Beyond figures and statistics, Europe is today the main destination for migration from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, but some Europeans also found refuge in the Middle East and North Africa at different times in history. With the start of the war in Syria, about five years ago, millions of refugees have sought a safe harbour in Europe on land and at sea, through Turkey and across the Mediterranean Sea.
With the start of the war in Syria, about five years ago, millions of refugees have sought a safe harbour in Europe on land and at sea, through Turkey and across the Mediterranean Sea.
70 years ago the same roads were used by refugees, but they were not Syrians and travelled in the opposite direction. At the beginning of the Second World War, MERRA has built camps in Syria, Egypt and Palestine, where tens of thousands of people from all over Europe sought a refuge.
The Middle East Refugee Administration was part of a growing network of refugee camps around the world and worked through a collaborative effort between governments, officers and domestic and international aid organizations. MERRA was supported and helped by Social Assistance Groups, such as the International Migration Service, the Red Cross, the Near East Foundation and the Save the Children Fund, and subsequently the United Nations to lead the camps.
In March 1944, officials who worked for MERRA and the International Migration Service (later called the International Social Service) wrote reports on these refugee camps in an effort to improve living conditions.
The reports detailing the conditions that refugees face today offer an “opening” to the daily lives of Europeans,
mostly from Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Turkey, who had to adapt to the life inside the camps of refugees from the Middle East. On arrival in one of the camps in Egypt, Palestine or Syria, refugees must be recorded primarily at officers camp and receive IDs issued in the camp.
According to MERRA’s archive data, 40,000 Europeans arrived in the Middle East, mostly women and children. They received an identity card and were encouraged to get involved in carrying out certain activities according to their training.
These identity cards that they had to have on them at any time including information such as the name of the refugee, the camp identification number, education and employment information, and any outstanding abilities they had.
The officials in the camps had a clear database about passport number, special comments, date of arrival and eventually the date of departure.
Once registered, the newly arrived, did a thorough medical inspection.
Refugees going to improvised hospitals or tents, empty buildings were used for medical care, where refugees took off their clothes, shoes, and washed until officials thought they were sufficiently disinfected. Medical inspections became a daily routine for the Greeks who arrived at the Aleppo camp in the Dodecanese islands in 1944. Only after the officials were satisfied that they were healthy enough to join the rest of the camp, the refugees were divided into homes for families, single children, single men and single women.
Once the assignment was made in a certain area of the camp, the refugees had little opportunity to go outside.
Occasionally, they were able to walk under the supervision of the camp officials.
When refugees from the Aleppo camp managed to get out of the town for a longer distance, for example, they could visit shops to buy basic goods or even watch a movie at the local cinema to get out of the monotony of the camp where they were.
The camp at Moses Wells, located on more than 100 acres of desert, allowed refugees to spend a certain amount of time bathing each day in the Red Sea.
Food was an essential part of the daily life of refugees. Refugees from the MERRA camps during the Second World War were usually given half of the daily rations of the army.
Officials admitted that when it was possible, rations should be supplemented with foods that reflect the customs and religious practices of each refugee.
Only those who were lucky and have money could buy olives, oil, fruit, tea, coffee, from camp canteens, or occasional visits to shops in the area where they could also buy soap, pencils, paper and other items.
At that time in Aleppo, a room was reserved in the camp for the women to gather and make the macaroni of flour that they received from the officials in the camps.
In some camps, refugees were asked to work, such as in Aleppo but without being forced, refugees were encouraged to work as chefs, cleaners, etc. trying in carpentry, painting, shoe making and spoons, so that they can remain busy and earn a small income from other refugees.
Refugees had the opportunity to be professionally trained in some areas. At El Shatt and in Moise Wells, hospital staffs were in a weak position that refugee camps doubled as training programs for Yugoslav and Greek refugees.
In an article for the American Journal of Nursing, a prominent medical practitioner named Margaret G. Arnstein observed that students in the program were taught practical nursing, anatomy, physiology, obstetrics, paediatrics, and some military rules and regulations governing the camps .
Since most of them did not have formal education beyond language school, Arnstein noted that the medical care curriculum was taught very simply and highlighted the practical experience of theory and terminology.
Many times the Egyptian press reveals the case of Croatian refugees who arrived at El Shatt in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula during the Second World War.
The message is relatively simple: we, the Europeans, also ran out into the Middle East when we were “home” threatened. And, more importantly, the Middle East Refugees Administration (MERRA) organized camps in Syria, Egypt and Palestine, where tens of thousands of Europeans, especially the Balkans, sought refuge.
With the agreement of MERRA officials, it has been found that children in refugee camps should have an ordinary routine and education is a crucial part of this routine.
For the most part, classes in refugee camps had too few teachers and too many students, suffering from overcrowding. A refugee being an artist made many paintings and posted them on the walls of a kindergarten inside the camp, making the classrooms beautiful and cheerful.
The people in the area donated toys, games and dolls to the kindergarten, causing a camp official to notice that he “compared favorably with many in the United States.”
El Shatt refugees reported that they saw only the desert. The camp closed in 1946, according to official Croatian sources, although refugee survivors say they left Egypt only at the end of the war.
“A wide, yellow, sandy plain that stretches to infinity … oh, how unfriendly it was.
No grass or flower, no bug, butterfly or bird. Silence … and in front of the eyes of the sandy plains “
DANICA NOLA, refugiată din Dalmaţia
(cfr. Alex Q. Arbuckle, „1944. European refugees in Egypt. Looking for peace in the Sinai desert”)
Some data published so far about the phenomenon of Croatian migration to Egypt are incomplete and sometimes contradictory.
There are authors who talk about the complete closure of the camp only in 1948 at the end of the war, while others remember the year 1946. The last Croatian refugees arrived in Italy in 1948.
Also, the context of their departure is unclear: some authors speak of their escape from imminent German invasion, others about their banishment by Tito’s forces (see also Rusko Matulić, FEB 1944 EL SHATT EGYPT NOV 1948).
Beyond figures and statistics, another conclusion emerges: Europe is today the main destination for migration from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, but some Europeans also found refuge in the Middle East and North Africa at different times in history.