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.
Writer Mehmed Uzun has devoted his life to the study of Kurdish, a language once officially banned in Turkey despite it being widely spoken and used in traditional songs and poetry.
Uzun was born in 1953 in south-eastern Turkey, in a predominantly Kurdish area. The Kurds are divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, but have their own ethnic and cultural identity. From an early age, Uzun developed a love for rural Kurdish life, travelling with his sheep trader father to check on flocks, chat with villagers and listen to Kurdish ballads sung by the shepherds.
In 1972, at the age of 17, Uzun was arrested and taken to the military prison in Diyarbakir, the regional capital, on charges of supporting separatism - Kurdish independence from Turkey. In prison, he met a heady mix of Kurdish characters that constituted what he calls his university. "They taught me to love Kurdish," he recalled.
Released in an amnesty, Uzun was arrested again, just half an hour after the publication of one of his articles in a Turkish-Kurdish magazine, in which he pleaded to save the Kurdish language. Released pending trial, he decided to flee to Syria, crossing the border through a minefield. He stayed in Damascus for a year before travelling to Sweden, where he acquired refugee status in 1977.
Uzun's love for the Kurdish language led him to document and record it, collecting vocabulary wherever he could. In 1979, he visited an Iraqi Kurdish leader in a rebel-held mountain valley of Iraq, spending evenings in a tent, listening to Kurdish poets and storytellers. In 2000, he entered a Turkish army base in disguise to carry out research on a mediaeval Kurdish prince - he wanted to visit the ruins of the prince's castle, today the site of the army base.
In exile, Uzun worked to create a modern literary structure for Kurdish, which was technically banned in Turkey from 1920 to 1990. He flew a shepherd to Stockholm to pick his brains for entries for a new Kurdish dictionary. In fact, he led an editorial board of intellectuals who would pay for Kurds to fly to Europe to brief them on obscure vocabulary. He taught himself the Arabic script in order to read classical Kurdish poems of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Uzun wrote the first modern Kurdish novel in Turkey, "Tu" (You, 1985) and edited the first anthology of Kurdish literature, which includes more than 100 writers and poets from the whole Kurdish region. He has written six novels in Kurdish. His other works include the elegy, "Mirina Egideki" ("Death of the Brave", 1993); "Nar Cicekleri" ("Pomegranate Blossoms", 1996), a collection of essays; and "Dangbejlerim" ("My Troubadours", 1998).
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Uzun attributes the lack of humour in his novels partly to "survivor's guilt". Yet he did not escape unscathed - in 1979, gunmen shot down his cousin as he held his newborn daughter in his arms. In 1992, Musa Anter, the man who had taught Uzun Kurdish in prison and the author of an early Kurdish-Turkish dictionary, was assassinated. Uzun has also lost two younger cousins in a revolt.
In January 2000, Uzun was allowed to visit Turkey after 23 years of exile. More than 6,000 people greeted him in the city hall of Diyarbakir for a conference on Kurdish language, literature and identity, a gathering that would have been unthinkable only a few years before. His novels have begun to acquire popularity, one becoming a Turkish best-seller, although seven of his books were again banned for a brief time in 2000.
"The Sound of Music" is one of the most classic musicals and popular movies of all time. The story of Maria, the Baron and their singing children has become part of everyone's family memories. The story was inspired by the experiences of Maria von Trapp and her book, "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers", published in 1949.
Maria Agusta Kutschera was born on January 26, 1905, on a train en route to Vienna. Raised as a Socialist and an atheist, her beliefs were changed after a meeting with a Jesuit priest visiting her college. After entering a convent with the intention of becoming a nun, she was sent to the home of retired naval captain Georg von Trapp to care for his daughter, who was bedridden with rheumatic fever. On November 26, 1927 she married the Captain and became stepmother to his nine children.
The Trapp family were forced to leave their home in 1938 to escape Hitler's regime. Maria, then pregnant with the Baron's 10th child, Johannes, climbed over the Austrian Alps and into Italy with the whole family.
