Prominent refugees

Discover short biographies of 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.

Political personalities

Sitting Bull (1831- 1890)
Tatanka Yotanka, also known as "Sitting Bull", is probably the most famous Indian Chief in American history. It is not widely known that he spent four years as a refugee in Canada. Sitting Bull was the political, military and spiritual leader of the Sioux tribe.

Madeleine Albright (1937 - )
Albright was a refugee whose family fled Czechoslovakia, first from the Nazis and later from the Communists. Albright, though, went on to become the 64th United States Secretary of State in 1997 after unanimous confirmation by the U.S. Senate. She was also the first female Secretary of State.

Thabo Mbeki (1942 -)
Veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Thabo Mbeki spent years abroad before presiding over South Africa's transition to majority rule and following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela to become President of South Africa. Mbeki was forced to leave the country in 1962 and made an asylum application to Zimbabwe, from where he remained activ until his return to South Africa in 1990.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (1969 - )
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, writer and politician, was born in Somalia. She got famous for her struggles against the fanatic part of Islam. When she was eight her family left Somalia for Saudi-Arabia, then Kenya and in 1992 she obtained political asylum in the Netherlands. In 2003 she was elected in the Dutch lower house. Now she works for the American Enterprise Institute and writes a lot about human rights and religious questions.

Dalai Lama (1935 - )
The 14th Dalai Lama is the symbol for human rights in Tibet. He is the head of the government-in-exile, based in Dharamshala, India. Tibetans traditionally believe him to be the reincarnation of his predecessors, he is the spiritual leader. On 10 December 1989 the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


Victor Hugo (1802 -1885):
Victor Hugo is one of the greatest writers France has ever known. His best-known novels are “Les Misérables” and “Notre-Dame de Paris”. When he became active in the political arena, he was forced to flee. Hugo first tried to flee to Belgium, but was refused. So he decided to settle on the Channel Islands. After 20 years of exile Hugo finally saw Paris again. The crowds shouted: “long live Victor Hugo”!

Karl Marx (1818 – 1983):
The famous philosopher was expelled from Paris at the end of 1844. He moved to Brussels where he was permitted greater freedom of expression than any other European state. His most famous work is “das Kapital”. He is one of the most important founders of communist political thought.

Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939)
Founder of psychoanalysis, Freud had to flee to London in 1884. He had to go after having lived in Austria for 79 years. When Hitler's army attacked Austria, proclaiming union with Germany, Freud had to go because of his Jewish background.

Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)
In 1933, Einstein, a prominent German scientist, was accused of treason by the Third Reich. He then sought refuge in the United States.
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 through titles such as : "Revolution in Science - New Theory of the Universe - Newtonian ideas overthrown." In 1921, Einstein received the Nobel Prize.

Thomas Mann (1875 – 1955)
Thomas Mann became famous through his classic novel "Buddenbrooks" (published when he was just 25) and he then received the Nobel Prize in 1924 for his work "The Magic Mountain". Beside his literary credits, Mann stands out as one of the most vocal German critics of Nazism. He fled first to Switzerland and then to the USA, before going back to Switzerland for the end of his life.

Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977):
Nabokov is one of the most famous literary figures of the 20th century. In 1919 he fled the Red Army by going to England, where he enrolled at Cambridge University. He travelled with his wife to Berlin, but had to flee again in 1937 because of the Nazi’s. As an American citizen he wrote his famous book Lolita. Due to the general storm of moral opposition, he moved again to Switzerland.

Anne Frank (1929-1945)
Anne Frank was a German Jewish girl, born in the city of Frankfurt am Main in Weimar, Germany. She lived most of her life in or near Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, hidden from the army. She gained international fame posthumously following the publication of her diary which documents her experiences hiding during the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II.

Hannah Arendt (1906 – 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. She dedicated much of her time and writings to the Jewish culture and taught political theory in Princeton, Berkeley, the University of Chicago and Columbia.

Karl Popper (1902 – 1994)
Austrian-Jewish philosopher, who went to New-Zealand to escape Nazism. He is considered one of the most influential philosophers of science of the 20th century, and also wrote extensively on social and political philosophy.

Milan Kundera (1929 - )
In 1967, Milan Kundera published his first novel, "The Joke", a satire on Czechoslovakian-style Stalinism. Needless to say, the authorities did not find it funny, and as Kundera refused to be silenced, he was fired from his job and ultimately forced to live abroad. He chose France, where he was appointed professor until 1979 and where he still lives today.


Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)
Passionate, tragic, melancholic and patriotic, the great 19th-century composer Frédéric Chopin dreamed of freedom for Poland. After the war broke out in Poland, he stayed in France where he created his mazurkas, polonaises and nocturnes, thereby immortalising the folk music and sounds of Poland as well as awakening French consciousness to the Polish struggle.

Marlene Dietrich (1901 – 1992)
Actress and singer Marlene Dietrich was a living legend, famous for performances in movies such as "Blue Angel" and "Touch of Evil". Born in Germany, she was one of the most prominent political refugees of her generation, speaking out against Hitler and singing for the US troops in World War II.

Jacky Chan (1954 - )
Jacky Chan was born in Hong Kong and became a famous actor and stunt maker in a lot of popular American movies. He is known for his acrobatic fighting style and comic timing. Jacky Chan fled to the United States after being threatened with death by the Triads, the Chinese underground society.

M.I.A (Ms. Arulpragasam) (1975 - )
Grammy winning rapper/musician M.I.A, first left Sri Lanka as a refugee from an ongoing civil war, when she was nine, and moved to a housing project in London. She became world famous with her song Paper Plane used in the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”.

Gloria Estefan (1957 -)
Born in Cuba, the pop icon fled with her family to Miami, Florida, during the Cuban Revolution. She has won seven Grammy Awards, placing her among the most successful crossover performers in Latin music to date.

Wyclef Jean (1972 - )
Wyclef Jean, musician, producer and rapper, has sold more than 31 million albums throughout his career, alone and with The Fugees group. Wyclef moved with his family from Haiti to Brooklyn New York when he was nine. Jean has been active in his support of his native country and created the foundation Yéle Haiti to provide humanitarian aid and assistance to Haiti.

Bob Marley (1945 -1981)
Born to an English Jamaican father and Afro-Jamaican mother, Marley fled Jamaica for England in 1976 after a politically motivated attack. His album Exodus (1977) draws an analogy between the biblical story of Moses and the Israelites leaving exile and his own situation.

Mika (1983 - )
Born in Beirut in 1983 he was forced to flee war-torn Lebanon at just one year old moving first to Paris and eventually to London where he attended the Royal College of Music. In 2007, Mika won three awards, the most of any artist, at the World Music Awards.


Sir Montague Burton (1985 – 1952)
Founder of Burton, one of Great Britain's largest chains of clothes shops, Montague Burton was a Lithuanian Jew refugee who came alone to England in 1900. After opening his first shop at the age of 15, he had four hundred shops, factories and mills, by 1929. His firm made a quarter of the British military uniforms during World War II and a third of demobilisation clothing. Burton made every effort to keep his staff happy - he had the largest works canteen in the world, along with a pre-welfare state health and pension scheme.

Michael Marks (1859 – 1907)
Founder of Marks & Spencer, Michael Marks was born in Poland of Jewish ancestry and emigrated to England as a young man. He moved to Leeds where a company called Barran was known to employ Jewish refugees like him. Famously, one of his stalls sold goods that cost only one penny with the slogan : “Don’t Ask the Price, It’s A Penny”.


Prominent refugees – Refugees who made a difference. UNHCR website.
Top 8 famous refugees – Huffington Post website.
Refugee week – Yahoo website.

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