Celebs Who Were Refugees

As the national debate over how best to handle refugees, immigrants, and national security grows more heated and divisive every day, let's take a look at some celebrities who were refugees. Many possess strong opinions about the subject based on firsthand experience.

Wyclef Jean

Wyclef Jean is proud of his refugee status—that's where he got the band name The Fugees, short for "Refugee Camp." Jean came to the United States from Haiti as a refugee with his parents and three siblings when he was 9 years old. He's become an activist for his native Haiti, even running for president of the nation in 2010 before being declared ineligible because he was not a resident and finding himself in hot water in connection with a charity he founded for the Caribbean country.

Mila Kunis

Actress Mila Kunis immigrated to the United States as a child with her parents from Ukraine. She spoke out in support of admitting refugees to Glamour in July 2016, "The whole Syrian-refugee thing—we came here on a religious-refugee visa, and I'm not going to blow this country up. I'm clearly paying taxes. I'm not taking anything away. So the fact that people look at what's happening and are like, 'Pfft, they're going to blow s**t up'? It saddens me how much fear we've instilled in ourselves."

Freddie Mercury

Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, who many believe to be one of the greatest vocalists of all time, was a refugee. The "Bohemian Rhapsody" crooner was born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946 on Zanzibar, an island in Africa. His parents, who were of Indian Parsi descent, fled the island when a violent revolution erupted. The family made a life for themselves (and eventually music history) in London.


Singer Mika, who is often compared to Mercury, was born in war-torn Lebanon. His family sought asylum in Paris before settling in London. Perhaps because of his own experience, Mika is active in refugee causes, advocating for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Gloria Estefan

Grammy-winning singer Gloria Estefan spent the first two years of her life in Cuba until 1959, when her parents fled the island for Miami, fearing Fidel Castro's regime. In 1961, Estefan's father returned to Cuba to fight in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. She spoke to Entertainment Weekly about her early life in Florida. "When I first came to Miami, you'd see signs like 'No Children, No Pets, No Cubans.' We were a major threat. We lived in a very small apartment behind the Orange Bowl, where all the Cubans lived. All the men [including her father, José Manuel Fajardo] were political prisoners in Cuba, and it was purely women and their kids. There was one car the whole community bought for $50, and the one lady that could drive would take everybody to the supermarket and the Laundromat."

Jackie Chan

Martial arts legend Jackie Chan was abandoned by his parents when they fled mainland China for Hong Kong after the Communists came to power in 1949, according to a documentary detailed in The Guardian. In Traces of the Dragon: Jackie Chan and His Lost Family, filmmaker Mabel Cheung "intercuts the interviews [with Chan's family] with archive material showing the sheer suffering, horror and upheaval of so much of 20th-century life in China." Chan was eventually reunited with his parents, and the family emigrated to Australia when Chan was 6 years old, reported

Chan was eventually reunited with his parents, and the family emigrated to Australia when Chan was 6 years old, reported Reuters, "but [Chan] was soon sent back to Hong Kong to attend the China Drama Academy...Chan's father went from head cook at the U.S. embassy [in Australia] to a successful local restaurant owner." At his father's funeral in 2008, Chan said (via Reuters), "I loved my father so much because he did so much for me when I was young. We had a very poor family and he left Hong Kong to support himself. He was just the greatest father for me."

Gene Simmons

Kiss frontman Gene Simmons is the son of a Holocaust survivor. "I did my own research and found out just how terrible it was," Simmons told The Big Issue. He said he tried to talk about it with his mother, "but she just won't do it. She saw her mother walk into the gas chambers. Her whole family was destroyed. My mother was the only one left alive. And she was 14." Simmons' mother, Flora Klein, gave birth to him in 1949 in Haifa, Israel. They came to New York City when he was 8 years old.

