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.
For nearly 20 years, Victor Hugo, one of the greatest writers France has ever known, was banished from the Empire. But far from being forgotten, he came to symbolise the struggle of the individual for justice and freedom.
Hugo was already revered and honoured as a great poet when the future Napoleon III overthrew the Second French Republic in 1851. However, he had also become active in the political arena and was forced to leave the country. He was left with no choice, although he observed ruefully, "One does not even have the satisfaction of being oppressed by something great."
He fled to Belgium, only to be turned away. For a while he considered heading for Switzerland, but instead decided on the Channel Islands, just off the French coast. "Jersey smiles, a free land amidst sombre seas," he wrote. "I am in exile and I am happy to be here," he admitted. "I love everything that suffers for freedom, for the fatherland and for justice; and I have peace of mind, even though it is always painful to tread on foreign soil."
The first works of this period, "Napoléon le petit" (1852) and "Châtiments" (1853), reflect bitterness and anger. The French government put pressure on the British not to allow the publication of anything that would jeopardise relations between the two countries. In October 1855, one of Hugo's friends issued a strongly-worded pamphlet attacking Queen Victoria. Hugo and a number of his associates were transferred to the smaller island of Guernsey, where Hugo was to spend nearly 15 years.
The poet threw himself into the purchase and restoration of a large, supposedly haunted house known as Hauteville House, where he installed himself and his family. The local Gazette, delighted by his fondness for the region, wrote, "The poet is content in our midst, and intends to stay." From this point on, he considered himself a landowner and, according to British law, was protected from further expulsion.
Having completed "Contemplations" (1856), he turned to the first series of "La Légende des siècles", and completed and published one of his most famous works, "Les Misérables". In 1865, he wrote "Chansons des rues et des bois", and then a year later "Les Travailleurs de la mer".
On returning from his Italian campaign, Napoleon III offered an amnesty for all individuals condemned for political crimes and offences, to which the poet proudly retorted: "When freedom returns, I shall return."
Hugo made several trips through Europe, where he was acclaimed as a genius. Rebel Greeks from Crete, republicans from Sicily and condemned Fenians in Ireland all requested him to raise his voice in defence of their causes. He became a pacifist and an internationalist, proposed a United States of Europe, and noted that in England, "the British newspapers are starting to refer to me as 'the great, good man'".
With the fall of the Empire, brought about by the Franco-Prussian war, Hugo finally saw Paris again. Upon his arrival at the station he was greeted with shouts of enthusiasm. "I said to the people, 'In one hour you have repaid 20 years of exile.'" Thronging the streets of the capital the crowds sang the Marseillaise and shouted, "Long live Victor Hugo!"
Karayman Ismailov's life spans more than 100 years, and his suffering, as one of tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars deported and forced into exile by Stalin, makes him a witness to history.
Ismailov was born in 1890 in the Crimea, now part of Ukraine, and lived through the reign of the last two Russian Czars. He was 14 when the Russian-Japanese war broke out, 24 when World War I broke out and 28 when armed men appeared in the Crimea and established the rule of the Bolsheviks.
But in his village of Voron, history passed him by, and he took little interest in politics. He had to work hard as a farm labourer to feed his wife and seven children.
When the Nazis attacked the USSR in 1941, 51-year-old Ismailov was drafted in spite of his age. He was sent to a military unit defending a Ukrainian and was taken prisoner. Within 12 days he managed to escape and made his way back to his village. In 1944 when the Red Army took back the Crimean peninsula, Ismailov was mobilised again and transferred to Sevastopol.
He did not know that other units of the same army were "cleansing" the Crimea, deporting every single Crimean Tatar, from newborn babies to old men, accusing them of collaborating with the Nazis. Nearly 200,000 people - who had been given only 10 minutes to pack their belongings - were taken out of their homes at gunpoint and driven to railway stations in a massive operation which took only 60 hours. They were taken to Siberia, the Urals and to Central Asia.
When Private Ismailov learned that his family had been deported, he pleaded with his Commander: "Let me go. I am an old man and I want to find my children while I am still alive." He was given a reference confirming his participation in the battles for the country, a food ration for 12 days and an order to go to Uzbekistan, which was to be his place of exile.
He heard that his family had been sent to the Ural mountains, where they were working felling trees and extracting peat. Ismailov found his wife and children there, but was told that his baby son had died on the way and his parents had starved to death in the first months of the deportation.
