25 Apr 2024

Redefining what it means to be a Refugee

Redefining what it means to be a Refugee


Zahra is an Indian Iranian creative who loves learning. Her particular areas of interest are culture & identity. Outside of researching, writing and collating stories together, she’s an avid reader and traveller.

Redefining what it means to be a Refugee

What are your first thoughts when you think of a refugee? Does it have a positive or negative association?

According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of a refugee is

Someone driven from his home by war or the fear of attack or persecution; a displaced person‘.

Whilst this is true, a refugee is much more than this. Each person embodies their own story; they’re doctors, lawyers, and civil servants. They are our grandparents, mothers, daughters and sons. They can be happy, sad, angry and hurt.

Over time, news outlets and media coverage have desensitized us to the meaning of the word, and as a result, their humanity is overlooked.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) are drawing back the layers to reinstate the human-ness of refugees through their launch of the Refugee dictionary last year. They asked a multitude of faith leaders, politicians, healthcare practitioners and just about everyone to define what a refugee meant to them.

We spoke to Emma Cherniavsky, chief executive officer of the UNHCR to tell us more.

A really important part of our mission is to be a platform for members of the British public who want to engage with the refugee cause. The refugee dictionary is a project that we launched to mark the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention.

We wanted to really challenge people to think about what a refugee is. We asked members of the public, faith leaders, community leaders, business leaders, and others, to contribute a definition of what a refugee means to them.

From this, a rich tapestry of stories came out and it really explored the positive role that refugees have played in British society for decades. It was really inspiring and heartwarming to see the range of stories that we heard through the dictionary.

Once we had over 1000 definitions, we put them together into a printed book, which we worked with the British Library, and it’s now been formally accessioned and is available there.

We see it as a living project that will continue. It would be wonderful to see other refugee dictionaries created in other parts of the world because the lived experience of refugees is different everywhere.”

Print compilation of the Refugee Dictionary depicted

Why it’s vital, now more than ever

The refugee crisis across the globe doesn’t seem to be slowing down. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 100 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide; and these are just the ones accounted for.

Emma talks to us more.

In the last five years, the emergency level has tripled. We were dealing with 15 emergencies, and that’s gone up to 45. The number of refugees around the world has jumped from 65 million to now being near the 100 million mark. We just crossed that grim milestone about six weeks ago.

The war in Ukraine has created one of the largest refugee flows that we’ve seen in Europe since World War Two.

“It’s really important to emphasise that there are very significant and devastating refugee crises in many other countries too. The war in Syria, which is now 12 years on, has created a long-term refugee crisis.

We want to see Afghan refugees, Syrian refugees and Somali refugees shown the same warm welcome that we’ve seen for refugees from Ukraine.

“What we’re here to do is inspire the public to be engaged, lend a hand and help lift uplift refugees around the world who need our help.

Gallery of the new home

With the success of the Refugee dictionary, another campaign has been launched to continue building on what it means to be a refugee. Emma told us more.

“The concept of the campaign is to get members of the public to reflect on what home means to them. For a refugee, starting a new home somewhere else is challenging.

We’ve asked members of the public to contribute a photograph of an object or a place or something that means home to them. Again, we’ve had dozens of incredible submissions that come with little stories attached.

We want this campaign to inspire all of us to keep working together to help refugees find a safe and new place that they can call home.

How to access and contribute to the campaigns

If you’re interested in contributing to the ongoing campaigns of either the Refugee dictionary or the Gallery of the new home, you can search for them both via the UNHCR website.

Alternatively, if you’d like to share your story in our Magazine, get in touch via email.

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