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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 121 - 130 of 136 profiles
Nolvia Dominguez Skjetne
Nolvia Dominguez Skjetne
Profession:
Kindergarten Director,Human Rights Activist
Country of Origin:
Chile
Country of Asylum:
Norway
Date of birth:
24 September 1948

In September 1973, Chile's commander-in-chief, Augusto Pinochet, led a military coup that ousted Salvador Allende, the first Marxist in the history of the country to be elected President by popular vote. Nolvia Dominguez Skjetne, who had been active in left-wing politics, was fired from her job. Her husband, who was a member of the workers' union, was executed. This strengthened her dedication to fight against the military regime and in defence of human rights.

In 1980, she was arrested by the Chilean intelligence service. She later suffered health problems due to this period of detention. Soon after her release, she decided to flee Chile with her 10-year-old son. She went to Norway, where she was granted refugee status in November 1980. There, she campaigned for human rights and continued to support her party, the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Movement of the Left).

In the early 1980s, while many asylum seekers were leaving Chile, Skjetne became one of the leaders of the Asociación de exilados latinoamericanos en Oslo (Association of Latin American Exiles in Oslo). She helped Norwegian lawyers dealing with Chileans and also founded the Norwegian branch of the Committee for Defending People's Rights (CODEPU).

She soon became active in Norwegian politics, joining Sosialistisk Venstreparti, the Norwegian Socialist Party. In 1990, she became the first female immigrant to be elected onto the Oslo City Council. Focusing her interest on cultural aspects, she also concerned herself with immigration issues, acting as a role model for other refugees and immigrants in Norway.

Although mostly engaged in Norwegian politics, Skjetne has not forgotten Chile and has lobbied for Pinochet's extradition and trial. She married a Norwegian and today feels at home in both cultures. Her son, a successful breakdancer, moved to Denmark to pursue his career.

Skjetne founded her own kindergarten and is today its manager, while still serving as a member of the City Council.

John Spalek
John Spalek
Profession:
Professor, Writer
Country of Origin:
Poland
Country of Asylum:
Germany
Country of Transit:
United States
Date of birth:
28 July 1928

John Spalek, Professor of German literature and one of the pioneers of what is today known as Exile Studies, was born in Warsaw, Poland.

His father, Reverend Bronislav Spalek, was the co-founder of the Polish Baptist Church. In 1936, the family moved to Narewka in eastern Poland. There, Spalek witnessed the German invasion in September 1939, then the German withdrawal and the subsequent Soviet occupation. The old people's home run by his mother was confiscated by the Soviets. At the end of the war, the family headed for Germany. The Protestant seminary in Cologne, where Spalek's father had studied theology more than 40 years earlier, helped them upon their arrival. For three years, Spalek studied the trade of cabinetmaker.

On his 21st birthday, Spalek left Europe on a boat for New York. A family friend sponsored him through the immigration process and found him a woodworking job. But in 1951, he decided to go back to college. With a degree in Spanish Literature, Spalek then embarked on post-graduate work in German literature at Stanford University. After completing his doctorate, he was offered a job at the University of Los Angeles in California.

It was on the West Coast, a haven for refugees in the 1930s and 1940s, that Spalek developed his interest in exiles. "I saw many immigrants in Los Angeles. Quite a few were still alive, especially in the movie industry," he recalls. "One must not forget that a part of Vienna and Berlin had come to settle there." At that time, he was also working on a biography of émigré poet Ernst Toller and had to account for his exile years. He began a correspondence with one of the founders of exile research, Walter A. Berendsohn, living in Sweden, who urged him to begin similar research in the United States.

In 1971 Spalek, was approached by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Society) to begin a survey of papers on German émigrés to be found in the United States. "Of course neither I nor they knew what we were talking about, no one knew, and there was a two-year budget made available," he recalls. It ended up as a 30-year project. Spalek and his associate, Sandra Hawrylchak, were largely responsible for locating and saving many of the papers.

The exile project documents the migration from Europe to the Unites States from 1933 to 1945, along with its intellectual accomplishments and its contributions to American society.

Spalek is now working on the 14th volume. Three volumes of reports remain in print: "Guide to the Archival Materials of Former German-Speaking Emigrés". He is also currently helping to establish an exile research centre at the University of Kansas. He has donated books and his private collection of papers to public institutions. It is also thanks to him that many papers of the University in Exile of the New School for Social Research have been deposited at the University at Albany since 1979.

