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 profiles of some 200 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 Chinua Achebe, 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.
After fleeing Nazi Germany, Lucie Porges managed to bring European flair and craftsmanship to the New York market, successfully carving a niche for herself in the fashion world.
She was born Lucie Eisenstab in a district of Vienna known as Favouriten, where her father worked in the garment industry. As anti-Jewish demonstrations increased in 1938, the family had to leave their apartment and move in with their grandmother. Her father was arrested and imprisoned. He was only released six weeks later under the condition that he sign a form stating that he would leave the country within two or three weeks. The family fled first to Cologne, then to Belgium, where they were taken in by an aunt.
Eisenstab's parents sewed slippers all night long to earn a bit of money. As the German army advanced in 1940, the family fled on a train for Paris. The train came under fire, and did not stop until it arrived in Toulouse in the south of France. Here her father, considered an enemy alien, was taken to a French internment camp. The family was moved from camp to camp, being released only to be rounded up and detained again. In Lyon, Eisenstab managed to find a job painting silk scarves. In September 1942, the round-ups began again and they fled to Switzerland. When they arrived in Geneva, they were taken to a refugee camp in Eriswil. Her father's parents, who stayed behind, both died in concentration camps.
In Geneva, Eisenstab got to know her future husband, Paul Peter Porges, whom she had never met before, even though they were born three months apart in the same hospital in Vienna. They attended the Ecole de Beaux Arts (Art Academy). After the war, Porges, who had a visa for the United States, left Switzerland. Eisenstab went to Paris, where she stopped by every fashion designer to ask for a job until she was employed by Maggy Rouff's. It was here that she learned about running a fashion house, put together a portfolio and found a job as an illustrator for L'Art et la Mode magazine.
In 1951, Eisenstab took a small French steamer to New York to join her future husband who, in the meantime, had been drafted in the American Army and was stationed in Georgia.
Determined to find a job in the fashion industry in New York, she managed to show her portfolio at the studio of Pauline Trigère. Her association with the fashion house was to last for more than 40 years. She worked for them as a fashion designer, often accompanying Trigére to Europe on trips to select fabric.
After the closing of the house of Trigére, Lucie Porges remained active in the world of fashion, teaching at the New School for Social Research and at Parsons.
The life of the designer and her cartoonist husband was turned into a joint retrospective of their lives as artists, as a testimony of how some people are capable of using their talents wherever they are.
Paul Peter Porges, known as PPP since his childhood, not only managed to absorb the culture of the country that gave him refuge, the United States, but became a part of its creative movement. Starting off as a European refugee who hardly spoke English, he managed to establish himself as a successful cartoonist in his adopted country.
PPP was born in a working-class district of Vienna. His parents owned a grocery store, which he used as his first studio. His father, noticing his keenness for drawing, enrolled him in weekly classes with a professor who was studying children's art.
Remembering the German Anschluss of Austria on March 13, 1938, PPP writes: "We were no longer free. My father was forbidden from working as a sales representative. The store was boycotted. We had illegal Nazis on the street and we were afraid of them. It came to a head on the November 9 with crowds marching through the streets chanting. They wrote Jud on the store ... We sat at the back of the store waiting for something to happen."
It was difficult for his father to leave Vienna at the time as he felt responsible for his mother, a crippled brother and his in-laws. Two of his brothers had escaped to Palestine, leaving behind their wives and children. PPP's father felt obliged to try and protect them. While his parents and one brother would survive, many other relatives died in the genocide.
On March 13, 1939, PPP escaped with a group of children sponsored by Baron Eduard von Rothschild. For a while, he stayed at La Guette children's camp in a chateau outside Paris. Less than a year later, the Germans invaded northern France. PPP escaped to central France and from here, he was sent for a few months to a school in Nice.
In early 1941, he was sent to a distant relative in St. Etienne. He tried to escape to the south of France, Spain or Switzerland, but failed. He was captured and interned in a camp in the south, from which many Jews were being deported. PPP smuggled himself out by hiding in a garbage collection. A Jewish organisation helped him reach Switzerland in late 1942. Here PPP was able to attend school and subsequently the Geneva Art Academy, where in May 1945 he met his future wife, fashion designer Lucie Eisenstab.
In 1947, PPP left, ahead of Eisenstab, for America with his parents, having obtained a visa through his brother. His family lived in a small apartment in Hells' Kitchen, which, he recalls, had a bathtub in the kitchen. He joined a circus travelling through mid-western America, working as a translator, barman and porter.