She has written: "Overnight we had become really poor; we had become refugees. A refugee not only has no country, he also has no rights. He is a displaced person. At times he feels like a parcel which has been mailed and is moved from place to place."
The story was turned into a successful Broadway musical with music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The movie, "The Sound of Music", directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, was released in 1965.
The Trapp family made its new living by singing and touring. They settled in Stowe, Vermont in 1939. The family purchased an old farmhouse on 600 acres in Stowe, and continued touring the world for another 15 years. They established the Trapp Family Music Camp in 1947, and later the Trapp Family Lodge.
After performing and touring with the Trapp Family Singers, Maria and three of her children, Maria, Rosemarie and Johannes, went to the South Pacific to do missionary work. They went to New Guinea and travelled through the islands. Maria returned to the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont, and wrote her personal memoir, "Maria: My Own Story", in 1972. She continued to be part of the Trapp Family Lodge's operations until her death in 1987. The youngest of her sons, Johannes, is currently the president of the Trapp Family Lodge.
Visit the Trapp Family's Website: www.trappfamily.com.
Koigi wa Wamwere is one of Kenya's leading writers and human rights activists. Despite being subjected to repeated intimidation and 13 years of imprisonment for pro-democracy "crimes", he continues to speak out against human rights abuses in Kenya.
Wa Wamwere became interested in politics when he was studying hotel and catering management at Cornell University in New York. During his time in the United States, he campaigned for an end to the Portuguese presence in Angola and Mozambique, and became involved in the civil rights movement. After graduating, he returned to Kenya and began working as a freelance journalist.
Wa Wamwere was jailed for the first time in 1975 for criticising the government of Kenya's first post-independence president, Jomo Kenyatta. He was released after Kenyatta's death in 1978. The following year, he became a Member of Parliament, a position he held for three years. In 1982, he was sentenced to two years in prison for accusing Kenyatta's successor, Daniel arap Moi, of corruption and ethnic discrimination, practices that he said served to destabilise political opponents and thus prevent multiparty democracy.
On his release from prison in 1984, wa Wamwere received several death threats, and was granted political asylum in Uganda. However, friends from the Kenyan embassy in Uganda warned him that Kenyan agents posed a renewed threat to his life, so wa Wamwere accepted an offer of refuge in Norway.
From there, he continued his campaign for international recognition of his country's political plight. Wa Wamwere compares the situation of a refugee to that of being chased from door to door by a ferocious lion: "Norway opened the door for me, and I will always be grateful for that. Not everyone would risk opening a door for someone running away from a wild beast."
Wa Wamwere left Norway in 1990 and landed back in a Kenyan jail. After being released briefly in 1993, he was detained again for alleged robbery and soon afterwards was charged with treason, a crime that carries a mandatory death penalty in Kenya.
During this term of imprisonment, wa Wamwere wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about Kenya's struggle for democracy, titled "A Dream of Freedom". This work was intended to represent his last testament and a final political act in the event that the death penalty was carried out by President Moi's regime. But in 1995, the sentence was lessened to a four-year jail term and in December 1996, wa Wamwere was released on bail for medical treatment. His reduced sentence and eventual release were due largely to the ongoing efforts of the Kenyan Human Rights Initiative of Cornell University and to increased international pressure.
In 1997, wa Wamwere stood as a presidential candidate for the Kenda party (Kenya Democratic Alliance), though he risked being disqualified as he was still considered a convict at the time. He and anthropologist Richard Leakey are co-founders of the opposition movement, Safina. In 1998, he helped launch the Digital Freedom Network, a website devoted to censored material.
He is currently working as a columnist for a Norwegian newspaper and is writing a novel on racism in Norway and Europe, titled "The Tears of the Heart".
Czech writer Franz Werfel brought extraordinary stories to the world's attention, such as his biography of a modern-day saint, "The Song of Bernadette", and his fictional account of the epic resistance of a group of Armenians in World War I, "The 40 Days of Musa Dagh".
Werfel was born in Prague in 1880, the son of a wealthy Jewish glove manufacturer. He was educated by priests, although he received religious instruction from a rabbi. In Prague, Werfel kept company with writers like Max Brod, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke and actor Ernst Deutsch.