Ismailov had to go back to Uzbekistan - to have remained with his family away from his registered place of exile could have meant 20 years in a concentration camp. But in 1954, with Stalin's death, the Ismailov family was allowed to reunite. By that time, his older daughter, Safiye, had become disabled, having suffered from blood poisoning caused by mosquito bites. His seven-year-old daughter did not recognise him.
In 2000, Ismailov celebrated his 110th birthday in the Crimea, the homeland he returned to only in 1988. When asked about the secret of his longevity, he replied: "Do not hurt anybody's feelings, eat a lot of garlic and bitter food."
Michaëlle Jean was born in Port au Prince, Haiti. As a young child in 1968, she and her family left her country and sought refuge in Canada.
She received a Bachelor of Arts in Italian and Hispanic languages and literature, and continued her studies towards a Master of Arts in comparative literature at the University of Montreal. From 1984 to 1986, she taught at the Faculty of Italian Studies at the same university. During the 1980s, she pursued linguistic and literary studies at the University of Perouse, the University of Florence and the Catholic University of Milan, all of which cited her for excellence. She is fluent in five languages: French, English, Italian, Spanish and Creole.
As she pursued her studies, Michaëlle Jean worked for eight years, from 1979 to 1987, with Québec shelters for battered women. She has taken in, supported and accompanied hundreds of women and children in crisis, while actively contributing to the establishment of a network of emergency shelters throughout Québec and elsewhere in Canada. She was also involved in aid organizations for immigrant women and families, and later worked at Employment and Immigration Canada and at the Conseil des Communautés culturelles du Québec.
Madame Jean's sense of social commitment and her appreciation of national and international realities led her to journalism. For 18 years, she has been a highly regarded journalist and anchor of information programmes. She joined Radio-Canada in 1988, working successively as a reporter and host on such news and public affairs programmes as Actuel, Montréal ce soir, Virages and Le Point. In 1995, she anchored a number of Réseau de l'Information à Radio-Canada (RDI) programmes such as Le Monde ce soir, l'Édition québécoise, Horizons francophones, Les Grands reportages, Le Journal RDI, and RDI à l'écoute. In 1999, she was also asked by the English network, CBC Newsworld, to host The Passionate Eye and Rough Cuts which broadcast the best in Canadian and foreign documentary films.
In 2001, Michaëlle Jean began anchoring the weekend editions of Radio-Canada's major news broadcast Le Téléjournal. In 2003, she became the anchor of Le Téléjournal's daily edition Le Midi.
In 2004, she started her own show, Michaëlle, which is broadcast on both French-language public television networks. This programme features a series of in-depth interviews with experts, enthusiasts and visionaries.
In the mid-1990s, Michaëlle Jean also participated in a number of documentary films produced by her husband, filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond: La manière nègre ou Aimé Césaire chemin faisant, Tropique Nord, Haïti dans tous nos rêves, and L'heure de Cuba. These thought-provoking documentaries were critically acclaimed and earned awards both in Canada and internationally.
Michaëlle Jean has won numerous honours for her professional achievements, including: the Human Rights League of Canada's 1989 Media Award for her report titled La pasionaria, on the struggle of an immigrant woman in Québec; the Prix Mireille-Lanctôt for her report titled Partir à zér, dealing with spousal violence; the Prix Anik for best information reporting in Canada for her investigation of the power of money in Haitian society; the inaugural Amnesty International Canada Journalism Award; the Galaxi Award for best information host; the 2001 Gemini Award for best interview in any category; and the Conseil de la Langue Française du Québec's Prix Raymond-Charette. Michaëlle Jean has also been named to the Ordre des Chevaliers de La Pléiade by the Assemblée internationale des parlementaires de langue française, and has been made a citizen of honour by the City of Montreal and the Ministère de l'Immigration et des relations avec les citoyens of Quebec in recognition of her accomplishments in communications.
Michaëlle Jean is married to Jean-Daniel Lafond. Their daughter, Marie-Eden, is six years old. Michaëlle Jean's family also includes Mr. Lafond's two daughters from a previous marriage and his two grandchildren.
Fazil Kawani, a Kurd born in Arbil, Iraq in 1959, has had to flee his country twice. In 1974, as fighting broke out between the Iraqi authorities and the Kurdish movement, the Kawani family escaped across the mountains, settling in a refugee camp in Iran run by the International Red Cross.
