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.
Erich Auerbach shaped our view of Western culture and his most famous work, "Mimesis: the Representation of Reality in Western Literature", written in exile, became the bible of a generation of literary critics.
Auerbach grew up in a highly literate, middle-class Jewish family in Berlin. He attended the prestigious Französische Gymnasium and the universities of Berlin, Freiburg, Munich and Heidelberg.
He became a librarian with the Prussian State Library in Berlin, which gave him freedom to conduct his research undisturbed. During this time, he produced a translation into German of Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico's "Prinicipi di una scienza nuova" in 1924. Then from 1929-1935, he was appointed to chair the Romance Philology department at the University of Marburg, during which time he completed a seminal philological work, "Dante, Poet of the Secular World".
In 1935, the Nazis decreed that all Jews were to be removed from civil service positions, and Auerbach found himself ousted from his post. In 1936, he fled to Istanbul, Turkey, where he took up a university position. But like so many other German-Jewish intellectuals, Auerbach was deeply attached to German culture. He found the separation from his "fatherland" extremely difficult, never imagined for himself a permanent exile and even planned to return before the war's end.
The crisis of culture he experienced led him to write the work for which he would be honoured as a man of letters. Writer Edward Said has noted that "Mimesis" was very much a product of exile - written without the help of libraries and a circle of academic colleagues. Painfully cut off from his traditions and sense of cultural belonging, Auerbach was looking back at the West, having been cast out of Fascist Europe. From his new location in Istanbul, says Said, "he was not merely practising his profession despite adversity: he was performing an act of cultural, even civilizational, survival of the highest importance".
Auerbach analysed a kaleidoscopic sample of the great works of Western literature, with the assumption that literature was a window into the cultural life and historical time in which it was written. His peers received "Mimesis" as a rigorous and ambitious piece of work.
After the war's end, he moved to the United States, taught Romance philology at Pennsylvania State University, and joined Yale University in 1950. Near the end of his career, Auerbach was honoured at Yale in 1956 with the title of Sterling Professor, the university's highest chair. He died the following year on October 13, 1957.
Twelve-year-old Florence Balagizi saw her mother stabbed to death in front of her on the third day of the Rwandan genocide. Now living in Poland, she finds solace in singing as a way to banish the unhappy memories and the problems of the present.
Balagizi was born in Bukavu, in eastern Zaire (now renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo) close to the border with Rwanda. Her mother was a businesswoman who travelled on the job and Florence lived with a foster family. One day, in April 1994, while visiting her mother in neighbouring Rwanda, tragedy struck.
"We had heard rumours that Tutsis were being massacred by Hutus when I was visiting my mother on that fateful day. We didn't take it seriously," she recalls. "Then on the third day of the massacre, as we sat at home, me and my Mum, I left for a few minutes to collect something from her room, leaving her alone in the sitting room.... Those few minutes saved my life."
A group of angry men with machetes walked in and started shouting at her mother. "One of then pulled out a long knife and stabbed her on the chest twice," recalls Florence, in tears. "At this point I practically went mad and left through a back door ... running." She did not stop until she crossed the border and reached Bukavu.
She got a shock when she told her foster family what had happened. "They sent us packing ... me and my little sister." Balagizi found shelter in a refugee camp. She was forced to sell her daily ration of food in order to care for her younger sister.
A few weeks later, they embarked on a 700-km trek to the central Zairian town of Kisangani, a journey that took them over 45 days. "On the way we fed on fruits and nuts, quenching our thirst with water that was often so horrible that it makes me shudder to remember it."
There, she hid her identity, fearing that the witch-hunt for ethnic Tutsis was not over. Aided by the fact that she spoke a range of languages including Swahili and Lingala, as well as French with a Zairian accent, she managed to pass for a Zairian. Furthermore, she renamed herself with a Zairian surname, which helped her board a plane that was flying displaced war victims to Kinshasa. "We were adopted by sympathetic people, but I often lived separately from my little sister who lived with another family," she explains.
To pay for their school, she worked as babysitter. "I take after my mother who was very active," she says. A young theological student at the school brought her plight to the attention of a Polish priest, who was moved to tears by her story. He helped the two girls travel to Poland in 2000.
