11 Famous Authors Who Were Once Refugees

by Charlotte Ahlin
Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

If you've already blocked out this past week of nauseating current events, let me bring you up to speed: Donald Trump signed an immigration order which has temporarily suspended refugee resettlement in the United States. If this horrifying injustice is ringing a faint bell, it might be because you've already read the story of a refugee who was denied entry to the United States on the grounds of "national security": Anne Frank. In another universe, she could have been a celebrated author still living and writing in America today. Instead, she died in a concentration camp at age 15. Here are several other famous authors who were once refugees.

Let's clear something up right away, though, because some people seem to be confused: refugees are human. 100% of refugees are real, human people trying to survive, like you and your friends and your Republican aunt. Whether they go on to be famous authors, or Steve Jobs' parents, or just ordinary, non-famous human people on the planet, every refugee deserves to live in safety.

These are just a few of the real, human people who fled from war and violence, and went on to become novelists, children's authors, and unflinchingly honest memoirists:


Isabel Allende

In 1973, Chilean author Isabel Allende discovered that her name was on a military blacklist. She was a cousin of President Salvador Allende, who had just been overthrown in a military coup, and her family was receiving death threats. Allende fled to Venezula with her husband and children, arriving with no visa and no job. Nevertheless, she managed to continue her career as a journalist, and went on to write The House of The Spirits several years later.

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Ishmael Beah

At age 12, Ishmael Beah fled his home and family following an attack by rebels in Sierra Leone. At age 13, he was picked up by the government army and forced to fight as a child soldier for over two years. Beah was finally rescued by UNICEF, and eventually made his way to the United States, where he is now an author and human rights activist. A Long Way Gone is his harrowing, powerful memoir of his life as a boy soldier.

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Hans Augusto Rey and Margret Rey

Hans Augusto and Margret Rey were the couple behind the mischievous monkey, Curious George. They were both German-born Jews, who fled to Brazil to escape the rise of Nazism. Hans and Margret got married in Brazil and moved to Paris together—but in 1940, as Nazis prepared to invade, the couple fled again, this time escaping Paris on homemade bicycles, carrying the manuscript of Curious George with them.

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Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen's family escaped Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, fleeing to a refugee camp in Pennsylvania when he was only four years old. Nguyen's debut novel, The Sympathizers, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His next book, The Refugees, coming in February 2017, will also deal with immigration, identity, and family across countries and continents.

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Felix Salten

Even if you've never heard of Felix Salten, you probably know his most famous creation: a little deer named Bambi. Did you know that Bambi was banned by Adolf Hitler? Salten's family moved from Budapest to Vienna when he was a child, because Jews were granted full citizenship in Vienna. After Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, Salten escaped to Switzerland. And yes, it turns out that Bambi is somehow even sadder than you remember.

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Vladomir Nabokov

In addition to being a world-famous author and butterfly expert, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov fled both Russia and Germany as a refugee. His family escaped the Red Army in St. Petersburg when he was young, and Nabokov and his Jewish wife escaped Nazis in Berlin years later, ending up in New York City.

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Loung Ung

Best-selling author Loung Ung was only five when Khmer Rouge soldiers stormed her city. She lost most of her family in the ensuing Cambodian genocide, and came close to dying from starvation in child labor camps before she escaped on a boat to Thailand. She and her brother made it to Vermont, where she was able to start writing down memories of her childhood during the darkest chapter of Cambodian history.

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Gary Shteyngart

Gary Shteyngart was born into a Jewish family in the USSR. After years of antisemitism and discrimination by the Russian government, the Shteyngart family was allowed to emigrate to America, where Gary Shteyngart found his voice as a bitingly satirical author.

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Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown describes herself as a "leftie liberal, anti-racist, feminist Muslim.” She was born in Kampala, but her family was forced out of the country during the Expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972. Alibhai-Brown settled in England, where she became a journalist and author well-known for her columns on race and immigration.

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Victor Hugo

The famous author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was also a politician and activist. He fought for universal suffrage, free education, and an end to the death penalty. Hugo was exiled when Napoleon III came to power, and fled France several times throughout his life. He was trapped in Paris during the siege of 1870, however, when he and other Parisians resorted to eating the zoo animals to survive.

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Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt was a German Jew who fled to France during the Holocaust, where she aided other Jewish refugees. During the German occupation of France, however, Arendt was interned in a camp as an "enemy alien," later escaping to New York with a fake visa. The Origins of Totalitarianism was her first major book, tracing the rise of Nazism and Stalinism in Europe, and it remains one of the essential non-fiction texts on totalitarian government today.

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