One day in the autumn of 2016, Sami Malouf , a 26-year-old Syrian refugee, stepped off a bus in Athens, Greece. Sami had no money. It wasn’t a case of having not much money; he didn’t have any money. He had heard of a place called the Single Men’s Squat, where guys could sleep for free, so he found his way there.
The Single Men’s Squat was an illegal accommodation that local solidarity activists had rigged out of an abandoned building, this one a former student commissary. As living quarters, the place was spartan, just a few cavernous unheated rooms, a cramped kitchen area, two toilets, and a single shower. It was shared by a sad population of roughly 150 displaced men—older widowers, young guys who had fled Syria to avoid the draft, middle-aged fathers separated from their families. For food, they received a midafternoon “brunch” of one boiled egg, one pita round, one banana. At night, if solidarity groups managed to deliver supplies, the men ate something a bit more substantial.
Sami ended up in a ground-floor room with about thirty men, some too elderly to walk up the stairs. He took a spot on a mat by the front door. Huddled next to seven others, he tried to stay warm beneath a thin, bedbug-infested blanket that he came to think of as “the worst blanket ever.” Each time the outside door opened, wind blew across the room, making its occupants even colder. Within a day or two, he’d dragged in an old wooden door he’d found on the street and positioned it to keep out the wind, at least a little.
Unpleasant as Sami’s circumstances may seem, the discomfort of the Single Men’s Squat aligns with everything we hear about the lives of people enduring displacement. What gets much less attention, however, is another, more obscure aspect of migrant life. While politicians and policy experts argue about aid to the displaced—How much? What kind? With what limits?—something extraordinary has been unfolding among migrants themselves: They have mobilized to help themselves and their communities. Sami Malouf, with nothing to his name but a spot on the floor and a disgusting blanket, was about to join this unusual aid effort. Sometimes the most astute and pragmatic humanitarians are the ones who are moving through the system themselves.
Sami grew up in Latakia, Syria’s seafaring region, a bright boy with a promising future. As a teenager, he attended a prestigious naval academy in Egypt, then secured a job on a merchant vessel transporting sheep and camels from Somalia to Saudi Arabia. When Sami returned home in 2011, however, his country was descending into civil war. The regime of Bashar al-Assad promptly drafted the young man. He ended up in Aleppo, where his battalion was nearly obliterated. Sami, badly wounded, saw friends die all around him. As he lay watching Syrian troops toss the bodies of the dead into the bed of a truck, he told himself that he would never again fight for a government that treated its martyrs like trash. After he recovered, he went into hiding, spending three years living in a secret room in his parents’ house. Every day he told himself that the war would end soon, but news reports—Russia bolstering the collapsing Assad regime, factions settling in for a protracted conflict—ate away at his optimism. He finally came to an unavoidable conclusion: This will be a long story. In 2015, Sami fled Syria.
The young man’s difficulties continued. A few months later, he arrived in Greece on a smuggler’s ship from Turkey. Floating offshore, the boat looked like a tourist vessel. Port authorities became enraged when they realized that it was carrying 172 refugees and migrants. The authorities boarded the boat, determined to arrest the captain, but the man had already escaped. Among the remaining passengers, only one person seemed capable of sailing this big boat: Sami Malouf, who was carrying his naval academy diploma. Greek officials arrested him.
For the next year, Sami sat in a maximum-security prison in Central Greece. He spent his days ruminating on his predicament. If a court found him guilty, he could spend a decade in jail. It wasn’t until his case went to trial that fortune finally turned in his favor. The judge, recognizing that prosecutors had no evidence that he was a human trafficker, threw out the case. A few days later, Sami arrived in Athens and reached the Single Men’s Squat.
Most of the squat’s residents were desperate to leave Greece. Some wanted to reunite with family elsewhere in Europe. Others thought they’d do better in wealthier nations farther north. But a different impulse drove Sami. He had spent three years in hiding in Syria and another incarcerated in Greece—four years of his life in one prison or another. The young man decided he could make something of his life right here.
He began by standing at the squat’s front door.
