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Prominent Refugees

Prominent Refugees
© UNHCR/U.S. Library of Congress

Refugees who have made a difference

Refugees or former refugees who have achieved special status within a community due to their achievements, or because they have overcome hardship to build a new life.

This gallery features a selection of refugees who have made a difference and left a mark in the world. The list includes people, dead and living, in all walks of life. Some, like writer Milan Kundera, composer Bela Bartok, physicist Albert Einstein and actress-singer Marlene Dietrich are world famous, others have shared their gifts locally. The UN refugee agency salutes all of them for showing the potential of refugees around the world.


Displaying 1 - 3 of 20 profiles

Albright, Madeleine Korbel

Profession: Former US Secretary of State
Country of Origin: Czech Republic
Country of Asylum: United States of America
Date of birth: 15 May 1935

Madeleine Albright was the United States' first female Secretary of State and the highest-ranking woman in the history of the US government.

She was born Marie Jana Korbelova (Madeleine is the anglicised form of Madlenka, her childhood nickname). Twice, the Korbels were forced from their homeland due to political turmoil. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia during World War II, the family fled to England. They returned to Prague when Albright's father, a diplomat, took a position with his government in the brief period between the liberation from the Germans and the Communist coup of 1948. However, because of the Communist takeover, the Korbels once again had to leave the country.

They immigrated to the United States in 1948 when Albright was 11 years old, and settled in Denver, Colorado, where her father took a teaching position in international relations at the University of Denver. In her Denver high school, Albright – then Madeleine Korbel – won a UN-sponsored competition by correctly naming all the organisation's member states.

Though raised as a Catholic and later married into the Episcopal Church, reports in the wake of her nomination to Secretary of State suggested that Albright has Jewish ancestry. Birth certificates and records unearthed in Europe indicated that many of the family's relatives who stayed in Europe, including Albright's grandparents on both sides, died in concentration camps.

Albright attended Wellesley College and soon after graduation, married Joseph Albright, the son of newspaper publishers. She went into politics, and in the following years she served, among other things, as the President of the Center for National Policy.

By 1988, Albright was advising Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. A few years later, President Bill Clinton named her as his Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Albright was nominated as Secretary of State by President Clinton on December 5, 1996. After being unanimously confirmed by the US Senate, she was sworn in as the 64th Secretary of State on January 23, 1997.

In 1998, Albright commemorated 50 years in the United States by speaking at a naturalisation ceremony for nearly 100 new American citizens. Reflecting on her own background as a refugee, she said to the group: "Today marks a new beginning in your lives. And an ongoing chapter in the story of America which is, above all else, the story of immigrants".

Allende, Isabel

Profession: Journalist and Writer
Country of Origin: Chile
Country of Asylum: United States of America
Country of Transit: Venezuela
Date of birth: 2 August 1942

"Often I had no alternative but to work hard in order to survive and protect my family. I was a political exile and then an immigrant. That makes one strong." This is how Chilean writer Isabel Allende answered when asked what gave her the drive to achieve. Her novels have become world-famous modern Latin American classics.

She went into exile after her uncle, Chilean President Salvador Allende, was overthrown in the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973. Isabel had been receiving death threats and learnt that her name was on a military blacklist. She fled to Venezuela with her husband and two children, arriving without a visa or a job, but managed to continue her career as a journalist by contributing to the Caracas newspaper, El Nacional.

In 1981, when she received news that her 99-year-old grandfather was dying, Isabel began writing him a letter to make herself feel closer to her family and the home she left behind. The manuscript was to turn into her first and best-known novel, "The House of the Spirits".

The book tells the story of a family in an unnamed Latin American country that bears an unmistakable resemblance to Chile. The matriarchal Clara del Valle is gifted in strange ways with telepathy and an ability to see into the future. The writing draws on the Latin American tradition of "magic realism". The family lives through turbulent times and, like Isabel's, is caught up in the politics of the day. The New York Times described "The House of the Spirits" as "a spectacular first novel". The Washington Post acclaimed it as "mesmerising". Other novels include "Eva Luna" and "Of Love and Shadows".

In 1985, Isabel went to the United States as a visiting professor of literature. She met her second husband and now resides in San Rafael, California. She is involved in more than 20 non-governmental organisations, including Madre, which provides support for women and children who have been abused, and Canal Community Alliance, which assists ethnic groups. Her own foundation, the Isabel Allende Foundation and Paula Scholarships, was set up at the request of her daughter, Paula, who died in 1992. It allocates scholarships to underprivileged women and children.

In 1990, when democracy was re-established in Chile, Isabel returned after 15 years of absence to receive the Gabriela Mistral Award, a prestigious national prize.

Arendt, Hannah

Profession: Political Theorist, Philosopher
Country of Origin: Germany
Country of Asylum: Switzerland
Country of Transit: France; United States (US, USA, America)
Date of birth: 14 October 1906
Died: 4 December 1975

Philosopher Hannah Arendt, the author of "The Origins of Totalitarianism" and "The Banality of Evil", had experienced the rise of the Nazis and was part of the large Jewish diaspora that fled Nazi Germany before World War II.

During the Weimar Republic, she was a student of philosophers Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. In 1929, she completed her doctorate on the idea of love in the writings of St. Augustine.

In 1933, she began working for the German Zionist Organization to publicise the plight of the victims of Nazism, and carried out research on anti-Semitic propaganda. For this, she was arrested by the Gestapo. After winning the sympathy of a Berlin jailer, she escaped first to Geneva and then to Paris, where she remained for the rest of the decade. Working for Youth Aliyah, a refugee organisation, she helped rescue Jewish children from the Third Reich and bring them to Palestine.

When the German army invaded France in 1940, Arendt was separated from her husband and interned in Gurs camp in the Pyrenees, together with 6,000 other stateless Germans. She managed to escape and in May 1941 reached the United States, where she was later granted US citizenship.

Despite the difficulty of not knowing English, Arendt began writing reviews and articles. She nonetheless continued to write in German. When asked by a journalist why she remained faithful to the German language despite the rise of Nazism, she answered: "Well, it's certainly not the German language that went crazy." She was an important cross-cultural reference point for the New York intelligentsia. Serving as an editor for a German Jewish publishing house, she was the first to bring existentialism and the writings of Franz Kafka to the US.

In 1951, she published "The Origins of Totalitarianism", revealing her flair for grand historical generalisations as she traced the steps towards the distinctive 20th-century tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin.

"The Banality of Evil" led Jewish community leader Gershom Scholem to accuse her of having betrayed her love for the Jewish people by her writing. Arendt answered by denying that she harboured any special love for the Jewish people: " You are perfectly right, I am not animated by any sort of love, in my life I have never loved a population or a collectivity - not the Germans, nor the French, nor the Americans, nor the working class, nothing of the sort. I only love my friends, the only form of love I know is the love for individuals."

Yet she dedicated much of her time and writings to Jewish culture. She supported the Judah Magnes foundation that called for an Arab-Jewish confederation for the Palestinian question. From 1944-46, she directed the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Commission, drawing up an inventory of Jewish books and artefacts plundered by the Nazis, which she subsequently helped recover in Europe.

Arendt taught political theory in Princeton, Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Columbia, Northwestern and Cornell universities and the New School for Social Research. She died in New York on December 4,1975.

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