The couple had planned to meet later in Europe and marry, but PPP was unexpectedly called to serve in the army during the Korean war. He was stationed in Georgia. Having already cultivated a love for American cartoons, he soon began drawing cartoons for the army newspapers. PPP showed an extraordinary capacity to understand and make fun of middle-class suburban life. In 1954, he sold his first drawings to Saturday Evening Post.
PPP turned to Mad Magazine, where he continued his slapstick drawings for kids, and to prestigious magazines such as the Saturday Review of Literature and the New Yorker, where he developed his own style.
His original drawings today are prized collectibles. He currently teaches the art of cartoon at the School of Visual Arts in New York, the school where he earned a degree in 1977.
PPP and his wife often go to Vienna, where they are well known. In 2000, the Jewish Museum in Vienna turned the lives of these two refugee artists into a show, the Style and Humour exhibition, which displayed the work of these two cosmopolitan artists and their courageous ability to settle and resettle.
Austrian-born, Jewish film director, actor and producer Otto Preminger fled rising Nazism in Europe to continue his career in the United States. Many of his films were in defiance of conventions of the time. His work paved the way for the liberalisation of the system of studio ratings and, as a consequence, the freedom for directors to tackle previously taboo subjects.
Preminger was the son of a lawyer and one-time attorney general of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While studying law, Preminger also began working in his chosen career, as an actor playing in theatres in Vienna, Prague and Zurich. His acting first won him acclaim while playing in a Max Reinhardt production. Later, in 1928, he would join Reinhardt's legendary company. Managing his own theatre at the age of 19, he was a successful producer and director by the time he reached the age of 26.
In 1935, fearing growing anti-Semitism in Europe, he accepted an invitation to direct Broadway plays. He staged "Libel", which was a huge Broadway success, before moving to Hollywood at the invitation of Twentieth Century Fox.
During the 1930s, he continued to direct Broadway productions such as his anti-Nazi work, "A Margin of Hope" (1939), and also briefly taught law at Yale University. Back in Hollywood in the 1940s, he achieved his first great success with the mystery thriller "Laura", which was heralded a film noir classic. In 1943, he became a naturalised American citizen.
Leaving the big studios in 1953, Preminger created his own production company, Carlyle Productions. His first independent movie, "The Moon is Blue" (1953), was banned by local censorship boards for using such words as "pregnant", "virgin" and "seduce", which violated the Hays Code of the day. By 1947, "Forever Amber", a historical drama about a woman providing sexual favours in return for prosperity, caused controversy and was deemed obscene by some. In "The Man with the Golden Arm" (1959), starring Frank Sinatra as a drug addict, Preminger again defied the regulations of the time with a script that included words such as "sexual intercourse" and "orgasm".
These two movies were the subject of legal battles in the mid-1950s, between Preminger and state censors. The filmmaker won both US Supreme Court cases, which allowed the films to be shown, and therefore established two important precedents that were instrumental in the liberalisation of the motion picture code in the late 1950s.
His staunch independence brought him to break other taboos of the time. Notably, he made the first film with an exclusively African-American cast, "Carmen Jones" (1954), at a time when this seemed unthinkable in Hollywood. This was followed by another successful all-black cast production, "Porgy and Bess" (1959). Preminger was also one of the first independent producers to rehire actors and writers who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. In addition, he tackled the theme of homosexuality and political blackmail in "Advise and Consent" (1962).
Preminger died in Manhattan on April 23, 1986.
Nyamko Sabuni's family has a history of suffering from political persecution, and after taking refuge in Burundi, they were forced to flee again to Sweden.
In the aftermath of General Mobuto Sese Seko's coup in 1965 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sabuni's father was imprisoned for his political activities several times and forced to flee abroad. That is why Sabuni was born in neighbouring Burundi and also why none her six siblings nor her mother carried their father's name - for fear of persecution. Sabuni recalls that the family spent only a brief time in Zaire (as it was then known), so as to be near their father when he was imprisoned.
In 1980, Sabuni's father escaped from jail, and lived in a hotel room in Tanzania, only to find himself the target of a murder attempt by Zaire's intelligence service. He realised that Tanzania was no longer safe for him. He applied for political asylum and, with the help of Amnesty International, was resettled urgently in Sweden. Six months later, his family left Burundi and joined him in Sweden in March 1981.
Sabuni's father took out a loan and bought an apartment in a suburb north of Stockholm. She remembers that bureaucratic details were settled before her arrival, allowing her to begin school immediately amid a friendly environment.
