Britons are being asked to help compile a new dictionary that will define only one word – “refugee” – but in thousands of different personal, emotive, and thought-provoking ways.

Photo: U.K. for UNHCR 

The project by UK for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency’s UK charity, will mark the 70th Anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention on 28 July, which first defined who a refugee is in law and set out the human rights of women, men and children fleeing the horrors of war and persecution to seek safety in another country. 

Since then, the word refugee has taken on countless personal meanings, so The Refugee Dictionary aims to remind us of the rich tapestry of stories and futures made possible because of this significant human rights convention and celebrate the UK’s proud tradition of giving refuge by inviting the public to join in.

It is hoped the project will bring thousands of new meanings to the word and highlight that refugees aren’t confined or defined by one word but are individuals with myriad rich stories, hopes and lives. 

UK for UNHCR is encouraging everyone to take part, from those who have sought refuge in the UK or people whose family members were refugees, to those who simply want to celebrate the positive role of refugees in their communities and to the country.

Launching the campaign, the nation’s favourite wordsmith Susie Dent said, “Your definition will be yours alone, born of your own experience. It might be ‘A grandfather with a wicked sense of humour, who told a great bedtime story’ or ‘A wonderful friend who misses the scent of jasmine flowers.’ This is about focusing on personal stories. We can’t wait to read the varied and wonderful contributions. My definition is: “A refugee is the mother who sees her child find their smile again, free of turmoil, full of hope.”

The campaign has already garnered support from Lord Alf Dubs, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and actor David Morrissey, artist Professor Helen Storey, and the first female Syrian refugee pilot and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Maya Ghazal. All have shared their definitions, ready to appear in the final book on July 28th

Tanya Burr, actress and influencer who has been supporting UNHCR since 2019 has also added her definition, saying: “A refugee is a peacefully sleeping child in a safe place.”

Contribute To a New Dictionary
UK for UNHCR Trustee Mevan Babakar, who was a refugee for five years after fleeing the Gulf war in the 1990s with her parents, helps launch a new dictionary that will define just one word: refugee. (Photo credit Anthony Upton -PA)

These will sit in “The Refugee Dictionary” alongside other submissions, including that of UK for UNHCR Trustee Mevan Babakar who was a refugee for five years after fleeing the Gulf war in the 1990s with her parents, before eventually settling in London. She says: “A refugee is holding onto the idea that even in the darkest of times there will always be shining acts of kindness”.

Also set to feature are the words of refugee students helped into tertiary education by UNHCR and its partners, with definitions including: “A refugee is a well spiced dish that can impress the world”; “A refugee is a good teacher, like a candle that consumes itself to light the way for others” and “A refugee is a trans man who simply enjoys the little things this life has to offer such as flowers and scents.”

For the last 70 years, the UN Refugee Convention has helped to protect the millions of vulnerable people forced to flee their homes. Countries that have signed up to the Convention agree to protect refugees, but also to provide them with a series of rights including the right to work, to education and to a home, making a huge difference and allowing individuals and families to build a future. 

Emma Cherniavsky, CEO, UK for UNHCR, says, “The UK has a centuries long tradition of providing refuge and helped to convene and launch the 1951 Refugee Convention. We hope this campaign will act as a reminder of not only the importance of supporting refugees and their rights, but also of what a positive impact refugees have made in our lives and in the history and fabric of our country. This project reaches beyond just one word to explore the countless stories of survival, hope and new beginnings made possible thanks to the original legal definition of a refugee.”

The final Refugee Dictionary will be unveiled to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention on the 28 July 2021.

Find out more about the campaign, share your contribution (by July 5th) in the format “A refugee is…” or find out more about supporting UK for UNHCR, here.

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Nisha Kotecha is the Founder of Good News Shared. Having worked and volunteered for charities in the UK for over 10 years, Nisha is on a mission to highlight how amazing charities are.

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