He was sent to Hamburg by his father to work as a shipping clerk, but continued to write poetry. In 1911, he published his first volume of poems, "Der Weltfreund" ("The Friend of the World"). Back in Prague for a year's military service, Werfel began working at Kurt Wolff's publishing house in Leipzig, editing its avant-garde literature series.
When war broke out in 1914, Werfel managed to get himself transferred to the Military Press Bureau in Vienna. By this time, he had published a number of plays, one of which was staged by the illustrious Max Reinhardt in 1920. He met Alma Mahler (then married to renowned architect Walter Gropius), whom he later married. It was apparently her influence that brought Werfel to write novels, living in the culturally vibrant atmosphere of Vienna. When his play, "Eternal Road", was staged in New York by Reinhardt (with music by Kurt Weill), Werfel emerged as the most popular German writer of his day.
With the rise of Nazism, the Werfels first lived in exile in France and Switzerland. When Hitler invaded France, they were living in a Paris hotel. Attempting to escape via Spain, they lost all their belongings. They reached the southern French town of Lourdes, hoping to get safe conduct papers for a return to Marseilles and, from there, visas for travel to the United States. It was in Lourdes that Werfel met Bernadette Soubirous, the 14-year-old daughter of a miller who had experienced visions of the Virgin Mary. He promised her that if he made it to the United States, he would write a book in her honour.
In October 1940, with the help of American journalist Varian Fry, the Werfels obtained a visa that took them from Lisbon to New York and then to Southern California, where a sizeable colony of German expatriate artists worked in film, theatre and literature.
Werfel was able to supplement their income with the international royalties from his work. As the author of the acclaimed historical novel, "Die 40 Tage des Musa Dagh" ("The Forty Days of Musa Dagh", 1933), he had already been on the best-seller list in 1934. The book tells the heroic story of a few thousand Armenians trapped by the Turks on a mountain in Southern Anatolia during World War I, and their subsequent rescue by the French navy. The novel has become an Armenian epic.
"Das Lied von Bernadette" ("The Song of Bernadette", 1941) was bought by 20th Century Fox for $125,000, then a hefty price for a movie property. It had its gala Hollywood premier in 1943. Nearly a million copies of the novel had been sold by then, 50,000 of them to the US armed forces. Norman Rockwell's portrait of Jennifer Jones as Saint Bernadette (she won the Oscar for her role) became an American icon.
Werfel died in his villa in Beverly Hills on August 26, 1945 as he completed "Stern der Ungeborene" ("Star of the Unborn") and worked on turning his French exile novel, "Der Veruntreute Himmel" ("Heaven's Embezzlement", 1939) into a play. Many Armenians still visit the grave of the Werfels, who were buried in Vienna.
Niborom Young was a French teacher in Phnom Penh who was offered a scholarship to go to New Zealand to improve her English. In 1975, a few months after her arrival, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia, persecuting all intellectuals, and she was granted refugee status. Since then, she has devoted much of her life to refugee issues.
Young had a degree in English Literature, but wanted to specialise further. Her mother, foreseeing the disaster that would soon engulf the country, urged her to take up a scholarship. All the students who had left for New Zealand with Young were granted political asylum, since, as she puts it, "The country had closed down: no one could go back, nor could anyone come out".
In the 1980s, as the flow of refugees from Cambodia increased, Young volunteered to help in the Khao-i-Dang refugee camp on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. There she hoped also to acquire news of her family. She discovered that at least one brother had not survived. Having been a schoolteacher, he was among one of the first groups targeted by the Khmer Rouge in their four-year programme of evacuations, forced labour and executions. Two younger brothers were missing, feared dead. For three months, Young worked in camps with different agencies, assisting refugees in any way she could.
Today, she continues her work with refugees in New Zealand. She not only teaches English as a second language, but also helps refugees adjust to the new culture, environment and way of life. She also helps them share their experiences as a healing process and conducts courses for women.
