International Shia News Agency

Those refugees who made a difference – Profiles

SHAFAQNA - Refugees or former refugees who have achieved special status within a community due to their achievements, or because they have overcome hardship to build a new life.

This gallery features profiles of some 200 refugees who have made a difference and left a mark in the world. The list includes people, dead and living, in all walks of life. Some, like writer Chinua Achebe, composer Bela Bartok, physicist Albert Einstein and actress-singer Marlene Dietrich are world famous, others have shared their gifts locally.

Marlene Dietrich

Profession:Actress and singer

Country of Origin:Germany

Country of Asylum:United States of America

Country of Transit:France

Date of birth:27 December 1901

Died:6 May 1992


Actress and singer Marlene Dietrich was a living legend, famous for performances in movies such as “Blue Angel” and “Touch of Evil”. She was also one of the most prominent political refugees of her generation, speaking out against Hitler and singing for the US troops in World War II.

In the early 1920s, Dietrich attended the Max Reinhart drama school. She appeared in many stage productions and soon became the toast of Berlin.

It was with “Blue Angel”, directed by Joseph von Sternberg, that Dietrich attracted world-wide attention. In her deep, heavily-accented voice, she crooned the unforgettable words: “Falling in love again, Never wanted to, What am I to do? Can’t help it.” Writer Ernest Hemingway, said to be her lover, once wrote, “If she had nothing more than her voice she could break your heart with it. But she has that beautiful body and the timeless loveliness of her face.”

Paramount wanted her in Hollywood, so she left Europe and made six Hollywood films with von Sternberg, the most successful being “Shanghai Express”.

Appalled by Nazism, Dietrich refused to return to Germany and acquired American citizenship in 1939. The German press called her a traitor. Her work with the United Services Organisation brought her to Alaska, Greenland, North Africa and Europe, where she entertained American troops, helped in hospitals and made radio broadcasts. Her unmistakable voice and sheer glamour charmed the soldiers and troubled the enemy. Her sister was sent to a concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen, reportedly in a bid to make Dietrich stop singing. They were reunited after the war.

In 1948 she resumed her acting career, appearing in Billy Wilder’s comedy, “A Foreign Affair”. Dietrich played a Nazi singer in the ruins of Berlin, a part she took on only after much persuasion by Wilder. She also appeared in “Stage Fright”, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, performing songs by Cole Porter and Edith Piaf. Hitchcock described her as an absolute professional and allowed her to give directions on his set, something that was unheard of. In 1952, Dietrich decided to stop working in film and to concentrate on the stage, although she would still play roles in films such as Orson Well’s “Touch of Evil” and Wilder’s “Witness for the Prosecution”.

In 1962, she narrated a documentary called “The Black Fox”, which linked Adolf Hitler’s biography with a Goethe story. She began touring the world giving concerts, adding to her 1940s repertoire of anti-war songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”.

In her memoirs she stated: “I was born a German and shall always remain one…. The United States welcomed me when I no longer had a fatherland that deserved to call itself that.”

After 1978, Dietrich rarely appeared in public and did not want to be photographed. She died in Paris on May 6, 1992, but her glamorous image lives on.

Assia Djebar

Profession:Writer, Academic

Country of Origin:Algeria

Country of Asylum:France

Country of Transit:USA

Date of birth:4 August 1936

Assia Djebar, like the character Isma in her novel, “So Vast a Prison” (1995), is an Algerian with Berber roots who was educated in French schools and witnessed the end of French colonial rule.

Born in Cherchell, a coastal town west of Algiers, Djebar attended the French school there, where her father was the only native francophone teacher.

In her novels, Djebar often reflects on the multilingualism of her native land, where centuries of successive invaders have imposed Punic, Latin, Arabic, Turkish and French over several Berber languages. Djebar evokes this pre-Islamic past in her writing.

At the age of 19, she became the first woman to attend the state-run training school for teachers, where she studied history. She interrupted her studies to join the Algerian Movement for National Liberation (FLN) in neighbouring Tunisia.

