Refugees often face challenges when resettling in a new country, but many are able to overcome these obstacles. Here are some notable examples of famous (and not-so famous) refugees who resettled in the U.S., went on to achieve success, and have made a difference in their local communities and beyond.
One of the world’s greatest scientific minds, Einstein earned prestige and acclaim for his discoveries, including the theory of relativity. In 1921 Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics. In the 1930s, the Nazis came to power in Einstein’s home country of Germany, and he faced anti-Semitism and persecution. Einstein fled to the U.S. and took up a teaching post at Princeton University. Einstein lobbied vigorously for the protection of German Jews and remained in the U.S. until his death in 1955.
In 1975, when Ung was 5, the Khmer Rouge overthrew the Cambodian government and Ung and her family were forced to leave their home in the capital, Phnom Penh. Ung was trained as a child soldier by the Khmer Rouge, but she managed to escape Cambodia with some relatives and went to a refugee camp in Thailand. Ung was later resettled to the U.S., and after college she became an author and activist for human rights in Cambodia. Ung has also been a spokesperson for the U.S. Campaign for a Landmine Free World.
Gabriel Bol Deng (center), Garang Mayuol (right), and Koor Garang (left)
As young children in 1987, Deng, Mayuol and Garang were forced to leave their homes during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005). Part of the group known as “Lost Boys,” the more-than-27,000 southern Sudanese boys who were displaced, the three fled to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. From there they went to a camp in Kenya and arrived in the U.S. in 2001. Individually the three have raised money to help bring better health care and education to villages in what is now South Sudan. In 2007 they returned to their hometowns as part of a documentary film, Rebuilding Hope.
As a baby, Gloria Estefan and her family fled Cuba following the Cuban Revolution and resettled in Miami. Estefan went on to become a successful singer with over 100 million albums sold worldwide. She has won seven Grammy Awards and is referred to as the “Queen of Latin Pop.”
At the age of 9, Wyclef Jean and his family fled Haiti for the U.S., eventually moving to New Jersey. Wyclef Jean was a member of the Fugees (taken from the word “refugees”) a popular and critically acclaimed hip-hop group. Jean has since gone on to have a successful solo music career and is an advocate for development in Haiti. Jean performed at the closing ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
At the age of 33, Suarez left his native Cuba after Fidel Castro seized power and came to the United States. He worked in the mail room of the newspaper The Miami Herald for minimum wage. He rose through the ranks to eventually become the president of the Herald and went on to found the Spanish-language paper, El Nuevo Herald. Suarez was an active voice in south Florida’s Hispanic community as well as in the field of journalism.
Anh “Joseph” Cao
Anh “Joseph” Cao was born in Vietnam in 1967. His father was an officer in the South Vietnamese Army who was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese. In 1975, Cao and two of his siblings escaped to the U.S. and settled in New Orleans. After college Cao became an advocate for refugees and eventually earned a law degree. In 2008, Cao was elected as a U.S. Representative from Louisiana, the first Vietnamese American elected to the U.S. Congress.
Madeleine Korbel Albright
Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Albright and her family fled to the U.S. in 1948 when communists took over the government. The family settled in Denver. Albright went to Wellesley College and got involved in politics. In 1997, Albright became the first female Secretary of State and the highest-ranking woman in U.S. government at the time. President Obama awarded Albright the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
In 1980 at the age of 7, Ivonne Cuesta and her family were part of the Mariel Boatlift when 125,000 people left Cuba for Miami. Cuesta went on to become an assistant public defender in Florida’s Miami-Dade County and is a Miami-Dade County Court judge.
Emeagwali grew up in Nigeria, a member of the Ibo ethnic group. In 1966, the Biafran Civil War war erupted between the Nigerian central government and the Ibo population in the south. During the war, Emeagwali spent three years in a refugee camp. In 1974 Emeagwali came to the U.S. and later graduated with degrees in mathematics; civil, coastal and marine engineering; and computer science. Emeagwali made much advancement in computer engineering and won the prestigious Gordon Bell Prize in computer science in 1989.
One of the main student dissidents of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, Li was hunted across China for his role in the demonstrations. He fled to Hong Kong and made his way to the U.S., first traveling through France. Once in the U.S. he enrolled in Columbia University. In 1996, Li became the first person in the school’s history to graduate with three separate degrees on the same day, earning undergraduate, law and business degrees. Li became a successful investment banker and continues to push for human rights in China.