The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of Migrant Aid

by Dana Sachs, 20.3.23

“You can just go volunteer in a refugee camp?”

“Apparently, yes.”

It was 2016 and a friend of mine was sharing her plan to join a fledgling grassroots aid effort at a makeshift border camp in Northern Greece. As a writer, I had long explored themes of displacement. For months, I’d watched with alarm as Europe’s migration crisis grew increasingly calamitous: drownings in the Mediterranean, thousands sleeping in train stations and ports, tent encampments springing up in border regions. But I had not known that volunteers from around the world had galvanized to help.

“Can I go with you?” I asked.

A month later, the two of us arrived at the camp on Greece’s Northern border, where thousands of refugees and migrants were sleeping in tents in muddy fields. For ten days, we worked alongside other volunteers—some of whom were refugees themselves—to serve soup from the back of a truck, organize donations in a rural warehouse, and distribute used clothing. There was nothing smooth about this operation. In fact, a lot went wrong, but these volunteers had seen a humanitarian disaster unfolding in Greece and were doing what they could to help.

Refugee Camp
A volunteer pours cups of hot soup, captured by Dana's team

I’ve spent the last seven years following this aid movement, both as a member of the grassroots community and as a writer working to chronicle these historic events. I wrote All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of the Migrant Aid Crisis to highlight something that we all witness but rarely discuss: The very human need to lend a hand. I don’t mean to suggest that All Else Failed looks only at the positive outcomes of this volunteer effort. The grassroots aid movement has had its share of bad actors, as well as good actors who made bad mistakes. In order to better understand displacement, however, we need to consider it in all its breadth. That includes not only the darkness, but also the ways in which people have shown extraordinary good will toward one another. During a very dark period, a wide range of people decided to help.

The story begins in 2015, when arrivals of refugees to Greece were increasing exponentially, mostly because of continuing violence in the Middle East. On the Aegean Islands, thousands of people arrived in boats every day, sick, hungry, and traumatized by war. They needed almost everything—food, blankets, medicine, diapers. But the world’s most prominent humanitarian actors—the Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee, and the United Nations—stalled as they tried to figure out what to do. Into that void stepped hundreds, and eventually thousands, of volunteers. They were Greek villagers, Swedish college students, tourists, and even refugees themselves. They couldn’t end the crisis—that requires governments—but they helped keep a humanitarian emergency from becoming a complete disaster.

Volunteers and refugees dancing together, captured by Dana's team

My book follows the lives of seven individuals and families who joined this unusual aid effort. Jenni James, a jill-of-all-trades from New Zealand, pulled drowning people from the sea, improved the infrastructure of squalid camps, and even constructed a dinosaur-themed playground for refugee children. Ibrahim Khoury, a displaced Syrian who stepped off a boat in 2015 and immediately joined the relief effort, became a central figure in the movement, managing thousands of Euros in aid. Social worker Kanwal Malik abandoned her life in England to volunteer, eventually overseeing an illegal housing accommodation that sheltered 400 displaced people. All Else Failed shows how these individuals filled in for a faltering international aid system, providing support to desperate people.

I find solace in the grit and determination of the volunteers, who together offer a stirring model for addressing global problems. Grassroots efforts are not enough. In fact, the very existence of volunteer aid workers underscores the need for a more effective official relief apparatus. But rather than doing nothing in the face of overwhelming need and institutional failure, volunteers demonstrate how each of us, in small ways and large, can contribute something valuable.

One day on Lesvos Island in Greece, a young volunteer showed me around a community center that her small aid team had opened as a haven for refugees living in a nearby camp.  The center—called, of all things, “One Happy Family”—was a ramshackle building, much of it renovated with repurposed junk and recycled boards. The operation never had as much money as it needed, but it somehow stayed open. When I asked this volunteer about the prospect for the coming months, she looked around her thriving campus and smiled. Her answer perfectly captured the spirit of the aid effort.  

“I don’t know how we’ll do it,” she told me, “but everything is feasible somehow.”

All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of the Migrant Aid Crisis is out 23 March 2023

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