Social Science blog

28 July 2021

Hundreds of definitions for a big word: The Refugee Dictionary comes to the British Library

Emma Cherniavsky, UK for UNHCR CEO, holds The Refugee Dictionany

The Refugee Dictionary, photo by Simon Jacobs, PA Wire

Today is the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Refugee Convention. The UN Refugee Convention, signed on 28 July 1951, 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. It also set out the legal obligations of states to protect refugees.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (known as UN Refugee Agency or UNHCR) is the custodian of the Refugee Convention and works around the world to protect the rights and wellbeing of people forced to flee conflict and persecution. Their work includes responding to emergencies, providing access to essential services such as health care and education and also supporting the complex needs for refugees wanting to return to their homes. The charity UK for UNHCR helps raise funds and build awareness to support this work in the UK.

To mark the 70th anniversary, UK for UNHCR have created a very special dictionary to highlight the many personal experiences of refugees and their friends, families, colleagues and others. The Refugee Dictionary has been compiled from hundreds of definitions of just one word: ‘refugee’. The result is a powerful work, at times beautiful, recounting the experiences of fleeing persecution, hopes, building new homes and new relationships. Sometimes it’s as simple as sharing a joke or favourite food.

Examples of the definitions contained in The Refugee Dictionary include:

A refugee is the unexpected but joyful addition to my family. A surprise second son’ (Jane, Lewes)

the Asian family who fled Idi Armin’s Uganda. They arrived with just one small suitcase each, but in them they had gifts for us’ (Anne, Stourbridge)

Someone in search of what most of us take for granted’ (Andrew, Glasgow)

You can read all the definitions, including contributions from faith leaders across the UK, Lord Alf Dubs, Khaled Hosseini, and Emma Thompson, online at https://www.unrefugees.org.uk/refugeedictionary/

photograph of Emma Cherniavsky presenting The Refugee Dictionary to Xerxes Mazda at the British Library

Emma Cherniavsky, UK for UNHCR CEO presents The Refugee Dictionary to Dr Xerxes Mazda, British Library Head of Collections and Curation. Photo by Simon Jacobs, PA Wire

Yesterday, a print copy – one of only two – was presented to us at the British Library, to add to our collections. We are honoured and delighted that UK for UNHCR chose us to hold a copy. The British Library is a place where we celebrate the written and spoken word, and the meanings that we give to them. Even more, The Refugee Dictionary and the Convention that has inspired its creation, speaks to our aim to ensure that our collections reflect the diversity of voices that make up published communication. That could be through fiction, poetry, song, blog posts, charity campaigns, the latest scientific papers or popular magazines.

Our collections have been influenced and enriched by the experiences of refugees and the work to protect the rights of refugees.

Our Oral History recordings include testimonies from people who fled persecution of Jewish people in Nazi Germany and during the Second World War. More information on these collections can be found at https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/oral-histories-of-jewish-experience-and-holocaust-testimonies

The Vietnamese Oral History project includes interviews with refugees from Vietnam to the UK, alongside interviews with refugee support workers. This collection, and others documenting refugee experience, is described at https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/oral-histories-of-ethnicity-and-post-colonialism

The British Library is a depository library for the United Nations, and provides access to the published documentary history of the UN and its agencies, including UNHCR. You can find out more about these collections, and find out how to access the many documents that are now freely available online, at https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/publications-intergovernmental-organisations

Our Social Welfare Portal provides access to reports and other information from a range of UK charities and agencies working to support the rights of refugees in the UK.

Our Contemporary British Publications reflect the growing range of academic research, news, commentary and creative expression on the experience of being a refugee. We are very pleased to add The Refugee Dictionary to this collection, marking the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention.

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