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Prominent Refugees

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© Neil Hillman

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.

Displaying 41 - 50 of 136 profiles
Grigoris Farakos
Profession:
Member of Parliament, Writer
Country of Origin:
Greece
Country of Asylum:
Romania
Country of Transit:
Russian Federation (Russia, Soviet Union)
Date of birth:
11 January 1923

Grigoris Farakos rose from being a resistance fighter to the leader of the Greek Communist party in a struggle that included 20 years of exile.

Farakos graduated from the National Technical University of Athens, where he studied mechanical engineering. During World War II and the German occupation of Greece, he took part in the National Resistance Movement. But after liberation, the new Greek government persecuted the National Resistance Movement and its central unit, the Greek Communist Party, of which Farakos was a member. In 1946, he was arrested and confined to the island of Ikaria, but he managed to escape and join the underground resistance in Athens.

When civil war broke out, Farakos joined the Greek Democratic Party. In 1948, he was severely injured in fighting and transferred to Hungary for medical treatment. In the meantime, the Greek government deprived him of his nationality and Farakos became a refugee. He moved to Romania, where he continued his political activities in exile. In 1956, he studied at the School of Social and Political Science in Moscow. After the Colonels' coup in Greece, Farakos re-entered the country illegally to fight against the regime. He was arrested and a military court sentenced him to life imprisonment.

After the fall of the dictatorship, Farakos was released and worked for 13 years as director of the daily newspaper, Rizospastis. From 1974 to 1993, he was a Member of Parliament for Athens. He rejoined the Greek Communist party in 1989 and was elected Secretary General of its Central Committee.

In 1991, he left the party, frustrated that he was unable to bring about the reforms he wanted. But he remains active in left-wing politics. He is currently Vice-President of the Documentation and Research Centre, which focuses on contemporary social history. A contributor to magazines and newspapers, Farakos has also published numerous books, including "A Century of Capital", "Issues of State" and "Monopoly Capitalism in Greece".

Lisa Fittko
Lisa Fittko
Profession:
Anti-Nazi Activist
Country of Origin:
Hungary
Country of Asylum:
France
Country of Transit:
Cuba; United States
Date of birth:
23 August 1909

Lisa Fittko began her own personal anti-Fascist protest by refusing to give the stiff-armed Hitler salute at a torchlight procession. She later joined the European resistance movement and helped hundreds of refugees escape from occupied territory.

Born Lisa Ekstein, in Ungvar, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, she remembers being threatened at a parade in Berlin in 1933. In her autobiographical book, "Solidarity and Treason: Resistance and Exile", she describes the incident: "Not that I intended a protest action, because that would have been stupid. I was just inexperienced." She became increasingly involved in resistance activities and felt threatened by her colleagues at the bank where she worked, so she quit her job and shortly afterwards, went underground.

Fleeing to Czechoslovakia, she met and eventually married another resistance activist, Hans Fittko. Together they published and distributed anti-Nazi literature and organised escape routes for refugees. However, he was eventually declared as persona non grata and expelled by the Czech government, and after several years of living in Switzerland and Holland, the couple went to France.

In the spring of 1940, Lisa Fittko and her husband played a major role in a courageous rescue mission conceived by American journalist Varian Fry to save nearly 2,000 anti-Nazi refugees by getting them out of occupied France. In her first autobiographical work, "Escape Through the Pyrenees", she describes how she and her husband rescued hundreds of people during a seven-month period. They escorted refugees from the French border through the mountains to Spain. Others were smuggled out on trains, with the co-operation of a French railroad engineer. The refugees then fled via Lisbon to the Americas. Among the many Fittko accompanied was German essayist Walter Benjamin.

After spending some time in Cuba, the Fittkos moved to Chicago. In 1986, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by the government of the Federal Republic of Germany for her work in the wartime resistance.

Lisa Fittko died on 12 March 2005 in Chicago. She was 95.

Milos Forman
Milos Forman
Profession:
Film Director
Country of Origin:
Czech Republic
Country of Asylum:
United States of America
Date of birth:
18 February 1932

Oscar-winning director Milos Forman, famous for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus", fled Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring of 1968, at a time when he was making his first Hollywood movie.

