Heroes in the Diaspora: African Refugees Who Have Made A Difference Part 1

The United Nations Commissioner for Refugees is celebrating 60 years and recognizing refugees who have made a difference in the world. Our list focuses on African Refugees who are making a difference especially in the communities they now call home. They have conquered adversity in a remarkable way to become some of the most recognizable figures around the world. Author Chinua Achebe, Professor Emmanuel Dongala, Computer Scientist Philip Emeagwali, Diplomat Lindiwe Mabuza and Presidents Thabo Mbeki, Sam Nujoma and Kwame Nkrumah etc. We will continuously feature these remarkable heroes in numerous pieces.

Congolese polymath Emmanuel Dongala is a doctor of physics, a professor of chemistry, a man of the theatre and one of the finest writers his country has ever seen. The political turmoil that raged in Congo Brazzaville in the 1990s was material for him as a writer, but it also forced him to become a refugee.
Dongala’s father was from Congo Brazzaville and his mother was from the neighbouring Central African Republic. Dongala studied Science in France and the USA, where he received a doctorate in physics. He returned home to lecture in chemistry at the University of Brazzaville and was later appointed Dean.
A member of the International PEN club, Dongala has a long list of publications to his name, including novels, poetry, plays and short stories. In 1973 he published “Un Fusil dans la Main”, which won him the Ladislas-Dormandi prize.
In 1981 he founded the Théatre de l’éclair, one of the best-known theatre companies in Congo, while serving as the president of the Congolese Writers’ Association.
His collection of short stories, “Jazz et Vin de Palme“, was published in 1982, but it was his novel “The Fire Of Origin”, published in the same year in Spanish, that won him attention among international literary circles. With it, Dongala won the Grand Prix Littéraire de l’Afrique Noire and the Prix Charles-Oulmont, awarded by the Fondation Française. In honour of his literary achievements, Dongala was appointed Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.
In the civil war that ravaged the Republic of Congo in the mid-1990s, Dongala and his family were threatened as a result of the indiscriminate fighting between rival militias in the country. Over 150,000 civilians died and thousands had to seek refuge in the equatorial forests.
Resolved to flee his war-torn country, Dongala applied unsuccessfully for asylum at the French embassy in Brazzaville. Fortunately, while studying in the United States, he had struck up friendships with various individuals among literary circles. Groups of writers and individuals rallied to his aid, led by his close friend, American novelist Philip Roth.
Dongala was evacuated to the US where, with the assistance of Roth, he secured a visiting professorship in chemistry at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he and his family settled.
Dongala insists that he is not a political exile but that like any other civilian, he fled because of the war, not because of ideological reasons. “It was because ‘Stalin’s organs’ [the nickname given to the Soviet-built canons used in the Congolese conflict] kept firing on our house, because anarchy spread and children with machine guns took what they wanted.”
Dongala now writes for newspapers and magazines in the US.


A “father of the Internet”, sometimes called the Bill Gates of Africa, computing superbrain Philip Emeagwali spent years of his childhood in a refugee camp before he went on to become, in former US President Bill Clinton’s words, “one of the great minds of the Information Age”.
Emeagwali grew up in Onitsha, in south-eastern Nigeria, one of nine children of Ibo-speaking parents. He showed early promise at school, even though he often had to work to help support his family. He was nicknamed “Calculus” by classmates for his extraordinary abilities in maths. His father, a nurse, would quiz him with 100 maths problems and leave him only an hour to find all the solutions. By the time Emeagwali entered fifth grade, his teacher would let him take over the class when he was absent.
In 1966, fighting erupted between the central government and the ethnic Ibo population. In the Biafran civil war that followed, the south-eastern region attempted to secede from Nigeria, and Emeagwali spent most of the period from 1967 to 1970 in a refugee camp. The Nigerian government restricted food importation to Biafra, starving nearly one million refugees to death.
In 1974, Emeagwali went to the United States on a scholarship with $140 in his pocket. Fifteen years later, he graduated in mathematics, civil, coastal and marine engineering and computer science. In 1989, he won the computing world’s Nobel Prize, the Gordon Bell Prize, for solving a problem that had been classified by the US government as one of the 20 most difficult computing problems ever. Using 65,000 processors, he was able to perform the world’s fastest computation at 3.1 billion calculations per second. His invention is widely used in programming and building the world’s most powerful supercomputers and has also been used to maximise petroleum extraction.
Emeagwali has been living in the US since 1974 and underlines the huge contribution that immigrants have made to America. “Third World countries are giving technological aid to the United States that is worth about 12 billion dollars a year. One in 20 Americans was born abroad. Two thousand Nigerian doctors practice in the United States. There are more Sierra Leonean doctors in Chicago than in Sierra Leone,” he says.
At his own website, emeagwali.com, he welcomes browsers to “the first personal website on the Internet.” He has helped promote Africa ONE, a project to loop the entire African continent with 30,000 km of fibre-optic cable lines so that phone calls from one African country to another will not have to pass through Europe.
When Emeagwali was asked what qualities he would like to pass on to his son, he replied, “I want him to be inspired by the fact that I was a high school dropout and an ex-refugee who overcame racism and made scientific contributions that benefited mankind.”