Within a year, the Kurdish movement collapsed and lost international support; most of the one million or so Kurdish refugees returned home under an "amnesty" issued by Saddam Hussein. But after one year, arrests and disappearances of Kurdish people began and Saddam started a campaign aimed at the destruction of Kurdish villages. Fazil, then a young student, was active in the human rights movement. Openly critical of the security forces, he became a target of the government's policy of eliminating opponents, and in order to survive, he had to leave everything behind and escape for a second time.
Fazil applied for asylum in the United Kingdom in July 1987, and was recognised as a refugee in November 1989. Initially helped out by friends in the UK, he went on to complete a degree in Civil Engineering. He has since worked not only as an engineer on various engineering projects, but has made a career for himself in the field of human rights.
Fazil volunteered at the Kurdish Cultural Centre as well as the Refugee Council, both based in London. In 1993, he became the co-ordinator of the Kurdish Cultural Centre, a post that was followed by a 5-month stint as the head of the Southwark Refugee project in 1999. Currently, Fazil is working as the Communications Director at the Refugee Council in London.
In 1973, when Cambodia descended into civil war, Yani Keo became a volunteer with International Aid and Assistance for Refugees. In the years that followed, she became a refugee herself.
Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge started attacking at the border, bombing small villages first, then moving toward the centre of the country. In 1975, Khmer Rouge declared "Year Zero", sealing off the country from the rest of the world. The cities were turned inside out and their inhabitants sent to the countryside for "re-education." More than two million people starved to death or were executed. Yani Keo was the educated wife of a high-ranking official. She helped organise volunteers to help refugees who fled the fighting, but soon, she and her husband themselves had to escape.
Yani Keo left Cambodia with her four children before the fall of Phnom Penh in April 1975, when the US military evacuated the region. She first went to Thailand, then to France. There, she worked as a paediatric nurse. "Before the war, I had never worked for anyone and when I went to France, I had to take care of my four children alone," she remembers. "This was a scary experience, but it made me a stronger person and pushed me to help others in need," she says.
After seven months in Paris, she was reunited with her husband, who was in Houston, Texas. She began working with refugees again, finding them housing, jobs, enrolling them in school and trying to help them overcome culture shock. In the early 1980s, she found a cluster of 15 unoccupied homes in the north-eastern end of town and managed to place 15 families in them. "A little Cambodian village," she called it. In 1985, Yani Keo and a refugee from Ethiopia set up their own non-profit agency, The Refugee Service Alliance. Now called the Alliance for Multicultural Community Service, it employs 48 people to assist both refugees and immigrants.
In all the years Yani Keo has cared for others, she had no news of the family she left behind in Cambodia - her mother, three brothers, a sister, nieces and nephews. Some years later, she discovered they had all been killed. Yet she seems to be too busy for anger. "You only have one life to live," she says, '"Why do you need to hate each other?"
Art kept Akbar Khurasani sane through the long years of war in Afghanistan and he now makes a living as a professional artist in Ukraine.
Born in a small village, high in the mountains of Uruzgan province, Khurasani attended school but also had to help out at home. He moved to the Afghan capital, Kabul, at the age of 15 and was drafted into the army, where he became a senior lieutenant. During his military service, Khurasani started attending art classes in the local Soviet House of Science and Culture. His first tutor was an artist from Moscow, and painting became Khurasani's first and greatest passion.
Both Khurasani's teachers and military commanders understood that he had a gift. He was given the opportunity to go to the USSR to study at the Ukrainian Academy of Arts. After postgraduate studies with leading artists, he turned professional, specialising in portraits and still life. The Ukrainian government granted him refugee status.
"Art saved me from insanity, which has overtaken many of my compatriots during the endless and absurd civil war," he says. "The place where I came from is beautiful but probably there is nothing left there, everything is ruined after so many years of the murderous war".
When in March 1999, UNHCR and the Adventist Agency for Assistance and Development opened a social centre for refugees in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, Khurasani helped teach art to local and refugee children.
His paintings can be found in private collections all over the world. In June 2000, with the help of UNHCR, Khurasani, along with artists from other countries, presented his paintings at an International Art Festival in Kiev.
Aung Ko, star of John Boorman's film "Beyond Rangoon", was born in Burma, educated in a Buddhist monastery and had a promising career with the government until he made the mistake of marrying a Frenchwoman at a time when it was politically unacceptable.
