This thought-provoking new campaign is redefining the word ‘refugee’

"A refugee is not one thing. There are so many definitions, stories, and people who make up the experience.”

Susie Dent refugee dictionary campaign

"A refugee is not one thing. There are so many definitions, stories, and people who make up the experience.”

There are now almost 80 million people across the globe who remain displaced due to conflict and persecution – the highest figure recorded since the Second World War. Last year, less than one percent of refugees were offered resettlement in new countries around the world, with the majority remaining displaced in camps, settlements and urban environments. 

The 28th July will mark 70 years since the UN Refugee Convention, which first defined who a refugee is in law, and set out the human rights of women, men and children fleeing war and persecution at home to seek safety in another country. 

Since, the term refugee has taken on countless personal meanings – meanings far more complex, rich and nuanced than the reductive depictions favoured by certain factions of the media. 

Enter: ‘The Refugee Dictionary’, a new campaign calling for Britons to help compile a dictionary that will define the word refugee in thousands of personal, emotive and individual ways. 

Launched by UK for UNHCR with the help of the nation’s favourite wordsmith Susie Dent, the campaign aims to highlight that refugees aren’t confined or defined by one label, but are individuals with myriad rich stories, hopes and lives. 

UNHCR Refugee Dictionary: Mevan Babakar

Mevan Babakar.

“A refugee is not one thing. There are so many definitions, stories, and people who make up the experience,” says Mevan Babakar, a trustee of UK for UNHCR. Mevan’s family were among the millions of Kurds forced to flee the Gulf War in the early 1990s. She now lives in London, where she is the deputy CEO of a fact checking company. 

“The migration of people throughout the centuries is part of all of our histories. I invite you to think about your own history, and who in your ancestry may have had to make the brave and bold move to travel to safety because of circumstances out of their control. Celebrate them,” she tells Marie Claire. 

Everyone is invited to contribute to the dictionary – from those who have sought refuge in the UK or whose family members were refugees, to those who simply want to celebrate the positive role refugees play in their community. 

“Your definition will be yours alone, born of your own experience,” said Susie Dent on launching the campaign. “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 the likes of actress and influencer Tanya Burr, artist Professor Helen Storey, and the first female Syrian refugee pilot and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Maya Ghazal.

Their definitions will sit in the final Refugee Dictionary, which is set to be unveiled on the 28th July. Contributions to the dictionary are open to the public until July 5th on the UK for UNHCR website.

“In 2019, I went back to Iraq and retraced the route my parents and I took to safety in the early 90s,” Mevan told Marie Claire. “Originally, the journey took us five years. Throughout it all there were always kind moments, people who looked after us, people who shared the little they had with us. 

“One person that stood out to me was the man who gifted me a bike. My five-year old heart exploded with joy when I saw it. 24 years later, I found him again and thanked him. His kindness helped shape me. And so, my definition is a message that I hold close to my own heart: a refugee is holding onto the idea that even in the darkest of times, there will always be shining acts of kindness.”

Kate McCusker

Kate McCusker is a freelance writer at Marie Claire UK, having joined the team in 2019. She studied fashion journalism at Central Saint Martins, and her byline has also appeared in Dezeen, British Vogue, The Times and woman&home. In no particular order, her big loves are: design, good fiction, bad reality shows and the risible interiors of celebrity houses.