Writing the foreword for the Refugee Dictionary

The 1951 Refugee Convention enshrines the right of people fleeing the horrors of conflict and persecution to seek refuge in another country. It defines who is a refugee under international law. To mark the 70th Anniversary of these human rights, UK for UNHCR called on the public to submit their own definitions of the word “refugee”. With over 1000 definitions, the Refugee Dictionary was born. I submitted by own definition, and was later invited to write the foreword.

The foreword

My earliest memories were coloured by the word “refugee”. I never quite understood what the word meant as we moved through borders on foot, by train or by plane. I didn’t understand why sometimes the word opened doors and we would be welcomed in, and other times it would close a door, and we would be cast out.

At detention centres and refugee camps, I was captivated by the different ages, clothes and customs; the lullabies sung in different languages, and the fragrant smell of foods I couldn’t yet pronounce. I was struck by how some carried their grief openly, and others hid it behind a joke, how some shared stories of their homelands, and others never mentioned where they had come from but only where they were going.

Although we shared the same label, none of us shared the same story.

My story started in Iraq. In the early 90s my family and I fled the Gulf War. As Kurds living in Saddam’s Iraq, we had already lost so much, and we were not ready to lose more. Between the ages of 1 and 6 I was a child refugee travelling through Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia, the Netherlands and finally the UK.

Today I am a trustee of the UK for UNHCR, working to protect and celebrate refugees everywhere.

The rich and varied lived experiences of people who are displaced is often reduced down to the single word “refugee”. At the heart of this book is a different message: no one is ever just a word, we are always a story.

Mevan Babakar, Trustee, UK for UNHCR