She studied law at Uppsala University and migration policy at Maelardalens University. It was during her university studies that Sabuni's interest in politics began. She helped establish the African National Association in 1991, where she served as Chairperson, helping to promote African culture in Sweden.
In 1995, she became interested in Swedish politics and became a member of the board of the Liberal Party's Youth Association. Currently she is a member of the Liberal Party's Board in the city of Stockholm as well as a member of the city's cultural commission. Sabuni is also a member of the party's National Board.
The sound of smashing windows, the smell of burning books, the sight of Jewish property destroyed. These memories of Kristallnacht remain vividly in the mind of actor Andrew Sachs, best known for his role as a Spanish waiter in the hit TV series, "Fawlty Towers".
At the age of eight, Sachs saw his father, a Jewish businessman, arrested by the Nazis for doing little more than carrying a copy of a newspaper article criticising the Nazi regime in his wallet. Sachs' German friends told him they were no longer allowed to play with him.
The release of his father, through connections in the police force, was the start of a new life for the boy. His father, anxious to escape the growing anti-Semitism, secured a job in the United Kingdom. Sachs, with his sister, elder brother and mother, followed three months later. With the outbreak of war in September 1939, however, the family were turned out of the small house they had rented near London and Sachs' father was interned, albeit briefly, as an "enemy alien".
In 1943, Sachs' father died and the family found itself in difficult circumstances. Sachs' elder brother and sister worked to support the family.
Over the next few years, Sachs developed a passion for the stage. His dream was to become a star. Unable to afford drama school, he took a job as assistant stage manager in a provincial repertory theatre. By the late 1950s, he was a familiar face in theatre productions across the country.
The advent of television saw Sachs' career expand. He is best known as the Spanish waiter, Manuel, in John Cleese's comedy classic, "Fawlty Towers", with his bewildered catchphrase, "Qué?"
Sachs' acting career over the past 50 years includes a string of credits from other comedies, dramas and classics, not only on TV but also on radio and in the theatre. He is often heard as a narrator on TV documentaries and has recorded many books and poetry albums on audiotape. In addition, he has written and produced a number of radio and stage plays. He has also been known to reassume the character of Manuel, the waiter, as a fundraiser for charity.
Some 60 years on, Sachs reflects on the personal impact of his refugee experience. Had it been possible for his family to remain in Germany, he would probably have gone to university and followed a completely different career - his acting talents largely untapped. He partly attributes his ability to assume characters to his early need to integrate in British society. And yet, despite the passage of time and all outward appearances to the contrary, Sachs sometimes still feels like a foreigner in Britain. If only he could understand what they mean by "silly mid on" and "out for a duck", he quips.
Edward Said was a real Renaissance man, a polymath who played the piano, wrote about music, literature, and was most famous for his work on the Middle East and his critiques of imperialism and "Orientalism".
A professor at Columbia University in the United States, where he taught English and Comparative Literature from 1963, Said was also a literary critic, historian of ideas and President of the Modern Language Association.
Born into a Palestinian Christian family in East Jerusalem in 1935, Said attended an Anglican elementary school until his family was forced to leave Palestine in 1948 and settle in Cairo. In 1951, he moved to the US, where he went to university, obtaining his PhD from Harvard.
After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Said became the main spokesman for the Palestinian cause in the US. He paid a high price for his high profile on the issue. He was vilified as the "professor of terror", his office at Columbia was set on fire, and he and his family received innumerable death threats. His books were banned in countries like Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Two groundbreaking pieces of work, "Orientalism" (1978) and "Culture and Imperialism" (1993), have redefined the scope, nature and relationship of diverse disciplines in the field of humanities and social sciences. In "Orientalism", he analysed how the standard view of the Orient, seen through the eyes of Western writers, has vestiges of 19th-century European colonialism. In "Culture and Imperialism", he explored the way knowledge is used to defend power.
Said was a member of the Palestine National Council, where he incurred the wrath of Arab nationalists because he advocated the idea of coexistence between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. After resigning from the Council in the early 1990s, he called for a bi-national state as a solution to the Palestinian issue.
In view of the demographic parity between Palestinians and Israelis by the year 2010, Said also emphasised the need for increasing cross-cultural exchanges as a necessary means of paving the way for a peaceful coexistence. Without beginning to talk about Palestinian and Israeli history together, he said, "The Other is always going to be dehumanised, demonised, invisible."