Lindiwe Mabuza’s versatility led her into many professions, yet her single driving ambition was to see the end of apartheid in South Africa. She worked as a professor, poet, short-story writer, radio journalist, editor, and political organiser for the African National Congress (ANC). After the fall of apartheid, she became South Africa’s first black ambassador to Germany.
Mabuza grew up in the working-class coal-mining town of Newcastle, struggling against crushing poverty. Her father was a truck driver and her mother worked as a maid. Mabuza became the only one in her family of seven to finish high school. Intent on her attending college, her mother and grandmother encouraged her to take advantage of the scholarship she was offered.
Mabuza’s grandmother had often told her stories about their Zulu heritage. When the time came, she enrolled in Roma University across the border in Lesotho instead of at a college in South Africa in order to increase her understanding of native African culture and literature.
When she arrived back home to Newcastle in 1961, the country’s hard-line apartheid policy had toughened following the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. Non-white students were forced out of multi-racial universities and into exclusively black institutions with a strictly censored curriculum. Non-white educators resigned in droves. When Mabuza applied for a position at a college in Vryheid, she was denied the post. She moved to Swaziland, where she taught English and Zulu literature.
In 1964, Mabuza began graduate studies in English at Stanford University, California. She earned her second master’s degree in American studies at University of Minnesota, where she remained to teach sociology. She became involved in a project for wayward adolescent students, gaining their attention through creative writing and poetry. This project inspired her to write. Combining her broad knowledge of international literature with her experience of Zulu culture, she wrote a collection of poems, “Letter to Letta”.
When black South Africans were forcibly removed from segregated townships to “homelands” and Afrikaans was made one of the official languages in black schools, Mabuza became politically active. She joined the ANC in 1975 and became a journalist for ANC’s Radio Freedom, based in Lusaka. Her concern with women’s issues led to her involvement with Voice of the Women, the ANC’s feminist journal, which encouraged women to write poetry.
“Poetry is part of the struggle,” she says. “You use the armed struggle; you use political agitation methods…. It gets to the heart of the matter. It moves people.” After editing the magazine, Mabuza was sent to open up ANC branches in Scandinavia. She returned to the United States in 1986 as the ANC’s chief representative, organising anti-apartheid boycotts and rallies, putting pressure on major corporations to withdraw their investment and facilities from South Africa.
With the legalisation of the ANC and the release of its celebrated leader, Nelson Mandela, in 1990, apartheid was on its way out. In 1994, Mabuza became a member of South Africa’s first multi-racial government but within a year, President Mandela offered her the job of ambassador to Germany, which she accepted.
Currently, Mabuza’s focus is on encouraging international investment in South Africa and building trading ties and cultural exchange with Germany, since, in her own words, “Democracy without housing, without health and without food is meaningless”.


The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. In more than six decades, the agency has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives. Today, a staff of some 7,190 people in more than 120 countries continues to help some 36.4 million persons.