europe via Turkey and Greece beginning in 2015. A multilayered journalistic account, it ranges from the psychological struggles and insights of its central figures and families, to the cultural obstacles encountered and bridges formed in piecing together daily solutions amidst the crisis, to the national and international political obstacles to humane processes of relocating refugees. It successfully weaves narratives and perspectives from a diverse group of those struggling to help and/or survive on the ground with the relevant statistics they humanize, all in juxtaposition to the plodding roll out of broader, much better funded programs and policies by governments and large NGOs. The important contributions of larger entities are acknowledged, but their shortfalls are considerable:
“It is one of the terrible ironies of this story that the European Union had authorized €83 million to improve living conditions for displaced people in Greece and yet many fled official camps, taking shelter instead in illegal housing. The rejection of camps testified to their squalor and isolation and the fact that living there made people feel that they’d been warehoused and forgotten” (179).
The primary focus of the book is the smaller, more directly observant, interactive, and operationally agile organizations, such as Humanity Now: Direct Refugee Relief, of which Sachs is a co-founder. Indeed, the evolution of such organizations, often in cooperation with one another, is an interesting storyline of its own:
“Europe’s grassroots community had matured…. The most effective teams managed to marry the expertise and professionalism of large NGOs with the nimbleness and heart of small-scale relief efforts. The Norwegian charity A Drop in the Ocean, for example, had started out by providing emergency aid on Lesvos Island in 2015. By the end of 2016, the organization was sending experienced representatives to international conferences and issuing annual reports. It remained extremely lean, however. The organization had only 1.5 paid positions and relied almost entirely on volunteers. Over two thousand people from thirty-five different countries had served as ‘Drops’ in Greece” (225-6).
The complexities between the different abilities and restrictions of the various forms of aid organizations are an important aspect of the book. Sadly, transnational refugee crises seem more likely to proliferate than abate in the coming decades, and increasingly effective modes of cooperation and interdependence among the greater humanitarian community will only become more important. All Else Failed will be important to consider as such conversations evolve.
Its relevance to such conversations is also due to its methods and subject matter. All Else Failed is inherently focused on the perspectives and experiences of its featured refugees and volunteers, an approach that corresponds with the practices of grassroots aid organizations and communities. The book makes its most compelling case for the mode of humanitarian aid it champions in these interwoven stories. This approach also facilitates another compelling contribution of the book: Its nuanced profiles of these individuals point toward an emerging model of wounded, empathetic, self-aware, and resilient crisis citizen that bypasses dichotomies between victim and helper.
We meet several of the refugee families in their pre-war lives in Syria and follow them from these various versions of stability through the process of assessing their proximity to danger and options, making the choice to leave behind all that cannot be packed and carried, and planning to flee the country, in some cases by necessarily separating their families. The next stage involves a dangerous journey on which most of those possessions are lost or paid to smugglers, and unpredictable sequences of movements are undertaken to avoid detection by authorities. This is all before arriving in Greece, which is utterly unprepared to receive them, in their attempt to reach other destinations in Europe, which mostly refuse them, many for years. These journeys then bring the refugees to the settings shared with volunteers in Greece, first on beaches pulling survivors from tenuous vessels, subsequently in camps established to manage their basic needs, and finally in slightly preferable but still challenging squats organized by local community leaders.
The refugees’ narratives record squalid poverty, frustration with obstacles to constructive action, fear for their families’ health and safety, and, perhaps most torturously, the malaise, boredom, and tedious despair of the camps they find themselves stuck in. A recurrent, inspiring, and salient turn takes place when a refugee gains access to agency in the form of community service, usually in one of the illegal housing projects set up in cities away from the camps:
“The past few months had challenged Rima in every way. Her assessment of comfort had radically shifted. She had not forgotten the luxuries of her home in Syria, but she more often thought of her current situation in comparison to the squalor of [the camp]. The [housing squat] felt like heaven after the camp. She loved cooking for her community and worked hard to make delicious food. She didn’t want anyone to merely subsist; she wanted them to actually enjoy her meals. I cook, she told herself, for the sake of God. Rima Halabi had joined the volunteer movement” (167).