Sigmund Freud

Legendary psychotherapist Sigmund Freud became a refugee after becoming the father of psychoanalysis. Freud fled his home in Vienna, Austria, in 1938 when Nazi Germany invaded the country. He found asylum in England, where he remained until his death in 1939.

Rachel Weisz

Actress Rachel Weisz is the daughter of refugees who escaped the Holocaust. She told People, "Both of my parents were [Jewish] refugees from Eastern Europe. My mom, she got out of Austria, the first country to fall to Hitler, in 1939. Anti-Semitic laws had been passed already, so it was a very anti-Semitic climate. My mom's dad had a friend in England named Rev. James Parkes who was a scholar on anti-Semitism. He got my mom and her family out—he saved their lives."

Rita Ora

Pop star Rita Ora has been outspoken about her family's struggles as refugees from Kosovo. In a speech for WE Day in 2016, she recalled fleeing their home to escape ethnic cleansing. "I was born in Kosovo, and when I was one year old, had to flee the country with my parents and sister," she said said (via The Sun). "The word 'refugee' carries a lot of prejudice...and not everyone is comfortable having refugees settle into their environment. Some people make negative judgments on new immigrants and others simply turn a blind eye. This is an opportunity for all of us to reach out and embrace families and people in a time of need...two of these issues my family faced when we first arrived are ever-present: racism and indifference. These attitudes need to change...and we can approach this crisis with compassion and care. If we take action, we help everyone thrive."


Rapper K'naan was born in Somalia. He told Democracy Now that he grew up within a family of artists during a peaceful time in the late 1970s, but that changed when he was about 9 years old. "That's when the war started," he said. "And so, the war invaded, you know, and kind of cut the umbilical cord of structure, and destruction began. And I lived through that for about three years. And around thirteen, we left, and we were very, very fortunate, as we—at the brink of the country's complete collapse and shutdown, we were able to manage to get on one of the last commercial flights to leave the country, came to New York City." K'Naan eventually relocated to Toronto, Canada. He raps about the refugee crisis in songs such as "Take a Minute."

Regina Spektor

Singer Regina Spektor was born in Moscow, in what was then the Soviet Union, in 1980. Her family fled the country in 1989 after religious persecution became too terrifying to bear and eventually settled in the Bronx, New York. She told The Independent that border security in the U.S.S.R. destroyed their passports when they left so they could never return home. "It was pretty intimidating," she said. "Even then it was seen as a real betrayal to leave."


Supermodel Iman fled Somalia with her family, eventually settling in Tanzania, Ukraine, and Kenya, where she was discovered walking down the street—a chance encounter that changed her life and the modeling industry forever. "I absolutely believe that it was just my luck," she told The Guardian. "I could be in a refugee camp now. There are people who have been in refugee camps for 20 years, and I could be one of them. That's one of the reasons I'm compelled to help. First because overnight my life changed from a diplomatic daughter to a refugee and my father could not fend for us. The only time I've ever seen my father cry is when he couldn't pay for us to finish our education. And the NGOs looked after us. They found me a hostel, a job, a university...I am the face of a refugee. I was once a refugee."

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein was so brilliant that Adolf Hitler was threatened by him. By 1921, the German Jewish physicist already had a Nobel Prize to his name, but in 1932, the Nazi Party's anti-Semitism made it almost impossible to work in his home country. Einstein fled Germany for a position at Princeton University in New Jersey and eventually became an American citizen who worked tirelessly with his wife to help refugees and other Jews fleeing Nazi occupation find asylum in the United States. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, he once wrote to the Queen of Belgium, with whom he was friendly. "I am privileged by fate to live here in Princeton. 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."

Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Before she was a media icon and the most famous sex therapist in the world, Dr. Ruth Westheimer was a refugee. Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel, the daughter of Orthodox Jews in Germany, in 1928, according to The New York Times. When the Nazi regime's anti-Semitism reached terrifying heights in 1939, Westheimer was sent to a safe haven in Switzerland. Both of her parents, as well as one of her aunts, died in the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz. She later immigrated to what was then Mandatory Palestine and was severely injured in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, which rendered her unable to walk. In 1956, she moved to France, and by 1958, she had immigrated to the United States.

