The Greek refugees who fled to the Middle East in WW2

For three years, thousands of Greeks stayed in refugee camps across the Middle East.

The influx of more than a million refugees and migrants to the Greek islands in the past year has stirred up difficult memories for a dwindling group who followed the same route during World War Two, but in reverse.

As German and Italian troops occupied Greece, tens of thousands of people fled by sea to refugee camps in the Middle East.

At the end of the war, they began heading home. Most made it back safely, but for some the journey ended in tragedy.

“An event like this is hard to forget,” says Eleni Karavelatzi. “It leaves you seared with scars and makes you bitter forever.”

Disaster for refugees returning on British ship.

In 1945 the SS Empire Patrol caught fire carrying 500 Greeks home from Port Said.

Eleni Karavelatzi was 12 months old when in 1942 her family fled the Nazi occupation of Kastelorizo, a Greek island 2km (1.5 miles) from the Turkish coast.

They sailed first to Cyprus and then to a refugee camp in Gaza known as El Nuseirat. They stayed there until the end of the war.

In September 1945, a British vessel, the SS Empire Patrol, left the Egyptian city of Port Said carrying Eleni’s family and 500 other Greek refugees.

Within hours, fire broke out onboard. Thirty-three passengers died, including 14 children.

From her garden on Kastelorizo, Eleni can now see the EU border agency ship searching for new migrants and reminisces about what happened in 1945.

“My parents told me that I was tied with a rope and lowered on to a raft. But as they were letting me down, my father saw that it was full and ordered me back. As soon as I was brought up, a woman jumped on the dinghy. It capsized and all the children drowned.”

Among the victims were Eleni’s three cousins, whose names are carved on a monument a short distance from where she lives.

Every September residents of Kastelorizo gather to commemorate those who died in the shipwreck
To the east of the monument lives Kastelorizo’s only other survivor, Maria Chroni, who lives with her granddaughter.

Maria Chroni, who was born in 1937, clung for life on a piece of wreckage.

“I found myself at sea holding on to a wooden plank.”

“How it happened, I can’t remember. I only know I that I stayed in this position for 10 hours. Then my father rescued me and lifted me into the charred boat.”

From Aleppo to Egypt and beyond

Other Greek refugees had fled the Nazi occupation to Syria. They were mainly from the island of Chios, a few kilometres off the Turkey coast.

“The Germans were here and we were hungry. I was three back then,” remembers Marianthi Andreadi. “So we left for Turkey illegally and from there we took the train to Al Nayrab camp in Aleppo (Syria).”

Marianthi remembers some of the faces that stood out on her journey. “I was surrounded by older women. And there was this moment that stays with me when we were on the Turkish border and the guard yells ‘Gel Burda! Gel Burda!’ (come here).”

“We ran away quickly. I fell down. And eventually he let us go. But I never forgot this.”

Marianthi Andreadi spent a few weeks in the British-run Al Nayrab refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria.

Greek archives reveal Al Nayrab camp was less a permanent settlement than a meeting point, says Iakovos Michailidis, professor of history at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. “People were brought here for short periods of time before being sent to various parts of the Middle East, or even Africa.”

Ioannis Stekas travelled first to the Middle East and then into Africa.

He explains how his father sold their properties to send him and his brother abroad with their mother, Chrisanthi.

“He was planning to follow us with my 10-year-old sister. But shortly afterwards the Germans banned migration towards Turkey.”

In her diary, written down by Ioannis, his mother writes: “We went to Cesme (in Turkey) and stayed there for a month, then headed to Izmir, before travelling for three days by train to Aleppo.” Ioannis’s older brother Kostas was at that point drafted into the army by the Allies.

Ioannis, aged six, carried on with his mother on their long journey via Egypt to Dar es Salaam on the coast of Tanzania before continuing across land to Elisabethville, now Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“After 40 days we left Aleppo by train and in two days we arrived in Egypt, at the Suez Canal,” Ioannis’s diary says. “We stayed there for a while in tents.”

“After Egypt we took a cargo ship and crossed the Red Sea to Aden, a British colony. We stayed two days inside the ship as they were bringing food supplies for the rest of the journey.

