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.
Writer Agota Kristof has drawn on her own experiences in life, which include oppression, deportation and war. Fleeing Hungary in 1956, she was granted refugee status in Switzerland. With the publication of her trilogy, "Book of Lies", she became an internationally acclaimed author.
Born in Scikyzd, Kristof began writing at an early age, mainly poems. She married a history teacher and after the Hungarian uprising, they feared he might be imprisoned for his political and journalistic activities, so they fled Hungary with their four-month-old child, taking with them only a feeding bottle, some clothes and two dictionaries. Crossing through woodlands, they arrived in Austria.
They reached a refugee camp near Vienna, where they remained for some weeks. They wanted to go to the United States, where they had relatives, but her husband was offered a scholarship at the University of Neuchâtel, where he decided to study biology. To make a living for the family, Kristof worked in a watch factory while she taught herself French.
One of her characters, Tobias Horvath in "Yesterday", is also a worker in a watch factory who runs home to write. Writing became an absolute necessity for her. Kristof published two plays in French after just 12 years of residence in Switzerland. To write in a foreign language became a challenge, "the challenge of an illiterate", she says. "It came very slowly. It was like a game. You would hear sentences in French all day. It was pointless to then write them down in Hungarian."
The backdrop of her trilogy ("The Notebook", "The Proof" and "The Third Lie", written between 1986 and 1991), is one of dictatorship, war and forlorn freedom. It portrays a world of inhumanity where two twin brothers, abandoned by their mother to an avaricious, tyrannical grandmother, have to learn to survive.
In 1967, Milan Kundera published his first novel, "The Joke", a satire on Czechoslovakian-style Stalinism. Needless to say, the authorities did not find it funny, and as Kundera refused to be silenced, he was fired from his job and ultimately forced to live abroad.
Kundera had started publishing poems and newspaper articles in the 1950s. Many were openly critical of the regime. In 1950, he was expelled from the Communist Party, although he was later readmitted.
He wrote "The Joke" at the age of 38. The novel tells the story of a student whose joking reference to Trotsky earns him a sentence to hard labour. In 1969, following the Russian invasion and the end of the Prague Spring, Kundera was fired from his post at the Film Faculty and the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, where he lectured in cinematographic studies.
He was again expelled from the Communist Party in 1970. His works were banned from publication and withdrawn from public libraries. In his own words: "After the Soviet invasion this [his call for greater artistic freedom] led to the absurd charge that I was a counter-revolutionary."
To escape the restrictions on freedom of thought and expression, Kundera moved to France, where he was appointed associate professor at the University of Rennes. He came to prominence in the west with "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" (1979) and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (1984).
Kundera today lives in Paris and continues to write bestsellers. "Slowness" (1995), written in French, touches on one of his recurrent themes, the relation of speed to memory, but also reveals his typical style - philosophical digressions, multiple points of view, black humour and cerebral eroticism. He has written other political satires such as "Life is Elsewhere" and "The Farewell Party".
Theanvy Kuoch turned her own experience as a Cambodian refugee into something positive - she now helps other victims of persecution to overcome the scars of the past and has won international recognition for her achievements.
After suffering for four years under the Khmer Rouge regime, she managed to escape from Cambodia in 1979. She recalls the horror of the 1970s: "From 1975 to 1979, I was a slave of the Khmer Rouge and forced to do heavy labour. I watched as my family died one by one from starvation and abuse until I had lost more than 19 relatives." Following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, Kuoch, fearing Khmer Rouge reprisals, ran away with her six-year-old son and her niece. They hid in the forest, staying until it was safe to go back to her home, where she was reunited with her father and three sisters.
Kuoch left her little boy with her sisters and went to the Thai border in search of food. On their way, together with other needy Cambodians, they crossed an area where clashes had broken out between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Army. "I ran for many hours and when I got to the border, my feet were so swollen that all my toenails fell off." The Red Cross located them and helped them reach Khao-i-Dang, a UNHCR refugee camp.
In the refugee camp, Kuoch was able to regain her self-respect, lost during the long years of harsh treatment. She began working for a surgical hospital operated by the German Catholic Relief Organization and was trained as a theatre nurse. After spending two years working in various refugee camps, she was resettled in the United States. In America, she obtained a master's degree in Cross Cultural and Contextual Family Therapy at Goddard College, Vermont.