Local anarchists had played a central role in setting up Greece’s illegal “squat” housing and they disliked traditional nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. If professional staff of these organizations showed up at the Single Men’s Squat, residents were expected to shoo them away. Because Sami slept by the front door and spoke some English, the anarchists wanted him to become the gatekeeper.
But Sami had a good brain, four years of pent-up energy, and an intense desire to contribute more than that. Conditions in the squat were terrible and this rule about humanitarian professionals just annoyed him. We need support, he told himself, but these anarchists control our lives. No one had specifically forbidden him talking to these visitors, so he talked. “Sorry. You cannot be inside,” Sami would say whenever an NGO staffer showed up. Once he had performed his duty, however, he kept the conversation going. He asked a lot of questions, collecting information about services available for displaced people in Athens.
Other residents of the squat saw Sami conversing in the doorway. Soon they began to approach with questions of their own. “You talked to the NGO,” one man might say. “Can they give me legal advice?”
“Yes,” Sami would reply. “Here’s the address. Go talk to them. They’ll give you support.”
Word spread through the squat that Sami had helpful information. More men began coming to him, asking for help on everything from mental health issues to medical complaints to problems related to their claims of asylum. Some had no legal documentation and were basically hiding in the squat out of fear of being swept up by police and deported. To support these men, Sami called his new contacts at the NGOs, who recommended lawyers willing to assist. Soon, though, Sami realized that it didn’t help to have the name of a doctor or lawyer if someone couldn’t communicate with them. He began accompanying fellow squat residents to appointments and translating.
The young man threw himself into these new efforts. He didn’t regard himself as selfless. The Single Men’s Squat was a place of squalor and desperation. It was easy for a resident to lose hope. Some turned to alcohol and drugs. When Sami watched them straggle back into the building late at night, he told himself, I cannot do that. I cannot lose it. Until his own asylum claim made its way through Greece’s system, Sami could not take a paying job himself. To survive, he knew that he had to use his time productively. He had essentially been “sitting,” as he put it, for the last four years. He wanted to do something. Volunteering gave him a role to play in the world.
Sami’s fellow residents recognized the value of these efforts. “Let’s go to the kitchen,” they suggested. The men scavenged wooden boards and nails, then helped Sami build a small table to use as a desk. After that, he spent regular hours in a corner of the kitchen that came to be known as his “office” whenever the kitchen manager didn’t need the space to cook. Sitting there, Sami conversed with a succession of men who told him about their troubles. After a friend in Germany sent Sami a bit of money, he bought a phone, which gave him satisfaction every time it rang. He made calls on behalf of fellow residents, gathered information, became the informal caseworker for the squat.
One day, another Syrian approached Sami with an offer. Castro Dakdouk was an émigré artist, political activist, and a leader of a system of squat accommodations that included the Single Men’s Squat and a much larger facility known as Fifth School. Castro knew some English but he was bashful about speaking. He asked Sami to help him communicate with international volunteers, many of them European and American grassroots activists who didn’t speak Arabic or Greek. “If you want to translate at Fifth School,” he said, “you can also live here.”
Sami went back to the Single Men’s Squat, packed his few possessions, and moved a few blocks up the road. No one would call the Fifth School a nice accommodation. It was still a squat and, therefore, illegal, crowded, chaotic, and full of anxious people. It was practically a palace for Sami, however. Instead of huddling on a mat in a room with 30 people, he now slept in a small room with just a few other men and a door they could lock.
* * *
I met Sami Malouf in January of 2017, a couple of months after he arrived in Athens. I was volunteering with the grassroots effort myself, while also working on a book about the movement. One day, when my translator, Zakia Aqra, and I were visiting the Fifth School, she happened to chat with Sami. Later, she told me, “Sami’s a refugee volunteer. You could learn a lot from him.” A few days later, the three of us got together for dinner at a bistro a few blocks away.
Sami is the kind of guy who can look perfectly comfortable in almost any setting, whether that be in the crowded halls of a refugee squat or hanging out over dinner in a lively Athens restaurant. Compact and wiry, he has gentle eyes, a laid-back manner, and a scar on his cheek that suggests life has not always been easy.