Returning to a newly-independent Algeria in 1962, Djebar became the first woman to teach at Algiers University. As the state sought to impose a single language and the process of Arabisation intensified, Djebar felt frustrated under the constraints of the government, and fled to Paris in 1965.

She remained in France until 1974 and now lives in the United States, where she is Professor and Director of the Center for Francophone Studies at Louisiana State University.

In the mid-1970s, she undertook an oral history project, in which she recorded the voices of women who had participated in the national independence struggle, as a way of filling the gaps of collective memory and giving women a place in it.

Djebar regards French as an “adverse” language for her: “This language was formally used to entomb my people: when I write it today I feel like a messenger of the old, who bore a sealed missive which might sentence him to death or to the dungeon.” Yet it is also a language that has allowed her to give voice to the unwritten history of Algerian woman, and made her a major force in the literature of the Maghreb.

Anita Donaldson

Profession:Dancer, Teacher

Country of Origin:Latvia

Country of Asylum:Germany

Country of Transit:Australia

Date of birth:2 January 1948

Dr Anita Donaldson, former Dean of Performing Arts at Adelaide University, was born in a children’s refugee camp in Nazi Germany.

Her family had fled from their home in Latvia in October 1944 after the Soviets invaded for the second time. Donaldson’s grandfather, a pharmacist, had disappeared in the first invasion, while her grandmother, a music teacher, had been sent to Siberia for 10 years. “This time there was no choice … fleeing was the only option,” she says.

Donaldson’s mother and maternal grandmother packed whatever they could carry, buried the silver in the garden, and, together with Donaldson’s eldest sister, set out on the long and difficult journey that would finally bring them to Australia. En route, Donaldson was born in Kampenwand camp.

Granted refugee status by the United Nations in Germany, the family made its way to Italy to catch the first available ship to Australia – the SS Oxfordshire, bound for South Australia.

They arrived on a hot and dusty day in November 1949. Life in Australia began in the tin Nissan huts of Woodside Migrant Camp, where Donaldson’s mother, a qualified dentist, worked in the camp hospital while her father worked for two years as a labourer. The camp provided a kindergarten, English language classes and various orientation sessions, but the main source of assistance came from individuals associated with various churches, the Church of Christ in particular.

Donaldson considers the emphasis placed by her parents on education as one of the most positive aspects of the exile experience. She is also proud of her dual cultural heritage. “Although I regard myself very much as an Australian, being Latvian is also an essential part of who I am.”

She became a pioneer of dance education, developing the first centre for Dance Criticism and Choreological Studies in Australia. Following a Bachelor of Arts and Diplomas in Teaching, Dance Education and Physical Education, her 1993 doctorate was the first PhD in “pure” dance in Australia (although she had to go overseas to do it).

Donaldson was Dean of Performing Arts at Adelaide University from July 1993 to December 2000. She made a significant contribution to dance and the performing arts through her membership in university course accreditation committees nationally and internationally, her position on various government boards and advisory committees, as well as her reviews and newspaper articles.

Emmanuel Dongala

Profession:Professor of Chemistry, Writer

Country of Origin:Congo, Republic of the

Country of Asylum:United States of America

Date of birth:1941

Congolese polymath Emmanuel Dongala is a doctor of physics, a professor of chemistry, a man of the theatre and one of the finest writers his country has ever seen. The political turmoil that raged in Congo Brazzaville in the 1990s was material for him as a writer, but it also forced him to become a refugee.

Dongala’s father was from Congo Brazzaville and his mother was from the neighbouring Central African Republic. Dongala studied Science in France and the USA, where he received a doctorate in physics. He returned home to lecture in chemistry at the University of Brazzaville and was later appointed Dean.

A member of the International PEN club, Dongala has a long list of publications to his name, including novels, poetry, plays and short stories. In 1973 he published “Un Fusil dans la Main”, which won him the Ladislas-Dormandi prize.

In 1981 he founded the Théatre de l’éclair, one of the best-known theatre companies in Congo, while serving as the president of the Congolese Writers’ Association.

