History in reverse – Europeans sought safe havens in the Middle East
It is a quirk of history and the almost diametrical reverse of the current influx of refugees into Europe – but a new study has retold the almost forgotten story of an exodus of European refugees seeking safe havens in the Middle East.
The rise of German fascism and the equally brutal Soviet Russian brand of communism in the 1930s and 40s saw tens of thousands of refugees flee their European homelands for safety of camps in Iran, Syria and other parts of the Middle East.
As the Nazi and Soviet war machines rolled through parts of Eastern Europe and the Balkans during WWII the exodus grew as vast civilian populations were displaced in their wake.
In areas occupied by fascist or Russian troops, Jewish communities and other undesired minorities faced the harshest treatment, but others, particularly those suspected of backing partisan fighters, also were subject to targeted attacks, executions and forced evacuations.
Amid the upheavals, the clearest route of escape for many European refugees was south and east.
Many ethnic Croats living along the Dalmatian coast fled to the island of Vis, in the Adriatic, and Greek inhabitants of the Dodecanese found their way to British protection in Cyprus.
A British-led scheme known as the Middle East Relief and Refugee Administration, launched in 1942 and facilitated by officials based in Cairo, also helped provide safe havens for around 40,000 Poles, Greeks and Yugoslavs.
By 1944, the initiative had been transferred the newly created United Nations.
These refugees were spread out between camps in Egypt, southern Palestine and Syria — especially in the city of Aleppo, currently the scene of bitter and bloody conflict.
A study of these camps published in recently by not-for-profit media conglomerate Public Radio International says the effort attracted the involvement of myriad international aid groups and organizations, which helped feed and shelter the refugees and educate hundreds of refugee children.
The study describes some of the everyday details of the resettlement operation.
“Once registered, recent arrivals wound their way through a thorough medical inspection,” the report says.
“Refugees headed toward what were often makeshift hospital facilities — usually tents, but occasionally empty buildings repurposed for medical care — where they took off their clothes, their shoes and were washed until officials believed they were sufficiently disinfected,” it says.
“After medical officials were satisfied that they were healthy enough to join the rest of the camp, refugees were split up into living quarters for families, unaccompanied children, single men and single women.
“Once assigned to a particular section of the camp, refugees enjoyed few opportunities to venture outside. Occasionally they were able to go on outings under the supervision of camp officials.
“When refugees in the Aleppo camp made the several-mile trek into town, for example, they might visit shops to purchase basic supplies, watch a film at the local cinema — or simply get a distraction from the monotony of camp life.
“Although the camp at Moses Wells [in Egypt], located on over 100 acres of desert, was not within walking distance of a town, refugees were allowed to spend some time each day bathing in the nearby Red Sea,” the report said.
Conditions were squalid, but not entirely miserable, the report says. There were playgrounds and sports tracks and opportunities for leisure; residents who wanted to make a living or hone a craft were able to apply their trades or learn some through vocational training.
In other cases, refugees were compelled to take up menial labor. Food was rationed and, in some instances, refugees were able to buy their provisions from local shops. Camp officials would stage plays and other recreational events.
The politics of the homeland often figured into the circumstances of the refugees’ exile.
In El Shatt camp in the Egyptian desert, according to one eye-witness account, communist-sympathetic Yugoslav cadres dominated the functioning of the camp, bullied those who did not readily join their ranks, and attempted to indoctrinate myriad children with their propaganda.
In general, though, children were able to obtain at least a rudimentary education.
“For the most part, classrooms in Middle Eastern refugee camps had too few teachers and too many students, inadequate supplies and suffered from overcrowding,” the report said.
“Yet not all the camps were so hard pressed. In Nuseirat, for example, a refugee who was an artist completed many paintings and posted them all over the walls of a kindergarten inside the camp, making the classrooms ‘bright and cheerful’.
“Well-to-do people in the area donated toys, games, and dolls to the kindergarten, causing a camp official to remark that it ‘compared favorably with many in the United States’, the report said.
Under a similar scheme, Iran – then under British rule – participated in the settlement of tens of thousands of Poles who were escaping Nazi slaughter and Soviet work camps.
Estimates say that somewhere between 115,000 and 300,000 Poles reached Iran between 1939 and 1941, when waves of desperate and often feebly ill migrants arrived on the Iranian shores of the Caspian Sea.