At the Refugee as Survivors Centre, she provides counselling for refugees with post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, she gives talks to different agencies and institutions on cross-cultural awareness. Trained as a professional interpreter, Young works for refugees in courts, hospitals, schools and other departments. She helps train interpreters from different ethnic groups for the Wellington Community Interpreting Service. And she also serves as patron of the Refugee Family Reunification Trust.
In 1993, to participate in the celebration of Women's Suffrage Year, Young recorded an oral history project, featuring the testimonies of 10 Cambodian refugee women, detailing the journey from their war-torn homeland to New Zealand. The tapes are now stored at New Zealand National Archives and the Ministry of Women's Affairs.
Recently Young created and produced a video documentary on Goh Kyol, a common healing practice in Southeast Asian communities, known as coining, or "rubbing the wind". This home remedy, which has caused some controversy, is used for all sorts of symptoms such as headache, insomnia, flu, aches and pains.
Young was recognised for her work for refugees with the presentation of a City of Wellington Civic Award in 1995, followed by a Queen's Service Medal on June 2, 1997.
Clara Zetkin is largely remembered for establishing March 8 as International Women's Day. She was a key leader of the German Communist movement and alongside Rosa Luxemburg, championed a humanistic vision of Socialism.
Born Clara Eissner to parents who were believers in the ideals of the French Revolution, she became more and more interested in politics as she studied at the Steyber Teacher Training Institute for Women in Leipzig.
Inspired by lectures given by Wilhelm Liebknecht, the founder of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (German Social Democratic Party), she became a committed Socialist in 1878. Though women were legally prohibited from joining political parties, she established contacts with the SPD in 1881. When German chancellor Otto von Bismarck outlawed the party entirely, she began her long career of underground work for SPD.
She met a Russian exile, Ossip Zetkin, a woodworker living in Leipzig. When he was forced to flee because of the government ban on Socialists, she joined him in exile in Paris in 1882. Though they never married, she took his name and had two children with him. She spent most of the 1880s abroad, first in Switzerland, then France, struggling against grinding poverty, but continuing to agitate, write and distribute propaganda.
In 1886, she returned to Germany with her children and began delivering an estimated 300 speeches a year at secret meetings. The theoretical underpinning for her crusade on behalf of women workers was provided by her friend, Friedrich Engels, who argued in "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State" that the oppression of women and the existence of private property went hand in hand.
Clara Zetkin returned to Paris in 1889 to care for Ossip, who was dying of tuberculosis. After Bismarck's dismissal, she returned to Germany. Living in Stuttgart, she continued her work in the international women's movement as the founding editor of Die Gleichheit (Equality). By 1914, circulation had reached the 125,000 mark, and she was able to reach even more readers with her scholarly History of the Proletarian Women's Liberation Movement.
From the streets, on the podium, or with the pen, Zetkin was at the forefront of the growing labour movement. The height of her success came with the First International Socialist Women's Conference in Stuttgart in 1907, which she co-founded with Rosa Luxemburg. The Second International Conference, held in Denmark, voted to establish International Women's Day.
By the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, growing factionalism began to splinter the party. Luxemburg and Zetkin rallied behind Karl Liebknecht and his extremely unpopular position of pacifism. In 1915, Zetkin and Luxemburg organised a Socialist women's peace conference in Bern, Switzerland. The message was clear. "The workers have nothing to gain from this war, but they stand to lose everything that is dear to them," Zetkin told delegates. After the conference, she was arrested and held for four months in Karlsruhe, Germany.
With the success of the Bolshevik revolution and the creation of the first Socialist state in 1917, Zetkin wrote, "This is the dawn of a new era. Mankind is faced with a fresh start." She made Russia her adopted country after 1917. She worked doggedly during this period for the Communist International (Comintern), the radical Spartakusbund, which she co-founded in 1916, and for the German Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands).
Liebknecht and Luxemburg were arrested and killed in 1919 as part of a brutal crackdown on the Spartacus group. Zetkin served as a leader of the German Communist Party until her death. One of her last speeches, to the German Reichstag in 1932, called for a United Front to defeat Nazism. With the rise of the Nazis, Zetkin fled Germany in 1932 and sought refuge in the Soviet Union. She died near Moscow on July 20, 1933.