He was born in a small village near Pegu on the banks of the Sittang river. His father, a wood trader, was killed during a revolt, and his mother died when Ko was nine years old.
In 1962, Burmese Prime Minister General Ne Win led a coup d'état and established a socialist regime in Rangoon. Ko, who was a teacher at the time, was recruited to study political science for the ruling party. He already spoke some French, having attended classes at the Alliance Française, and he was sent to Paris to study at the Sorbonne and conduct research into economics for the party.
While in Paris, Ko married a Frenchwoman. They had a child, and went back to Myanmar in 1973. Though he found a job as a translator to General Ne Win, his compatriots felt he had broken a taboo by marrying a Westerner. Ill-at-ease with the hostile political climate and desperate for a way out, Ko and his family hid in a monastery for six months.
"I was disgusted by the corrupt socialists. Had I stayed in Burma, I would have been tortured and imprisoned," he says. With the assistance of the French embassy, Ko fled his country for France with his wife and child in 1975. After a couple of years in a legal limbo, he was granted refugee status by the French authorities. Ko became representative of the National Council of the Union of Burma and, in this way, helped refugees in the late 1980s and supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
While working on a French documentary on Burma (now known as Myanmar), Ko was approached by director Boorman, who was struck by his uncanny resemblance to the lead character. It turned out that he also had a natural feel for acting.
Now a grandfather, Ko says he feels at home in France. His exile was not all negative - as he recognises, it brought him "an opportunity which I would never have dreamt of had I stayed in Burma" - acting in a film with Patricia Arquette while defending the cause of freedom in his native land.
Ko is the honorary president of Info-Birmanie, which seeks to publicise the plight of the Burmese. He currently works as a translator for French television.
Although he was not Jewish, painter Oscar Kokoschka, a leading exponent of Expressionism in the 1930s, was a fierce critic of Nazi anti-Semitism and of the victimisation of intellectuals and artists.
Born in Pochlarn, Austria, Kokoschka enrolled in 1904 in the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, but was expelled from the college because his work was considered too controversial. He also wrote plays that caused public outcry at the time.
During World War I, he served in the Austrian cavalry, then settled in Dresden, where he taught at the art academy. From 1924 to 1930, he travelled across Europe and produced his famous landscapes. As early as 1933, he resigned from his teaching post at the Prussian Academy of Art to protest the expulsion of Jewish artists.
Kokoschka moved to Prague in 1934. Three years later, the German government began its campaign against what it called "degenerate art" and eight of Kokoschka's paintings featured in a travelling exhibition of the same name in 1937. The Nazis proceeded to confiscate thousands of works of art, including 417 of Kokoschka's pieces. In response, he painted "Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist" (1937).
When Czechoslovakia came under threat from Hitler, Kokoschka fled to England with his wife Olda Palkovsky. In London, he was active in anti-Nazi cultural organisations such as the newly-founded Free German League of Culture, of which he became President in 1941.
While German exiles were interned in British camps, Kokoschka's Czech citizenship spared him detention, allowing him to assume a public role as a spokesperson for exiles. In 1947, he became a British citizen. He returned briefly to Vienna after the war, but refused to live there. He settled in Switzerland but ran a summer school called School for Seeing, in Salzburg, Austria from 1953-63. Kokoschka died February 22, 1980 in Villeneuve, Switzerland.
Champion of Hungarian freedom and independence, Lajos Kossuth fought against Austrian imperial rule as a fiery orator, a journalist and a statesman.
Descending from an impoverished aristocratic family, and as a Protestant in a Catholic country, Kossuth could not aspire to high office. He nonetheless rose to become a judge and in 1825, he became a member of the Hungarian parliament. In 1837, his liberal publications, written in the form of letters to avoid censorship, angered the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy and he was jailed for treason.
Amnestied and released in 1840 under popular pressure, he found himself famous. In a bi-weekly journal, the Pesti-Hirlap, he campaigned for political reform and an independent legislature for Hungary. In 1847, he was re-elected to the Diet. Finally, his campaigns and demands earned Hungary its own separate constitution from Austria. In 1848, after the new government was formed, Kossuth was named the Minister of Finance.
In the same year, revolution broke out in Paris and Louis-Philippe was overthrown. A few days later, riots broke out in Vienna, and throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Czechs, Romanians and Italians staged independent nationalist rebellions.