Spalek has written extensively on exile studies.

Laris Strunke
Laris Strunke
Profession:
Painter
Country of Origin:
Latvia
Country of Asylum:
Sweden
Date of birth:
10 February 1931

Laris Strunke, known as "the Painter of Gotland" because of his summertime studio there, lives and paints in the Swedish capital, Stockholm. As a 13-year-old refugee, son of renowned Latvian painter Niklavs Strunke, he fled his home country during the Soviet advance of 1943.

The Strunke family left Riga in the summer of 1944 and hid along the coast with other refugees until, in December, they found a boat. It was so overcrowded that many were forced to throw their belongings overboard. The family crossed the Baltic Sea and on November 10, 1944, arrived in Herrvik, a small village on the eastern coast of the Swedish Island of Gotland. A tin box of coloured pencils was the only personal possession that young Strunke was able to keep with him.

Strunke has lived in Sweden ever since. He continued to study art, which he had begun in Latvia, and attended the Art Academy of Stockholm. Today he is a renowned painter and his exhibitions have travelled to such places as Mexico, Budapest, Beijing, Canada and Australia. Strunke, who is a Swedish citizen, went back to Riga for the first time in 1989, when he organised an exhibition of his father's paintings.

Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky
Profession:
Film director
Country of Origin:
Russian Federation
Country of Asylum:
Sweden
Country of Transit:
Italy; France
Date of birth:
4 April 1932
Died:
1986

Andrei Tarkovsky was a leading film director of the Soviet era who defected to the west in 1983.

Born into the comfortable Moscow household of Arseniy Tarkovsky, a well-regarded poet, Andrei was surrounded by works of art, literature and music. Both his parents would feature in his future films - his mother as an actress and his father through his haunting poems that were read aloud in the films.

After studying at the prestigious All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow, the young Tarkovsky found himself at the forefront of Soviet directors when his "Ivan's Childhood" won the Golden Lion award in 1963. It is the story of a 12-year-old Russian scout on the German front in World War II. Although the film uses religious themes, often Christian, it placated the Soviet censors by its startlingly realistic portrayal of life in wartime.

Bureaucracy and censorship meant that Tarkovsky was only able to make seven films in 25 years even though his diaries were filled with ideas for dozens of films. Both his second, "Andrei Rublyov", and third film, "Mirrors", only reached the western European cinemas years after their release. Mosfilm, Moscow's leading film agency, deliberately withheld permission for the entry of his subsequent films into most international competitions, yet each film, surreptitiously submitted into such festivals as Cannes, Telluride, London or Paris, received major prizes.

After a stage production of Hamlet, Tarkovsky travelled to Italy in 1982 to shoot "Nostalgia". This Soviet-Italian co-production is based on a typical Russian dilemma: that of the artist abroad, smitten by homesickness, unable to live in his country or away from it. Increasingly frustrated by his inability to receive approval for his film ideas, Tarkovsky and his wife, Larissa, defected to the west in 1983, leaving behind their son, Andriuschka.

Tarkovsky spent the rest of his years trying to persuade the Soviet authorities to release his son. It was only shortly before his death that the authorities allowed his son and mother to join him. An account of the reunion in France can be seen in Chris Marker's documentary, "One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch". Shortly after completing his last film in Sweden, "Sacrifice", Tarkovsky died in Paris in December 1986.

Bui Tin
Profession:
Army Officer, Journalist
Country of Origin:
Viet Nam
Country of Asylum:
France
Date of birth:
29 December 1927

Army officer Bui Tin was at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 when Ho Chi Minh's Communist army defeated the French and effectively ended the colonisation of Viet Nam. In the years that followed, he was deputy editor of the Communist daily, Nhan Dan, and seen as a loyal party member. But he became increasingly critical of the regime, and eventually sought asylum in France.

Born the son of a high-ranking minister who later became close friends with Vietnamese leader Ho, Tin left his family in 1945 at the age of 18 to join the Communist Party and the revolution. His politics brought him into conflict with both Paris and Washington.

When Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, Tin was the highest-ranking army officer present, and so it was he who accepted the surrender of the South Vietnamese. He was later appointed to serve on the committee to oversee the implementation of the peace accords in South Viet Nam. He was also present in Phnom Penh in 1979 when the Vietnamese troops arrived to oust the Khmer Rouge.