That night, we drank a lot of beer and Zakia, a Palestinian Greek, introduced us to some of her favorite local dishes, like Cretan cheese and potato with spearmint. When I asked Sami about his resettlement plans, he explained that, unlike so many other refugees, he’d decided to settle in Athens. “Germany is boring,” he said. “Greece is closer to my country.”
A few days earlier, Zakia and I had visited the Single Men’s Squat, where Sami had lived when he first arrived. The men we met there seemed lonely and despondent. Afterward, I kept thinking of their extreme vulnerability, in contrast to Western stereotypes of Middle Eastern men as dangerous threats. I wondered how Sami felt about all that. “You’re twenty-six years old, a man alone. People in the West might think you’re a terrorist. How do you respond to that?”
At first, he didn’t respond at all. He and Zakia went back and forth in Arabic. Eventually, Zakia said, “It’s very self-explanatory for them.”
I said, “Like, if someone said that I’m a terrorist, I might say, ‘Why would you think I’d be a terrorist?’”
“Yeah. It would be so far from reality,” Zakia said. “He can’t answer the question because he doesn’t get the question.”
Every culture has its own conspiracy theories. Zakia told me that many in the Arab world believe that the United States and Europe created ISIS. Sami found Western suspicion of guys like himself to be completely baffling, particularly because his homeland had suffered so much bloodshed, often as a result of Islamic extremists. Western volunteers he worked with in the squats sometimes seemed surprised that he was an easygoing, normal person. Their surprise bothered him. “I don’t understand why they’d think we’d have claws and big teeth, like monsters,” he said.
That night, we spoke about the Single Men’s Squat in general terms, but it wasn’t until several years later, when Sami and I knew each other better, that he opened up about the psychic toll of living in that place. He and I were having dinner at the same bistro where we always met. Zakia hadn’t been able to join us, but Sami’s English had gotten so good that we no longer needed her.
“It’s miserable,” he told me, describing the squat’s peculiar humiliations. “We didn’t want people to see us living this life.”
I realized that he was talking about the residents’ reactions when people like me came by to visit. “You didn’t want volunteers to see that?” I asked.
Sami nodded. He wanted me to understand how displacement undermines the confidence of people who had previously regarded themselves as respectable members of society. “Everyone’s shy about this life,” he told me. “Inside Single Men’s Squat was nothing. People were sleeping shoulder by shoulder—that’s what we say in Arabic, ‘shoulder by shoulder’—and they were washing the clothes by hand because we don’t have laundry.”
Sami told me that 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. And how do you wash your clothes if you don’t have another set to change into? Or if you don’t have money for soap? Residents of Single Men’s Squat were afraid of being mistaken for beggars in the streets.
“Was it a pride thing?” I asked.
Sami looked stumped. “What do you mean by ‘pride,’ actually?”
“Pride, like you didn’t want to look like you needed help.”
“Yes. Yes.” He nodded. “We came from different countries where we had support. And we had people who cared about us. Even if it was war . . . we could sleep better than this situation. So, the people they start to get kind of mental issues—pretending we are fine, we are strong. Because they didn’t want to look just like poor people and everyone said to them, ‘Oh, sorry. I know you are poor people.’”
“They don’t want pity.”
He stared at me. “Pity.”
“Yes. Pity is when people say ‘Oh, poor you. Oh, I feel so sorry for you.’”
Sami sighed. “Yes. You find the word I don’t know it.” He stared out across the crowded restaurant. “We have proud in ourselves. Our ego is, like, big.”
* * *
Greece faced an extremely cold winter that year. Spring brought welcome relief, but also a new trouble. Infestations of scabies and bedbugs swept through the over-crowded Athens squats, particularly in the shuttered school building known as the Second School, where hundreds of people were sleeping in tents. Up and down the hallways, in the former classrooms, and out in the courtyard, children scratched at red, blistered sores that covered the insides of their elbows, their genitals, and the skin between their fingers and toes. Adults suffered, too, but they tried not to claw themselves in public.
