Einstein, Chopin, The Dalai Lama And More: Seven Refugees Who Changed The World

Published January 20, 2016
Updated February 27, 2024

Recent events have many parts of the world clamping down on admitting refugees. But did you know we could be turning away the next Einstein?

Recent world events have seen millions fleeing terrible circumstances in search of safe places to live. The ongoing influx of Syrian and Iraqi refugees abandoning conflict-stricken zones is just one recent example: Humanity, sadly, has a long history of creating refugees.

Famous Refugees

All of the above, at one point in their lives, were refugees.

Some people have tried to keep these individuals out of their countries or suggested that such an arrival is unprecedented, but again, history would suggest that such stances are both misguided and empirically false.

Indeed, many refugees past have gone on to make history themselves, radically improving the world in which we all live. The following are seven historical, hugely important refugees whose contributions continue to impact our world even today:

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein sought refuge in the United States under the regime of Nazi Germany. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Einstein was a Jewish refugee who escaped Germany when the Nazis came to power in the early 20th century. Born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879, he studied and worked both in Switzerland (where he acquired citizenship in 1901) and Germany (where he became a citizen in 1914). In the early 20th century, anti-semites sought to publicize Einstein’s research as “un-German,” and under the Nazi Third Reich his property was seized, his books were burned, and the theoretical physicist was accused of treason.

In 1933, unable to find work in an increasingly fanatical Germany, he migrated to the United States with refugee status. There, he worked as a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Princeton University. Einstein’s ability to flee Nazi Germany came, at least in part, due to his fame as a physicist and his well-known Theory of Relativity.

Said Einstein of his opportunity to leave Germany: “I am privileged by fate to live here in Princeton…In this small university town the chaotic voices of human strife barely penetrate. I am almost ashamed to be living in such peace while all the rest struggle and suffer.”

Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo. Paris, 1862. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Victor Hugo was born in Besançon, France, in 1802. By the time Napoleon III overthrew the Second French Republic in 1851, Hugo was already an active voice in politics and was thus forced to leave the country. Hugo first traveled to Belgium, which rejected him. He later received asylum in the United Kingdom, writing, “I love everything that suffers for freedom, for the fatherland and for justice; and I have peace of mind, even though it is always painful to tread on foreign soil.”

While in exile, Hugo penned his classic Lés Miserables. Eventually, Napoleon offered Hugo amnesty, but he refused. Said Hugo, “When freedom is back, I will return.” He did so after the fall of the regime, and was received by his French counterparts who sang La Marseillaise and shouted “Long live Victor Hugo!”

Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger At Vietnam War Meeting In Paris

Henry Kissinger at Vietnam War Meeting in Paris in 1970.

Henry Kissinger was born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Fürz, Germany, in 1923. After escaping Nazi Germany in 1938 — as Einstein had done only a few years before — his family arrived in New York. After serving in the U.S. Army and studying Political Science at Harvard University, Kissinger went on to become a National Security Advisor in the Richard Nixon administration and Secretary of State to both Nixon and Gerald Ford.

In a 2013 video for the International Rescue Committee, Kissinger — whose role in the Vietnam War was contentious to say the absolute least — said, “When you see the mass exodus of people in war situations, or in genocidal situations, that magnifies my personal experience. But I think my personal experience creates an understanding and, I like to think, a sense of obligation to being sympathetic and supportive. So for all of these reasons I think helping refugees is something this country must do.”

Likewise, in 2015 — along with fellow refugee Madeline Albright — Kissinger called on Congress to stop proposals that could keep Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. Wrote Kissinger in a group letter:

“We believe that America can and should continue to provide refuge to those fleeing violence and persecution without compromising the security and safety of our nation…to do otherwise would be contrary to our nation’s traditions of openness and inclusivity, and would undermine our core objective of combating terrorism.”

Frédéric Chopin

Famous Refugees Frederic Chopin

Famous pianist Frederic Chopin. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The acclaimed pianist was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1810. Critics noted Chopin’s ability to integrate love for place with music at an early age, writing that, “Chopin knows what sounds are heard in our fields and woods, he has listened to the song of the Polish village, has made it his own and has united the tunes of his native land in skillful composition and elegant execution.”

As Russia made incursions into Poland, Chopin resolved to “publicize the cause of Poland abroad, through his music,” the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees wrote. Chopin moved to Vienna in 1830, with the idea of returning to Poland eventually. But when the war started, his father told him not to come back, saying it was too dangerous.

