When European Refugees Found “The Last Resort” in Egypt

First Documentary to Show How Egypt Welcomed Fleeing Europeans During WWII

Photo shows (from R to L) Yara Al-Ghandour, Naila Hamdy, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies at AUC’s School of GAPP, Amr Bayoumi and Ibrahim Awad in a panel discussion after screening “The Last Resort” documentary at the AAUC’s Tahrir Culture Center on Tuesday night. (Credit: Salwa Samir)
Photo shows (from R to L) Yara Al-Ghandour, Naila Hamdy, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies at AUC’s School of GAPP, Amr Bayoumi and Ibrahim Awad in a panel discussion after screening “The Last Resort” documentary at the AAUC’s Tahrir Culture Center on Tuesday night. (Credit: Salwa Samir)

When European Refugees Found “The Last Resort” in Egypt

A documentary about the untold story of the thousands of Europeans who were welcomed by Egypt as refugees during World War II was made by first-time Egyptian director Yara Al-Ghandour.

The 30-minute documentary was screened at the American University in Cairo’s Tahrir Culture Center on Tuesday night.

Al-Ghandour spoke to Majalla about the idea of the film and the preparation for it.

“It took almost a year. I love research and historic-related books. The topic is untold here in Egypt or even abroad despite its material being so rich,” Al-Ghandour, 25, said.

She emailed governmental archives in different countries such as the US, the UK, Germany and Serbia to provide her with the material about this topic and they cooperated with her by furnishing photos and footage.

“Thus, I thought we could dive into the material and make a story about it, so I decided to shed light on this topic by this documentary,” added Al-Ghandour, a fashion buyer.

“It is the first documentary about that topic,” she said.

During her research, Al-Ghandour found that Europeans themselves didn't shed light on this issue despite it being part of their history.  She asked Piet Chielens, Head of  Content at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Belgium, he told her, “We tend to forget the bad pages of our past. It's not a real history, but it's something that resides in memory.”

The film starts with scenes of warplanes and cannons hitting residential areas in the region of Dalmatia (today’s Croatia, then Yugoslavia) which was evacuated by the Allies, ahead of a German invasion.

People of different ages are fleeing and running out of their devastated homes. Scenes show thousands of people reaching El-Shatt, a complex of WWII refugee camps in the desert of the Sinai established in 1944 and disbanded after the war ended two years later.

John Corsellis (1923–2018), a European historian and one of refugees to Egypt, recorded in the movie that they went to El-Shatt as there was no other place to go.

“In the beginning, the refugees went to an island in south Italy, and the number of Italian refugees was increasing due to war. So there was no space for all refugees on that island. So it was necessary to search for another place, and El-Shatt was a nearby well-equipped place to accommodate large numbers, which exceeded 26,000.”

The film shows scenes of Egyptian food trucks heading to El Shatt camp, with some of the boxes labelled “UNRRA,” referring to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) which cooperated with Egypt by providing supplies to them. There are also scenes showing fundraising campaigns organized by Egyptians, who felt sympathy to refugees.

Other scenes show how the refugees were enjoying life as if they were at home. Scenes of joy and playing sports competitions are shown. They also enjoyed sun and beaches as there were free group trips organized for them to visit different parts of Egypt. Many workshops were held to teach men and women professions in addition to arts, drawing, sculpture and music. Free hospitals were also opened for them.

“I remember that we had educators, writers and psychologists who taught us everything,” one of the refugees said, while holding a notebook handwritten by her when she was a child.

Another scene shows King Farouk of Egypt sitting with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1945 when the latter demanded assistance from Egypt.

Corsellis related that most of the refugees, especially children, came to Egypt in a severe hunger. “They needed medical aid to recover,” he said. “There was a unit for helping those children. It saved their lives.”

Another scene shows a memorial housing 856 deceased European refugees from El-Shatt camps. During their stay, Egypt was keen in establishing tombs for them. Egyptians dealt with them as human beings regarding their gender, nationality and religion.

After the Germans were defeated, the refugees returned back to their countries. Touching scenes show many of them taking an amount of Egyptian soil into a bag or jar to take it with them. They came to Egypt yearly with their children and grandsons to visit the memorial and put flowers on their relatives’ tombs.

After screening “The Last Resort” documentary, a panel discussion was held. Amr Bayoumi, award-winning director, hailed the idea of the film and its material but he argued that the political reason behind receiving the refugees was not Egyptian, given that Egypt was under British occupation during that time.

Al-Ghandour commented that when the war ended, many refugees did not return to their countries. Egypt was on its way to becoming independent before it completely became independent in 1954, a few years after WWII ended.

“Egypt was under British occupation but the sovereignty was Egyptian,” Al-Ghandour said.

“In the movie, when Roosevelt sat with King Farouk demanding assistance, it confirmed that the matter was in the hands of the King, not the British,” she added.

Ibrahim Awad, director of the AUC’s Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, agreed with Al-Ghandour’s comment. He also hailed her initiative insofar as very few people know about this topic.

“I find the timing of the film is so important as these days the European continent deals with the refugees as a burden for them,” he said.

Awad advised her to display the film on World Refugee Day, due on June 20, and to invite representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR Egypt) to watch it.

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