The radical uncertainty that refugees face because of war, flight and exile often dramatically shapes their participation in society. Violent conflict and human rights abuses are not just disproportionately experienced by, but can also create, political subjects. Such life events can transform the motivations, sense of responsibility and political actions of individuals with refugee backgrounds. In this article, we explore the links between civil–political engagement and the life stories of such individuals, analysing our empirical data through themes in the work of Hannah Arendt. We make three central points. First, we highlight the possibility of refugees as ‘vanguard’, playing a leading role in the struggle against dark times. Second, we illustrate the importance of expanding the idea of ‘the political’ through Arendt’s understanding of political action as narrative. And, third, we explore the political freedom and hope that stem from the possibility of ‘new beginnings’.