On this International Women’s Day, LIRS is excited to lift up a number of immigrant and refugee women who embody the strength, independence, and resilience that we celebrate in some of the women we admire most.
In addition to pushing the envelope for gender equality in America, many of the women below have overcome ethnic, racial, and political barriers on their path to achieving greatness.
1. Madeline Albright
Madeline Albright is an American politician, diplomat and the first female United States Secretary of States in U.S. history.
Albright and her family moved to the United States from Czechoslovakia in 1948, arriving in Ellis Island in New York harbor, after Adolf Hitler’s troops forced them into exile. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1959 and has a PhD from Columbia University.
As a leader in world affairs, Albright is known for her expertise in foreign policy, is said to live up to her expectations and is a strong-willed, engaging, determined and problem-solving women. She was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 by President Barack Obama for her contributions in world affairs, diplomacy and democracy.
“When I came here as a child, I will never forget sailing into New York Harbor for the first time and beholding the Statue of Liberty. I did not have to face refugee camps or the kind of danger that many refugees endure. But like all refugees, I shared a hope to live a safe life with dignity and a chance to give back to my new country,” she says.
2. Krish O’Mara Vignarajah
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah is the current President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the largest refugee resettlement agencies in the United States. She’s also the first refugee to lead the organization in its 80-year long history of welcoming refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors and serving other vulnerable populations.
Vignarajah’s family fled a civil war in Sri Lanka when she was only 9 months old and moved to Baltimore, MD. She graduated from Baltimore County public schools before working briefly in business and law and went on to become the policy director to First Lady Michelle Obama.
“At a time when too many refugees and asylum seekers are unsure whether they will be welcome in America, I am committed to ensuring that all immigrants seeking a better life in America are afforded the same opportunities as my families received to pursue their dreams,” she said in a statement.
3. Geisha Williams
Cuban-American businesswoman, Geisha J. Williams was the first Latino president and CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) from March 2017 until January 13, 2019.
Williams moved to the U.S. at the age of five with her family from Cuba in 1967, after her father, a political prisoner, was released by the military. The family found home as political refugees in Minnesota.
Williams didn’t speak English when she came to America. She eventually went on to graduate with an engineering degree from the University of Miami and is also the first person in her family to go to college.
“You don’t have to be in the power business to be a powerful woman,” she says.
4. Regina Spektor
Regina Illynichna Spektor is a Russian-born American singer-songwriter and pianist. Born in the Soviet Union, Spektor emigrated with her family to Austria and then to Italy before finally resettling in the United States after they faced racial, ethnic and political discrimination for being Jews. She was just nine-years-old.
After setting in the Bronx, Spektor continued piano lessons in the basement of her synagogue and studied classical piano with Sonia Vargas, a professor at the Manhattan School of Music until she was 17. She began writing original songs self-releasing her first three records that gained popularity in New York’s independent music scenes. Her fourth album Begin to Hope went on to achieve a Gold certification by the RIAA.
Best known for her eclectic style, Spektor has also sang for Netflix sensation Orange is the New Black and President Barack Obama.
5. Gloria Estefan
Cuban-American singer, songwriter, actress and businesswoman, Gloria Estefan fled Cuba with her parents in 1960 following the Cuban revolution. “My dad brought us here to be raised in freedom,” Estefan told Stephen Colbert in a edition of The Late Show 2015.
As a child Estefan wrote poetry, took classical guitar lessons and started her career as a lead singer in the group “Miami Latin Boys” before experiencing worldwide success with “Conga” in 1985 which also won her the grand prix in 15th annual Tokyo Music Festival in 1986.
With her trailblazing contribution in music, Estefan has won several accolades including three Grammy Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Las Vegas Walk of Fame and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“There are so many beautiful things that are a part of the world, and I’ve always looked at life that way; I’ve always tried to put on a smile and a brave front, not just for my kids but in my own life and all the difficulties that I’ve gone through,” Estefan says.
6. Mila Kunis
American actress Mila Kunis moved from Soviet Ukraine in 1991 to the United States in a at the age of 7 with her family on religious visa. Her family had to flee the country because of the rising wave of antisemitism engulfing the country.
As a child, she enrolled in acting classes and after-school activities before being discovered by an agent, after which she went on to appear in several television series and commercials. Today, she is best known for her appearance on the television series That ’70s Show and has voiced Meg Griffin on the animated series Family Guy.
Kunis fled the Ukrainian SSR for Los Angeles in 1999 at the age of seven. Her family were Jewish and there was rising wave of antisemitism engulfing the country.
“It saddens me how much fear we’ve instilled in ourselves. And going from there to the whole, ‘Hey, let’s build a wall between Los Angeles and Mexico’.… I don’t even have to answer that one. There’s no point. It’s a really great sound bite. And it got him far,” she says.
What do these women have in common with the women in your life that you admire? Let us know in the comments!