Forced to flee home and rebuild their lives in a new country, refugees bring a range of skills, talents and experiences with them. Some even have achieved flourishing careers in the world of film and television.
With the approach of the 95th Academy Awards on March 12, we celebrate former refugees who have been nominated for some of the most prestigious awards in the entertainment industry—past and present.
Haing S. Ngor
Best Supporting Actor, The Killing Fields (1984)
A survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in his native Cambodia, Haing S. Ngor, a doctor, endured years in Cambodian prison camps before fleeing to the safety of a Red Cross refugee camp in Thailand.
Moving to Los Angeles, Ngor was offered the role of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran in The Killing Fields. Despite his lack of acting experience, his debut performance won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Ngor went on to appear in various other on-screen projects, most memorably the Vanishing Son miniseries and Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth (1993).
Until his death, Ngor was a human-rights activist as well as an actor, using his fame and income to support refugees. This included forming two humanitarian organizations that aided Cambodian refugees still in camps.
Seven Academy Awards for three films
Born in 1906 in Austria-Hungary, Billy Wilder was a journalist turned filmmaker in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party. He became a refugee when he fled the country to the United States, where he flourished as a screenwriter and director.
Classics such as Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Sabrina (1954), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960) and numerous others earned Wilder countless awards and recognition as one of Hollywood’s most versatile filmmakers.
During his career, which spanned across three decades, he was nominated for 21 Academy Awards (13 for screenwriting, eight for direction) and won seven.
Are any refugees nominated at the 2023 Oscars?
Ke Huy Quan
Nominated: Best Supporting Actor, Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Ke Huy Quan and his family fled the Vietnam War in 1978, when he was just 8 years old. He landed in a refugee camp in Hong Kong along with his father and five siblings, while his mother and three other siblings fled to Malaysia.
Eventually the family was able to emigrate to the U.S. together in 1979. Just a few years later, Quan made his acting debut as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), followed by roles in several other high-profile films and television shows, including The Goonies (1985).
However, by the time Quan was in his 20s, he had all but disappeared from the screen. Unable to find a foothold at a time when roles were scarce for Asian American actors, he gave up acting and went back to school to study film at the University of Southern California.
After taking a decades-long break, Quan decided at age 49 to give acting one last go. Two weeks later, he landed his role in Everything Everywhere All at Once. The comeback performance has already won him dozens of awards—and he is up for another at the Oscars on Monday.
Nominated: Best Actress in a Supporting Role, The Whale (2023)
Hong Chau was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after her parents fled Vietnam in 1979. Eventually, the family settled in Louisiana, where her parents worked as dishwashers and later ran a convenience store.
Since her breakthrough role in Downsizing (2017), Chau has appeared in countless films and series. Variety wrote that the actress has been “prolific in recent years,” including roles in Watchmen (2019) and Homecoming (2018–2020).
Most recently, Chau is being recognized for her outstanding performance alongside Brendan Fraser in The Whale, earning a nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role at this year’s Oscars.
At this year’s Academy Awards and all year round, we applaud these actors and filmmakers along with the countless contributions of the world’s refugees.