Since 1982, Kuoch, together with other devoted nurses from the Khao-i-Dang camp, has provided health services to survivors of torture and persecution through Khmer Health Advocates. As she has said: "I learned that my own pain was eased by helping others." This organisation, based in West Hartford, Connecticut, co-operates closely with other international refugee agencies and assists families to locate and resettle relatives. Finding her own son after 11 years of separation was the greatest reward for her lifelong work.
In the late 1980s, Kuoch started a project called Cambodian Mothers for Peace, a women's group that advocated an end to fighting in Cambodia through discussions and presentations about their Cambodian experience. This year, she organised the National Cambodian American Health Taskforce to address a health crisis in Cambodian communities across the United States.
Kuoch has been awarded on several occasions for her enduring refugee work: in 1984, she was one of the humanitarians honoured as "Outstanding Women" in commemoration of the United Nations Decade of Women. In 1991, President George Bush declared her a "point of light" on National Refugee Day. In 1992, she received an award by the Women's Refugee Commission for Refugee Women and Children for her advocacy work.
When Walter Lam arrived in San Diego in 1986 as a political refugee from Uganda, he had no idea that within 13 years, he would be the President and Chief Executive Officer of an agency with 53 employees, a budget of $1.5 million and an agenda to help refugees like himself.
Lam was an agricultural engineer by profession, until political persecution forced him to flee to Kenya, where with the help of Amnesty International and the La Jolla Presbyterian Church, he managed to resettle in the United States.
Lam's son died in March 1999 after police beatings, despite his non-political stance. Lam, his wife and daughter were unable to attend the funeral because it was still unsafe for him to return to Uganda.
In his first years in San Diego, Lam's main preoccupation was to find a job, become self-sufficient and try to bring his family over to America. It was difficult to adjust, because he was unable to resume his original profession. As more and more refugees arrived in San Diego, Lam decided to use what he had learned to help refugees settle in. Working out of a garage, he started to assist other Africans who came to him. The Alliance for African Assistance, which Lam founded in 1989, now employs staff from 16 different countries.
In 1991, the Board of Directors decided the Alliance should assist not only Africans, but also refugees from all over the world. In 1999, it helped 23,000 people, including 107 refugees from Kosovo. Projects include working with schools on behalf of refugee children and with the San Diego Police to develop youth initiatives to combat inner-city gangs.
Well before becoming a naturalised American citizen in January 2000, Lam was recognised for his leadership in the immigrant community of San Diego.
He is a member of the California Refugee Health Advisory Board, the California State Advisory Committee for Refugees, the California Refugee Forum, the San Diego Police Review Board, the Community Building Committee of United Way, and the Prostate Cancer Community Advisory Committee of the Scripps Cancer Center.
Editor Panayotis Lambrias once faced trial for insulting the morals of the ancient Greeks, but this veteran campaigner for freedom of speech put modern Greece on the map as a worthy descendant of the first democracy.
Lambrias studied law at the University of Athens and became a lawyer in 1950, but his character was more suited to journalism. He published articles in several newspapers during the 1950s before becoming the editor-in-chief of Eikones, a weekly magazine, in 1960, and of Messimvrini, a respected daily paper, in 1961.
In April 1967, a coup d'état established a military dictatorship known as the Colonels' junta, which censored the press, so Lambrias and his colleagues decided to shut Messimvrini down.
Lambrias still published articles in Eikones magazine - though not on domestic issues. He used topical stories to attack the Colonels, albeit in an oblique way - denouncing the militarism of the Viet Nam War, for example. But in August 1968, he went too far. He published an article on homosexuality in ancient Greece and military regimes. The journalist, Giannis Lampsas, used Nazi Germany as an example, but the Colonels were incensed.
Lambrias and Lampsas were taken before the Secretary General of the Ministry of Public Order. As they were waiting to stand trial on the charge of "insulting the morals of our ancient ancestors", Lambrias managed to go home, pack a suitcase, drive to the port of Patras and take the boat to Italy.
