“The Last Resort”, a documentary that tells the little-known story of the thousands of European refugees who fled to Egypt during World War II, had its premiere recently at the American University in Cairo.
The screening and a panel discussion that followed were among the many events scholars will observe leading up to World Refugee Day on June 20.
“The Last Resort” is the Egyptian director Yara Al-Ghandour’s first documentary.
In her half-hour film, the director employs cinematic language, using archival photos and videos depicting the diaries of European refugees inside El Shatt Refugee Camp, near Suez, Egypt.
“I was very occupied with why do we not care, as scholars, about the situation of European refugees in Egypt?”Yara Al-Ghandour Director of “The Last Resort”
She also interviews a number of academics, including Iman Amer, a professor of modern and contemporary history at Cairo University; Ashraf Sabry, a specialist in the history of World War II; and Mohamed Anas Jaafar, a history professor.
They all spoke about Egypt’s absorption of European immigration, which won both popular and political acceptance at the time.
The film starts with photos and footage of thousands of Europeans fleeing from the Nazi forces in the early 1940s, including images that show the suffering of elderly people, women, and children displaced by the war.
The film traces the journey of these refugees across the sea and the hardships of cold, hunger, and disease they faced. Most of the refugees were from a region of the former Yugoslavia and Croatia.
The film also highlights how the refugees were registered in the camp and issued identity cards that showed their names, education, and special skills, in order to place them in suitable jobs, and teach them new skills. These included artistic skills in sculpture and painting, and even organising exhibitions of their products, as well as hosting parties for folk dance groups.
‘The Memory Question’
In her remarks after the screening, Al-Ghandour said that the “memory question” was what led her to think about the film, especially after she looked at archival photos of European refugees in Egypt.
“I realised that the tales of European refugees in Egypt could be the subject of my research,” she said, a topic “that had not gotten enough attention, as opposed to the war itself.”
“I was very occupied with why do we not care, as scholars, about the situation of European refugees in Egypt, including the educational, health and recreational services they were provided with here, even though Egypt was under occupation?” Al-Ghandour said.
As for the film’s technical aspects, the director explained that she relied on a narrathat gives a voice to history, and a chronological order starting from the arrival of refugees in Egypt, until the end of the Second World War and their return to their countries. It also shows that many of them were keen to return to visit Egypt and place roses on the graves of their relatives who had passed away during the asylum period.
Egypt’s Acceptance of Refugees
The film’s importance lies in its “shedding light on the story of refugees in World War II, in light of the current refugee problems in the contemporary era.”Ibrahim Awad Director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo.
Ibrahim Awad, director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo, led the panel discussion after the screening.
Many people do not know that Egypt was a major destination for refugees and that it has a long history of harbouring thousands of European refugees, both before and after World War II, Awad said.
Awad thinks the film’s importance lies in its “shedding light on the story of refugees in the time of World War II, in light of the current refugee problems in the contemporary era, especially the conditions of Syrian refugees in Europe.”
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He noted that “the study of history is important not because it is our past, but rather its being a lived present.”
The American University in Cairo established the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies in 2000. The centre offers a master’s degree in migration and refugee studies, a diploma in forced migration and refugee studies, and a diploma in psychosocial support for forced immigrants and refugees.
It works to disseminate knowledge on migration and refugee issues and to provide educational services to refugee communities in Cairo.