His collection of short stories, “Jazz et Vin de Palme“, was published in 1982, but it was his novel “The Fire Of Origin”, published in the same year in Spanish, that won him attention among international literary circles. With it, Dongala won the Grand Prix Littéraire de l’Afrique Noire and the Prix Charles-Oulmont, awarded by the Fondation Française. In honour of his literary achievements, Dongala was appointed Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.

In the civil war that ravaged the Republic of Congo in the mid-1990s, Dongala and his family were threatened as a result of the indiscriminate fighting between rival militias in the country. Over 150,000 civilians died and thousands had to seek refuge in the equatorial forests.

Resolved to flee his war-torn country, Dongala applied unsuccessfully for asylum at the French embassy in Brazzaville. Fortunately, while studying in the United States, he had struck up friendships with various individuals among literary circles. Groups of writers and individuals rallied to his aid, led by his close friend, American novelist Philip Roth.

Dongala was evacuated to the US where, with the assistance of Roth, he secured a visiting professorship in chemistry at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he and his family settled.

Dongala insists that he is not a political exile but that like any other civilian, he fled because of the war, not because of ideological reasons. “It was because ‘Stalin’s organs’ [the nickname given to the Soviet-built canons used in the Congolese conflict] kept firing on our house, because anarchy spread and children with machine guns took what they wanted.”

Dongala now writes for newspapers and magazines in the US.

Ariel Dorfman

Profession:Playwright, Academic

Country of Origin:Argentina

Country of Asylum:Chile

Country of Transit:France; Netherlands; United States

Date of birth:6 May 1942

Exile shaped the course of Ariel Dorfman’s life long before he was born, as the Argentinian-born playwright of “Death and the Maiden” says, “The trajectory of my life is one of exiles”.

Dorfman’s Jewish grandparents had to flee the pogroms in Eastern Europe. His father left Odessa (then part of Russia, now in Ukraine) and his mother fled from Kishinev, the capital of Moldova (once a part of Romania, later the Soviet Union). They met in Argentina. In 1945, when Dorfman was just two years old, his father, an economist, engineer and government advisor, had to flee again from Argentina’s fascist regime, taking refuge in New York. Ten years later his family was forced into exile once again, this time from the anti-Communist wave of McCarthyism. They moved back to Latin America, settling in Chile, which Dorfman made his adopted country. He acquired Chilean citizenship in 1967.

Dorfman established himself as a writer and journalist during the government of Salvador Allende, serving as cultural advisor to the President’s chief of staff. In 1973, he survived the attack on the presidential palace in which President Allende was killed during the coup d’état by General Pinochet. Dorfman’s books were burned, and he received death threats. Finally, he was expelled from the country.

He stayed briefly in Argentina and then moved to France, where he took up a post teaching Spanish-American Literature at the Sorbonne. Appalled at the atrocities of the Pinochet regime, he worked for the Chilean resistance campaign.

His collection of poems, “Missing”, published after a two-year writer’s block, expresses his thoughts about the “disappeared” – those were abducted by the regime.

Together with Armand Mattelart, he published “Para Leer al Pato Donald” (How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic), where he analysed American popular culture. He further developed this study with “The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar and other Innocent Heroes Do To Our Mind”.

Dorfman left France for a research position at the University of Amsterdam, where he would remain until 1980 when, accepting a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, he moved to the United States. His novels, short stories and poems describe the terror of dictatorship and the despair of exile.

Viudas” (Widows, 1981) testifies to the agony and distress experienced by the families of the “disappeared”. In 1983 he published “La última canción de Manuel Sendero” (The Last Song of Manuel Sendero), exploring the larger implications of repression and exile. That year, he was allowed to return to Chile, where he continued his protest against political repression.

In 1992 he published the play, “Death and the Maiden”, which was a hit on the stage and was later made into a film by Roman Polanski. It deals with the aftermath of terror and torture as the protagonists, in a country recently returned to democracy, come to terms with their past.