The solidarity leadership team dispatched a doctor, who asked Sami Malouf to come along to translate. When they arrived and explained the reason for their visit, the residents instantly turned hostile at the mention of scabies and bedbugs.
“Do you think we don’t shower?” one asked, clearly offended. “Do you think we’re dirty?”
Sami responded with public health information. “This is not about showers. This is about insect eggs that get under your skin.” He pulled out pictures of scabies mites and bedbugs. He explained that these situations easily occurred in places where people lived in close proximity to one another.
Factual information did not alleviate the suspicion. The outbreak humiliated people, and they refused to admit to a problem. Someone yelled, “Get out of here!”
The little medical team kept trying. “This has nothing to do with showering,” the doctor said. “You need cream to deal with it. You’ll need to throw everything out.” The two men walked into the building and began making the rounds from floor to floor. They talked to people in the hallways, in the classrooms, always sharing basic information. To combat the epidemic, they explained, people should do two things. First, they had to treat themselves with a topical cream to kill the mites and their eggs. Second, they should throw out all their bedding so as not to infect themselves again.
Resistance continued. In one room, a woman began yelling. “Who are you to come in here? Do you think we’re dirty people?”
Sami stayed calm. “I think you might have scabies. This can happen in sensitive areas of your body. It will make you itch.”
The woman heard him, but she remained adamant. “It’s not your job,” she said. “Get out of here.”
How could they help if people refused assistance? Discouraged, the little team continued through the building, speaking with anyone they could find. After they visited every room, they descended into the courtyard below. Then they looked up. In all the tent-filled classrooms, people had shoved open the large windows and begun to toss out their bedding. Sheets, blankets, sleeping bags, and towels were now toppling out the windows, landing in heaps on the asphalt below. Sami and the doctor looked at each other. People had listened after all.
The cleanup continued. Downstairs, the medical team opened their clinic. A line formed quickly. The first person in line was the woman who had yelled at Sami upstairs. Her manner had softened considerably. “Thank you,” she told him. “I just felt embarrassed. I was itching, but I thought I had allergies or something. I didn’t know it could be scabies.”
“I’m not judging you,” Sami told her. “I’m just trying to give you information.”
The day ended successfully. The doctor handed out scabies cream and treatment for bedbugs, too. When Sami wasn’t translating for patients, he helped haul the mounds of debris to the trash.
The doctor, watching Sami, offered a warning. “You’re going to get it, too.”
Sami wasn’t concerned. “I’ll be fine.”
The doctor laughed. “Now you’re sounding like them. You’ll see.”
And, indeed, later that day Sami started itching. By the time he returned to his own room at the Fifth School, he was carrying scabies cream to rub on the blistery rash that had broken out all over his body.
* * *
Sami’s job as a volunteer translator threw him into the middle of everything. If there was an infection or virus going around the squats, he caught it, and scabies was not the worst. One day, he translated at a medical appointment while holding two sick kids on his lap. Soon he began feeling weak and achy, then developed a fever. He lay in his bed at the Fifth School, miserable. One of the volunteer doctors, a British woman, came in to see him.
“This is really bad,” she said. He’d caught chicken pox, a disease that’s usually mild in children but capable of causing serious problems in adults, including pneumonia, sepsis, and encephalitis. Sami looked at the doctor. His body was covered in itchy red welts. “Just shoot me,” he told her.
The next day, when she checked on him again, he felt even worse. “This is really hell,” he said.
The doctor was worried. Sami needed more medical attention than she could provide at the squat. She took him to a local clinic. The bill came to three hundred euros, which Sami—who couldn’t even buy himself a cup of coffee—didn’t have. The British doctor paid the bill herself, gathered the medicine for him, then took him back to the squat. “You just need to rest,” she told him. To protect others from infection, he had to stay in his room.
