World Refugee Day Reveals the Famous U.S. Figures Who Were Refugees and Changed the World

As Americans protest family separation and President Trump’s “zero tolerance policy,” the world comes together to celebrate World Refugee Day and focus on the men, women, and children seeking asylum across the globe.

This past April, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered borderline prosecutors adopt a “zero tolerance policy” towards illegal border crossings — including parents traveling with children and those who attempted to request asylum.

Sessions described the new policy, wherein prosecutors separate family members, as deterrence. No previous administrations have adopted such a policy.

On World Refugee Day it’s important to remember some of the refugees who went on to make this country — and others — great.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein sitting at a desk.

Albert Einstein founded an organization dedicated to helping refugees. | Central Press/Getty Images

  • “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”

The famous German physicist was accused of treason by the Third Reich. He arrived in America in 1933 alongside thousands of other Jewish men and women fleeing Nazi Germany. Einstein took action and founded the aid organization that would become the International Rescue Committee, dedicated to helping refugees like himself.

The Nobel laureate was most famous for his Theory of Relativity, theory of mass-energy equivalence, and co-invention of the refrigerator.

Madeleine Albright

  • “I think it enriches our country to have refugees here.”

The first woman U.S. Secretary of State was also the daughter of a Czech diplomat and a World War II refugee. Her family sought shelter in England during the Blitz and returned to Czechoslovakia after the Nazis’ defeat.

Shortly after, the Communist coup in her country drove her family to the United States. Albright arrived on Ellis Island at the young age of 11. Albright was honored with the International Rescue Committee’s Freedom Award in 1998 for her “extraordinary service to humanity, freedom and the cause of refugees.” She is currently an honorary chair member of the World Justice Project.

Gloria Estefan

  • “You’ve got to believe. Never be afraid to dream.”

The Cuban-American singer fled Fidel Castro’s regime with her family during the Cuban Revolution. They settled in Miami, Florida and quickly moved to Houston where Estefan’s father joined the U.S. military.

Estefan graduated from the University of Miami and was once approached by the CIA because of her language skills (she fluently speaks English, Spanish, and French). She is now a seven-time Grammy Award winner and singer-songwriter — but her accomplishments aren’t just musical.

Estefan and her husband, Emilio, received the United States’ highest civilian honor in 2015 from President Barack Obama for their contributions to American music. In 2017 Estefan became the first Cuban-American citizen to receive a Kennedy Center Honors, an award for lifetime contributors to America’s performing arts.

Mila Kunis

Mila Kunis on a red carpet.

Mila Kunis is a proud refugee. | Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

  • “My mom and my dad wanted my brother and I to have a better life, you know, better education, better jobs. It was probably harder, much, much harder, for my parents. When you’re a kid, you can learn a language much more easily; I learned English in less than a year.”
  • “It saddens me how much fear we’ve instilled in ourselves.”

Kunis fled the Ukrainian SSR when she was seven years old. Her family was Jewish and escaped the rising wave of antisemitism in her country for Los Angeles, where Kunis would later become a famous actress. Kunis held leading roles in That 70’s ShowTed, and the Bad Moms movies.

She is famous for condemning President Trump’s anti-refugee rhetoric and has noted on more than one occasion that she doesn’t fit his generalized idea of a refugee. “We came here on a religious-refugee visa,” she told Glamour. “And I’m not going to blow this country up. I’m clearly paying taxes. I’m not taking anything away.”

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