5 World-Changing Figures Who Fled From Their Homelands

These refugees did not accept the status quo

From left: Freddie Mercury, Madeleine Albright, K’naan (Creative Commons photo collage)

Over the past few months, U.S. political discourse has taken an increasingly isolationist tone. There’s been talk of walls, closing borders, and sending refugees back to their war-ravaged, politically unstable countries. But today is World Refugee Day; it’s time to take stock of some important figures who, you may not have realized, abandoned their home countries in pursuit of safe haven.

Some of the greatest political, scientific and creative minds belong to refugees. Hannah Arendt and Raphael Lemkin authored many prominent pieces on totalitarianism and genocide after WWI. Hollywood gained Marlene Dietrich and Billy Wilder, who left Germany during the rise of Hitler. Bob Marley, M.I.A., and K’naan are refugees who’ve given us volumes of powerful, thought-provoking music.

In honor of this vital day of observance, here’s a look into the lives of people you may not have known were refugees.

Madeleine Albright

While Hillary Clinton was still First Lady, Madeleine Albright made her own dent in the glass ceiling—at the age of 60—by becoming our first female Secretary of State. Albright was born in Prague to Czech diplomat Josef Korbel. As the former Czechoslovakia disintegrated at the hands of the Nazis, Albright’s family fled to Britain, where her father continued his political work. In 1948 they returned home only to leave again as the rise of Communism washed over their home country. The family immigrated to the United States, settling in Denver. After college Albright, like her father, was driven toward politics; she eventually became a campaign adviser for Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential bid. She then went on to be Bill Clinton’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Secretary of State in his second term, and a staunch advocate for women’s and human rights.

Victor Hugo

Anne Hathaway may have never won an Academy Award if not for Victor Hugo—author of Les Miserables and arguably France’s greatest writer. That is, until he was banished from the country due to his political activism, not long after Napoleon III overthrew the Second French Republic. He found asylum in the UK, where he continued his writing and political activism. Although granted amnesty by Napoleon III, Hugo stated, “When freedom returns, I shall return.” Instead, he travelled across Europe at the behest of political groups in Crete, Sicily, and Ireland, who requested him to represent their causes. When the French empire fell, Hugo returned to Paris where he lived out his final days.

Albert Einstein

Germany gave us Albert Einstein and Einstein gave us the theory of relativity (maybe you’ve heard of it?) The Jewish scientist grew up in Munich, studied in Switzerland, and taught across Europe before beginning his research at the Prussian Academy of Sciences and earning a Nobel Prize in 1921. But due to his religion, as the power of Hitler and the Nazis rose, working in Germany became exceedingly difficult. He and his wife left for the U.S. and Einstein took up a teaching post at Princeton. While science was always his primary pursuit, he and his wife also became involved in the asylum process for other German Jews. His wartime efforts did not end there—Einstein’s last political act was a letter stating his support for banning nuclear weapons.

Sitting Bull

Holy man and chief of the Hunkpapa Lakota tribe, Sitting Bull (Tatanka-Iyotanka) remains the most prominent figure in Native American defiance. Born in present-day South Dakota, he led both peaceful and armed battles against the U.S. Army through the late 1800s. After the deadly Battle of Little Bighorn, during which 260 soldiers died, Sitting Bull fled to Canada where he spent four years on land granted by the British government. Upon his return to the U.S., he was captured and taken prisoner for two years—but this did not deter his fight. In his final act of resistance, Sitting Bull was shot by a policeman for supporting a Ghost Dance, believed to signify Native American’s delivery from oppression and destruction of whites.

Freddie Mercury

The flamboyant Queen frontman Freddie Mercury left his home island of Zanzibar amidst a revolution in 1964. Mercury, whose given name is Farrokh Bulsara, went to great lengths to keep his childhood secret. His passport read “Frederick Mercury”, and he adopted the named Freddie before arriving in England. Mercury’s talented performances were fueled by deep emotion—some of his best shows began with violent, love-fueled arguments. Yet the theatrics seen onstage were only one of Mercury’s personas. He was shy and a reluctant symbol of the LGBT community when it was publicized that Mercury contracted AIDS in 1987. A reluctant figurehead, but profoundly important nonetheless.


Four black women, Engineers Christine Darden and Mary Jackson, mathematician Katherine Johnson, and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan, worked as "human computers" at NASA during the Space Race, making space travel possible through their complex calculations. Jackson, Johnson, and Vaughn all played a vital role in helping John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.

They worked behind the scenes, but now they're getting the credit they deserve as their accomplishments are brought to the forefront. Their amazing stories were detailed in the book "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race" by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was later turned into a movie. (Darden was not featured in the movie, but was in the book). Johnson has a building at NASA named after her, and a street in front of NASA's Washington D.C. headquarters was renamed "Hidden Figures Way."

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