Imagine a world without the work of physicist Albert Einstein, psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, painter Marc Chagall, author Joseph Conrad, filmmaker Billy Wilder or singer Freddie Mercury. Something they all had in common was that they had been refugees. Refugees have made their mark in all areas of society and have contributed to their adopted countries in many ways. For instance, both the 26th and 27th Governor General of Canada were refugees: Adrienne Clarkson was a toddler when her family fled the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in 1941 and Michaëlle Jean was 11 when she came to Canada in 1968, along with her mother and sister, to join their father, who had fled Haiti the year before. In celebration of World Refugee Day on June 20, here are some surprising famous people who were refugees too.
After resettling in Sri Lanka, the escalating war prompted Maya’s mother to move herself and the kids to London a week before the girl turned 11. Maya’s father became a mediator for peace in Sri Lanka.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer
However, when her house was destroyed in the Syrian civil war, she and her sister fled to Lebanon and then Turkey. They got onto a dinghy that would smuggle them to Greece but along the way, the engine stopped working and the craft started taking on water. Yusra, her sister and two other people got out and treaded water for more than three hours until the engine started working again and they made it to Lesbos. They then travelled to Berlin, where they settled in 2015.
Civil war broke out when Alek was eight and the family had to flee their home, avoiding capture by both rebel and government forces. All the walking caused an old injury of her father’s to become infected and he later died in Khartoum. Alek arrived in London when she was 14, was discovered at 18 and the rest is fashion history.
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On his way to Australia along with other asylum seekers, their boat was intercepted and Behrouz was held at the Manus Island detention centre. He secretly got the word out about human rights abuses at the centre — which led to its closure in 2017 – and wrote his memoir by sending it sentence by sentence over WhatsApp. He has since made it to New Zealand.
After the company’s final performance, Mikhail’s KGB handlers led him to the bus transporting the dancers but a crowd of fans appeared, wanting autographs. This allowed Mikhail to escape his handlers and dash to a waiting getaway car, political asylum and artistic freedom. After a stint with the Canadian National Ballet, he moved to the United States. He’s not only considered one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time but is also an acclaimed choreographer and actor.
After resettlement in Maryland, Sergey’s father became a mathematics professor and helped the boy with his own math skills. Sergey graduated from university with honours in computer science and mathematics when he was only 19. He went on to Stanford, met Larry Page and the rest... well, Google it.
After the war, the family returned to Prague. In 1948, the Communist Party took over and Madeleine’s father, a staunch opponent of communism, took the family to the United States, where they were granted political asylum. Madeleine went on to become the first woman to serve as Secretary of State of the United States.
Even though they had legal status as "involuntary migrants", life was a struggle and when Maryam was nine, they returned to Afghanistan once again. Three years later her mother let the family embark on a long journey to Canada, where they settled in Peterborough.
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
While Philip went on to marry into the wealthy British Royal Family, his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, later returned to Greece, where she worked for the Red Cross and hid a Jewish family during World War II.