When the news first broke of the terror attacks in Paris, the world’s immediate response was one of solidarity. Facebook profiles were changed to the French Tricolour, #prayforparis trended on Twitter, and buildings around the world lit up in blue, white and red. But those noble sentiments quickly gave way to fear, anger and defensiveness.
In the search for scapegoats, people have started pointing the finger at the refugees fleeing exactly the same violence France fell victim to. In the US, for example, politicians are attempting to slam the doors shut. And in the UK, a recent poll found that public support for resettling Syrian refugees has fallen after the attacks.
But both these countries have a long history of welcoming people fleeing war and persecution. And as this list shows, many of those refugees have gone on to make huge contributions to the country that gave them a second chance.
Despite being one of the most famous scientists in Germany, Albert Einstein was still forced to leave the country after the Nazi party’s anti-Semitic policies made it difficult for him to carry out his work.
After moving to the US with his wife, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist did his utmost to get as many German Jews to safety, filing visa applications and providing personal recommendations. He struggled knowing that while he was safe, so many of his compatriots had not been as lucky: “I am almost ashamed to be living in such peace while all the rest struggle and suffer.”
He might be one of America’s most famous entrepreneurs, but Sergey Brin was not actually born in the US. In 1979, with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Sergey and his family managed to leave the Soviet Union, where they’d been facing growing anti-Semitism. Sergey, who was just six when he left his native country, found the transition tough: “It was a difficult year for him, the first year,” his mother said.
The difficult start didn’t last long: in 1998, he co-founded Google with Larry Page.
“We came to the United States with nothing,” Madeleine Albright remembers. Her family, who were fleeing the 1948 Czechoslovak coup d’état, were welcomed by the people of Denver with open arms: “People were so incredibly nice, and provided us with furniture and Christmas presents.”
It’s something she will never forget: “I will always feel an immense gratitude to this country, one shared by the millions of other refugees who have come to our shores in the years since.” After settling in the US, she went on to become the first woman to serve as secretary of state.
When Henry Kissinger arrived in New York with his parents and his brother in 1938, public opinion in the US was very much against granting refuge to Jewish people fleeing Nazi prosecution: a poll from that year reveals that over 67% of Americans were opposed to the idea. Kissinger and his family were among the fortunate few who gained admission to the country.
After graduating from Harvard University, he went on to serve as US national security advisor and secretary of state, and received the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize. Speaking to the ICRC in 2012, Kissinger said that turning away refugees “would be incompatible with America’s values and our image of who we are”.
When Nazi Germany invaded Austria in 1938, Sigmund Freud was already a household name: just eight years earlier, he had been awarded the Goethe Prize in recognition of his contribution to psychology and German culture. Although he initially resisted leaving Vienna, the British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones managed to persuade Freud that the situation was getting too dangerous, and helped organize his departure.
He died a year after arriving in England, but he was still chosen as the refugee who made the most significant contribution to British life.