Albert Einstein
Bet you didn't know these people were refugees
01:27 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

They are destitute, desperate but determined. Thousands of them flee their homes every year, risking their lives in unseaworthy boats or crammed in trucks.

Refugees struggling to find a new life in Europe have seized the world’s attention. In some places, they have faced a backlash from anti-immigration groups who claim they are a drain on resources.

But history is full of examples of refugees who went on to leave lasting contributions in the realms of science, arts, politics and sports.

Here are just some of the most prominent, in their own words:

Marlene Dietrich

Famous RefugeesMarleneDietrich

The cinematic icon and legendary cabaret singer rose to fame in Germany in the 1920s. She left to pursue a career in Hollywood in 1930 and watched with horror as the Nazis proceeded to seize power in her homeland. She rejected overtures from Hitler’s regime to return to Germany, became an American citizen and performed for Allied troops during World War II.

Freddie Mercury

Famous RefugeesFreddieMercury

The frontman of stadium rock legends Queen was born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946, the son of an Indian Parsee couple living on the African island of Zanzibar. The family fled the bloody revolution that shook the island in 1964, moving to suburban London where the aspiring musician eventually met his future band mates.

Albert Einstein

Famous RefugeesAlbertEinstein

The most important physicist of the 20th century was persecuted in Germany by the Nazis, who branded his groundbreaking theory of relativity “Jewish physics.” He left for the United States in 1933 and never returned to Germany.

Gloria Estefan

Famous RefugeesGloriaEstefan

The “Queen of Latin Pop” spent the first two years of her life in Havana, Cuba. But the Communist revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959 prompted her family to leave for Miami. Her father returned to Cuba to fight in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Estefan went on to sell more than 100 million albums and win seven Grammys in a dazzling pop career.

Luol Deng

Famous RefugeesLuolDeng

Born in 1985 amid civil war in Sudan, Deng fled the fighting with his family as a young child, settling first in Egypt and later Britain. He went on to study in the United States before beginning a career in professional basketball. A two-time NBA All-Star, Deng has played for the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat.

Madeleine Albright

Famous RefugeesMadeleineAlbright

The United States’ first female Secretary of State was born in 1937 in the country then known as Czechoslovakia. Her family fled the Nazis during World War II and then, after returning, were forced to leave again after the Communist takeover of 1948.

Sigmund Freud

Famous RefugeesSigmund Freud

The father of psychoanalysis, who reshaped how people all over the world thought about the workings of their own minds, became a refugee near the very end of his life. After the Nazis, who had burned Freud’s books, took control of Austria in 1938, the psychologist and his wife fled Vienna for London. He died there the following year.


Famour Refugees Iman

The 1969 coup and its bloody aftermath in Somalia prompted the family of Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid to leave in the dead of night and cross into Kenya. She was discovered there years later by a photographer, setting her on a career as a supermodel in the United States, where she has started her own cosmetics company, taken up humanitarian causes and married David Bowie.

Victor Hugo

Famous RefugeesVIctorHugo

The great French writer, best known internationally as the author of “Les Miserables,” was also an ardent political activist. He opposed Napoleon III’s authoritarian rule in the mid-19th century, a stance that forced him to flee France and spend nearly two decades in exile, most of it in Guernsey in the British Channel Islands.

Thabo Mbeki

Famous RefugeesThaboMbeki

While his father was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, Mbeki spent decades in exile from South Africa working for the struggle against apartheid. After stays in the USSR, Britain and Zimbabwe among other countries, he returned to his homeland in 1990 and succeeded Mandela as President in 1999.