In 1998 Dorfman published an autobiography, “Heading South, Looking North, A Bilingual Journey”. He is currently teaching at North Carolina’s Duke University.

Albert Einstein


Country of Origin:Germany

Country of Asylum:United States of America

Date of birth:14 March 1879

Died:18 April 1955

The face is human, thoughtful. We have all seen it, a mass of unruly white hair framing a weary, yet endearing face. And we’ve all heard of Albert Einstein and his scientific theories. Yet few of us know of his days as a refugee, when his books were thrown into Hitler’s bonfires, and as a German Jew, Einstein was accused of treason.

Growing up in Munich, Einstein was particularly interested in music and mathematics, and his ambition was to study electrical engineering in Zurich. However, he failed the entrance exam, leading some biographers to speculate that he suffered from the learning difficulty, dyslexia. Undeterred, he moved to Switzerland and enrolled in a school in Aarau, hoping to get a second chance to qualify for a place at the technical college. Eventually he succeeded, but he was unable to secure a teaching post at the college, and eventually took up the position of technical expert, third class at the Bern patent office.

In Bern, he worked on his research in his spare time and in 1905 published three papers that formed the basis for his work on the theory of relativity. He was awarded a doctorate by the University of Zurich, and from then on his academic career was made. In 1909, he resigned from the patent office and moved to Prague to take up a university post. In 1914, he returned to Germany to take up a research position at the Prussian Academy of Sciences.

In 1919, Einstein’s theory that gravity was equivalent to mass was confirmed by research into solar eclipses. He was idolised in the popular press. The London Times ran a headline on November 7, proclaiming: “Revolution in Science – New Theory of the Universe – Newtonian ideas overthrown.” In 1921, Einstein received the Nobel Prize.

However, the rise of the Nazi party and anti-Semitism made it increasingly difficult for him to work and in 1932 he took up the offer of a post at Princeton. He became a citizen of the United States, but retained Swiss citizenship.

Einstein and his wife worked tirelessly on behalf of German Jews, making visa applications and vouching personally for many refugees. He expressed mixed feelings about his life in exile. “I am privileged by fate to live here in Princeton,” he wrote to the Belgian Queen, who had befriended him in the early days. “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.”

In 1944, Einstein supported the war effort by putting up for auction his 1905 paper on special relativity. It fetched $6 million, and the manuscript is now in the Library of Congress. His final letter was to philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell, lending his support to the movement to ban nuclear weapons. Einstein died on April 18, 1955.

Nawal El Saadawi

Profession:Psychiatrist, Health Officer, Human Rights Activist

Country of Origin:Egypt

Country of Asylum:United States of America

Date of birth:27 October 1931

Nawal El Saadawi, Egypt’s best-known feminist and a trained psychiatrist, endured months of imprisonment under the late President Anwar Sadat. Her writings cost her her job and led to five years of exile. Yet she continues to be one of the most prominent campaigners for women’s rights in Egypt and the Arab world.

Born in the Nile Delta village of Kafr Tahla, El Saadawi was the second of nine children. At the age of 10, she put her foot down and refused to accept an arranged marriage. Her father, a civil servant, wanted all his children to get a university education. El Saadawi attended the University of Cairo and graduated in 1955 with a degree in psychiatry. She worked as a physician at the University of Cairo and at the Rural Heath Centre in Tahla.

In 1965, she published a novel, “Memoirs of a Female Physician”, which though not autobiographical, describes a similar life story to her own. In a later book, “The Hidden Face of Eve” (1977), she recalls her own experience of undergoing female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation, a painful ritual in which a girl’s clitoris is partly or entirely removed) at the age of six, in her native village. The book was banned in Egypt.

The publication of her first non-fiction book, “Women and Sex”, in 1972, caused her to lose her job as Director of Health Education for the Ministry of Health and Chief Editor of its journal. The following year, she published “Woman at Point Zero”.

