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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 7 - 9 of 20 profiles

Chopin, Frédéric

Profession: Composer
Country of Origin: Poland
Country of Asylum: France
Date of birth: 1 March 1810
Died: 17 October 1849

Passionate, tragic, melancholic and patriotic, the great 19th-century composer Frédéric Chopin dreamed of freedom for Poland.

While fellow Romantic Byron died fighting for Greek independence, Chopin, in exile, wrote music rooted in the Polish spirit. As one of his pupils played his Etude in E Major, he is said to have exclaimed, "Oh! Ma patrie!" in memory of his homeland.

The son of a French émigré and a Polish noblewoman, Chopin had a happy childhood, doted upon by three sisters. He studied music in Warsaw, then made plans to go to Vienna. As early as 1830, the critics noted his use of folk melodies. "Chopin knows what sounds are heard in our fields and woods, he has listened to the song of the Polish village, has made it his own and has united the tunes of his native land in skilful composition and elegant execution," wrote one critic.

As a student, he and his friends planned an insurrection against the Russians. Chopin's role was to publicise the cause of Poland abroad, through his music. His father, another ardent Polish patriot, agreed. Chopin left Warsaw for Vienna, and some months later, when fighting broke out, he was advised not to return.

In September 1831, he arrived in Paris. He was soon discovered and welcomed into the drawing rooms of high society and the exiled Polish nobility. Here he found both an appreciation of his genius and a way to financial independence - with eager, aristocratic pupils.

The mazurkas, polonaises and nocturnes, which immortalised the folk music and sounds of Poland, awakened French consciousness to the Polish struggle. But alone in exile, Chopin became introverted and melancholic. He found some solace in his relationship with French female novelist George Sand. But he fell out with her in 1847 and developed tuberculosis.

Nonetheless he made a final concert tour to Britain, where he played for Queen Victoria and met writer Charles Dickens.

Chopin died on October 17, 1849, with Sand's daughter at his bedside. His body lies in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, marked with the sculpture of a weeping muse with a broken lyre. But his sister, Ludwika, took his heart back to Poland with her, and it was laid to rest in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw.

Dietrich, Marlene

Profession: Actress and singer
Country of Origin: Germany
Country of Asylum: United States of America
Country of Transit: France
Date of birth: 27 December 1901
Died: 6 May 1992

Actress and singer Marlene Dietrich was a living legend, famous for performances in movies such as "Blue Angel" and "Touch of Evil". She was also one of the most prominent political refugees of her generation, speaking out against Hitler and singing for the US troops in World War II.

In the early 1920s, Dietrich attended the Max Reinhart drama school. She appeared in many stage productions and soon became the toast of Berlin.

It was with "Blue Angel", directed by Joseph von Sternberg, that Dietrich attracted world-wide attention. In her deep, heavily-accented voice, she crooned the unforgettable words: "Falling in love again, Never wanted to, What am I to do? Can't help it." Writer Ernest Hemingway, said to be her lover, once wrote, "If she had nothing more than her voice she could break your heart with it. But she has that beautiful body and the timeless loveliness of her face."

Paramount wanted her in Hollywood, so she left Europe and made six Hollywood films with von Sternberg, the most successful being "Shanghai Express".

Appalled by Nazism, Dietrich refused to return to Germany and acquired American citizenship in 1939. The German press called her a traitor. Her work with the United Services Organisation brought her to Alaska, Greenland, North Africa and Europe, where she entertained American troops, helped in hospitals and made radio broadcasts. Her unmistakable voice and sheer glamour charmed the soldiers and troubled the enemy. Her sister was sent to a concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen, reportedly in a bid to make Dietrich stop singing. They were reunited after the war.

In 1948 she resumed her acting career, appearing in Billy Wilder's comedy, "A Foreign Affair". Dietrich played a Nazi singer in the ruins of Berlin, a part she took on only after much persuasion by Wilder. She also appeared in "Stage Fright", directed by Alfred Hitchcock, performing songs by Cole Porter and Edith Piaf. Hitchcock described her as an absolute professional and allowed her to give directions on his set, something that was unheard of. In 1952, Dietrich decided to stop working in film and to concentrate on the stage, although she would still play roles in films such as Orson Well's "Touch of Evil" and Wilder's "Witness for the Prosecution".

In 1962, she narrated a documentary called "The Black Fox", which linked Adolf Hitler's biography with a Goethe story. She began touring the world giving concerts, adding to her 1940s repertoire of anti-war songs such as Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?".

In her memoirs she stated: "I was born a German and shall always remain one.... The United States welcomed me when I no longer had a fatherland that deserved to call itself that."

After 1978, Dietrich rarely appeared in public and did not want to be photographed. She died in Paris on May 6, 1992, but her glamorous image lives on.

Einstein, Albert

Profession: Scientist
Country of Origin: Germany
Country of Asylum: United States of America
Date of birth: 14 March 1879
Died: 18 April 1955

The face is human, thoughtful. We have all seen it, a mass of unruly white hair framing a weary, yet endearing face. And we've all heard of Albert Einstein and his scientific theories. Yet few of us know of his days as a refugee, when his books were thrown into Hitler's bonfires, and as a German Jew, Einstein was accused of treason.

Growing up in Munich, Einstein was particularly interested in music and mathematics, and his ambition was to study electrical engineering in Zurich. However, he failed the entrance exam, leading some biographers to speculate that he suffered from the learning difficulty, dyslexia. Undeterred, he moved to Switzerland and enrolled in a school in Aarau, hoping to get a second chance to qualify for a place at the technical college. Eventually he succeeded, but he was unable to secure a teaching post at the college, and eventually took up the position of technical expert, third class at the Bern patent office.

In Bern, he worked on his research in his spare time and in 1905 published three papers that formed the basis for his work on the theory of relativity. He was awarded a doctorate by the University of Zurich, and from then on his academic career was made. In 1909, he resigned from the patent office and moved to Prague to take up a university post. In 1914, he returned to Germany to take up a research position at the Prussian Academy of Sciences.

In 1919, Einstein's theory that gravity was equivalent to mass was confirmed by research into solar eclipses. He was idolised in the popular press. The London Times ran a headline on November 7, proclaiming: "Revolution in Science - New Theory of the Universe - Newtonian ideas overthrown." In 1921, Einstein received the Nobel Prize.

However, the rise of the Nazi party and anti-Semitism made it increasingly difficult for him to work and in 1932 he took up the offer of a post at Princeton. He became a citizen of the United States, but retained Swiss citizenship.

Einstein and his wife worked tirelessly on behalf of German Jews, making visa applications and vouching personally for many refugees. He expressed mixed feelings about his life in exile. "I am privileged by fate to live here in Princeton," he wrote to the Belgian Queen, who had befriended him in the early days. "In this small university town the chaotic voices of human strife barely penetrate. I am almost ashamed to be living in such peace while all the rest struggle and suffer."

In 1944, Einstein supported the war effort by putting up for auction his 1905 paper on special relativity. It fetched $6 million, and the manuscript is now in the Library of Congress. His final letter was to philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell, lending his support to the movement to ban nuclear weapons. Einstein died on April 18, 1955.

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