“Syrian woman distributing blankets to European refugee children during World War 2”

But what’s the real story?

The image is quite common on social media. For example, one Anna Colomer:


Forget the future, which is always an unknown. The past and the present help us understand who we are and tell us what we want to be. Syrian woman distributing blankets to European refugee children during World War 2.

Her caption is customary, and I think the underlying message is:

(Muslim) Syrians looked after (Christian) Europeans during the European war, and Western nations and citizens should return the favour during the latest Middle Eastern conflicts.

But modern politics aside, the them-us binarisms attributed to the image are surely false. The original caption actually reads توزيع الأطعمة والثياب في سوريا على اللاجئين من بلاد اليونان, “Distribution of food and clothing in Syria to refugees from Greece.” The children are indeed Europeans, but not, for example, Catholic Poles, thousands of whom were escaping south at the time. Rather, they are Greek Orthodox Christians from the eastern Mediterranean, probably fleeing from the Bulgarian ethnic cleansing in late 1941 in Greek Macedonia, where many Greeks from Asia Minor had ended up following Turkish massacres and deportations after World War I, or perhaps from the general hunger in the winter of 1941-2.

Similarly, the woman is in Syria, but not necessarily Syrian. If one was organising a welcome committee for Greek refugees in Syria, one might not immediately look for members amongst the Druze and Muslims, who to a considerable degree had slaughtered and driven out the Syrian Greeks under the Ottomans. Instead, I am guessing that the woman is Antiochian Orthodox of some nature; that she had arrived in Syria from Turkey during the genocide in the southeast during WWI; and that she has Greek words for the girl.

Syrian opposition politician Hadi al-Bahra writes: “In 1942 Greek refugees were welcomed in #Syria we considered them as if they were part of our families.” Similarly, Turkish government propaganda in Dutch, cherry-picking from a WaPo article:

One of the so-called forgotten facts of history is that Syria welcomed 40,000 European refugees during the Second World War… “The living conditions of the refugees from Europe were very good. They received medical treatment and identity cards.”

But the refugee operation was actually run by the British under the aegis of the (Allied) Middle East Relief and Refugee Administration (MERRA)(e.g. here and here). And even the photo is British – Huna al-Quds, the magazine in which the photo appeared on 11 January 1942, was published by the (British) Palestine Broadcasting Service, and the unacknowledged source of the image in circulation is the National Library of Israel (backup).

Reading, reading, reading. There’s an interesting piece by Iakovos D. Michailidis here on that particular refugee crisis, and the introduction to his book, Παιδιά του Οδυσσέα: Έλληνες πρόσφυγες στη Μέση Ανατολή και στην Αφρική (1941-1946) (Odysseus’ Children: Greek Refugees in the Middle East and Africa (1941-1946)), is here. I hadn’t previously read Arnold Toynbee’s The Western question in Greece and Turkey, which, countering the still-prevailing narrative, gives eye-witness accounts of Greek atrocities in Turkey after WWI. Several quotes perhaps apposite to current disputes about conflicting rights of return:

The Greeks have shown the same unfitness as the Turks for governing a mixed population.

The fact that I am neither a Greek nor a Turk perhaps creates little presumption of my being fair-minded, for Western partisans of non-Western peoples are often more fanatical than their favourites.

And there’s this, but it’s bedtime.

Oh yes, bedtime. My interest in wartime Greece was born while walking in the hills with a Dutch model, who had been the mistress of a Greek colonel, and had photocopied all the military cartography. The maps were unreliable – perhaps the assumption was that they would be acquired by the Turks, who would fall into a ravine – and one evening we realised we had no idea where we were, nowhere to stay, nothing to eat. We kept on walking, and as the moon came up we noticed a wisp of smoke further up the valley and then, as we approached, the smell of lamb on an open fire. In a clearing amid ruins were two portly, elderly, mustachioed gentlemen, a fishmonger and a taxi driver from a coastal village, who every year walked up from the coast to cook a meal in their hamlet, blown up and most of its population massacred by the Germans. After supper, their plan was to carry on drinking, but we inquired whether there was anywhere they thought we might be able to sleep. Oh yes, look, some of the roof of this house is still intact, and there’s an old bedframe on bricks and a simple mattress and blanket. We got in, thanking our lucky stars, and barely noticed when, several hours later, they joined us.

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