His father, a Jewish teacher who was in the underground movement, and his mother, a Protestant, died during World War II in Nazi concentration camps. Orphaned at the age of 10, Forman went to live with his uncle. In Prague, he attended the University Film Institute, married twice and had two sons. With the temporary relaxation of censorship under the influence of Soviet President Nikita Kruschev, Forman became part of what was known as the Czech New Wave and established himself as an influential filmmaker.

He received international acclaim for "Loves of a Blonde" (1965) and "The Fireman's Ball" (1967), which was banned in Communist Czechoslovakia for 20 years for "making fun of the common man". At first, the authorities deliberately screened "The Fireman's Ball" in the small town where it was shot, hoping it would be condemned by the fire-fighters Forman was accused of ridiculing. Yet, according to the director, the firemen and locals loved it and applauded. The film was later banned.

At the time of the Soviet invasion, which put an end to the Prague Spring, Forman decided to remain in the United States, where he was directing his first Hollywood film, "Taking Off". "I wanted to go back, but the country was occupied by the Russians," he says. "I realised if I went back, I would not be able to do any work. I also did not want to go home as a loser. So I stayed." His career took off, and in 1975 his movie, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", won five Oscars.

Exile for Forman also meant giving up his family, although he managed to obtain government permission in 1976 for his sons to come to attend the Academy Award ceremonies. He acquired American citizenship in 1977. In 1984 he was allowed to return to Czechoslovakia to shoot "Amadeus", a film that won nine Oscars. Other major films include "Hair" (1979) and "Ragtime" (1981) and, more recently, "The People Versus Larry Flynt" and "Man on the Moon".

Many of Forman's films have anti-establishment themes, sometimes about conflict between the generations, and often about censorship. "[Pornographer] Larry Flynt fighting for the First Amendment and Mozart fighting his Emperor when the Emperor says, 'Too many notes, cut a few and it will be perfect.' - that's censorship too," says Forman. "I guess my films are a subconscious response to the society I grew up in."

Forman served on the Director's Guild of America's National Board from 1982-83, and on the Guild's President Committee, which campaigned against the colourisation of black-and-white films and for the rights of filmmakers. He once commented with characteristic humour that at least in a totalitarian regime they only ban films; once the regime falls, you can see the original version.

Max Frankel
Max Frankel
Profession:
Journalist
Country of Origin:
Germany
Country of Asylum:
United States of America
Date of birth:
1930

From Jewish outsider in Nazi Germany to American insider reporting on Washington's darkest secrets, Max Frankel, in his own words, gained a "spectacular perspective" on his era.

Frankel's life, taking him from a small, Nazi-dominated village in Germany to the helm of The New York Times, is an extraordinary success story. In his memoirs, he describes it as "the story of a fugitive, beginning with the desperate pursuit of permits and passports to get our family pass the borders of hate and barriers of indifference that defined our times", and as "a search for identity as well as safety, a yearning to belong but also to keep on running, to make a career of my rovings, my outsiderhood".

Frankel was born in 1930 in Weissenfels near Leipzig, the son of Polish Jewish shopkeepers. The boy, who was only three years old when Hitler came to power in 1933, reflects, "I could have become a good little Nazi in his army. I loved the parades." But as a Jew, he was "ineligible for the Aryan race". The Frankel family were among the first Jews of Polish descent to be rounded up, expelled from Germany and deported to Poland in 1938.

Poland, however, had already stripped its Jewish émigrés of their citizenship and refused to take them in. Frankel's mother went on a single-minded but seemingly endless mission to obtain visas. His father fled eastward to the Soviet Union and disappeared there for seven years, suffering under Soviet persecution. Eventually, mother and son were able to obtain papers and passage to the United States, but they were not reunited with Frankel's father until after the war in 1946.

With a driving ambition to assimilate and to shed his identity as a German-Jewish refugee, Frankel attended Columbia College. As a student, he quickly found his life's calling. He edited the student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, and was an eager campus correspondent for The New York Times.

Frankel would go on to cover the Hungarian uprising, Kruschev's Moscow, and Castro's Havana for the Times. He became Washington correspondent during the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon years and finally rose to the rank of Washington bureau chief. In 1971, he played a central part in the revelations surrounding the Pentagon Papers, the publication of the Defense Department's secret study of the Viet Nam War. This was probably his crowning moment as a correspondent, but he went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Nixon's visit to China in 1973.

In 1976, Frankel became the editor of The New York Times' leader page, a step towards managing "the world's greatest newspaper" as its executive editor from 1986-1994. The outsider had become the insider: "I escaped into America, and beyond it. The idea of America became my proud passport. A passion to conform made me a patriot. The discovery of words turned me into a sceptic. And the journalist's press pass sent me vaulting across borders to gain a spectacular perspective on our era."

Sonia Pressman Fuentes
Sonia Pressman Fuentes
Profession:
author, speaker, feminist leader and lawyer
Country of Origin:
Germany
Country of Asylum:
United States of America
Date of birth:
30 May 1928


"A lawyer-feminist's story" is how Sonia Pressman Fuentes describes her life. She served as the first female attorney in the General Counsel's office at the United States' Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where she drafted some of the body's landmark decisions.


Fuentes was a founder of the National Organization for Women and Federally Employed Women, a charter member of Veteran Feminists of America, and the longest-serving board member of the National Woman's Party.


A Jewish émigré, born in 1928 in Berlin, Fuentes and her family left Germany in 1933 to escape the Nazis. They arrived in the United States by boat in 1934. More than 40 years later she returned to Germany to lecture - on behalf of the US Information Agency - as a specialist in women's rights.


Fuentes graduated from Cornell University in 1950 and came top of her class at the University of Miami School of Law in 1957. She worked as a lawyer and executive for various agencies of the federal government and multinational corporations.


Since 1993, she has pursued a career as a writer and public speaker, publishing her memoir, "Eat First - You Don't Know What They'll Give You," in 1999. The book, which is the basis for a forthcoming play, was required reading for courses at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labour Relations and at American University.


Fuentes is one of 74 Jewish women who made significant contributions to the women's rights movement in the United States, included in an online exhibit of the Jewish Women's Archive called "Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution."


In 1999, Fuentes received the Women at Work Award given by the organisation, Wider Opportunities for Women. The following year she was one of five women inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.


Last year, she was a recipient of the Immigrant Achievement Award given by the American Immigration Law Foundation. Fuentes was also honoured by the Washington-based National Research Centre for Women and Families, which named her and nine other female activists as foremothers of the women's movement. She is included in the book, "Feminists who changed America, 1963-1975," which was published in September 2006.

Gao Xingjian
Gao Xingjian
Profession:
Writer, Painter
Country of Origin:
China
Country of Asylum:
France
Date of birth:
4 January 1940

Nobel prize-winning writer and artist Gao Xingjian resigned from the Chinese Communist Party after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when the army crushed student protests. He was already in exile, in France, as the authorities were unhappy with the Western influences in his work.

Gao was born in 1940 in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi. He first took an interest in western culture through his mother's books. Before the revolution, she was a member of the YMCA in Nanjing and her bookshelves were full of translated versions of European and American classics. Gao went to the local school and then to Beijing, where he completed his studies in French.

He began writing in the early 1960s, but the crackdown of the Cultural Revolution forced him to burn a suitcase full of novels, plays and articles, for fear of imprisonment. It was his own wife who denounced his writing to the authorities.

In 1979, three years after Chinese leader Mao Zedong's death, Gao was allowed to publish again. In 1983, he was caught in a crusade against what was termed as "spiritual pollution", a campaign against any foreign influences in the arts. An essay on aesthetics, in which he challenged the doctrine of social realism and discussed the legacy of Chairman Mao, attracted the attention of the authorities. Despite this, he became a prominent literary figure in post-Maoist China. Many of his plays, inspired by Brecht, Artaud and Beckett, were staged in local theatres. His "Alarm Signal" (1982) was one of the first experimental plays performed in Beijing in years.

In 1985, Gao travelled abroad with a group of writers. Two years later, blacklisted as an author, he was again allowed to leave the country as a painter. He decided to ask for political asylum in Paris. After the Tiananmen Square massacre that ended the pro-democracy protests of 1989, he resigned from the Communist Party. He published "Fugitives", a love story that unfolds against the backdrop of the events in Tiananmen Square. Its publication caused him to be declared persona non grata in his absence. In China, his apartment was seized and his books banned.

In exile, he completed "Soul Mountain", begun in 1987 as he left Beijing and travelled along the Yangtze River for 10 months. It recounts the wanderings of an ethnologist among the minorities of China.

Another novel, "One Man's Bible", is a bitter semi-autobiographical account of China's Cultural Revolution. In 2000, Gao won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Chinese writer to receive the award. The state-controlled Chinese media made no comment.

Gao acquired French citizenship in 1998 and now lives in a suburb of Paris, where he makes a living from the sale of his paintings and still manages to write up to 16 hours a day.

Sam Gejdenson
Sam Gejdenson
Profession:
Politician
Country of Origin:
Germany
Country of Asylum:
United States of America
Date of birth:
1948

Congressman Sam Gejdenson was the first child of Holocaust survivors to be elected to the US House of Representatives.

At the end of World War II, Gejdenson's parents were sent to a displaced persons camp in Eschwege, Germany, which was administered by the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Gejdenson was born in that camp in May 1948, and migrated with his family to the United States when he was 18 months old.

He grew up in Bozrah, Connecticut on his family's dairy farm, and went on to obtain a degree from the University of Connecticut. Between 1974 and 1978 he served two terms in the Connecticut House of Representatives, and he has represented the Second District of Connecticut in the US House of Representatives since 1981.

A member of the House International Relations Committee since 1981, he serves as the Ranking Democrat on the panel in the 106th Congress (1999-2000), where he has played an active role on trade, human rights and refugee issues.

Gejdenson is the author of several laws, including the Jobs Through Exports Act and the Jobs Through Trade Expansion Act. He has also worked on overhauling the US campaign finance and pension systems, and is known as an advocate for children, senior citizens and working families.

Among his other goals are the enhancement of retirement security, the creation of jobs, the protection of the environment and the protection of refugees.

Yuri Gevorgian (Yuroz)
Yuri Gevorgian (Yuroz)
Profession:
Artist
Country of Origin:
Armenia
Country of Asylum:
United States of America
Date of birth:
30 March 1956

While a university student in Armenia, artist Yuri Gevorgian saw many of his friends, including human rights activist Shirak Gunushian, vanish into police custody, bound for Soviet prison camps. Soon his own ID was confiscated, and he was forced to accept "home prison" status, which meant that if he was caught more than one mile away from his legal residence, he would get a lengthy prison sentence.

Hounded because of his political views, Gevorgian turned to the only work he could find, designing women's fashion. He met a woman named Rose, and by combining their names, they created the label Yuroz. The name stuck, and Gevorgian has kept it throughout his career.

After escaping to the United States, Yuroz got a job building models for an architectural firm by day and slept on the office couch by night. Soon he saved enough money to rent his own studio in Hollywood, where he created his landmark "Hollywood Boulevard" series, a gallery of portraits of street people.

Yuroz is a self-taught artist, sculptor and ceramist. His techniques have elicited interest from artists worldwide. He creates from a black surface, rather than a white or otherwise "blank" one. He calls his use of black canvas Stygianism, after the River Styx in Greek mythology. Because he first imagines his images in the darkness of his mind's eye, Yuroz chooses the black canvas so that his depictions are more faithful to his original vision.

The artist has donated the proceeds from a variety of originals and limited editions to foundations for the homeless and other worthy causes, including Comic Relief, the Grammy Awards, the Suzuki Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, and the "Film Festival of Festivals" at Cinevegas. For UNHCR's 50th anniversary in 2000, his work was chosen for a set of commemorative postage stamps. He has his own web site at www.yurozart.com.

Jerzy Giedroyc
Jerzy Giedroyc
Profession:
Editor
Country of Origin:
Belarus
Country of Asylum:
France
Country of Transit:
Poland; Russian Federation
Date of birth:
27 July 1906
Died:
14 September 2000

Jerzy Giedroyc was born in Minsk, an area where, in his words, "questions of identity are better answered by three-volume novels than a passport". Descended from an aristocratic family of Lithuanian origin that had embraced both Russian and Polish culture, Giedroyc became instrumental in the fall of Communism in Poland.

While studying law and history at the University of Warsaw, he was president of the student organisation, Patria. From 1929 to 1930, he served as spokesman and parliamentary representative at the Ministry of Agriculture. He became editor-in-chief of The Academic Daily, The Young Rebels and later Polityka.

With the outbreak of World War II, he escaped to Romania, where he served as personal secretary to the Polish ambassador before joining the British army and leaving for Palestine. As a soldier in the Polish brigade, he participated in the campaigns in Libya and the battle of Tobruk.

In 1946 Rome, while still serving as press and propaganda attaché in the Second Polish Army Corps, Giedroyc founded a publishing house, the Literary Institute. With a loan from the Soldiers' Fund, he financed the purchase of a small printing press and within a year managed to publish 35 books and the first issue of Kultura magazine (August 1947).

He and two compatriots, Zofia and Zygmunt Hertz, moved to Paris, where they set up their publishing house in the Maison Lafitte, a "filthy storage room with no heating, no water, no light and totally empty". It was run like a kibbutz, with its staff and director living on a minimum salary.

In a world that was polarised by the Cold War, Kultura was an island of non-conformity. It acted as an important reference point for Polish exiles advocating a return to democracy in their homeland. Surviving on shoestring funding, the journal greatly influenced the Polish uprisings in 1956, 1970 and 1980. Nobel-Prize winning author and contributor to Kultura Czeslaw Milosz recalled, "It was even said sometimes that its founder Giedroyc had overthrown communism in Poland." The review and the books that it began publishing were smuggled in backpacks across the border into Poland.

Exile was seen as a normal form of national belonging by the Kultura group, and they never asked for French citizenship. Instead a request was made to the French authorities that it be specified on their identity papers that they were "Polish refugees" and not just "refugees."

In 1999, both the President of Lithuania and the President of Poland visited Maison Lafitte in Paris. "Everyday people come from Poland and ask what one should do, what he thinks," said Giedroyc's former colleague, Zofia Hertz. Today Kultura is free to publish its books in Poland, while the review remains in Paris even though Giedroyc himself died on September 14, 2000.

Gilberto Gil
Gilberto Gil
Profession:
Musician
Country of Origin:
Brazil
Country of Asylum:
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Date of birth:
26 June 1942

Musician Gilberto Gil drew inspiration from the rhythms and sounds of native Brazilian styles, and his exile in Europe brought Brazilian music to a wider audience that was beginning to discover what later became known as World Music.

Gil was born in the city of Salvador in the northern state of Bahia. The son of a doctor and a schoolteacher, he grew up in the arid, poverty-stricken town of Ituau. Enchanted by the duets of guitarists (known as violeiros) and the accordion players he heard at the local market, as well as the popular bossa nova music on the radio, his interest in music started to grow. At high school, he enrolled in an accordion academy.

By the end of the 1950s, he had started playing with a group called Los Desafinados (The Out of Tune). When he heard singer and guitarist João Gilberto for the first time, he was so impressed him that he bought himself a guitar and learned the bossa nova style. In the early 1960s, when he started studying business administration at Bahia University, he was already composing, writing jingles for advertisements and performing occasionally on television.

In 1964, he appeared on the show, Nos Por Exemplo, together with Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Tom Ze. The following year, a famous singer, Elis Regina, recorded one of his songs, "Louvanao", which was a major breakthrough for Gil's career.

Gil became one of the leaders of Tropicalia, a cultural and musical movement mixing native Brazilian styles with rock and folk instruments that sparked a renaissance in all aspects of the arts in Brazil. The Tropicalia movement was seen as a threat by the military dictatorship, and in 1968 both Gil and Veloso were arrested, accused of having disrespected the national anthem and the Brazilian flag. They were released two months later, but were banned from appearing in public. They decided to leave Brazil and went into exile in London, but only after giving two farewell concerts in Salvador.

For Gil, his three years of exile turned out to be a positive experience. He improved his guitar technique and won a wider audience. He returned to his home country in 1972 as a star.

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