Imagine what the worlds of art, film, music, science and politics would look like without these famous refugees.
Refugees have enriched the U.S. as well as countless other countries through their contributions to the arts, sciences and humanities. Here is a comprehensive (but by no means complete) list of famous refugees, in no particular order, who have made the world a better place.
1. Anne Frank
Perhaps the best-known example of a famous refugee, Anne Frank deserves a top spot on this list for the impact she had on the world despite her tragically brief time here. She was a German-Jewish teen who fled Nazi Germany for the Netherlands with her family before being murdered in a Nazi concentration camp. She and her family were repeatedly denied entry visas to the U.S. During her time in hiding she recounted her experience in her diary, which later became the best-selling book The Diary of a Young Girl. “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world,” she wrote. Her many poignant and hopeful thoughts live on in her writing and serve as a reminder to keep striving to improve the world.
2. Madeleine Albright
Madeleine Albright was the first woman to become the U.S. secretary of state in 1997 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. She was born in Czechoslovakia but lived in Britain during World War II. A young Albright appeared in a film promoting sympathy for refugees in London. After the war her family moved back to Prague, but when the Communist party took over Czechoslovakia in 1948, the family emigrated to the U.S. It wasn’t until she was an adult that Albright learned her parents were Jewish before they converted to Catholicism, and that three of her grandparents had died in the Holocaust. She criticized the January 2017 executive order suspending admission of refugees as well as anyone from seven predominantly Muslim countries to the U.S., saying: “We now have a president who suggests that America must choose between protecting our security and playing our historic role as a place of refuge for the persecuted. But that is not a choice we need to make. We can do both.” Albright went on to say, “Truth is, refugees have made and will continue to make big impacts on our society as doctors and lawyers and even as secretary of state.”
3. Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich was a German actress and singer who became an American citizen in 1939. Besides her many contributions to German and American film, she is also famous for her humanitarian efforts. Along with Billy Wilder and other Germans, Dietrich created a fund to help Jews and other refugees escape Nazi Germany in the 1930s. She used her entire salary from the film Knight Without Armor to help refugees. She was also approached by Nazi officials with an offer to become a leading film star for the Third Reich but turned them down. She reportedly sold more war bonds than any other movie star during America’s involvement in World War II. She also performed for Allied troops despite the danger of being close to enemy lines. Dietrich received the Medal of Freedom in 1947.
4. Sigmund Freud
The founder of psychoanalysis is another famous refugee from the World War II era. Freud was forced to flee his home of Austria in 1938 after Nazis burned his books and detained and interrogated his daughter Anna. His four older sisters died in the Holocaust. Freud never returned to Austria, eventually succumbing to cancer in the UK in 1939. His contributions to the fields of psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy and the humanities continue to impact the world today.
5. Vladimir Nabokov
Perhaps best known for his 1955 novel Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian-American novelist. Born in Russia, he moved with his family first to Crimea, then England, then Berlin, and then finally emigrated to the U.S. In 1936 his wife Vera lost her job because of anti-Semitic attitudes, and in 1940 their family fled the Nazis for the U.S. Sadly, Nabokov’s brother died in a concentration camp. Nabokov’s literary impact on the world remains to this day, but he was also an enthusiastic lepidopterist (an expert in the field of butterflies and moths) and composer of chess problems.
6. Albert Einstein
Without the famous refugee Albert Einstein, we would not have the theory of relativity — and yet he was almost a victim of the Holocaust. He happened to be visiting the U.S. in 1933. When Hitler came to power, Einstein chose not to return to his homeland of Germany because of the threat to European Jews. In 1940, Einstein renounced his German citizenship and became an American citizen. He received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for his contributions to the field. He was also a talented musician, a politically active pacifist and an avid supporter of civil rights.
7. Isabel Allende
A popular Chilean-American writer, known for novels such as City of the Beasts and The House of Spirits, Allende is a refugee from Chile who fled after receiving death threats following the coup that overthrew her father’s cousin, Salvador Allende. She has lived in California since 1989 and was granted U.S. citizenship in 1993. She has received Chile’s National Literature Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among many other awards for her writing.
8. Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder was born in Austria and was working in Berlin when Hitler rose to power. His mother, grandmother and stepfather all died in the Holocaust. Wilder became a U.S. citizen in 1934 and went on to become one of America’s most prolific and well-known screenwriters and filmmakers. He wrote and/or directed some of Hollywood’s most famous films, such as Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, The Apartment, The Seven-Year Itch and Sunset Boulevard. He received many awards for his contribution to film during his lifetime, including the National Medal of the Arts in 1993.
9. Andy García
Andy García is a Cuban-American actor and director. His family fled Cuba when he was five after the Bay of Pigs Invasion and relocated to Miami. He has been in several well-known films and received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Godfather Part III. In addition to his contributions to American film, he is also politically active and was recently included in Newsmax’s 50 Most Influential Latino Republicans.
10. Sergey Brin
Sergey Brin is the cofounder of Google and also happens to be a refugee who immigrated with his family to the U.S. from the Soviet Union when he was six. In response to the executive order, Brin said, “I came here to the U.S. at age six with my family from the Soviet Union, which was at that time the greatest enemy the U.S. had… It was a dire period, the Cold War, as some people remember it. It was under the threat of nuclear annihilation. And even then the U.S. had the courage to take me and my family in as refugees.”
11. Ruth Westheimer
Ruth Westheimer, known as Dr. Ruth, is a psychologist, sex expert and media personality. She was born in Germany to Orthodox Jews and was sent to Switzerland in 1939 after her father was taken into custody by Nazis. Her parents both eventually died in the Holocaust. She emigrated to the U.S. in 1956 and still lives in Washington Heights to this day. She is famous for her books and radio talk shows about sex. The New York Times described her as a “cultural icon… [who] ushered in the new age of freer, franker talk about sex on radio and television.”
12. Freddie Mercury
Freddie Mercury, the lead vocalist and songwriter of Queen, was born in the British protectorate of Sultanate of Zanzibar, East Africa. His family fled to England when he was 17 to escape the dangers of the Zanzibar Revolution. Mercury wrote some of Queen’s most popular hits, including “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Are the Champions” before dying in 1991 from complications from AIDS.
Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam (better known by her stage name M.I.A.) is an English-Tamil rapper and singer/songwriter. She was born in London, but her family relocated to Sri Lanka. After the Sri Lankan Civil War, her family went into hiding before moving back to London. She has been outspoken about her experience as a refugee and has channeled it into her art, including the music video for her song “Borders.” Speaking to The Guardian in 2005, M.I.A. said, “I was a refugee because of war and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet. What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about.” M.I.A. has received acclaim and numerous awards for her music, and she is also involved in activism, politics and philanthropy.
14. Regina Spektor
Regina Spektor is a singer/songwriter and pianist who was born in the Soviet Union. Her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was nine to escape the discrimination Jews were experiencing in the Soviet Union. Her music has earned widespread acclaim and awards, and she is also known for being an active philanthropist. Spektor has performed to raise funds for causes such as Haiti, Darfur, Tibet, and HIAS, the organization that helped her family emigrate from the Soviet Union.
15. Mila Kunis
The American actress Mila Kunis was born in Ukraine but moved to the U.S. with her family when anti-Semitic sentiments started to create a threat. Speaking to Glamour about recent sentiment against refugees, Kunis said, “We came here on a religious-refugee visa, and I’m not going to blow this country up. I’m clearly paying taxes. I’m not taking anything away. So the fact that people look at what’s happening and are like, ‘Pfft, they’re going to blow sh-t up’? It saddens me how much fear we’ve instilled in ourselves.” Her husband, Ashton Kutcher, also took to Twitter after the executive order to voice his anger: “My wife came to this country on a refugee visa in the middle of the Cold War! My blood is boiling right now!” He continued, “We have never been a nation built on fear. Compassion that is the root ethic of America. Our differences are fundamental [to our] sustainability.”
This is just a small number of the famous refugees who were persecuted and uprooted before bestowing their talent, intellect and work ethic upon their adopted countries. We cannot overlook the countless contributions refugees have made to the U.S. and the world.