From 1973 to 1976, El Saadawi researched women’s mental health at Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Medicine. She often worked with women in prison. The result of her research was published in 1975 as “Women and Neurosis in Egypt”. For two years, she also served as the United Nations Advisor for its Women’s Programme in Africa and the Middle East.

In 1981, she was arrested on the orders of President Sadat under the Law for the Protection of Values from Shame. Released the following year, following Sadat’s assassination, she struck back by founding the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA). It was the first legal, independent feminist organisation in Egypt and it called for a critical analysis of Islam and a placing of women’s struggle in the context of the struggle for democracy.

AWSA underlined the necessary link between gender or sexual problems and the political, economic, social, cultural, religious and psychological aspects of life in Arab societies. It counted 2,000 international members and 500 Egyptians among its members, many of them men. AWSA also provided income-generating projects for women and published a quarterly newspaper, Confrontation, which addressed women’s issues. The organisation acquired consultative status as a non-governmental organisation with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC).

The Hosni Mubarak regime was only a little more tolerant. Indeed, the government forced AWSA to close down in 1991, diverting its funds to a religious women’s association. El Saadawi took the Egyptian government to court, but lost the case.

In 1987, she published “The Fall of Imam in Egypt”, seen as a political allegory of the Sadat regime. After the assassination of Farag Fouda, a prominent Egyptian writer who campaigned for the separation of religion and the state, guards were put outside El Saadawi’s house. In 1991, she was on a death list of Islamic groups and lived with bodyguards. She decided that same year to accept a job at Duke University in North Carolina, where she taught till 1996. Since then, she has moved back to Egypt.

Philip Emeagwali

Profession:Computer Scientist

Country of Origin:Nigeria

Country of Asylum:United States of America

Date of birth:23 August 1954

A “father of the Internet”, sometimes called the Bill Gates of Africa, computing superbrain Philip Emeagwali spent years of his childhood in a refugee camp before he went on to become, in former US President Bill Clinton’s words, “one of the great minds of the Information Age”.

Emeagwali grew up in Onitsha, in south-eastern Nigeria, one of nine children of Ibo-speaking parents. He showed early promise at school, even though he often had to work to help support his family. He was nicknamed “Calculus” by classmates for his extraordinary abilities in maths. His father, a nurse, would quiz him with 100 maths problems and leave him only an hour to find all the solutions. By the time Emeagwali entered fifth grade, his teacher would let him take over the class when he was absent.

In 1966, fighting erupted between the central government and the ethnic Ibo population. In the Biafran civil war that followed, the south-eastern region attempted to secede from Nigeria, and Emeagwali spent most of the period from 1967 to 1970 in a refugee camp. The Nigerian government restricted food importation to Biafra, starving nearly one million refugees to death.

In 1974, Emeagwali went to the United States on a scholarship with $140 in his pocket. Fifteen years later, he graduated in mathematics, civil, coastal and marine engineering and computer science. In 1989, he won the computing world’s Nobel Prize, the Gordon Bell Prize, for solving a problem that had been classified by the US government as one of the 20 most difficult computing problems ever. Using 65,000 processors, he was able to perform the world’s fastest computation at 3.1 billion calculations per second. His invention is widely used in programming and building the world’s most powerful supercomputers and has also been used to maximise petroleum extraction.

Emeagwali has been living in the US since 1974 and underlines the huge contribution that immigrants have made to America. “Third World countries are giving technological aid to the United States that is worth about 12 billion dollars a year. One in 20 Americans was born abroad. Two thousand Nigerian doctors practice in the United States. There are more Sierra Leonean doctors in Chicago than in Sierra Leone,” he says.

At his own website,, he welcomes browsers to “the first personal website on the Internet.” He has helped promote Africa ONE, a project to loop the entire African continent with 30,000 km of fibre-optic cable lines so that phone calls from one African country to another will not have to pass through Europe.

When Emeagwali was asked what qualities he would like to pass on to his son, he replied, “I want him to be inspired by the fact that I was a high school dropout and an ex-refugee who overcame racism and made scientific contributions that benefited mankind.”