Tin became a war correspondent for the army daily newspaper until he left the forces in 1982 to become Deputy Editor of the party daily newspaper, Nhan Dan (The People).

In the years leading up to his exile, he published a very successful weekly journal belonging to Nhan Dan, which attempted to address what he saw as the urgent political issues in Viet Nam. However, articles in this publication were frequently censored.

Disillusioned as early as 1975, Tin said: "I was more and more shocked at the absence of freedom and the dictatorial turn the regime had taken since the war of independence ... Today I denounce this Stalinist form of Socialism."

Tin was invited to France in September 1991 by the Communist newspaper, L'Humanité. He decided he could not return. Shortly after his arrival, he published an open statement calling for radical change in Viet Nam, which he described as being "on the brink of becoming an immense political prison". His public criticism of the leadership, as well as their policies, led to his expulsion from the Communist Party in March 1991. He acquired political refugee status in 1994.

Tin points to a third wave of internal dissidence in Viet Nam today, following the intellectual protests of the 1950s and the military dissidence of 1986. Today it is the retired dignitaries of the Communist Party who are emphasising the need for a peaceful transition towards democracy.

Tin has published eight books on Viet Nam since his exile. His book, "Following Ho Chi Minh: Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel" (1992), evaluates the performance of the Vietnamese leadership between 1945 and 1990. Tin denounces the inhumane treatment of prisoners in "re-education" camps and the irresponsible handling of the boat people crisis by the Vietnamese authorities in the 1970s and 1980s. He also analyses Viet Nam's involvement in Cambodia.

Tin mocks the antiquated form of censorship in present-day Viet Nam, a censorship that ignores the importance of modern telecommunications such as the Internet, faxes and satellite television. When he published an article about Ho in Time magazine, it was ripped out of each copy before the weekly was distributed to readers in Viet Nam.

In the last chapter of his memoirs, Tin reveals the difficulties of leaving behind his family, who were unable to join him in France.

Stella Tjajkovski
Stella Tjajkovski
Profession:
Pianist, Professor
Country of Origin:
Poland
Country of Asylum:
Sweden

Pianist Stella Tjajkosvki was twice exiled from her home country. She arrived in Sweden in 1945 having survived the Auschwitz gas chambers, then returned home only to have to flee again from rising anti-Semitism in communist Poland.

Tjajkovski's family originated from Poland but moved to the enclave of Gdansk (then Danzig) in the 1920s. In 1938, the family decided to move back, but they were stopped at the border. It was only thanks to a fan of Tjajkovski, already known as a pianist, who stepped forward and demanded that the family should have a right to continue to Poland, that they managed to cross back into their homeland.

Tjajkovski settled in the Jewish ghetto in the city of Lodz. In 1944, the city's remaining Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Tjajkosvki, her mother and little sister were among them.

Arriving at the camp, they were stripped of their clothes, their hair was shaved off and their personal belongings placed in boxes. Tjajkosvki remembers the heavy doors of the gas chambers closing, and complete darkness that followed. Women started to scream "gas, gas", but suddenly the door on the other side opened. Outside were wagons, waiting to transport the dead bodies. The sun streamed into the darkness and Tjajkovski was thrown out into the light, realising she was still alive. Years later, she learned that she survived due to a problem with the gas chamber's radiator.

In the spring of 1945, as the Allied forces were advancing, Tjajkovski and other survivors left Auschwitz, walking for 10 days. Along the way, she and her sister, who was ill, were looked after by a group of Norwegian prisoners. They were able to make their way to Sweden. After a few years, she moved back to Poland.

In 1952, at the Academy of Music in Lodz, Tjajkovski graduated from the master class in piano with the highest honours. Between 1953 and 1957, she received a state bursary from the Academy of Warsaw and Krakow for her outstanding talent. She performed as a soloist and contributed to Polish radio stations.

As anti-Semitism grew in Poland, she decided she had to leave again. It was the custom that the country's musicians were obliged to stay and serve the government for at least three years after finishing their studies. But the Polish Minister of Culture at the time understood the difficulties she was facing and accepted her decision to leave.

In December 1957, Tjajkovski acquired refugee status in Sweden. In 1960, she made her first public appearance as a pianist in Stockholm. As a professor at the Academy of Music in Gothenburg, she often performed as a soloist.

Recently retired from the academy, Tjajkovski says she regards both the Jewish and Polish cultures as her identities. "You have to belong to something," she says.

