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The refugees who changed history

17 January 20141 comment

Picture-collage-v2The US-based blog Huffington Post recently constructed a list of the world’s eight most famous refugees sparking a global debate in the blogsphere over just who the world’s most important exiles are.

Atop Huffington’s deliberations at number 1 was German-Jewish refugee and physicist Albert Einstein whose theory of relativity revolutionised science.

Einstein and his wife worked tirelessly on behalf of German Jews before and during WWII making visa applications and personally supporting many other refugees.

Also included in the Huffington list were:

  • former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a refugee from Czechoslovakia;
  • Grammy winning rapper/musician M.I.A, who fled civil war in Sri Lanka when she was nine;
  • father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, who fled to London from Austria after Hitler’s armies invaded;
  • German-born Nobel-prize-winning US diplomat Henry Kissenger;
  • Cuban-born pop idol Gloria Estefan; diarist and refugee from the Nazis Anne Frank; and
  • philosopher Karl Marx who was expelled from Paris in 1844.

The posting of the list provoked a furious round of suggestions, nominations and assessments on the internet.

Among some other often nominated prominent émigrés were:

  • Chilean refugee and author Isabel Allende;
  • Hungarian pianist and composer Bela Bartok;
  • writer and Russian refugee Joseph Brodsky;
  • political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who fled Nazism in 1930s Germany;
  • war photographer Joseph Capa, who fled both Hungary and Germany;
  • actress and singer Marlene Dietrich;
  • composer Frederick Chopin;
  • anti-apartheid campaigner Thabo Mbeki who was exiled from South Africa; and
  • actress Melina Mercouri, who was barred from her native Greece by the military junta which ran the country in the 1960s and 70s.

Also nominated were:

  • architect Richard Rogers;
  • Russian artist Marc Chagall;
  • Russian jeweller Peter Carl Faberge;
  • Czech film director Milos Forman;
  • Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil;
  • French writer Victor Hugo;
  • Czech writer Milan Kundera;
  • French ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss;
  • South African singer Miriam Makeba;
  • native American chief Sitting Bull;
  • Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis;
  • Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek;
  • Zanzibar-born singer Freddie Mercury;
  • conductor Sir Georg Solti;
  • Austrian singers The von Trapp family;
  • Tibetan monk the 14th Dalai Lama;
  • Congolese soccer star Fabrice Muamba;
  • Hong Kong film star Jackie Chan;
  • German-born film director Billy Wilder;
  • actress Rachel Weisz;
  • Cuban-born actor Andy Garcia;
  • Polish author Joseph Conrad;
  • German writer Thomas Mann; and,
  • Russian author Vladimir Nobokov.

Academic and author Dr Ian Pringle said the lists of prominent refuges showed how people willing to leave behind their lives and families for principles were often high-achieving, resilient and driven individuals.

“The lists of famous refugees are impressive. What you have here are some of the most important people who have ever lived in terms of their positive impact on history and on the lives of others,” Dr Pringle said.

“Refugees often take risks in leaving their home countries and often have had difficult or traumatic lives. This seems to imbue them with a resilience and determination that leads to high achievement,” he said.

“In the cases of most of the people listed, the countries which have accepted them as refugees have benefitted enormously from their presence,” Dr Pringle said.

He said Australia was a case in point.

“There are literally dozens of former refugees who have made important contributions to Australia in all sorts of fields,” Dr Pringle said.

Among prominent Australian former refugees are:

  • businessman and property magnate Frank Lowy, who left Hungary after WWII;
  • telecommunications entrepreneur and former Young Australian of the Year Tan Le, who fled Vietnam as a refugee in 1982;
  • sports broadcaster Les Murray, who came to Australia as a refugee from Hungary in 1957;
  • former judge and NSW Governor James Spigelman, who arrived in Australia as a refugee from Poland in 1949;
  • AFL player Majak Daw, who fled Sudan as a refugee and arrived in Australia in 2003;
  • Vietnam-born author and comedian Ahn Do, who arrived in Australia on a small boat in 1980;
  • research biologist Sir Gustav Nossal, who fled Austria for Australia in 1939;
  • painter Judy Cassab, who fled Austria in the 1950s;
  • actor Henri Szeps, who was born in a Swiss refugee camp during WWII; and
  • entrepreneur and businessman Huy Truong, who arrived from Vietnam, aged seven with just the clothes on his back.

Dr Pringle says the BRW rich list is full of migrants who have risen to the top of corporate Australia.

“The political focus of the current debate about asylum seekers is obscuring a more important discussion we need to have about the sort of immigration system Australia needs to maintain growth and prosperity not to mention deal with problems associated with an aging workforce,” he said.