“When we left Aden, there were hot air balloons to prevent enemies from bombing civilians. No-one knew where they were taking us. After a 10-day journey we arrived in Dar Es Salaam.”
Stamatis’s story


Stamatis and his older brother George

Stamatis Michaliades (R) with his older brother George.

Stamatis Michaliades, was just six when he fled famine during the German occupation of Chios in 1942.

He left with his father and brother while others in the family stayed on the island. The boys and their father crossed to Turkey and from there to the Moses Wells refugee camp in the Egyptian desert, where they waited for the war to end.

Many Greeks were evacuated to the Moses Wells camp

Past and present

While Greece’s returned refugees feel a bond with the new wave of displaced people, age makes it difficult for them to meet.

But they hear new stories from Greek TV and Marianthi Andreadi believes that despite her country’s financial problems “we’re doing what we can”.

From their balconies, the former evacuees watched Syrian refugees coming off packed fishing boats. “It’s like a mirror to the past,” says Maria Chroni. “The hardest thing is having to witness the arrival of children.”

Eleni points out that the Greek evacuees made it back home and life returned to normal. She is not sure if the same will happen to the Greece’s new refugees any time soon.

Source: By Nidale Abou Mrad, BBC Arabic

Trump’s “Undesirable” Muslims of Today Were Yesteryear’s Greeks: “Pure American. No Rats, No Greeks”


There are some things you might not know about Greek immigration to the United States. This history becomes particularly relevant when watching today’s news and political candidates like Donald Trump, supported by huge and vociferous crowds, call for the complete ban of people from entering the United States based on their race or religion.

This is nothing new. In fact– today’s “undesirable” Muslims (in Donald Trump’s eyes), were yesteryear’s Greeks.

It’s a forgotten history— something that only occasionally comes up by organizations like AHEPA or the occasional historian or sociologist. In fact, many Greek Americans are guilty of not only perpetuating— but also creating— myths of our ancestors coming to this country and being welcomed with open arms.

A look back at history will prove that this usually wasn’t the case for the early Greek immigrants to the United States. Greeks, their race and religion, were seen as “strange” and “dangerous” to America and after decades of open discrimination, Greeks were finally barred— by law— from entering the United States in large numbers.

A political cartoon from the early 1900s

The Immigration Act of 1924 imposed harsh restrictions on Greeks and other non-western European immigrant groups. Under that law, only one hundred Greeks per year were allowed entry into the United States as new immigrants.

Much like today, when politicians and activists like Donald Trump use language against a particular ethnic group— like his call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, the same was the case a hundred years ago. Except then, Greeks were one of the main targets.

There was a strong, loud and active “nativist” movement that was led by people who believed they were the “true Americans” and the immigrants arriving— mainly Greeks, Italians, Chinese and others who were deemed “different” and even “dangerous” to American ideals, were unfit to come to America.

As early as 1894 a group of men from Harvard University founded the Immigration Restriction League (IRL), proponents of a United States that should be populated with “British, German and Scandinavian stock” and not by “inferior races.” Their biggest targets were Greeks and Italians and the group had a powerful influence with the general public and leaders in the U.S. government in their efforts to keep “undesirables” out of America.

America, the “unrestricted dumping ground” which depicted Greeks and other Eastern Europeans as animals.
The well-known cartoon “The Fool Pied Piper” by Samuel Erhart appeared in 1909 portraying Uncle Sam as the Pied Piper playing a pipe labeled “Lax Immigration Laws” and leading a horde of rats labeled “Jail Bird, Murderer, Thief, Criminal, Crook, Kidnapper, Incendiary, Assassin, Convict, Bandit, Fire Brand, White Slaver, and Degenerate” toward America. Some rats carry signs that read “Black Hand,” referring to the Italian Mafia. In the background, rulers from France, Russia, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Greece celebrate the departure of the fleeing rats.

At the beginning of the 1900s tens of thousands of Greek immigrant men began arriving in the United States, fleeing famine and war back home. The 1897 Balkan Wars were especially brutal and tens of thousands of Greek men headed for safer and more prosperous shores. Between 1900 and 1920, according to official U.S. government records, more than 350,000 Greeks immigrated to the United States— 95 percent of the immigrants were men.