He did not plan to leave forever. "My intention was to work in my country when the circumstances would be suitable to do so," Lambrias later said. He relied on other Greek exiles in Europe for assistance, staying in Switzerland and Paris for a while before settling down in London.
He found work at the BBC and with German radio, and became the publisher of the anti-junta magazine, Greek Report. To finance his political activities, he took up translation, editing encyclopaedias and dictionaries.
The Colonels' grip on Greece vanished after Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in July 1974. In Paris, the exiled leader of the Greek democratic movement, Konstantinos Karamanlis, called Lambrias in London: "You know, they asked me to return to Greece," he said, requesting that Lambrias meet him in Paris.
"When I arrived in Paris, an official of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed me that I was going to be a Minister!" Lambrias recalled. He and Karamanlis were flown back to Greece in an official French plane, courtesy of the French President, Giscard d'Estaing.
Upon their arrival in Athens, a Government of National Unity was formed, headed by Karamanlis, with Lambrias as a deputy Minister of State and Government Spokesman.
Lambrias was to pursue a long and successful political career in national government and the European Parliament (he was an MEP from 1984 to 1999), although he returned to his former passion, journalism and publishing, as the editor of Messimvrini, from 1981 to 1983.
Lambrias died in Athens on March 3, 2001.
Born in Hungary in 1928, Tom Lantos was 16 years old when the Nazis occupied his native country. He has put his traumatic flight and exile behind him to become one of the best known politicians and human rights campaigners in the United States.
In 1944, Lantos was sent into a forced labour group along with other young Jewish men to work on an important bridge on the Budapest-Vienna rail line. Trying to escape, Lantos was caught and "beaten to a pulp". Later, he escaped successfully and found refuge abroad with the help of the legendary Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg. He was a member of the anti-Nazi underground as well as the anti-Communist student movement.
After the German army pulled out of Budapest at the end of World War II, Lantos found that his mother and the rest of his family had been killed. He miraculously re-established contact with an old childhood friend, Annette Tillemann, and she became his wife. They have been married for 50 years.
After a year of studies at the University of Budapest, Lantos was awarded a Hillel Foundation scholarship to study in the United States, where he graduated from the University of Washington. He went on to earn a doctorate in international economics at the University of California, Berkeley and was an economics professor at San Francisco State University for 30 years. He has also worked as an international affairs analyst for public television and a consultant to a number of businesses.
Lantos was elected to his 10th term in the US House of Representatives in November 1998. He is a founding co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which works to increase awareness of international human rights and the victims of persecution. Lantos also serves on the Government Reform and Oversight Committee and is a senior member of the House International Relations Committee. In addition, he is co-chairman of the Permanent US Congressional Delegation to the European Parliament, and a member of the US Congressional Delegation to the North Atlantic Assembly and the US Holocaust Memorial Council.
Tan Le, the Young Australian of the Year for 1998, is a woman who has achieved academic success while at the same time contributing to her community. Her story is one of talent, perseverance and dedication amidst the struggle of being a refugee.
Le's family fled Viet Nam in 1981, surviving five days on a little boat before being picked up by a British oil tanker and deported to a refugee camp in Malaysia. The family stayed several months in the camp before being accepted by Australia as refugees.
Arriving in Australia with no possessions or knowledge of English, Le's mother devoted herself to work and learning English in order to provide an education for her children. Despite initial language difficulties, Tan Le demonstrated an outstanding academic record, gaining entrance to the university when she was 16.
Growing up in Footscray, Victoria, where she still lives, she devoted her considerable energies and talent to community services. At the age of 15, she joined the Vietnamese Community of Footscray Association, which was established to provide training and find employment for young Vietnamese Australians. Within three years, Le was made President. She proceeded to establish a number of new training and employment initiatives, as well as a programme to provide counselling and refuge for Vietnamese women. Finally, she turned the Footscray Association into the Australian Vietnamese Resource Centre, regarded today as one of the most effective Vietnamese community organisations in Australia.
As a student, Le also organised several cultural events that have helped to promote multiculturalism in Melbourne. She mobilised the community to support fund drives for charities, and recorded tapes of Vietnamese newspapers for the Victorian Association for the Blind.