Balagizi, a gifted singer, is currently awaiting a decision from the Polish government on her application for asylum. Meanwhile, she spends her time singing hymns. "This is how I manage to make ends meet and avoid being idle," she says. "Singing consoles me. Besides, it is a symbol of absolute freedom. When singing, people just listen; the colour of my skin doesn't count. Nobody cares whether I am African or not, whether I have a legal status or not."
Balagizi finished high school just before leaving Congo. "I hope to continue my education but it is difficult here. I would like to be well educated and work hard in order to return home ... though I have no relatives there now ... no home, I am still ready to help with the reconstruction of my country."
Hungarian composer Bela Bartók is known as one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. He began performing at the age of 11. His first compositions revealed the influence of Liszt, Brahms and Strauss, but most of his inspiration came from exploring national folk music. This included Hungarian folk but also other ethnic rhythms that he discovered while travelling through his native Transylvania. His hometown is now part of Romania.
Using folk elements and traditional techniques, Bartók achieved an original modern style that has had a great impact on 20th-century music. He became known for his compositions for piano (such as "Mikrokosmos", 1926-27), for violin ("Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta", 1936), and for orchestra ("Concerto for Orchestra", 1943).
Bartók firmly opposed the rise of Nazism, its persecution of the Jews and the banning of their work. He was not a Jew, but said he was ready to become one just to protest against the persecution which was extending itself to Austria and Hungary. "My main idea, which dominates me entirely, is the brotherhood of man over and above all conflicts ... This is why I am open to influence by any fresh and healthy outside sources, be they Slovak, Romanian, Arabic or other," he said.
So, when war took over Europe, he reluctantly decided to go into exile and moved to the United States in 1940. He received an honorary PhD from Columbia University, and continued with folk song research as a visiting assistant in Music until 1942.
In September 1945 he died, leaving unfinished the last 17 bars of his "Concerto for Viola". His works were performed more often during the years following his death than during his entire lifetime. In 1988, 43 years after his death, his remains were brought back to Hungary for a state funeral.
Novelist Vicki Baum became famous for her best-selling novel "Menschen im Hotel", translated into English as "Grand Hotel", which became a movie starring Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Lionel Barrymore.
Born Hedwig Baum to a middle-class Jewish family in Vienna, she had been marked out for a musical career and studied the harp at the Vienna Conservatory. Indeed, she played the harp professionally. After a failed early marriage, she married conductor Richard Lert and gave up her musical career to raise two sons.
Amid the heady atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, Baum turned her attention to writing. Despite winning a literary contest judged by the great German writer Thomas Mann, she wrote for the mass market. "Grand Hotel" (1929) appeared as a serial in a weekly magazine and was an instant hit. Baum's style was part of the movement known as New Objectivity, which used a realistic, "cinematic" approach.
She explored other current social themes, like the 1920s "New Woman" phenomenon. Her novel "Stud. Chem. Helene Willfuer" (1928) dealt with the tensions in the changing roles of the modern woman.
After "Grand Hotel" was translated, Baum achieved a level of international stardom rarely achieved by German speaking writers of that time. And American critics, unlike their Austrian and German counterparts, did not consider her works substandard because they were bestsellers.
In 1931, Baum saw the early warning signs as the Nazi party was on the rise. With her career in America ensured, she and her family left Europe permanently. Hollywood was her destination because of her attraction to the film industry and she worked as screenwriter for MGM. Baum adopted English as her literary language and became increasingly regarded as an American writer of German descent. In 1938, Baum became an American citizen.
In her memoirs, Baum describes herself as a "first-class second-rate author". When she died on August 29, 1960 in Hollywood, the obituaries identified her as "the woman who wrote Grand Hotel".
Dorothy Mary Benson grew up in a white middle-class family in Pretoria, but despite her unlikely background, she became a leading anti-apartheid campaigner, the first historian of the African National Congress and the biographer of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president.
Benson's father, the administrator of Pretoria General Hospital, was Irish, and her mother was of English descent. Benson left the South African capital at the age of 18 in search of an acting career in London and California. However, she returned home as World War II approached. After working briefly as a secretary for the British High Commission, she joined the South African Women's Auxiliary Army Service, where she reached the rank of captain. She served as personal assistant to several distinguished commanders, and worked for the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Athens and Vienna.