Alexandra Tolstoy
Alexandra Tolstoy
Profession:
Secretary,Humanitarian Activist
Country of Origin:
Russian Federation
Country of Asylum:
Japan
Country of Transit:
United States
Date of birth:
1 July 1884
Died:
26 September 1979

Alexandra Tolstoy was born in Czarist Russia on the same estate where her father, the great 19th century writer, Count Leo Tolstoy, was born. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, her world was turned upside down and her vehement opposition to communism meant she had to leave her native country.

The youngest of 13 children, Alexandra was educated at home under her father's tutelage. As his favourite child, she devoted her youth and intellectual energies to his work. She served as his secretary from the age of 17, turned down several marriage proposals, and was greatly influenced by his belief in non-violence and the rights of the poor. In 1910, when Alexandra was 26, her father died. As a provision of the will, she edited his unpublished manuscripts and prepared them for publication. In addition, two-thirds of the ancestral estate were to be divided among peasants of the neighbouring villages.

During World War I, Alexandra built schools and relief centres for 10,000 children, and served as a nurse on the western front. But after the revolution, her anti-communist views landed her in prison in 1920. She spent two months in the notorious Lubyanka jail, where she was deprived of water for days. She was then sent to a Moscow prison located in the Novospassky Monastery, and was only spared deportation to the labour camps, later known as the gulags, because of her skill as a typist.

After her release, Alexandra returned to her work. In addition to her duties as curator of the Leo Tolstoy museum, she built a school and medical facilities on her father's estate. She felt at last that she was doing some good under the new regime, devoting her energies to social welfare - her lifelong preoccupation. But when "they started to bring in atheistic propaganda into the school", she decided to leave.

High-ranking communist friends sympathised with Alexandra, revering her father as a great writer, and agreed to help her. She chose to go to Japan, afraid that in Europe, friends and relatives could be put at risk by her activities. Arrangements were made for her to live in Osaka. She fondly remembers the Japanese as being a very hospitable people, despite the fact that spies followed her everywhere. It is said that on a number of occasions they asked for her autograph.

After two years in Japan, Alexandra was invited to lecture in the United States. In 1930, she crossed the Pacific to the west coast of the US, and attempted to make a new home. She had published her memoirs in Russia and had lectured on her father's life and thought in Japan; now she was able to continue lecturing and writing not only on Tolstoy but also on her experiences in Soviet Russia. Although she found America hard to adjust to, she marvelled at the nation's wealth and generosity. She became a citizen in 1941, embraced America politically, expressed the importance of participation in government, and led her own private lecturing crusade against communism.

She created the Tolstoy Foundation in 1939, together with her long-time friend and fellow Russian exile, Tatiana Schaufuss. The Foundation and its Resettlement Center provided sanctuary and aid to refugees from Russia and Soviet-bloc countries. Under her tenure, the foundation assisted more than a million refugees and later expanded its programme to include non-Russian refugees.

She died on September 26, 1979, in Valley Cottage, New York.

Leba Tonnu
Profession:
Dental surgeon
Country of Origin:
Viet Nam
Country of Asylum:
Canada
Date of birth:
30 January 1952

During the communist takeover of Viet Nam in 1975, Dr Leba Tonnu was stripped of her status as a dentist and forced to work as a janitor. Two years later, Tonnu, her husband and their two sons joined thousands of others in fleeing the repressive regime, but were caught and imprisoned. It was only on their second attempt, in 1979, that they escaped successfully.

The family, with fake Chinese papers, escaped in a 10-metre wooden boat carrying about 140 other fleeing Vietnamese. When the engine failed, they drifted in stormy seas for 13 days until they managed to make their way to the shores of Malaysia's Tioman island. But they were forced back out to sea, so in desperation they destroyed the boat. Tonnu remembers seeing nothing but black sea and black sky. Reaching the shore, they arrived at Cherating, a refugee camp run by UNHCR, where they remained for four months, sleeping on plastic sheets on ground that had been a garbage dump.

In September 1979, her family became the first Vietnamese refugees brought to Canada, through private sponsorship by a Quebec family who assisted them financially for one year, helping them to adapt and begin their lives in a new country.

Not long after they arrived, Tonnu was delighted to find she was pregnant. However, her joy was tempered by the discovery that her husband was sick and required open-heart surgery.