Meanwhile, Le was awarded a KPMG Accounting Scholarship in 1997. She graduated with a Commerce and Law degree with honours from Monash University in 1998 and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in early 2000.
Her positions include: Member of the Australian Citizenship Council, Member of the Centre of the Mind (Australian National University), Member of 'A Fair Go For All', the National Committee for Human Rights Education in Australia, National Ambassador for Aboriginal Reconciliation, National Ambassador for National Youth Media Awards and Patron of the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development Programme.
Le was also appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for Australia to China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and Viet Nam in the late 1990s. Subsequently she has travelled to Asia under the sponsorship of the Images of Australia Unit (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade).
Le is currently the Chief Commercial Officer of SASme Wireless Communications.
Raphael Lemkin coined the word "genocide" before the world knew the horrors of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. A Polish Jewish refugee, he was the man behind the first UN human rights treaty, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Lemkin studied philology and law at Lwow and Heidelberg universities and was a prominent international jurist in pre-war Poland. As early as 1933, he appeared before the Legal Council of the League of Nations in Madrid with a proposal to outlaw acts of "barbarism and vandalism". He helped draft the criminal code of a newly-independent Poland after World War I and served as the state prosecutor in Warsaw until 1934, when anti-Semitic slurs forced him to withdraw into private practice.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Lemkin joined the resistance and was wounded in fighting. He hid in the forest for months before fleeing to Sweden.
As a visiting lecturer of law at the University of Sweden, Stockholm, Lemkin was the first academic to study Nazism from the standpoint of jurisprudence. He analysed the legal decrees of the New Order in Europe that allowed the Nazi occupation, and wrote "Axis Rule in Occupied Europe".
Lemkin identified Hitler's abominable intention, and labelled it "genocide", a hybrid word consisting of the Greek prefix genos, meaning race, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing. In Lemkin's view, genocide is a premeditated crime with clearly defined goals, rather than just an aberration.
In 1941, he moved to the United States, having been offered a post at Duke University. During the summer of 1942, Lemkin lectured at the US War Department and served as chief consultant of the US board of Economic Warfare and the Foreign Economic Administration. Appointed in 1945 as a consultant on international law to the Judge Advocate of the US Army, he also served as legal advisor to the US Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg. At international legal meetings, he began to outline ideas for a change in international law. He had hoped to have an international genocide convention approved at the Paris peace conference in 1945, but was unsuccessful. On December 9, 1948, the convention was adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly.
Having lost over 40 members of his family to the Nazis, Lemkin sought to develop international legal instruments that would prevent any further instances of genocide. Giving up his academic career, he decided to concentrate all his efforts on defining and denouncing genocide and establishing it as crime under international law. He continued to lobby for the ratification of the Convention on behalf of its member states and he lectured at Yale, Rutgers and Princeton universities. In 1950 and 1952, he was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Lemkin died on August 28, 1959. He had written 11 books, including a volume on art criticism, another about rose cultivation and others dealing mainly with international law. Eight chapters of an uncompleted history of genocide are currently held by the New York Public Library, together with unpublished diaries of Lemkin's earlier life.
More than 90 countries are signatories to the convention, although the United States, the country that had given him succour, did not ratify the treaty until 1988.
Movie star Peter Lorre was born Ladislav Lowenstein in Rozsahegy, Austro-Hungary, today part of the Czech Republic. Typecast in rather sinister roles, he nonetheless became a screen icon, remembered for his parts in such films as "Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon".
His grandfather was a rabbi and his father a middle-class landowner and prosperous tradesman. After losing many of their possessions in the aftermath of the 1919 Hungarian revolution, the Lorre family moved to Vienna.
At the age of 17, Lorre ran away from home and joined a theatre company. In 1922, he deliberately got himself fired from his job as a bank clerk so as to be able to dedicate himself full time to acting. In 1928, he adopted the stage name Lorre. During the 1920s and 1930s, he performed in Berlin's flourishing art theatres.
The film that launched his movie career was his performance in Fritz Lang's "M" (1931), where he played the role of a psychopathic child killer. In 1933, the Germans used his image in a poster for an anti-Semitic propaganda film, "The Eternal Jew". Lorre decided to leave for England.
