The Presidential Medal of Freedom is America’s highest civilian honor. President John F. Kennedy established the award in 1963 to honor any person who makes “an especially meritorious contribution” to the United States, “world peace” or “cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Kennedy and his successors have bestowed the medal on heads of state (Angela Merkel), scientists (Stephen Hawking), artists (novelists Ralph Ellison and Isabel Allende; musicians Vladimir Horowitz and Aretha Franklin) and other high achievers.
Sometimes the recipient is an American, sometimes not. And sometimes the winner is a refugee. Americans take particular pride when someone who had to leave their homeland rebuilds their life and contributes so much to their new community.
In 2015, President Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom to Emilio and Gloria Estefan. In the 1960s, their families fled violence in Cuba. In the U.S. they helped bring Latin music to the world.
“Together their fusion sound has sold more than 100 million records,” Obama said. “And as proud Cuban Americans they’ve promoted their cultural heritage and inspired fans all over the world.”
Other refugee recipients of the Medal of Freedom include two former secretaries of state: Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright.
At the 2012 ceremony, Obama shared one of his favorite stories about Albright.
“Once, at a naturalization ceremony, an Ethiopian man came up to her and said, ‘Only in America can a refugee meet the secretary of state.’ And she replied, ‘Only in America can a refugee become the secretary of state.'”