7 famous people you didn't know were once refugees

7 famous people you didn't know were once refugees

Half of the 65 million people displaced by conflict in 2016 were children. With a bloody and ongoing war in Syria, climate change making its impact felt across regions of East Africa and South Asia, and repressive regimes in control in various countries across the globe, this refugee crisis looks set to continue. But displacement is nothing new. From the "boat people" of the Vietnam War to the millions of people who moved across Europe in the shadow of the Second World War, history has seen its fair share of forced migration.

But what happens to these people once they reach a place of safety? Some will go on to live entirely normal lives. Some, it seems, go on to make history. So, let's take a look at a few of the famous faces in entertainment, politics and education who were once refugees.

1. Albert Einstein

Arguably the world’s most famous scientist, Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany in 1879. As a man of Jewish faith, Einstein faced persecution at the hands of the Nazis and fled to the US in 1933. His cottage was later turned into a Hitler Youth Camp by the SS. Once in the US, he used his influence to help obtain visas for others fleeing Germany. In later life, he was vocal about his disdain for racism, nationalism and nuclear weapons - so much so that the FBI actually put him on a watch list.

Portrait of Einstein Credit: Pixabay

2. Mila Kunis

Actress Mila Kunis and her family arrived to the US in 1991, when she was just seven years old, having been forced to leave their home in Ukraine amid a surge of antisemitism. In interviews, Kunis has talked about the fact that both of her parents had to give up good jobs to make the move, about the difficulty of moving to the US with no English, and her lack of understanding of American culture. Unsurprisingly, both her and husband Ashton Kutcher have been highly critical of Donald Trump's anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric. 

3. Rita Ora

Born to Albanian parents in Kosovo, Ora fled to the UK with her family at the age of one due to the ill-treatment faced by Albanians in the country at that time. She has since spoken of the racism she faced growing up, giving speeches calling for greater tolerance and support for refugees arriving from Syria: “This is an opportunity for all of us to reach out and embrace families and people in a time of need… we can approach this crisis with compassion and care. If we take action, we help everyone thrive.” 

4. Madeline Albright

Madeline Albright may be best known as the first woman to hold the position of Secretary of State in the US, but she was originally born in Prague as the daughter of a Czech diplomat. The family were forced to leave the country in 1938, when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia and her father's political links put them in conflict with the new regime. They briefly returned at the end of the Second World War, before being forced out again by the rise of the Soviet Union and communist ideology. Having arrived in the US in November 1948, she spent her entire career helping to promote and safeguard refugee rights. 

5. M.I.A

Born in London in 1975, rapper M.I.A moved to Sri Lanka, where her father was involved in the Tamil separatist movement, when she was just a baby. With civil war in the country raging - in one interview she recalled being shot at in school by soldiers - she returned to the UK with her brother and mum at the age of 11, this time as refugees. The musician has used her work to shine a light of the experience of refugees, describing her first album as intended to “make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about.” 

6. Regina Spektor

Singer-songwriter Regina Spektor was born in Moscow, Russia and left the Soviet Union in 1989 as a result of antisemitism and religious repression. Although the Soviet Union would collapse just two years later, the family could not return as Russian citizens as their passports were reportedly destroyed by border security as punishment. It was only in 2012 that Spektor returned to the country of her birth for the first time, describing the experience as beautiful, but noting that oppression still exists in the country: "You get plopped into your family language and feel a natural connection to the way of thinking, but the kind of Russia it is now, with Putin, the anti-gay laws… It’s this alternate weird reality."

7. Freddie Mercury

As the iconic frontman of and genius behind British rock band Queen, many people will no doubt be surprised to find out that Freddie Mercury was actually born Farrokh Bulsara, in colonial Zanzibar - now part of Tanzania - to Indian parents. Having spent much of his childhood in India, he returned to Zanzibar in 1963, but was forced to flee again in 1964 during the Zanzibar revolution, in which many individuals of Indian and Arab descent were killed. A British citizen from birth, Mercury settled in London.

Freddie Mercury onstage Credit: Getty

In general, it's fair to say that the media takes a pretty limited, stereotypical view of refugees, tending to characterise those fleeing persecution and conflict as either objects of pity or plague, depending on which end of the political spectrum their editorial line falls. But as these stars show, there is no such thing as a "typical" refugee - and there never has been.