Luol Deng

Professional basketball player Luol Deng opened up to the Los Angeles Times about growing up as a refugee after his family was forced out of South Sudan following a civil war. "I remember when I was a kid as a refugee in Egypt every day there was always a hope that we get to leave tomorrow or get to go somewhere," he said. "Never knew where, we just wanted somewhere where we wanted an opportunity to make something out of it, and that opportunity came five years later. The Los Angeles Lakers all-star said he's "thankful for growing up in Egypt and I've learned a lot. But at the same time, I know what it feels like to wait for that opportunity to come every day." He and his family eventually found asylum in the United Kingdom.

Marlene Dietrich

Silver screen legend Marlene Dietrich was born in Germany and rose to stardom in stage productions in Berlin in the early 1920s. As her fame spread, she traveled to Hollywood to appear in movies for Paramount Pictures. While in Tinseltown, the Nazis rose to power in Europe. Terrified by the party, Dietrich refused to return to Germany and became a U.S. citizen in 1939, saying, "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."


Rapper M.I.A. was born Maya Arulpragasam in London, but her family didn't stay there long. When she was less than 1 year old, they moved to Sri Lanka, where her father became an activist who campaigned for independence for ethnic Tamils. When a civil war broke out in Sri Lanka (where M.I.A. says her elementary school was destroyed in a government raid), her family fled first to India, then back to London when she was 11 years old.

Madeleine Albright

Madeleine Albright was a refugee before becoming the first female secretary of state, and she hasn't forgotten it. In a scathing rebuke of President Donald Trump's refugee ban, she wrote on Facebook, "As a refugee myself who fled the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, I personally benefited from this country's generosity and its tradition of openness. This order would end that tradition, and discriminate against those fleeing a brutal civil war in Syria. It does not represent who we are as a country...Refugees should not be viewed as a certain burden or potential terrorists. They have already made great contributions to our national life. Syrian refugees are learning English, getting good jobs, buying homes, and starting businesses. In other words, they are doing what other generations of refugees—including my own—did. And I have no doubt that, if given the opportunity, they will become an essential part of our American fabric."

Albright added, "When I came here as a child, I will never forget sailing into New York Harbor for the first time and seeing the Statue of Liberty. It proclaims 'give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.' There is no fine print on the Statue of Liberty, and today she is weeping because of the actions of President Trump."

Henry Kissinger

Another U.S. secretary of state escaped Nazi Germany as a refugee. Henry Kissinger, who served in President Richard Nixon's administration, was a German-born Jew. In 1938, his family fled their increasingly anti-Semitic home country for the United States, eventually settling in New York. Like Albright, Kissinger is now an outspoken advocate for granting asylum to refugees.

Jerry Springer

Before he was mayor of Cincinnati and king of trash TV, Jerry Springer was the child of refugees who fled Germany for England in 1939. He told the Times of Israel, "These documents just blew me away. They showed that my parents got out just four weeks before the war started and based on the number at the top of their document, they were among the last 100 Jews to leave Germany." Not all of Springer's family members were able to escape: 27 reportedly lost their lives in the Holocaust.

Alek Wek

Supermodel Alek Wek and her family fled South Sudan when she was a child in the 1990s. She told The Independent, "I knew that there was a conflict, but I was very saddened that we had to leave. It was like someone chucked you out of your home...But not just that, you are [left] vulnerable."

Andy Garcia

Actor Andy Garcia left Cuba for Miami with his family in 1961 after the Bay of Pigs Invasion. He told Newsmax, "I left Cuba when I was 5 and a half, and I remember everything...Conditions became progressively worse for us [in Cuba]. The government took our land. Money that was in the bank was taken, too. The state passed a law and parents lost their rights to their own children."