On September 28, 1848, after five months of serving as the Minister of Finance, Kossuth assumed full control of the revolution in Hungary. Not satisfied with the autonomous constitution, he demanded independence from Austria. In 1849, he was named Governor and became the virtual dictator of the newly-declared Hungarian Republic. He did nothing, however, to recognise the claims of the many minorities. Moreover, the regime refused to help the Austrian monarch who implored for their alliance against the Italians. As a result, the Russian imperial forces, allied with the Austrians, declared war on the Hungarian Republic. Independent Hungary was crushed.
After his defeat, Kossuth, aged 47, fled to Turkey, where he was joined later by his wife and sons. Supporters left behind were condemned to death and 40 were executed. Kossuth continued his quest for Hungarian democracy by travelling and giving speeches in the west, where he sought alliances with western countries. He travelled to the United States, where he was honoured and welcomed for his dedication to his country. He spent many years in England, then settled in Turin, Italy.
From exile, he continued to correspond with his partisans, and to receive delegations from Hungary. His plans for uniting Hungary, Serbia and Romania in a Danube federation met with little response.
A law was passed in Budapest compelling Hungarians abroad to renew their oath of allegiance to the Emperor every 10 years. Kossuth refused to obey and in 1890, was deprived of his nationality. The renewed publicity that this humiliation attracted was equalled only by the tokens of affection showered upon him by millions of his compatriots four years later at his funeral, which was held in Budapest.
While others tried desperately to escape the Nazi Holocaust, Jan Karski set out to smuggle himself into the Warsaw ghetto and even into a Polish concentration camp to become a witness to genocide. Yet, tragically, his invaluable testimony fell on deaf ears.
Karski was born Jan Kozielewski to a Roman Catholic family in Lodz, Poland. A gifted student, he was recruited into the Polish diplomatic service. When the Nazis invaded Poland, he went underground, taking the name of Karski. As an officer of the Polish resistance, he was sent on a number of dangerous missions to the West. In June 1940, he was captured by the Gestapo in Paris. He was beaten and tortured repeatedly, but resisted interrogation and escaped with the help of the Polish resistance.
In 1942, Karski secretly met with two Jewish underground leaders outside the Warsaw ghetto, one of whom told him: "It will strengthen our report if you will be able to say 'I saw it myself,'" adding, "I know the Western world."
Karski agreed to be smuggled into the ghetto to gain first-hand experience of its conditions. Together with Jewish community leader Leon Feiner, he crawled through a tunnel to gain access. Karski recalls his shock and disbelief. "It was not a world. There was not humanity, I couldn't take it anymore. I was sick." Pointing to the dying bodies and corpses, Feiner entreated him over and over again: "Remember this, tell them over there. You saw it. Don't forget. They are dying." The next day, Karski made the trip again to better record his impressions.
Next he travelled to a transit camp at Izbica Lubelska in eastern Poland, where Jews were loaded onto cattle cars heading for Belzec extermination camp. He disguised himself as a Ukrainian guard to gain access to the depot. After gathering evidence, he left Poland for the last time and made his way to London via Berlin, Vichy France, and Spain. Before the journey, Karski had a dentist pull out several of his teeth in the hope that his swollen mouth would deter potential interrogators.
In February 1943, Karski became one of the very first witnesses to tell the world about the Holocaust. Having arrived safely in London, he met British foreign minister Anthony Eden. But Eden declined to intervene, saying Britain had already taken in 100,000 Jewish refugees. Some months later, Karski had a secret meeting with President Roosevelt, but his calls for intervention went unheeded. Even Roosevelt's Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, himself a Jew, expressed scepticism about Karski's reports.
Karski's testimony was kept secret by governments and officially denied. By this time, the Nazis had uncovered his identity and the Polish resistance advised him to remain in the United States.
With the end of the war, Karski's reports were finally vindicated and he could have returned home to a hero's welcome. But with Poland under Communist rule, he refused to go back. He became a US citizen in 1954 and married Pola Nirenska, a Jewish dancer and choreographer from Poland who survived the genocide.
Only recently have governments begun to acknowledge Karski's role during World War II. President Lech Walesa awarded him Poland's highest honour. And in 1994, Israel bestowed honorary citizenship upon him. Karski described himself as a Catholic Jew. The same year, he co-authored a book titled "How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust". Karski died at the age of 86 on July 13, 2000.