After the war, she returned to London to pursue her interest in film, and started working as a secretary for director David Lean. At that time she also read Alan Paton's classic South African novel, "Cry, the Beloved Country", which opened her eyes to the inequalities of her homeland. She became a personal friend of Paton's.
Her interest in fighting the apartheid system of racial segregation was further fuelled by the Reverend Michael Scott, an Anglican priest working for the rights of the native peoples of South West Africa (now Namibia). Scott and Benson established the Africa Bureau in London in 1952. With the support of people such as David Astor, editor of the Observer, it aimed to inform the British public and politicians about African affairs and to provide a platform and voice for black liberation movements throughout Africa.
In 1956, Benson returned to South Africa for the trial of 156 South Africans charged with treason for opposing the apartheid laws. Subsequently, she ran the Treason Trial Defence Fund, a role that brought her into close contact with prominent anti-apartheid leaders and also exposed her to increased attention from the security police. Meeting many of the leaders gathered in Johannesburg for the trials, Benson began to write the hitherto unrecorded history of the African National Congress, travelling around the country interviewing and gathering the life stories of many of the key personalities.
She interviewed Mandela, later to become the President, in secret, while he was in hiding in 1961. In 1963, she was invited to the United States to testify to the Committee on Apartheid, the first South African to do so, and during her stay there she met with black anti-segregation leaders in the south. Back in South Africa, after reporting on a series of political trials, she was banned by the government. Unable to move about the country to meet people or to write and speak in public, she reluctantly chose to leave South Africa in 1966. It was an exile that was to last for more than 20 years.
She settled in London and devoted herself to continuing her relentless lobbying for the African cause. Above all, she stayed in contact with black leaders during the worst years of oppression, and remained close to Mandela during his years in prison. In 1980, she wrote his biography. From her flat in London she set up and maintained an information network among influential friends, and wrote letters, reports, radio plays and documentaries.
Following Mandela's release from jail in 1990, she was allowed to return to South Africa. That year, her autobiography, "A Far Cry: The Making of a South African", was published by Penguin Books. She returned home to visit several times despite deteriorating health. Benson died in London in June 2000.
In "The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist", acclaimed author Breyten Breytenbach relates the seven years he spent in a South African prison on terrorism charges. Released in 1982, he continued his fight against apartheid from outside the country.
Breytenbach came from a distinguished old Cape family, among the early settlers of the 17th century. A talented student, he studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Cape Town University. Apartheid regulations began to make themselves felt in the university and Breytenbach decided to go abroad. Initially he worked as a porter in London and then settled in Paris, where he continued to write and paint. He met various exiled members of the African National Congress.
In 1965, a friend published some of Breytenbach's poems in a South African literary journal, Sestiger (Sixties). The poems were soon published in book form and he received a prestigious Afrikaans-language literature prize, the Afrikaans Corps Prize.
It was only in 1964 that his status changed from expatriate to refugee. While abroad, he had married Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien, of Japanese origin. When he applied for a visa from the South African embassy so he could return to receive a literary prize, he was told that he could be arrested under the Immorality Act, which considered interracial marriage a crime.
It was in these years that Breytenbach began to get more involved in anti-apartheid activities. He co-founded Okehela, meaning "the spark" in Zulu, which aimed at building anti-apartheid infrastructure in white South African communities.
Back in South Africa in 1975 on a false passport with the intention of setting up contacts for his organisation, Breytenbach was followed and arrested. He was sentenced to nine years in prison, spending the first two years in solitary confinement in Pretoria's maximum-security prison. But after seven years of imprisonment, he was released unexpectedly in 1982. He took his anti-apartheid cause abroad.
In 1986 he returned to collect another literary prize and strongly criticised Afrikaner racism during his acceptance speech.
Although he considers Afrikaans as part of the policy of apartheid, Breytenbach continues to write poetry in Afrikaans, which he calls a "tainted language". Although it is a symbol of white domination, it also has roots in Creole, the Dutch spoken by sailors, slave Portuguese, and Malay, Khoi, Arabic and Zulu. Breytenbach writes his essays and novels, however, in English and French.