In his epic research and meticulous writing, the late Charles Moskos noted in his book “Greek Americans: Struggles and Success” that from 1900 to 1915 close to one out of four men in Greece departed for America. That’s almost 25 per cent of the entire male population of the country.

Greek men arriving at Ellis Island in 1911
Greeks scattered throughout the United States. Many settled in mill towns like Lowell, Massachusetts while others went west, taking hard jobs in coal, copper and salt mines. Tens of thousands also settled in Chicago and other Midwest urban centers.

Chicago Greeks arriving during this wave started selling food from pushcarts and lunch wagons in the busy city streets. The Greeks were met with fierce resistance and discrimination— even at an official level. Under the administration of Mayor Carter H. Harrison II, bowing to pressure from “native” Americans, the city passed an ordinance targeted 100% against the Greek food merchants, prohibiting the sale of food on the streets and effectively shutting down thousands of small Greek-immigrant-run businesses.

In South Omaha, Nebraska in February 1909— three thousand Greek families fled their homes in that city’s Greektown neighborhood after an organized community-wide effort to burn down Greek homes and businesses engulfed the city.

A Greek man was arrested and involved in a deadly altercation with a “white” police officer. His charge— being in the company of a “white” woman who was teaching him English. The destruction that followed— tens of millions of dollars in damage to property— and an entire ethnic community banished— disappeared, fleeing for their lives overnight— has gone down as one of the ugliest racist and discriminatory incidents in all of American history.

The New York Times carried an article about the riot stating that 3,000 “American” men looted Greek homes and businesses, beat Greek men, women and children, and burnt down every building in the area. The entire population of Greeks in South Omaha were warned to leave the city within one day, or risk the ongoing wrath of the mob. Within a few days, all the Greeks living in South Omaha fled the city, moving to Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Salt Lake City.

The Omaha Daily News, justifying the exodus of the Greeks wrote, “Their quarters have been unsanitary; they have insulted women… Herded together in lodging houses and living cheaply, Greeks are a menace to the American laboring man.”

“Pure American. No Rats, No Greeks”

In the west, numerous restaurants owned by native born Americans posted signs in their windows that said ‘Operated by an American” or “Pure American. No Rats, No Greeks.”

In places such as Idaho, Greeks could not live in certain neighborhoods and were restricted from using public parks.

In 1909, the Rhode Island legislature debated a bill that would have banned non-citizens from fishing for lobsters. It was aimed at Greeks by “native” locals who felt Greeks were crowding native Americans out of a profitable trade and gaining too much control over the industry in the region.

In 1911, a Greek immigrant who hauled trash from various restaurants was warned to “get out of the garbage business or we will kill all of you Greeks.”

A violent uprising took place against Greek lumberman in Grays Harbor, Washington in 1912 where hundreds of Greeks were forcibly expelled from the town by boat and train.

Violent uprisings— often led by the U.S. military and national guard also took place in mining towns like Bingham, Utah and of course, Ludlow, Colorado, where newly naturalized community activist Louis Tikas was gunned down by a member of the U.S. National Guard during what has been called the “Ludlow Massacre”.

These incidents were fueled by anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner elements that were prevalent in America at the time.

In 1916, a Phoenix, Arizona labor journal accused Greek businesses of imperiling the future of local merchants, informing readers that Greeks “are a menace to YOU!”

Official movements by citizen groups and the government were bolstered by openly racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which specifically targeted Greeks, amongst the numerous other “undesirable” groups, including African Americans, Jews and Catholics.

But as the story goes— despite this open discrimination, racial antagonism and even an entire government mechanism working against this community, the Greeks in this country prospered, organized and became an active and vibrant part of its fabric.

A look at calls for closed borders today by politicians and activists— and complete bans on certain groups entering the nation based on race, nationality or religion, are nothing new. In fact, they’re a big part of American history. Fortunately, though, we have the mistakes of the past to draw on so that we don’t repeat these same mistakes in the future.

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