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When Egypt Was a Safe Haven for Europeans

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Saturday 28 April 201808:10 am
The atrocities of World War II (1939-1945) pushed Europeans to flee their countries, looking for a safe haven until the fighting is over. A country that took no part in the war, for years Egypt was a much sought after destination for many Europeans. England pushed for Egypt's participation in the war yet Egyptian Prime Minister Ali Maher in 1939 insisted on avoiding any involvement in the battles, modern and contemporary history professor Assem El-Dessouki told Raseef22. Egypt received flocks of people from countries that were deeply involved in WW2 such as England, France and Turkey. However, the largest groups of refugees came from Balkan countries, including Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria, El-Dessouki explains. Numerous Jews fled these nations to escape Adolf Hitler's extermination of the Jewish population. Another reason why Cairo was a refuge for Europeans is that Egypt had been welcoming foreigners since the rule of Muhammad Ali Pasha, said Ahmed El-Mola, a modern and contemporary history professor at the Damietta University in Egypt. When Ali started instigating radical reforms within the state -- which Sa'id Pasha, Isma'il Pasha and the British occupation upheld and further developed in the following years -- foreigners came in large numbers to Egypt. Their relatives caught up with them as WW2 threatened them.

Royal Groups

English writer Artemis Cooper's book "Cairo in the War, 1939-1945", which was translated into Arabic by Mohamed El-Kholy, mentions that there was an influx of refugees heading to Egypt after the forces of the Axis powers had swept Balkan countries. The writer said some of the refugees had been nameless with no proclaimed nationalities. They only clinched to their luggage and children without having any identification documents on them. Meanwhile, Cooper narrated, there was a small number of crowned heads among the refugees. Cooper, who lived in Egypt during that period, said that a royal family -- Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, his wife Olga and their three children -- arrived in Cairo on 11 April, 1941. Egypt's then Premier Hussein Serry Pasha was not informed of their arrival. When he knew, he had a falling-out with British Ambassador to Egypt, Miles Lampson, for not following the official protocol while bringing in refugees, which would require involving Egyptian authorities in the process. The British Embassy, meanwhile, received orders to prepare no more than a modest reception for Prince Paul and his family. Cooper said all arrangements for their stay had been unofficially made by their Cairo-based friends. They secured an apartment for the royal family in Misr Al-Gadida district, east Cairo; the flat was extremely dirty and particularly small. A few days later, Lampson and his wife paid an unofficial visit to them, only to be surprised by how nice they were. He described Princess Olga as one of the most attractive beautiful women he had ever met, according to Cooper. A week after Prince Paul and his family arrived, King Peter II of Yugoslavia came to Alexandria before heading to Palestine. A group of 30 Serbian dignitaries moved to Misr Al-Gadida days later. They were the officials who put King Peter II in power. They were set to stay in Cairo until they were provided accommodation in Palestine. Once again, Serry Pasha was infuriated because the Egyptian government had not been notified of their arrival. [caption id="attachment_71850" align="alignnone" width="832"] King Peter II of Yugoslavia.[/caption]   According to Cooper, the Serbs asked Lampson to keep Prince Paul under surveillance to ensure he would not conspire against them. Despite their suspicions, the former custodian of the crown was leading an uneventful ordinary life; he would draw during his leisure time. Later on, the new Yugoslavian king traveled to London, while Paul and his wife moved to Kenya where they lived in a house in a rural countryside house near Lake Naivasha.

Like Jesus, He Appeared Riding a Donkey

Cooper narrated that King George II of Greece fled Athens riding a donkey and wearing a straw hat, escorted by his Prime Minister Emmanouil Tsouderos and a number of the royal family members. They all flew to Crete on 26 April, before being deported to Cairo mid-May. [caption id="attachment_71851" align="alignnone" width="826"] A photo of King George II of Greece while in Alexandria.[/caption]   King George II and his family did not reside in Egypt for more than three weeks; he was soon invited by South Africa's Premier Jan Smuts. After a short stay in the latter country, the king and his ministers moved to London.

Flocks of Refugees

For citizens who did not belong to the royal family, fleeing Greece was an uphill struggle. Wounded Greek and Australian soldiers filled Athens with horror when they to hit the street. Residents strived to be on ships sailing in whatever direction, according to Cooper, as German air forces were incessantly bombing the capital's seaport in Piraeus. The first group of refugees arrived in Egypt from Greece on 21 April, crossing the sea on board of small-sized vessels and boats. More than 1,000 of them got off at the coast of Alexandria while Egyptian and British authorities rushed to wrap up preparations for their reception, with more 4,000 refugees expected to come the next few days. The majority of the refugees, Cooper said, had been starving for two days. On the last vessel sailing for Egypt from Piraeus were members of the British Council, including novelist Robert Liddell and novelist and poet Olivia Manning along with her husband Reginald Donald "Reggie" Smith. The vessel was quite old and in a wretched condition, Cooper recalled. It was used to transport British captives. Its rooms were awash with bedbugs, and some of its corridors were surrounded by wooden blocks to keep prisoners apart. On the same vessel there were two poets from Greece, including Giorgos Seferis who later became and ambassador to the UK, representing the Greek government in exile. Refugees were instructed to bring food with them yet they came empty handed and starving, as no food was left in the chaos-hit Athens. In an article that was published years later, Manning wrote about the first time she ate in Alexandria. She and other starving refugees asked soldiers for anything that is edible, only for the latter to go behind ammunition boxes to bring bananas and started throwing them high in the air. It was a game for sheer entertainment; watching the famished refugees jumping while competing for flying bananas. The writer said she had been lucky to catch a small green banana. When she peeled it, it smelled like honey and tasted like nothing she had ever eaten, Manning recalled. After the procedures of their arrival were wrapped up, the refugees were served decent meals of meat, eggs and tea. Hence, they were crying tears of joy. On that night, they took a train to Cairo.

Nightmare and Misery

Manning and her husband moved to a hotel designated for refugees; it looked like a gender-segregated camp with one cold shower for both sides. Manning's first impression of Egypt was dim, describing it as a living nightmare. Not only did she find the misery of the Nile Delta cities horrifically shocking, but she was also staggered by how people had settled for such miserable living standards. The city felt empty and crowded at the same time, she said. Cairo was even gloomier for the refugees who lost their jobs and roots, unlike military personnel who had a good reason to stay.

Between Athens and Cairo

Among the British Council's members who headed to Egypt after fleeing Greece was Lawrence Durrell, who came with his wife Nancy Isobel Myers and their daughter Penelope. They had lived in Kalamata, south of Greece. They set off when the Germans got closer to Athens, sailing for Crete where they joined travelers on the deck of a crowded ship bound for Alexandria. Eventually, they moved to Cairo, Cooper narrated. Durrell family thought Cairo was depressing, especially that they had left Greece in the spring when flowers were decorating the country. Conversely, by the time they arrived in Cairo, the Egyptian capital was hit by the yearly Khamasin, ferociously hot sandy winds. During that period, Cairo combined the well-off and the poor. It was common to see handicapped and amputees as well as people who were covered in dirt and suffered lice infestation. Some people would put their physical handicaps on display for pedestrians to see, according to Durrell. El-Mola says after the war was over, many of the refugees went back home with some remaining in Egypt after landing good jobs or starting private businesses. Then came the 1948 war and the ensuing hostility against Jews, the 1952 July revolution, the tripartite aggression in 1956 and the nationalization of foreigners' properties, which prompted the rest of the non-Egyptians to leave the North African country.

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