Batulo Mohamed Essak

Profession:Midwife, Translator

Country of Origin:Somalia

Country of Asylum:Finland

Date of birth:12 April 1967

Batulo Mohamed Essak found herself far from her sunny Somali home, resettled as a refugee in Lapland, yet she managed to adapt her life and skills to her new situation.

The daughter of a Somali diplomat, Essak finished school in Somalia and moved to Moscow to study nursing. When war broke out in her home country, she decided to flee to Finland. Arriving by boat in 1991, Essak was housed in the Lapinjrvi refugee camp, in the southern part of the country. There she learned Finnish so as to communicate with the local community, which stood her in good stead when she was resettled in the northern town of Kemi, in Lapland.

Initially it was not easy to adapt, and the language difficulty was only part of the problem. Essak had qualified as a midwife in Moscow, but her diploma was not valid in Finland. She decided to go back to studying to acquire Finnish qualifications. She was able to re-register as a midwife in 1995. From 1995 to 1998, she worked at the Woman’s Clinic in Helsinki, where she had also done her practical training.

However, when her contract ended, Essak could not find a job in her chosen profession. So she used her language skills and began working as a freelance translator for Somalis arriving in Finland, helping them apply for unemployment and other benefits.

Essak feels she was lucky to have received an education in Somalia and in Russia. This brought her to work on a long-term project in adult education for Somali women. She provides information on health education, pregnancy, childbirth, post-natal care, women’s diseases and mental health. She helps Somali women integrate in the Finnish community.

Essak has also held lectures in Finland about Somali culture. She currently works full time as a translator for Vantaa Region Community Centre, but hopes to return to work as a midwife, the job she loves.

Nuruddin FarahProfession:NovelistCountry of Origin:SomaliaCountry of Asylum:NigeriaCountry of Transit:Gambia; Sudan; Ethiopia; Uganda; USA; South Africa; United KingdomDate of birth:24 November 1945

Rated by The New York Times as the most important African novelist to emerge in the last 25 years, Nuruddin Farah says he was born in a time in Africa’s history when the power of speech lay in the oral tradition, in people’s tongues rather than in their pens.

Farah’s father, a merchant, helped establish a community school in the Ogaden town of Kallafo, then under Ethiopian control, where Farah learnt to read and write. He was later sent to a Christian missionary school. His mother, a poet, had a great influence on the boy, helping him gain access to hidden, creative energies within himself.

Farah started earning money as a translator, interpreter and scribe. At the age of 11 he delivered a speech he wrote for the visit to Somalia of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. While his teachers were overwhelmed by the emperor’s presence, the boy gained confidence.

He studied at the University of Panjab, India, from 1966 to 1970, taught at the Somali National University of Mogadishu and left for further studies at the University of London and the University of Essex from 1974 to 1976.

Farah’s flight into exile came in 1976, after Somalia came under the rule of the autocratic Marxist, Mohammed Said Barre. While visiting Italy, Farah was warned by telephone not to return to Somalia. His novel, “A Naked Needle”, was being described as treason in Mogadishu. His later work includes a trilogy titled “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship”.

Farah said then that if he couldn’t return home, then he would make the rest of Africa his country. He served as associate professor at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and lectured at the Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. He also held the post of writer-in-residence at the Royal Court Theatre in London and was guest professor at universities in Africa, Europe and the United States.

Most of his novels are set in Somalia, and explore political themes. They reflect the ills of misrule in Somalia and vividly capture African politics elsewhere. In 1981, Farah gave a series of readings at a conference in Frankfurt devoted to Commonwealth writers, which caught the audience’s attention with his distinctive narrative technique.

Farah has won several literary awards, including the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature (sponsored by the University of Oklahoma). His work is now the subject of study in itself, for example in Derek Wright’s book, “The Novels of Nuruddin Farah”.

Among his recent writing is “Yesterday, Tomorrow”, a compilation of interviews conducted with refugees, for which he travelled widely across Africa and Europe.

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