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5 Famous Refugees Who Made a Difference

We honor these brave heroes and others this World Refugee Day, June 20.

The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person forced to leave his or her home and country due to “a well-founded fear or persecution because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” 

Since June 20, 2001, World Refugee Day has been commemorated annually to create awareness on the plight of refugees, so that these people may receive protection and support for their rights, needs, and dreams. (Read: Cardinal Tagle washes the feet of migrants and refugees)

This year, we focus on five famous refugees who have made a huge impact on our lives since leaving their home country.  

Jesus Christ

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The Flight into Egypt by Giotto di Bondone (1304–1306, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua) (Photo from Wikipedia)

Born in Bethlehem, Fled to Egypt 

Perhaps the most famous refugee was the Son of God, born to Mary and Joseph in a humble manger in Bethlehem. The Gospel of Matthew narrates how an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, urging him to leave Bethlehem for Egypt, as King Herod (who learned of Jesus from the Three Wise Men) announces plans to kill all male babies aged 2 years and below.

Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged Jesus Christ’s refugee status in World Migration Day 2012: “The parents of Jesus Christ had to flee their own land and take refuge in Egypt, in order to sage the life of their child,” he said. “The Messiah, the son of God, was a refugee.” (READ: Caritas and Pope Francis Launch Global Week of Action for Migrants and Refugees)

Madeleine Albright

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Madeleine Albright, left, in Belgrade, Serbia, where the future U.S. secretary of State spent much of her childhood. (Photo from “Prague Winter,” Courtesy Of Madeleine Albright / USA Today)

Born in Czechoslovakia, Fled to England and the United States 

A Nazi invasion in the Czech Republic forced Marie Jana Korbelova (later, Madeleine Albright) and her family to flee, first to the UK, and then to the United States just as they had settled back in Prague. Madeleine, who was 11 when her family called Denver, Colorado, home, would go on to achieve great things in politics. The 20th United States Ambassador to the United Nations was also the 64th US Secretary of State. (Read: Pope Francis: “Pray that the cries of our migrant brothers and sisters may be heard”)

Freddie Mercury

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(Left) Farrokh Bulsara (Freddie Mercury) grew up in Zanzibar with his family. (Photos from Pinterest and Peter Still / Redferns / Entertainment Tonight)

Born in Zanzibar (now Tanzania), Fled to England

The parents of Farrohk Bulsara (publicly known as Freddie Mercury) originally came from India. Their family moved to London to escape the Zanzibar revolution of 1964. In his adoptive country, Freddie joined the local music scene, where he met the members of what was to become the phenomenal rock band, Queen.

Alek Wek

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Photo from The Heart Truth / Flickr

Born in South Sudan, Fled to England

Alek Wek was 14 when she and her family moved to England to escape the 1985 civil war in their native Wau in South Sudan. Though she was studying fashion business and technology at the London College of Fashion, Alek—with her legs for days, close-cropped hair, and dramatically dark skin—became the darling of the modeling world. In fact, she’s been appearing on the cover of glossy fashion rags and on the runways of top designers!

This supermodel also hasn’t forgotten her roots. A Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Alek is also on the Advisory Board of the United States Committee for Refugees. (Read: Meet the international supermodel with Down syndrome)

The 14th Dalai Lama

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Photo from Jen Christensen / CNN / Medium

Born in Tibet, Fled to India 

Born to a farming family in Taktser, Amdo, northeastern Tibet, Lhamo Thondup was recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama at age 2, and assumed his predecessor’s role when he was 15.

Since March 31, 1959, Lhamo has been in permanent exile in India due to communist China’s invasion of his home country. He remains hopeful that he will return to his native soil someday. “China is in the process of changing,” said the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner on his website. “If you compare China today to ten or twenty years ago, there is a tremendous change.”

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