In "In Memory of Snow and Dust" (1989), he pieces together the lives of three exiles living in Paris. In 1991 he went back to South Africa for a three-month trip which he recounts in "A Return To Paradise".
Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky studied poetry with renowned Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who soon recognised the young writer's gift. Convicted at the age of 24 for being a "social parasite", Brodsky served his sentence from March 1964 to November 1965 in a forced labour camp in Arkhangelsk, northern Russia.
After being exiled in June 1972, Brodsky moved to the United States after brief stays in Vienna and London. He has been poet in residence and visiting professor at the University of Michigan, Queens College, Columbia University and Cambridge University in England.
Embittered by the exile forced on him, he wrote an open letter to then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev: "I belong to the Russian culture. I feel a part of it, its component, and no change of place can influence the final consequence of this. A language is a much more ancient and inevitable thing than the state. I belong to the Russian language". Brodsky, in "The Condition We Call Exile", recognised this century as one where displacement and misplacement were commonplace. He admitted that it was tragic, but that there was something good about exile, for it was the highest lesson of humbleness: "Lower your pride, says exile, you are nothing but a grain of sand in the desert."
Receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987, Brodsky remarked upon the secrecy surrounding the award in his home country, which made it look like "some kind of Chernobyl" disaster, a mention of it only appearing as a footnote of a Soviet literary magazine. "Those who knew Brodsky remember him as a man with a wicked sense of humour, a love of conversation and a sterling bullshit detector," one obituary later recalled.
Brodsky wrote nine volumes of poetry, several collections of essays and was co-founder of the American Poetry and Literacy project. He managed to become an outstanding author in his adopted language.
A human rights decree passed by Soviet President Mikhael Gorbachev in August 1990 restored Soviet nationality to those, including Brodsky, who had been unjustly stripped of their citizenship between 1966 and 1988.
Brodsky died of a heart attack in his Brooklyn apartment on January 28, 1996. He asked to be buried in Venice, a city where he spent 19 of his winters.
In 1945, on Nils Burwitz's fifth birthday, Soviet troops overran the German town of Swinemünde, a Baltic seaport on the mouth of the river Oder that now belongs to Poland. His mother took her two children and baby and began to trek westwards. They were arrested and imprisoned along the way, but finally made it to Hamburg.
Young Burwitz changed school 10 times in the various occupation zones of World War II. He eventually followed his parents to South Africa, where he finished his schooling. He wanted to become an artist. The University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg offered him a four-year bursary, and after obtaining his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, he went on to win a two-year postgraduate scholarship.
He married Marina Schwezoff, whose parents were refugees who had experienced the turmoil of the Russian Revolution and World War I. The shared pain of being uprooted helped to cement the bond between their two families.
They became very sensitive to the increasingly unstable political situation in South Africa. "Our children's future was at stake," said Burwitz. "As a visual artist my work had focused on the escalating injustices of the laws of racial discrimination. I became a forerunner in Resistance Art, condemning apartheid in its many aspects." They decided to leave South Africa and settle in Spain's Balearic Islands. It was a voluntary exile, but traumatic all the same, Burwitz recalled.
His children attended the village school on the main island of Mallorca and have gone on to make successful careers for themselves. One works at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Munich, another is a graduate in librarianship and an expert in Spanish classical dance, while the third is training with the Spanish Airforce.
Avant-garde filmmaker Luis Buñuel had the extraordinary ability to shock and delight at the same time. In films such as "Un Chien Andalou" and "L'Age d'Or", and later, "Viridiana", Buñuel intertwined incongruity with a baroque imagination, highly amusing to some, offensive to others, and always subversive. The Guardian film critic Derek Malcolm has noted that a great many directors, when asked to name their favourite filmmaker, invoke the Spaniard's name.
Born in the Aragonese village of Calanda, Buñuel was the son of a businessman and the eldest of seven children. He attended the Jesuit school of Zaragoza and went to the University of Madrid. He frequented peñas - meetings held in cafés by intellectuals and political thinkers: García Lorca, Ortega y Gasset, Unamuno and others.