Instead, Chopin moved to Paris, where he was well received by the Polish nobility and could thus share Polish culture and music with the French. His time in Paris “awakened French consciousness to the Polish struggle,” UNHCR wrote. Chopin, whose successes UNHCR says were tempered with melancholy, would later tour Europe. Chopin continued to live in Paris until his death, of tuberculosis, in 1849.

Madeleine Albright

History Refugees Madeleine Albright

Madeleine Albright in 2013.

Born in Prague in 1935 (as Marie Jana Korbelova), the future U.S. Secretary of State and her family had to flee their homes not once but twice. First, they moved to Britain due to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, and then, after returning, they left a second time because of the Communist coup in 1948. She was 11 years old when her family arrived in the state of Colorado. In 1997, Albright became the first female Secretary of State, after serving as the United Nations Ambassador for the United States.

Speaking in a naturalization ceremony in 1998, she told the new U.S. citizens: “Today marks a new beginning in your lives. And an ongoing chapter in the story of America which is, above all else, the story of immigrants.”

Paul Kagame

©ITU/ I.Wood

Paul Kagame at the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day in 2014.

Paul Kagame was born in 1957 in Rwanda. At the time, two tribes — the majority Hutu, who traditionally fell in the lower class, and the Tutsi, the minority and traditionally upper class — were fractured. Following the 1959 Hutu “peasant revolution” which resulted in the deaths of 20,000 Tutsi, Kagame and his family — all Tutsi — left the country. They moved to a refugee camp in western Uganda, where the young Kagame didn’t qualify for citizenship and thus could not attend secondary school.

While in Uganda, Kagame met Ugandan activist Yoweri Museveni, whose involvement in the National Resistance Army inspired Kagame to lead a military movement to fight against the violence fracturing Rwanda — and specifically, the minority Tutsi. In 1987 Kagame helped found the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which campaigned for the repatriation of the 480,000 Tutsi who fled the country.

During the 1994 genocide — where as many as two million Tutsi and moderate Hutu died in the course of 100 days — Kagame’s military leadership cut short the blood bath. Wrote Human Rights Watch, “The RPF soldiers saved tens of thousands from annihilation and relentlessly pursued those whom they thought guilty of genocide.” However, that leadership came at a cost. HRW continued, “In their drive for military victory and a halt to the genocide, the RPF killed thousands, including noncombatants as well as government troops and members of militia.”

In the incredibly fragile, post-genocide government, Kagame became Rwanda’s first Vice President. He then became President in 2000, an office he still holds today.

Dalai Lama

Refugee History Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2012. Flickr

His Holiness the Dalai Lama was born in Tibet in 1935, with the name of Lhamo Dhondup. Two years later, he was identified as the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and at the age of six he left his family to live with Buddhist monks. As a teenager, he was declared the ruler of Tibet but due to violent Chinese oppression, he fled the country during the Tibetan Uprising and in 1959 was granted refuge in India. He has never been back to Tibet.

In an October 2015 interview, the Dalai Lama was asked if he felt a connection to those fleeing Syria in search of a better life. This is what he had to say:

“Naturally, naturally. When I meet new refugees, I always mention that I am senior refugee! It is a man-made problem, with various reasons. Previously, mainly political reasons – different nations had a negative attitude towards each other and a large number of people become refugees. Nowadays there is a religious basis for these refugees coming. Killing because of different religious faiths… Unthinkable. All religious traditions talk [about] compassion, love, forgiveness, tolerance, in the meantime these religious concepts are making division and people are killing each other… Terrible.”

But he is hopeful. In the same interview, he added, “One hundred per cent change is impossible. Change is gradual. We have to work with an optimistic attitude. At this moment two groups consider each other the enemy, no sense of reconciliation. But try. Attempt talk. Meet. Nine times failure, nine times re-effort.”

Teresa Cantero
Teresa is a freelance journalist and former Fulbright scholar now based in Spain. She has an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University and a Bachelors in Journalism from the Universidad de Navarra.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
Cite This Article
Cantero, Teresa. "Einstein, Chopin, The Dalai Lama And More: Seven Refugees Who Changed The World." AllThatsInteresting.com, January 20, 2016, https://allthatsinteresting.com/famous-refugees. Accessed April 21, 2024.