His first English-speaking role was in the part of a hired killer in Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 thriller, "The Man Who Knew Too Much". In 1936, Hitchcock cast him as a "hairless Mexican professional killer" in "Secret Agent". Throughout his career, Lorre played many different nationalities: impersonating Germans, Hungarians, Russians, French, Mexicans, Arabs and Japanese.
Subsequently, he moved to Hollywood, where he remained for the next 30 years. He made his American screen debut in 1935, starring in the horror melodrama "Mad Love", a classic horror movie. Part of the deal was that he would co-write and act in Josef von Sternberg's "Crime and Punishment", where he played the lead role of Raskolnikov. In 1941, Lorre was cast as a gentleman crook in John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon", in which he starred alongside Humphrey Bogart. He was typecast in this role in many films, including perhaps his most famous part, in "Casablanca" (1942).
During the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the late 1940s, federal agents came to question him. When they asked whether he knew any suspicious persons, he answered by listing the names of everyone he had ever met. From then on, he was left alone.
In 1950, he returned to Germany, co-writing, starring in and directing the first German film critical of Nazism: "Der Verlorene" (The Lost One). In the mid-1950s, his career began to fade, although he still played in many minor roles.
Lorre has remained a cult figure, and he is mentioned in various novels, including "On the Road", "Catcher in the Rye" and "Under the Volcano".
Lorre died on March 23, 1964.
Li Lu was one of the student leaders in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989 which were broken up when tanks opened fire on pro-democracy protesters. Since then, he has lived a life in exile, studied hard and achieved meteoric success in business.
Li's grandfather, a distinguished scholar and fan of democratic thinker John Dewey, was a prominent critic of Mao, for which he was jailed during the 1949 revolution. His grandmother, a pioneer educator in the 1930s, thrust books into his lap.
When Li was just a baby, his parents were sent to labour camps for re-education during the Cultural Revolution. He passed through a dozen foster homes until he was deposited in a state orphanage, then adopted. His bad fortune continued when his entire adoptive family fell victim to an earthquake in 1976, which hit the coal-mining town of Tangshan. The 10-year-old Li was left alone again until he was reunited with his natural parents during the mid-1980s.
Inspired by his courageous ancestors, Li entered Nanjing University as a student of physics and economics. He was then quickly swept up by the student democracy movement and with his girlfriend travelled 1,000 miles by train to attend the demonstrations in Beijing that changed his life forever.
As the 23-year-old deputy commander to Chai Ling, Li led the hunger strike that turned into the events of Tiananmen Square. When the tanks rolled in on June 4, he was advised to flee. He narrowly escaped to Hong Kong after a two-month manhunt by the Chinese authorities. From there, he made his way to France and then to the United States.
During his first six months in the West, Li stayed with graduate students at Columbia University, acclimatising to a wholly different world. He began attending Columbia, enrolling in three different degree programmes at the undergraduate college, the law school and the business school simultaneously. He became the first student at Columbia University to receive three separate degrees in a single day in 1996. In the meantime, he developed a fascination for the financial market.
After graduation, he worked as an investment banker and embraced capitalism. His mantra became: "free man, free market". Now he is known as the founder of Himalaya Capital Partners, a $20-million hedge fund in Manhattan. He has appeared on the covers of various business magazines.
Li's status as a celebrity dissident has opened doors for him. He has been able to galvanise an elite group to invest in his hedge fund, with a client roster including Sting and Robert Bernstein - founding chairman of Human Rights Watch and former chief executive of Random House - and his son Tom Bernstein, who helped Li gain asylum as the board president of the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights.
Li often invests in stocks he believes are undervalued. "It's what I'm all about," he says. "It's revolutionary. It's about trusting yourself. It's about challenging the conventional wisdom. That's what we did in Tiananmen."
Critics, especially in the Chinese dissident community, find his current preoccupation with capitalism at odds with his past life of political activism. But Li responds, "I have separated my profession and the cause. My profession is to make a living and to excel; democracy in China is my cause." Li continues to campaign for human rights in China. He is spokesperson for the International Affairs Committee of the Alliance for a Democratic China and a member of the Reebok Human Rights Award board of advisors.