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Remembering The Time When Refugees Fled War-Torn Europe For Havens In The Middle East

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

Looking for peace in the Sinai desert

When Axis and Soviet forces invaded Eastern Europe and the Balkans in the early years of World War II, they sent thousands of refugees fleeing south and east to escape the chaos.

Many fled across the Mediterranean, hopping from island to island in search of safety.

To manage this exodus, in 1942 the British established the Middle East Relief and Refugee Administration (MERRA) and set up a constellation of camps in Egypt, Gaza, and Aleppo, Syria, providing havens for over 40,000 displaced Europeans.

At the El Shatt camp near the southern end of the Suez Canal, thousands of Yugoslavian refugees were settled in tents pitched in the baking sands.

"A wide, yellow, sandy plain stretched into infinity... oh, how unfriendly it was. Not a blade of grass, a flower, not a bug, butterfly or bird. Silence... and in front of the eyes flickered the ardent mass of the sandy plain."

Danica Nola, Dalmatian Refugee

Life in the desert was harsh and living conditions were spartan at best.

Camp residents were typically issued half a portion of an Army ration each day. Residents lucky enough to have some money could also buy food from canteens in the camp.

Still, many found ways to combat the monotony of camp life. Residents constructed playgrounds for the children and plied their various trades, cooking, cleaning, crafting, and even publishing a camp newspaper.

Camp officials would occasionally stage plays, dances, and other entertaining events, and families could enjoy bathing in the Suez Canal and watching the warships pass by.

Following the conclusion of the war, the camp was disbanded in 1946.

"I must not give the impression that these people created a little paradise here on the desert with their resourcefulness. Their extreme lack of everything only makes what they do more impressive, standing as it does against such a background."

John Corsellis, British Aid Worker

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