Said's autobiography, "Out of Place: A Memoir", was published in 1999. He died in 2003 at the age of 67 after a 12-year battle against leukaemia.
With the fall of the Taliban, Dr Sima Samar found herself in the international spotlight when she was made Afghanistan's first minister for women, but in the aid world, she was already well known for her superhuman efforts on behalf of refugees in Pakistan.
Her Shuhada non-governmental organisation (the name means "martyrs" in the Dari language), based in Quetta, opened four hospitals for women and children, 11 clinics and schools for more than 20,000 girls. Against all the odds, she also worked inside Afghanistan.
Samar was one of 11 children born to a man with two wives. A member of Afghanistan's Hazara minority, she attended school in Lashkargha, and reportedly began speaking out on women's rights from seventh grade onwards. By 14, she had secretly joined a Maoist party. When her father told her she could not attend Kabul University unless she entered into an arranged marriage, she negotiated the terms with the proposed husband-to-be. Abdul Chafoor Sultani, a professor of physics, agreed to let her study medicine while he cooked and did the housework.
In 1978, 10 men, including one of her husband's students, came to the house late at night and took her husband and three of his brothers away. She never saw him again. The incident came amid rising pro-Russian feeling - shortly afterwards, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan - and her husband was known for his opposition to Soviet influence.
Samar then worked as a doctor in the town of Jorghi. In 1984, she contracted whooping cough and became very weak. She sought medical treatment across the border in Pakistan and took her young son with her. She decided to stay, and began work among the huge Afghan refugee population.
It was not an easy task. Although she was able to find funds, she encountered opposition from conservative community leaders and also, later, from the hardline Islamic Taliban regime which seized power in Afghanistan in 1994. "I have three strikes against me: I am a woman, I speak out for women and I'm a Hazara, from a minority group," she said at the time. The Taliban outlawed girls' education and forbade women to work or even travel alone.
Undeterred, Samar led convoys of aid into Afghanistan, and also set up education programmes for girls inside the country. Her literacy programmes were accompanied by the distribution of food aid and information on hygiene and family planning by outreach workers who went from door to door.
Samar refuses to accept that women must be kept in purdah (secluded from the public) and also speaks out against the wearing of the head-to-foot wrap called the burqa. She believes that wearing the burqa blocks exposure to sunlight, and can cause health problems for women.
As the highest-ranking woman in the interim government of Hamid Karzai, a post she assumed in 2001, she fought an uphill battle to give women's rights more prominence amid the efforts to rebuild the devastated, poverty-stricken country. She described cabinet meetings where her male colleagues practically ignored her and her female colleague, Health Minister Suhail Aeddiqi, by prefacing their comments with, "Brothers, brothers ... ."
Samar has since stepped down as the minister for women, and is currently heading the Human Rights Commission in Afghanistan.
Her work in Pakistan continues, partly under the guidance of her second husband, Rauf Akbeari. They have an adopted daughter, Tamanna, and their son, Ali, is studying in the United States.
Samar was a founder member, in 1977, of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) and is part of an international network, Women Living Under Muslim Law, which has links to 40 countries.
Actor and lecturer George Seremba was sentenced to death by the regime of dictator Milton Obote in Uganda, but miraculously survived a firing squad and lived to tell the tale.
In December 1980, after graduating from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, Seremba returned from a trip abroad to find the Idi Amin dictatorship overthrown and the country in a state of chaos.
On the night of elections on December 10, 1980, Seremba was abducted, tortured and sentenced to death by army Chief of Staff Brigadier Oyite Ojok, the right hand man to newly installed leader Obote. That same night, Seremba was driven to a forest that served as a "killing field", known as Namanve. He was shot numerous times and left for dead.
Seremba was rescued by nearby villagers, who risked their lives to help him. Through an underground organisation, he was given medical treatment and surgery, but was left with a serious arm injury. He fled to Kenya on December 28, where he was granted refugee status in 1981.
In Kenya, he resumed his theatrical activities, directing and acting. In 1984, he migrated to Canada. There he was helped by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Manpower and Migration, which found him the medical assistance necessary to recover flexibility in his left arm. The NGO also put him in contact with theatre groups in Manitoba, Canada. Seremba has since directed and acted in numerous plays. He also stars in television and film productions.
He is a frequent lecturer at universities in Canada and abroad on drama and African literature. He hopes one day to be able to return to Uganda and teach at the university he graduated from.
Despite the hardships he has endured, Seremba says exile has given him something of value, "a more elastic conscience I believe, and to cry out, always, against inhumanity to myself or others in whatever way it rears its ugly head".
