Book Review

The Greeks have a word for the desire to help people in need, explains Dana Sachs in her riveting new account of humanitarian courage, All Else Failed. She then teaches us a concept that seems alien in the extant rendition of America: Philoxenia, or “love of strangers.” In Sachs’s telling, from the shores of the Aegean to northernmost Greece between 2015–17, it is this very love that compels strangers from disparate cultures and continents to care intensely and tirelessly for each other. Sachs’s topic is migrant crisis spurred largely by the mass movement of Syrians fleeing civil war, but her true subject is the impulse shared by members of the human family to give aid to those who are suffering.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, one million refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean into Europe in 2015 alone, with an estimated 3,700 believed to have drowned. One of these was two-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose death at sea brought global attention to the cost of taking the course of last resort. Nonetheless, after the dangers were weighed, the risks of remaining at home while bombs fell and poison rained down appeared far greater. At the very least, undertaking an uncertain journey towards the relative sanity of Europe held open the hope of success—and survival. And it was that hope on which so many set sail.

In this binary purgatory is where the stories of the migrant Khalil and Halabi families, and single male refugees Ibrahim Khoury and Sami Malouf, begin. But they are not alone, for on the other side of the narrow Aegean strait dividing Turkey and Greece, another group of travelers awaits: the volunteers who have left their homes to help. Representing the volunteer experience are English community activist Tracy Myers, the grassroots movement’s own MacGyver, New Zealander Jenni James, and English social worker Kanwal Malik, whose hearts and skills are borderless. From these individual experiences a braid is formed as responders and asylum seekers converge on a beach on the Greek isle of Lesvos, cold, wet, exhausted, and afraid. By weaving the strands of specific narratives together, Sachs succeeds in crafting a gripping history of a complex war fought on multiple fronts. Gripping, and deeply absorbing. For all the challenges faced by the volunteers—burnout and dropout rates are sky high—the overwhelming sentiment is a wish to have done more—to do more.

Sachs is a volunteer herself, fundraising at home in Wilmington, North Carolina, and traveling to Greece with partners in the non-profit aid organization she co-founded, Humanity Now: Direct Refugee Relief. It’s that “direct” that points towards the core mission of the many grassroots groups working in Greece during this period and the super-human effort Sachs is capturing in amber. The wholly inadequate response to the influx of migrants by a paralyzed European Union, seemingly mute United Nations, and slow-moving larger, established Non-Government Organizations, or NGOs, left a yawning (or screaming) gap.

Into this chasm volunteers leapt to deliver food, shelter, clothing, language classes, information, education, and compassion to the waves of refugees making their perilous way towards France, Germany, or Anywhere but Here. Blanket by blanket, sandwich by sandwich, coat by coat, the volunteers found solutions as large as outwitting millions of mosquitoes and as small as a single hot shower.

But why did they need to? Where were the professionals? This question is asked repeatedly throughout All Else Failed. The Greek prime minister, Aléxis Tsípras, offers his own diagnosis of the ailing relief effort: “We are experiencing the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War…The problem surpasses the powers of the country, the strength of a government, and the innate weaknesses of the European Union.” “The problem” became compounded when Greece’s northern border closed to further migration, and tens of thousands of refugees were suddenly trapped inside a country they’d only expected to pass through. The Khalils had planned on spending three days in Greece. They languished there for a year.

Regardless of whether Tsípras’s statement is meant as defense, apology, or accusation, Sachs doesn’t exploit the moment to level criticism at the institutions not showing up at the heaving, filthy camps, such as the infamous Idomeni perched like a vulture on Greece’s border with Macedonia. (The “all else” that failed.) Indeed, Sachs uses her platform less for charges of dereliction of duty and more to document where other efforts made a difference. From that standpoint, the book serves as both sympathetic companion and useful guide for grassroots volunteers and organizers in future crisis zones.

Myers, James, Malik, and refugees-turned-helpers, Ibrahim Khoury and Sami Malouf, would emphasize that their tireless commitment to keeping the refugees healthy and hopeful made only a difference, never the difference. Certainly, searing losses are chronicled as we follow, via Sachs’s extended interviews, the agonizingly slow progress of the Syrian migrants from full, productive lives in their homeland, to helpless deprivation and waiting, and eventually towards some lasting, rewarding conclusion. In one particularly piercing scene, to reduce belongings too heavy to carry, the Khalil daughters must throw the few childhood treasures they were allowed to bring into the trash. After tossing her cherished report cards, eleven-year-old Layla Khalil, “…watched the papers disappear into the waste bin. This is what I have left from my school, she thought, and I can’t ever get it back.” And yet, the volunteers do, time and again, make the critical difference between sleeping in mud or in a dry tent with a floor, or between hot, nutritious food and nothing. And often much, much more. In those moments, geopolitics fade into the background as another day is made bearable.

Within the massive camps, official and unofficial, rows of tents make for a scene of collective anguish too vast to process, but Sachs is too humane to leave things there. She also confers too much dignity on the refugees to tilt towards despair. And this is where All Else Failed becomes a meta-primer on how to think about other migrant populations and what questions to ask about the respective roles of individuals, nonprofits, and governments. It’s as if she has written a book-length testament to what can go right—and wrong. Learn from us, she seems to be saying, and it will be better next time.

As the reader knows, next time is now. Across El Paso, Texas, and other US and Mexican border cities and towns, residents are handing out water bottles and blankets, churches are feeding and sheltering families, and other loose groups are simply doing what they can minute by minute. And, just as in Greece, gas stations are becoming improvised oases of kindness. In Mexico, volunteers wonder aloud as they did in Greece, “Shouldn’t they have the Red Cross or somebody here?” All Else Failed answers that question with the evidence that in times of trouble, it’s often the “or somebody” who’s there. And together, those single bodies form a mighty army fighting on the behalf and in the service of a love of strangers.

About the Reviewer

Alison C. Powell is a critic, essayist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Interview, Oxford American, Colorado Review, Seneca Review, Guesthouse, The Guardian, Typishly and Inverted Syntax, among others. Powell lives in Dallas and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College.