Solidarity activists had opened the Fifth School Squat to provide housing to families. As a single young man, Sami had never found much companionship there and he had staved off loneliness through volunteering. As soon as he became ill, however, something changed in the way his fellow residents saw him. He wasn’t just the guy who spoke English anymore. They recognized that he, too, needed help. People who’d had chicken pox as children, and therefore had developed immunity to the disease, began to appear at his room, bringing food and tea. They played cards with him, or just stopped by to visit. One day, a Greek volunteer came by the room and sat with him, rubbing cream onto his sores. Suddenly, Sami started to cry. He had never asked anyone for help, and now, when he found himself in need, this community had rallied around him. Tears running down his face, he thought, I’m not alone.
After Sami finally recovered, he decided to leave the relatively cushy digs at the Fifth School and return to the Single Men’s Squat. He would continue translating as he always had, but he wanted to live with his closest friends, men like him who were all alone. Within the world of refugee relief, single men were often the last to receive assistance, and their isolation had grave consequences. By living among these vulnerable people, Sami believed he could have a positive impact that went beyond translation.
So Sami moved back to the Single Men’s Squat. Before he could settle in, he went out scavenging and found wood pallets to keep himself off the dirty, mildew-covered floor. That night, he settled into his old spot on the ground near the door, surrounded once more by seven other men. Lying there, he breathed the same stale air. He listened to the old men’s familiar coughing and wheezing. He thought about everything he’d experienced in the months of his absence and about how little had changed right here. The place was so uncomfortable, but Sami focused on the positive: He had a better blanket now.
* * *
In the six years since I first became involved in the grassroots aid movement, I’ve met and worked with dozens of displaced volunteers. They are supported by the labor and financial contributions of legions of people from peaceful countries, but they are the engine that drives this unlikely, and surprisingly effective, effort. I see them in refugee camps, picking up trash or translating for patients at free medical clinics. I see them organizing inventory in supply warehouses. I even see them launching their own aid teams, often with little more than desire and grit.
When those of us who aren’t refugees observe the contours of humanitarian disaster, we tend to focus on the appalling suffering. But there is another response to crisis, too, and that’s our very human desire to help. “If someone is in need, you can’t say, ‘Oh, it’s not my responsibility,’” another refugee volunteer told me once. “It’s everyone’s responsibility.” He was talking about volunteerism in general, but the same holds true for refugees and migrants who join the effort. It is a luxury and a privilege to be able to help someone else. Doing so gives us satisfaction and brings dignity to our lives. Migrants and refugees want and need that, just like the rest of us.
In the summer of 2017, the Greek government offered asylum to Sami Malouf. Now the young man could begin to look for a paying job. A small social service agency agreed to consider his application. They had an opening for a counselor to work with displaced teens and young adults. The position was still considered “volunteer,” but it came with a stipend. More important, it provided staff with free accommodation. If he got the position, Sami could move out of the Single Men’s Squat and into a real apartment.
But then he saw the application. Instead of requiring him to fill out detailed forms, it merely requested, in an email, that Sami respond to three questions.
He read through them. These are three stupid questions, he thought. But he had nothing to lose, so he answered them.
- What is the meaning of society? Come to the Single Men’s Squat. We have 12 different cultures there.
- What would you do with young people ages 16 to 21? Teach them something educational.
- What would you do if you couldn’t achieve your goal? I’m a refugee. My life was destroyed. I know how to deal with this.
Sami got the job.
Five years later, he runs the place.
Adapted from All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of the Migrant Aid Crisis, which will be published on March 21, 2023 by Bellevue Literary Press: www.blpress.org. Copyright © 2023 by Dana Sachs. All rights reserved.
 I have used a pseudonym for Sami Malouf in order to protect his family, who remain in Syria.
Dana Sachs is a journalist, novelist, and cofounder of the nonprofit Humanity Now: Direct Refugee Relief, which supports grassroots teams providing aid to displaced people. A former Fulbright Scholar, she is the author of three works of nonfiction, The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam; The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam; and All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of the Migrant Aid Crisis, as well as the novels If You Lived Here and The Secret of the Nightingale Palace. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, and Mother Jones.
Image By: Kathryn Winogura