In September 1944, Rimvydas Silbajoris was a high school student in Lithuania when news came to his little border town that the Soviet army was advancing for a second time. At that time, he was active in the underground resistance against the Nazis, distributing leaflets and news bulletins.
In the meantime, the Germans proclaimed a general mobilisation and began recruiting Lithuanians for a Lithuanian SS unit to fight in the East. Silbajoris managed to escape forced recruitment by the Nazis, claiming he already belonged to a unit of Lithuanian defence forces.
Heading for eastern Prussia with his brother and several school friends, Silbajoris' group was stopped by German patrols and taken into custody. He was taken to the city of Posen (today Poznan), where he was made to join the German cavalry as an auxiliary, feeding and grooming horses.
At the end of the war, Silbajoris found himself on the eastern front of Austria. He spent a brief time in an American prison camp, and subsequently a displaced persons camp near Augsburg, Germany. He recalls, "They were isolated islands in a German sea, much resented by the natives, and sometimes with reason. For instance, our camp was established by driving out all the Messerschmidt factory workers, for whom the area was developed to begin with."
Silbajoris then moved to the United States, where he taught himself English while washing dishes in a restaurant. He received a scholarship from Antioch College, Yellow Spring, Ohio, and went on to do a doctorate at Columbia University.
He says of his exile experience, "I learned that the civilised world was a great deal larger than my native corner, that, having been driven out of it, it acquired breathless new spaces for learning ... altogether new horizons which I could not have possibly perceived back home in the little seaside town. Exile was also a liberation from petrified old value systems and I could search for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. I was among those who ate the apple and did not regret it, for mortality has its own splendours. Driven from Paradise, I learned what a ghetto it really was."
Throughout his exile, Silbajoris helped maintain Lithuanian culture abroad. He was one of the founders of Santara, a discussion club that advocated dialogue with Lithuania even while it was still under Soviet rule. He co-edited its journal in exile, Metmenys (Outlines).
Today, Silbajoris is Professor Emeritus of Slavic and Eastern European Languages and Literature at Ohio State University. He has written extensively on literary criticism and on Lithuanian and Russian literature.
Tatanka Yotanka, also known as "Sitting Bull", is probably the most famous Indian Chief in American history, yet it is not widely known that he spent four years as a refugee in Canada.
Born in what is now known as South Dakota, Sitting Bull became the political, military and spiritual leader of the Sioux tribe. In 1868, he made peace with the US Army in exchange for a sizeable reservation free of white settlers. In the mid-1870s, however, an influx of gold prospectors and railroad crews outraged the Sioux, who left the reservation and joined the Cheyenne and Arapaho resistance.
In 1876, the US Seventh Cavalry under Custer launched an expedition to punish the resistant Sioux. Soldiers destroyed hundreds of Indian homes, killing many civilians. On June 25 the soldiers reached a Sioux settlement in the valley of the Little Bighorn. All 260 soldiers, including Custer, were ambushed and killed by the Indian forces.
The Sioux victory provoked angry reprisals by the army. Some Sioux leaders surrendered and led their followers back to the reservations. Sitting Bull and a group of his followers fled to Canada.
A US Commission was sent to negotiate their return. According to writer W. Fletcher Johnson, Sitting Bull rejected the Commission's overtures. Johnson's description of the Sioux leader reveals the ambivalence with which the Europeans viewed the Indians: "Silent, stately and impassive, this model aboriginal leader, this scoundrelly medicine man, this rascally foe and treacherous friend, this model, in sooth, of Machiavel's own sort, squatted himself on a buffalo robe next to the wall and took out his pipe and smoked it, and expressed, with his insolent manner, the following sentiment: 'This commission which has come to interview me can go to the devil.'"
The British Government gave Sitting Bull and his people refuge and protection in Canada, but they received no supplies and were forced to stay in a small area. The land was barren, game was scarce, and the refugees suffered without food and clothing. Many died of starvation. Sitting Bull remained in Canada for the next four years.
In 1881, he and 148 of his people returned to the US and were taken prisoner. After serving two years in prison, he was allowed to return to a reservation. A living legend by this time, he raised badly needed funds by performing in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, a circus act.
In 1890, reservation police tried to arrest him for supporting the Ghost Dance movement. This was a religious revival which taught that the Native Americans would be delivered from white oppression, that the whites would be destroyed and that the Buffalo - and the old way of life - would return. In the shootout that followed, he was killed by a policeman.