The illegal squats have no recourse to official channels of aid, and therefore require these contributions, but they have the ancillary effect of creating community bonds: “If a refugee knew how to paint walls, unclog toilets, or run electrical wiring through a building, the squat needed that person’s help. Unlike in government-run camps, where residents were mostly passive recipients of aid, this community would succeed or fail based on the active engagement of those who lived inside” (165).
Inspiring though some of their achievements may be, these meager dwellings are still haunted by crime, addiction and widespread depression, another important aspect of the resettling experience difficult to capture in brief mass media reporting, a particularly insidious issue as it demoralizes many of those who could be pillars of refugee communities: “[D]isplacement undermines the confidence of people who had previously regarded themselves as respectable members of society” (243). More problematically, it results from and manifests in behaviors that would not necessarily be connected by volunteers who did not have the ability to get to know the individuals involved: “squat residents refused to venture into the streets of Athens unless they had washed their clothes and made themselves look clean and neat. But it’s difficult to wash clothes if you live among 150 men sharing two bathrooms” (243). Some of these complicated situations are met by the creativity and compassion of refugees and volunteers, as in the generation of “Ramadan packs,” distributed before sunrise to make sure the observantly religious are fed (172). A great many others, of course, simply linger and fester due to the paucity of resources.
We do get to read about some of the life-affirming success stories: refugees resettled, reunited with families, determined to learn new languages, understand new customs, integrate into new roles and communities, even aspiring to build lives capable of supporting returns to Syria to help others when the opportunity may present itself: “When the sun rises, it will be our turn to help people” (281). These outcomes, however, involve arduous perseverance, the ability to be creative and rational in balancing traditions and pressing needs, the willingness to invest in community, and a capacity for gratitude capable of blotting from the mind the injustices of the past in order to take whatever forward steps are possible.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that these qualities are often shared most apparently with the volunteers who move to Greece at cost to themselves and work tirelessly to improve the situation. Though these individuals may model ingenuity, tenacity, and gritty humanitarian service, Sachs makes no attempt to romanticize their dedication or make Hollywood archetypes out of complex individuals.
The evolution of one stalwart volunteer’s perspective stands as an example of the most mindful volunteers’ balance between presence to the other and personal investment drawn from their own context: “When Kanwal described what she’s witnessed in Greece, she made it personal. ‘I just kept thinking this can be me and my family or my loved ones,’ she would say of refugees she’d met in Greece. People opened their wallets” (100). The aspects of altruistic mythologizing one would expect often accompany decisions to offer so much of one’s live to a difficult cause: “Kanwal Malik, thirty-four years old, had found purpose. I’m so broken, she thought. These people are fixing me. On Leros, she had seen how people had joined together for the common good. The system moved her deeply. She wanted to be part of it” (100). However, the deepening of such initial conceptions is considerable:
“On her first stint volunteering, she had felt such profound empathy for displaced people that she defined them simplistically: ‘These are angels. They’re the holy ones. They have to be good because they’ve been through so much.’
Now she considered those views naïve. ‘They’re just like any one of us trying to survive,’ she told me one. ‘They have their good. They have their bad. They are just normal people that have been through terrible circumstances and continue to live in terrible circumstances, which actually tests their character.’
This conclusion might sound obvious, but Kanwal had actually come to a fundamental truth that escapes many observers of crisis – that refugees are complicated human beings, just like the rest of us” (219).
Indeed, some of the most powerful individual lessons we may learn from those chronicled in these pages involve the need to tend to one’s own mental health and personal boundaries while providing aid and succor. By offering some protection against cumulative grief and despair, such practices sustain these individuals’ compassionate determination, a necessity in facing their various and often isolating paths. These challenges are so intense that, on the few occasions when two or more of the central figures’ paths would cross for the first time in the book, I felt palpably overjoyed for them, relieved that they would be present to help one another from then on. Perhaps, in addition to the claims made explicitly and implicitly by the text regarding how we might approach such crises in the future, we might also consider our responses as readers as we look back on such moments where human connections are formed that strengthen all parties – and approach future interventions with the priority of facilitating them.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/All-Else-Failed-Unlikely-Volunteers/dp/1954276095
Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines. He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY.