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.
Nobel-Prize winner Nadine Gordimer has been feted the world over for her literary prowess and the vivid way her novels brought home the shocking realities of South Africa during the apartheid era.
Gordimer was born in a small mining town in the Transvaal to a Jewish immigrant father from Lithuania and an English mother. She attended a convent school and went on to study at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. When she was withdrawn from school and dance classes due to a minor heart condition at the age of 10, the local library became her second home.
She describes the importance of this time to her development as a writer: "In the small South African gold-mining town where I was growing up, I was evermore the mongrel (although I could scarcely have been described as a Great Dane) in whom the accepted characteristics of the townspeople could not be traced. I was the Gypsy, tinkering with words second-hand, mending my own efforts at writing by learning from what I read, for my school was the local library. Proust, Chekhov and Dostoevsky, to name only a few to whom I owe my existence as a writer, were my professors. In that period of my life, yes, I was a living proof of the theory that books are made out of other books . . . But I did not remain so for long, nor do I believe any potential writer could."
Gordimer started writing at the age of nine, and her stories began appearing in magazines when she was 15. Her first collection of short stories, "Face to Face", was published in 1949 and her first novel, "The Lying Days", in 1953.
In 1976, more than 15,000 black schoolchildren assembled in Soweto to peacefully protest against the enforced use of the Afrikaans language, only to be brutally put down by the South African police. Gordimer was shocked by the conditions the black community had to endure and by the response of the authorities. Three years later, she voiced her reaction to the incident in a novel, "Burger's Daughter".
Astute observations of personal and political life have taught Gordimer that the two greatest drives in people's lives are sex and politics. Most of her novels explore these themes: "I think my ideas about sexual emotions and sexuality certainly came from imaginative literature. I began to write, looking for the explanation for life. I continue to write out of my sense of the mystery of life, exploring it through my characters."
Gordimer spent several years in self-imposed exile, living mainly in Britain and the United States. In 1961, she became a Ford Foundation Visiting Professor at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Washington D.C. She has lectured and taught creative writing at Harvard, Princeton and Northwestern universities. In 1984, she was a writer in residence at the American Academy in Rome.
Her writing has been recognised with top literary honours, including the UK's Booker Prize, France's Grand Aigle d'Or, South Africa's CNA prize and the American Commonwealth, Bennett and Modern Language Association awards. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. She declined an honorary doctorate in South Africa.
Gordimer now lives in South Africa with her husband. She and her son recently collaborated on a documentary film that compared post-Wall Berlin to post-apartheid South Africa, but she remains, first and foremost, a writer.
Architect Victor Gruen has shaped the face of suburbia with the quintessentially American phenomenon he is credited with inventing, the shopping mall. Yet his roots are in the theatrical world of pre-war Vienna.
A talented actor and singer, Gruen directed a small cabaret theatre with a group of artistes who opposed Hitler's racist ideology. He staged satires, dressed in Nazi uniform, aped Hitler's speeches, and acted in skits attacking the ideology of the Nationalist Socialist Party and German expansionism. While studying and practising architecture, he also wrote poetry as part of the Viennese bohemian literary circle. He then set up a small enterprise where he worked as an interior designer and city planner.
One afternoon in 1938, Gruen called home and was told by his wife that the Gestapo was searching his apartment. He ran to his theatre and from the costume trunk pulled out a Nazi lieutenant's uniform he had worn in one of his satirical revues. In disguise, he hitched a ride to a nearby field that served as an airstrip, and flew to the United States.
In his first years in America, the young émigré designed shops and founded the Gruen Associates firm in 1947, today one of the country's main architectural, planning and engineering firms.
These days, Gruen is remembered for having conceived and designed the first shopping malls. In post-war America, one of the major problems was the exodus to suburbia and its devastating effect on the inner cities. To counter this decentralisation, Gruen proposed the shopping mall as a solution for urban renewal. He was responsible for designing America's first big regional shopping centre, Northland, near Detroit, which opened in 1954. It was followed in 1956 by Southdale, near Minneapolis, the first shopping centre to be fully enclosed. After these two, hundreds of malls were constructed across America.
Gruen's vision emphasised the need to create a centre of a city, a modern agora - the town squares of ancient Greece - that could serve social, cultural and civic purposes as well as facilitate commerce. In his book, "The Heart of our Cities", Gruen wrote about an Italian immigrant to Boston. When asked what he thought about his new home, this immigrant who had just arrived from Naples said, "I can get bathed and dressed much faster than in Italy, but then I do not know where to go."
According to Gruen, malls should be more than "selling machines", providing everything a real town centre would provide. He regarded automobiles as beasts in need of domestication, and he also saw malls as a means of banishing them from downtown streets and "separating human flesh from combustion engines".
By bringing his modern concept of the agora downtown, he greatly influenced the history of American city planning. It was his way of avoiding, overcoming suburbia, which he called the "anti-city", a "land of economic and racial segregation, with phoney respectability and genuine boredom". The downtown mall in Fresno, California, a pedestrian oasis with its fountains, cascades, pools, brooks and excellent sculptures, was admired by architects around the world when it opened in 1964. Yet paradoxically, a different form of mall evolved, becoming an exclusively suburban phenomenon. Gruen refused, as he put it, "to pay alimony for those bastard developments".
Gruen has written extensively on urban planning and urban sprawl. In 1968, after nearly two and a half decades of exile, he returned to Vienna where he launched a new architectural firm. He died in 1980.
Hugo Gryn survived Auschwitz, two death marches and a year working as a slave labourer for the Nazis, and lost most of his relatives (including his father and brother) to the Holocaust. He never lost his faith in humanity, however, and his wit and goodwill won him millions of fans as a regular broadcaster on BBC radio.
Born in 1930 to a Jewish family in the Ruthenian town of Berehovo, then in Czechoslovakia, Gryn was barely a teenager when his town became the target of Nazi persecution in 1941. He returned to Berehovo in 1946, and was reunited with his mother, who also survived the war. After a short spell of volunteering for the United Nations refugees and relief team and studying in Prague, Gryn was one of 732 child survivors of the Holocaust who were given permission by the British Government to settle in the United Kingdom. He arrived in Scotland in February 1946 and later moved to London, where he studied Maths and Biochemistry.
By chance, he attended a lecture given by Rabbi Leo Baeck that was to change the course of his life. With Baeck's encouragement, Gryn applied to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was awarded a scholarship to train for the rabbinate. He devoted the rest of his life to reintegrating and re-establishing the Jewish people, working for organisations such as the World Union for Progressive Judaism (of which he was the Executive Director, 1960-62) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (1962-64), where he helped Jews in Arab countries to emigrate to Israel.
Rabbi Gryn's first pulpit was at the Jewish Religious Union in Bombay in 1957. Seven years later, he was back in Britain as the rabbi of West London Synagogue. Over the years, he built up a faithful and devoted congregation, winning over many hearts not only at the synagogue, but also as a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's "Moral Maze" and the "Thought for the Day" slot on the popular "Today" programme. In 1992, he was awarded a CBE for his work and services towards community and race relations.
Gryn was an ardent advocate of tolerance, equality and goodwill among people regardless of their cultural, religious or racial backgrounds. He was a great defender of refugees: "Asylum issues are an index of our moral and spiritual civilisation. How you are with the one to whom you owe nothing, that is a grave test ... and I hope and pray that it is a test we shall not fail," he once said.
Rabbi Gryn died in 1996, but will always be remembered as a gifted broadcaster and one of the best-loved rabbis in Britain.
Born to a Jewish family in Munich, Emil Gumbel began his career as a mathematician but as a result of his outspoken pacifism and socialism, along with his extensive documentation of right-wing political violence in Weimar Germany, he became one of the Nazis' biggest foes.
In April 27, 1931, a thousand people crowded into an auditorium at the University of Berlin for a demonstration sponsored by the Deutsche Ligua für Menschenrechte, the German League for the Rights of Man. They came to protest against intensifying efforts by Nazi students and their allies to abolish academic freedom in German universities, and in particular to demonstrate against attempts to force Gumbel out of his position as professor of statistics at Heidelberg University.
Albert Einstein addressed the gathering: "Inspired by an uncompromising sense of justice, Professor Gumbel publicised the details about a number of political crimes that have gone unavenged. He did so with devoted industry, great courage and exemplary fairness, performing through his books a signal service to our community. Yet this is the man whom the student body and good many faculty members are doing their best to expel. Men like him are indispensable if we are ever to build a sound political framework for our society."
Despite these protests, in 1932 Gumbel was stripped of his teaching licence at Heidelberg. He found temporary work lecturing at the Sorbonne in Paris and he was in France when Hitler came to power. In August 1933, Gumbel was on the first list of 33 people to be stripped of their German citizenship.
He remained in France and was appointed a year later to a research position in Lyon, a post he would hold till 1940. He was made a French national in August 1939. Gumbel's acceptance in France was eased considerably by his close contacts and friendships with leading figures in the French Ligue des Droits de l'Homme. He helped establish a German exile section of the League in 1933. A close associate of other German refugees, he also wrote for exiles' journals, such as the Pariser Tageblatt or Pariser Tageszeitung.
When the Nazis invaded France, Gumbel fled with his family to Marseilles, then, via Portugal, to New York, where he had an invitation from the New School for Social Research. Commenting on being received as a refugee in the United States, he wrote: "The immigrants were not interned, they could work freely. Everyone who volunteered for the military was automatically naturalised; even military-sensitive work was entrusted to enemy aliens. In the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), in the OWI (Office of War Information), in the atomic work, the immigrants were able to collaborate significantly. We could speak German everywhere (and even louder than necessary)."
Gumbel became a US citizen in 1945 and stayed in New York until his death in 1966. During his years there, he taught at the New School for Social Research, and was Adjunct Professor at the School of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at Columbia University from 1952 until his death.
Prize-winning film director Yilmaz Guney spent years in jail but that did not stop him from making critically-acclaimed movies that drew international attention to the political situation in Turkey and the plight of the Kurdish people.
Born Yilmaz Putun and brought up by Kurdish parents from Eastern Turkey, Guney spent his childhood in the southern Mediterranean town of Adana. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was popular in Turkey as an actor, director, writer and political activist. In and out of jail for his leftist writings and a controversial murder conviction, Guney wrote many of his screenplays in prison and directed his films through an intermediary.
Among the most famous are "Hope", "The Wall" and "The Herd". In 1982 his film "Yol" (The Way) won the prestigious Palme d'Or for Best Foreign Film at the Cannes Film Festival. "Yol" tells the story of five prisoners out on parole from a Turkish jail. Written while Guney was in prison serving a 19-year sentence, the screenplay was smuggled out of jail and the movie was filmed clandestinely in south-eastern Turkey under the direction of one of his collaborators, Serif Goren. Guney himself had escaped from prison in 1981 while "on leave" and he moved to Switzerland, where he finished the post-production of the film.
A life sentence for writings published while in jail had been added to his term and in 1983, Guney was stripped of his Turkish citizenship. He was deeply hurt and underlined that "Yol" was not just criticising the government. "Oppression arises not only from the government but also from the fact that in their lives people are ruthless to each other." The film came out at a time when any signs of Kurdish activism or cultural activities were banned. Yet "Yol" does not just touch on the Kurdish question. It also deals with honour killings and the treatment of women, as well as the migration from the countryside to the city.
Guney died in exile in Paris in 1984. His wife, Fatos, set up the Yilmaz Guney Foundation for Culture and Arts. All his work - books, articles and films - had been banned in Turkey following the 1980 military coup, and the negatives of more than 100 films that he acted in were destroyed. Only 11 films remain, because they were abroad at the time of the ban. His widow spearheaded the effort to get the ban lifted and raised funds needed to remaster "Yol" and other films for modern screens. Seventeen years after it won over the jury in Cannes, "Yol" was finally shown in Turkey.
In the autumn of 1943, at the age of 12, Ennio Hallek fled to Sweden from Estonia together with his parents, his younger sister and older brother. His grandparents, who stayed behind, were subsequently killed. Hallek, who has made a name for himself as a painter and sculptor, now finds it hard to say whether he is Estonian or Swedish.
Hallek's father was a fisherman, but when the Russian army first occupied Estonia, his boat was sunk. During the subsequent German occupation, however, he managed to fix it and resumed fishing along the coast. When the family decided to flee, they set sail for the coast of Gotland, but oil rationing meant they were low on fuel and missed their target. As dawn broke, they realised they were alongside a German convoy. Hallek's mother, a dressmaker, quickly sewed a Swedish flag that allowed them to reach the Swedish coast without arousing the suspicion of the Germans.
The family was confined to a refugee camp for a year and after the war their boat was confiscated under a Soviet law. In this period, many Estonians fled to America but the Hallek family moved to Blekinge, a coastal region on the Baltic. He went to local schools and then moved to Stockholm, attending Signe Barth art school and the Swedish Art Academy.
Today, Hallek is an established painter and sculptor who has exhibited in Europe and America. His work includes murals for Stockholm's Stadion underground station, the University of Stockholm and the Astrid Lindgren Children's Hospital. A professor of painting at the Art Academy of Stockholm from 1981 to 1991, he is married to a Swedish woman and has a daughter and two grandchildren.
It was only in 1989 that Hallek returned with a delegation to Estonia, to Saaremaa to give advice on the restoration of churches. Since Estonian independence, he has held many exhibitions in his former homeland. Asked which nationality he belongs to, he says he feels neither Swedish nor Estonian. "In the 1960s and 1970s, when it was forbidden for Estonians to present themselves as Estonians - they were Russians - I used to present myself as an Estonian painter abroad. Nowadays, with Estonia independent, I present myself as a Swedish artist," he told UNHCR.
Performing classical Cambodian dance became a way of surviving and creating a personal identity for dance teacher Touphy Hang, who has spent half her life in refugee camps.
Hang was born in a small village in south-eastern Cambodia. She grew up under dictator Pol Pot's reign of terror. In the turmoil following the removal of the Khmer Rouge and the establishment of the pro-Vietnamese People's Republic of Kampuchea, Hang's parents took refuge in a camp near the Thai border. Hang was eight. Two of her older brothers and a sister had already died of starvation and her parents thought they would be safe there.
But the family was not safe - the Vietnamese bombed the camp. One night they were forced to cross the border into Thailand. Said Hang: "I remember it was the 14th of April, because it was Cambodia's new year's night and everybody was celebrating in their tents. First there was an alarm and then people started to walk all together towards Thailand. My mother put me in charge of my little baby sister, and I carried her with me. It took four hours to get to the border and we were all running very fast. There were many people, maybe 20,000 of us, and whoever had a problem just could not be helped. Everything went very fast. A lot of people fell and died, or just got injured. Many children were lost. When we finally arrived at the camp beyond the border we immediately saw it was very small for such a big crowd."
Hang lived in the Thai camp until the age of 20, in constant fear of bombing and grenade attacks. Her interest in dancing began as she started to perform at the arts centre in the refugee camp. She grew especially fond of classical Cambodian dance.
In April 1991, the Cambodian factions announced a cease-fire. Multiparty elections were held in 1993 and the United Nations supervised the process and helped repatriate over 350,000 refugees. Hang returned to Cambodia, where UNHCR provided her family with material to build a house and one month's supply of rice. "We started our new life there," she says. "My mother went every day to the market in Phnom Penh and bought food she would then cook and sell in our neighbourhood. I formed a dancing group and by performing we could get a little something to live on."
Today Hang teaches dancing - Cambodian classical and folk dance - in Phnom Penh. She explains that she teaches the Ramayana tradition: a classic form of dance from the mediaeval city of Angkor Wat. "It was dance that actually saved my life, because it gave me my identity," she says.
Although he never held the reins of government and spent much of his life in exile, Victor Haya is remembered as a fighter for democracy and workers' rights whose influence spread far outside his native Peru. He is also famous for having taken refuge in the Colombian embassy in Lima and remaining there for more than five years.
Haya was born into a formerly wealthy, provincial family. He studied law at the University of San Marcos in Lima - the oldest university in the Americas - and became involved in student politics. He spearheaded university reforms and played a leading role campaigning for an eight-hour workday and the rights of the Peruvian trade union movement.
He was imprisoned for his political views in 1923, and forced by the Peruvian government to board a ship bound for Panama, his first place of exile. He was later to spend time in Cuba, the Soviet Union and Mexico. In Mexico, he launched the Allianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) aimed at uniting Latin America against "imperialism". He wrote "Anti-Imperialism and the APRA" from a hotel room in Mexico.
In 1928, Haya was in Guatemala, rallying support for General Augusto César Sandino in Nicaragua. He was threatened, persecuted, and, in effect, banished from the Latin American continent. He was compelled to request diplomatic asylum in the Mexican embassy. He went to Panama, but the authorities refused to let him disembark, so he was forced to continue to Europe.
In 1931, Haya was allowed to return to Peru and stood unsuccessfully for the presidency. The following year, he was sent back to jail at a time when the "Apristas" clashed violently with the military in Trujillo. He won widespread international support from leading figures of the day, including his personal friend, Albert Einstein.
Nevertheless, once freed, he was obliged to go underground and was unable to contest elections in 1945. Nonetheless, his party succeeded in winning several parliamentary seats. But the democratic experience in Peru was to last a mere three years, and was ended by a coup d'état in 1948.
On January 4, 1949, Haya sought asylum in the Colombian embassy in Lima. The Colombian government considered him a political refugee and recognised his need for asylum (the official documents use both these terms). It requested safe-conduct for Haya to enable him to leave Peruvian territory. The Peruvian government, however, insisted that he was a common criminal. The legal arguments over his status went as far as the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The Court' s first ruling was in favour of Peru but in a second ruling requested by Bogota, the Court ruled that Colombia was not obliged to give up the refugee.