During her first two years in Drummondville, Quebec, Tonnu had to re-study dentistry as her qualifications were not accepted in Canada. She worked as a dentist's assistant by day and prepared herself for the National Board Examination in Dentistry at night, teaching herself French and English along the way. After six years, she obtained her Dental Certificate Degree and set up her practice in Toronto.

In 1990, using her gift as a singer and her husband's talent on the flute and oboe, she formed the Hong Lac Vietnamese Music and Dance Ensemble. "Its main goal is to help young Vietnamese Canadians learn about their culture by exposing them to traditional Vietnamese music and dance," she says. "We want to keep the culture alive for children born here." The Hong Lac Ensemble has performed across the country and has represented Canada internationally, winning the praise of both the Vietnamese and the international arts communities.

Sieng Van Tran
Sieng Van Tran
Profession:
Computer Consultant,Company Director
Country of Origin:
Viet Nam
Country of Asylum:
Singapore
Country of Transit:
United Kingdom
Date of birth:
30 April 1975

The walls of the London Underground are plastered with colourful, eye-catching advertisements for an online learning company. Its manager is Sieng Van Tran, a young British citizen, who fled his country of origin, Viet Nam, by boat in 1979.

Tran and his family arrived in Harlsden, London, in 1981 - after a seemingly endless journey on a fishing boat and two years in a refugee camp in Singapore - and were finally reunited with his father who had fled Viet Nam earlier. Officially recognised as a refugee the same year, Tran started attending a local school. It was not easy, but when difficulties arose due to the language barrier, family and friends helped him out.

In 1997, Tran graduated from Middlesex University with a BSc in Artificial Intelligence, and obtained his MSc from the same university the following year. During his studies, he started toying with the idea of a website that would give people the chance to learn at their own pace, in their own place and in their own time. He spent months working on the project, which he called iLearn.To, from his bedroom.

Refusing an initial $1.5 million offer for the rights to his website, www.ilearn.to, Tran managed to persuade a team of financial backers to invest $4.5 million for its expansion. He is now well on his way to becoming a multimillionaire.

In spite of the fact that his online company demands his attention 18 hours a day, Tran has found the time to try to help out other Vietnamese who are building new lives in Britain. He is an active member and sponsor of the Vietnamese Students Association, a UK-based voluntary organisation that aims to provide young Vietnamese with cultural, educational and social support. In the long run, he also hopes to provide opportunities for Vietnamese people in Britain to receive employment at his company.

He is currently investigating the establishment of a scholarship fund for people in Viet Nam for access to online education, and has already created employment opportunities for several Vietnamese graphics and web design graduates in his home country.

Loung Ung
Loung Ung
Profession:
Child Soldier,Human Rights Activist
Country of Origin:
Cambodia
Country of Asylum:
United States of America
Date of birth:
17 April 1970

Just five years old when the Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia, Loung Ung and her family were among the hundreds of thousands of families forced to evacuate the capital, Phnom Penh, at gunpoint. She lived through the "killing fields" of Cambodia, one of the bloodiest eras of the 20th century.

The death marches continued for nearly four years, from 1975 to 1979. By 1978, Ung's parents, two siblings, and 20 relatives were among almost two million of the country's seven million citizens who would perish due to starvation, disease and executions. During those years, Ung was forced to train as a child soldier.

But in 1980, she escaped with her brother and sister-in-law to a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand. They were resettled as refugees to Vermont in the United States, sponsored by the Holy Family Church of Vermont. Ung went to school and eventually graduated from St. Michael's College in 1993.

"What's the point in being saved if we do not take full advantage of it?" she asks. She has devoted herself to justice and reconciliation in her homeland, in part as spokesperson for The USA Campaign for a Landmine Free World. She wants to increase awareness of hidden landmines that cause more than 40,000 Cambodians (almost 1 in 200 of the population) to suffer traumatic amputations.

Ung is involved in numerous Cambodian associations and organisations in the US, and was a community educator for the Abused Women's Advocacy Project. Her book, "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers", was published by Harper Collins in 2000.

Ung writes: "When I was a child of eight living in Cambodia's war zone, eating out of garbage cans, sleeping on the streets, if you had asked me then where I would be in 20 years.... I would have no positive answer for you. Where I am today in my professional and personal life is beyond my wildest imagination. Yet I am here today. I know I would not be here if it were not for the refugee resettlement programmes in Thailand and in the US. For that I will always be grateful to UNHCR."

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