Like them, Buñuel wanted to travel, to go elsewhere, meaning Paris. There, an entirely new education began for him amid the surrealist movement. In retrospect, Buñuel claimed: "Consumed by dreams larger than life, we (surrealists) were nothing more than a group of intellectuals who made interminable speeches in cafés." But there were other ways of wasting time - outings to the cinema.
Among most intellectuals, the cinema was still regarded as a vulgar pastime without an artistic future. Buñuel obviously saw something more, because he set about learning cinematographic techniques and even signed on as an errand boy in the Parisian studio where he finally made "Un Chien Andalou" (1928) in collaboration with fellow expatriate Salvador Dalí.
The 17-minute film, which showed a razor cutting a human eye, caused quite a stir. Buñuel was showered with praise, both by the surrealists and by Parisian high society on the watch for the new and the sensational.
Despite the storm, Buñuel persevered and produced "L'Age d'Or" (1930). This time his insults to morality and the established order, combined with his frantic anti-clericalism, caused an even greater scandal. He went back to Madrid soon after and got married.
During the civil war, Buñuel offered his services to the Republican government, and was requested to join the Spanish Ambassador in Paris, where he was entrusted with various information and propaganda work. In 1938, he went to Hollywood to contribute to a film about the conflict. The film was never made: Franco won the war and another war was looming which was to set Europe and the world ablaze.
Unemployed and in exile, Buñuel managed to land a job at the Museum of Modern Art. For several years he was to direct a service responsible for anti-Nazi propaganda films. Buñuel holds his compatriot Dalí responsible for his dismissal from the museum in 1944 - he had labelled Buñuel a Communist and atheist in "The Secret Life of Dalí", which had just been published. Buñuel was not deported, and even managed to find another position in Hollywood. But he was blacklisted, making all subsequent journeys to the US difficult.
Settling in Mexico in 1947, Buñuel made two deliberately "popular" films, thereby restoring his reputation and enabling him to produce what he called "a real film". "Los Olvidados" (The Young and the Damned, 1950), a vivid description of juvenile delinquency, triggered a hostile reaction from press and public. Buñuel was accused of having dishonoured Mexico - but the insults soon stopped as his international fame was revived.
Buñuel became a Mexican citizen, and between 1946 and 1977, made 20 films in Mexico and nine in Europe, the most outstanding being, arguably, "Viridiana" (1960), which tells the story of young nun who turns to a life of decadence. It was awarded the Palme d'Or in Cannes, but was banned in Spain. In Italy, the filmmaker was accused of blasphemy.
Buñuel died in Mexico City on July 29, 1983, months after the publication of his autobiography, "Mon Dernier Soupir" (My Last Sigh).
TV presenter Ismael Cala never planned to leave Cuba, but when he was told that his show had been cancelled and the authorities were investigating his politics, he decided it was safer to stay in Canada.
Cala had arrived in Toronto as part of a Cuban delegation at the Metro Caravan Festival. He was there on an 11-day visitor's permit, but when the bad news reached him, he changed his plans. He took the advice of a friend and applied for refugee status, which he received after 14 months.
Back in Cuba, Cala had had 20 years of experience in TV and Radio broadcasting, receiving three national awards for his work. Even as a teenager, he was hosting radio and TV shows. A graduate in Art History from Universidad de Oriente, Cala founded and directed University Radio in 1992. That same year, he began teaching Journalism and Art History.
In 1996, he graduated from the International Centre for Tourist Entertainment and began working as an anchor for a late night news programme. He became the producer and host of a talk show, "Seasons", which was a nationwide success with its own fan club. The following year, he went on to host the cultural part of a popular game show, "Who Knows?"
In Canada, Cala's first handicap was the language barrier. He took English lessons, along with keyboarding, computer and career training courses at Skills for Change, a non-profit immigration and resettlement agency for refugees. Within a year, he had learnt sufficient English to enrol as a full-time student at Toronto's York University.
Today Cala is completing his fourth year in a double-honours degree in Communication Studies and Humanities at York. He is also freelancing for the Spanish programme of TLN television network and acts as a host for Havana Nights at the Tropicana Dinner Theatre in Toronto.