The dispute reached a deadlock and it was five years and four months later that the Peruvian government granted him safe conduct to leave the embassy - and the country. By this time, the building was surrounded by troops and ditches in anticipation of public demonstrations by Haya' s supporters.
It was not until the 1970s that the situation in Peru stabilised. In 1978, Haya was elected as President of the Constitutional Assembly. Despite his advanced age, he skilfully steered the body through the drafting of a new constitution, and managed to sign the final text just a few days before his death in 1979.
Polish-born author Gustaw Herling was among the first writers in Europe to denounce the horrors of the Soviet gulags in his book "A World Apart", which he wrote in exile. Published in 1951 in England, it wasn't until 1989 that he could publish it in his home country.
When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, Herling was a student of literature at Warsaw University, where he was active in an anti-fascist group. With the subsequent Russian advance, he was arrested by the Soviet secret police and deported to Kargopol prison camp near Arkhangelsk, on the White Sea. Sentenced to five years of hard labour on charges that he had fought the Soviets, he was released from the gulag only two years later when the Germans broke the Stalin-Hitler pact and attacked the Soviet Union. Stalin granted an amnesty to Polish prisoners, but Herling went on a hunger strike for several months before being finally released.
Herling was able to enrol as a soldier in the Polish Resistance Army and travelled through Kazakhstan, Iran, Palestine, Egypt and across the Libyan desert. Serving as a soldier and radio journalist in the Second Polish Army Corps, he fought with the Allies in Italy in 1943. For his bravery in the battle of Monte Cassino, he was awarded Poland's highest military medal, the Virtuti Militari.
In 1946, in Rome, he co-founded the journal Kultura together with compatriots Jerzy Giedroyc and Zofia and Zygmunt Hertz. The journal would go on to act as an important forum for dissident writers from Poland, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Herling moved to London and wrote his terrifying testimony, "A World Apart", which appeared before Stalin's death and seven years before the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's famous "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". Herling spent some time in Munich working for Radio Free Europe, and in 1955 he married Lidia Croce, the daughter of Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, and settled in Naples. He continued to contribute to Kultura (which in 1947 had moved its headquarters to Paris) until the end of the 1980s and became its Italian correspondent.
More recently, the writer contributed articles to Il Corriere della Sera, Il Giornale, and La Stampa newspapers and was awarded two of the most prestigious Italian literary awards, the Premio Viareggio and Premio Vittorini.
In 1989, Herling visited his home country for the first time since 1942. Today his books have entered the Polish school curriculum and are widely published in Poland. The writer died in his adopted city, Naples, on July 4, 2000.
José Ramos Horta fought for the self-determination of East Timor in his youth and throughout many years of exile before becoming Foreign Minister of the newly-independent state. He won the Nobel Prize in 1996 for his work towards a just and peaceful solution to the problem of the former Portuguese colony.
East Timor makes up half of the divided island of Timor, the other half belonging to Indonesia. Ramos Horta was born in Dili, the son of a Timorese mother and a Portuguese father who had been exiled to East Timor by the Salazar dictatorship. Ramos Horta worked as a radio and television journalist from 1969 to 1974, during which time the Portuguese authorities sent him to Mozambique for two years (1970-71) as a punishment for his involvement in politics.
As Timorese nationalism emerged, Ramos Horta was seen as a voice of moderation. He was a co-founder of FRETILIN, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor. In 1974, as the Portuguese withdrew, he was appointed Minister for External Affairs and Information in the first transitional government of the Democratic Republic of East Timor. In December 1975, while Ramos Horta was travelling abroad, Indonesia invaded and annexed the territory. Ramos Horta was to spend the next 23 years of his life in exile denouncing the annexation and defending the right of the people of East Timor to self-determination.
Arriving in New York at the age of 25, he found an apartment in the Bronx and would regularly walk down to the UN building in an attempt to keep the issue of East Timor on the agenda. He was also the personal representative of the jailed freedom fighter, Xanana Gusmão. Ramos Horta formulated a three-phase peace plan that became the template for UN negotiations with Indonesia.
He has been the leading international spokesman for the East Timorese cause. In 1996 he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with his fellow countryman, Bishop Carlos Belo.
Following a UN supervised referendum in 1999, East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence. However, heavy fighting broke out as militia backed by Jakarta tried to force the East Timorese to become part of Indonesia. International peacekeepers stepped in and the United Nations formed a transitional government (UNTAET) to stabilise the country. In May 2002, East Timor became an independent country (Timor-Leste) headed by Gusmão, with Ramos Horta as Foreign Minister.