The Good Samaritans Who Saved Syrian Refugees

When government relief efforts fail, individuals step up.


All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of the Migrant Aid Crisis, by Dana Sachs, Bellevue Literary Press, 304 pages, $19.99

There is a story about crisis relief that a lot of people believe instinctively, one that's built into our institutions: Governments and major international organizations, armed with resources and authority, are best equipped to quickly help people harmed by war, hunger, and violence.

Dana Sachs offers a different narrative in All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of the Migrant Aid Crisis. A million migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in the year 2015 alone. As the refugees reached shore in Greece, "traditional relief networks proved themselves incapable of delivering a productive response," she writes. Major humanitarian groups such as the International Rescue Committee and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) "offered only limited support on the ground." The European Union shelled out "millions of euros in aid but failed to disburse the funds effectively."

Meanwhile, "thousands of individuals—Greek villagers, Swedish college students, Irish retirees, Italian lifeguards, and, eventually, refugees themselves—stepped forward to fill the gaps." It was "individual Good Samaritans" who "averted disaster," Sachs shows.

Her book stops short of explicitly saying governments and large organizations are not the most effective relief providers. The subtext is that the volunteer response was better because it had to be, not because it actually would have been preferable to a competent effort led by governments and major charities. But with its relentless focus on the ways individuals were best able to help each other through the crisis, All Else Failed offers clear evidence that motivated volunteers were ready, willing, and better suited to take the lead.

"Every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation," F.A. Hayek wrote in his 1945 essay "The Use of Knowledge in Society." A centrally planned economy, he showed, could never be as efficient as a system in which individuals are free to make decisions using the knowledge they personally hold.

The same was true of the grassroots relief network that emerged in Greece. Volunteers like Jenni James were effective at addressing migrants' needs simply because they could see what those needs were. James launched an aid team called Get Shit Done, whose chutzpah and makeshift methods led to big improvements in migrant camps. At one, the team built a metal-frame community center; at another, it cobbled together a women's prayer space. When volunteers saw kids with sores, they started mosquito-proofing the facilities.

This agile approach was at odds with the way large nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operated. During one meeting, grassroots volunteers and NGO representatives were discussing poor shower access in government-run camps. Tracey Myers, who worked with James, "replied that her team had already begun working on hygiene and water issues. 'We can solve this problem today,' she said." An NGO professional chided: "You're volunteers….You can't fix this problem and it's not sustainable."

One reason the volunteers had such useful local knowledge is because so many of them were displaced people themselves. To her credit, Sachs recognizes and highlights this. Well-intentioned media coverage often ignores refugees' autonomy, describing migrants as a people to whom things merely happen. Sachs emphasizes the ways that refugees give back to their new communities and how they help one another. Her account never treats them merely as people to be saved or a burden on the public fisc.

Ibrahim Khoury had worked as a humanitarian professional in his native Syria before arriving as a refugee in Greece. He quickly offered to be a translator for new arrivals. Later, he launched an aid project using Facebook and Western Union, collecting and distributing 60,000 euros in a two-month span. He taught himself Excel and accounting. He researched which rat poison was safe to use around children so volunteers could rid local camps of the pests. In a government-established camp where refugees slept on the open (and often muddy) ground, it was Khoury who gathered funds for a wooden floor. (On a less inspiring note, the book's epilogue notes that he was later accused of rape. Greece's highest criminal court later cleared him of all charges.)

Refugees also participated in the mutual aid networks that arose during the country's economic crisis. Greek anarchists repurposed abandoned buildings as homes and community centers. Though the practice was illegal, the authorities essentially looked the other way when migrants moved in. Official camps could house just 33,000 of the 46,000 asylum seekers on the mainland. The squats meant more space for the rest.

The incentive structure and mechanisms for survival were drastically different in the anarchist projects than in the government-run camps. In the latter, Sachs writes, "residents were mostly passive recipients of aid." The squats, by contrast, "would succeed or fail based on the active engagement of those who lived inside." An intake questionnaire asked would-be residents about their professions, hoping to add an electrician or a plumber to a squat's ranks.

Rima Halabi, a Syrian mother of six, left the violent and squalid conditions of a government-run camp and eventually settled in a squat in Athens. She offered her cooking skills, preparing meals each day for the community's 400 residents using ingredients supplied by solidarity activists and generous locals.

The squats were hardly mini utopias. The one where Halabi lived grew increasingly violent, especially for women, and Halabi and her children eventually left. But even that one, Sachs argues, was "a rich and vibrant community." And cooking for others gave Halabi a share of her agency back.

Toward the end of the book, Sachs recalls a conversation with Khoury. She had been turning over a question in her head: "By rushing forward to fill gaps in aid, I wondered, was the grassroots movement inadvertently letting larger actors off the hook and helping perpetuate a failing system?"

Khoury rejected the premise out of hand: "If someone is in need, you can't say, 'Oh, it's not my responsibility.'" If an old woman fell down in the street, "we wouldn't say, 'Oh, someone from the government have to take this responsibility and help her.'"

Years after the events of All Else Failed, volunteers are still stepping up to fill holes the government has neglected, created, or made worse. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was volunteers who bolted hand sanitizer dispensers to trees in refugee camps. Why, Sachs asks, is this still the case? "Because the international community has failed to provide a comprehensive response to human displacement."

Unfortunately, she does not dwell for too long on who might offer a better path forward. "In the minds of…UNHCR professionals, the rise of volunteerism indicated failure, not success," she writes. They were not particularly "interested in how the small-scale grassroots movement presented new, flexible models for aid." One volunteer said she hadn't really seen any NGOs reflecting on what needed to change. Instead, they were "defensive."

There will be humanitarian crises to come, making it all the more important to lay blame and praise at the appropriate feet. Sachs writes moving passages about the boundlessness of human generosity, and she constantly highlights how volunteers with local knowledge kept the humanitarian aid machine moving in Greece. Her account suggests a clear conclusion: that the volunteer effort was better, not out of necessity, but because it is better suited for the task. But she never quite says that aloud.