Ithaca City of Asylum

Exiled writer to speak on women, conflict, and the migrant experience Oct. 4 at Buffalo Street Books

For Kanchana Ugbabe, writing is not just a calling. It is also, she says, “almost a strategy for survival.”

Kanchana Ugbabe, writer and scholar from Nigeria

Kanchana Ugbabe, writer and scholar from Nigeria

Ugbabe will read from her fiction and discuss her life as a South Asian, an expatriate, a woman, a teacher and a writer in exile at Ithaca City of Asylum’s Voices of Freedom 2018 celebration. The free event will take place on Thursday, October 4 at 7 p.m. at Buffalo Street Books in the DeWitt Mall, 215 N. Cayuga St. in downtown Ithaca. A reception and book signing will follow.

Ugbabe was born and raised in Chennai, India, studied in Scotland and received a Ph.D. in literature from Flinders University in Australia. In the early 1980s, she moved to Jos, Nigeria, where she took a job as a professor of English and was active with the Association of Nigerian Authors.

Jos, which sits in the “Middle Belt” between Nigeria’s Muslim majority north and Christian south, was a peaceful place when she arrived. But in 2001, she said, “things suddenly exploded.” Since then, thousands have been killed and many more have been displaced by communal violence.

In 2015, after a series of attacks on colleagues and friends, Ugbabe’s house was forcibly invaded. Fearing for her life, she fled the country and eventually found refuge as a visiting scholar in Harvard University’s women and gender studies department. In November 2017, she became Fordham University’s first-ever Writer at Risk in Residence, with support from PEN AmericaArtists at Risk Connection and Westbeth Artists Housing.

Ugbabe’s fiction and research focus on home, belonging and the migrant experience. She also explores writing as a coping mechanism for women living in conflict zones or displaced by violence. Her short story collection, Soulmates, was published by Penguin in 2011. At the Voices of Freedom event, she will talk about her life, read her story “Blessing in Disguise” and take questions.

“We are honored to have Kanchana Ugbabe as our featured writer for Voices of Freedom 2018,” said Gail Holst-Warhaft, chair of the Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) board. “She is a distinguished writer who focuses her work on the challenges faced by women, especially women writers, in Africa. After fleeing her home in Nigeria, she has been a voice for many others who have been affected or displaced by violence and persecution.”

Founded in 2001, Ithaca City of Asylum is an all-volunteer project of the Center for Transformative Action at Cornell. Working with Ithaca College and Cornell, ICOA provides refuge in Ithaca for dissident writers and promotes freedom of expression and human rights. ICOA is one of two North American members of the International Cities of Refuge Network, supporting writers whose works are suppressed, whose lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing and whose languages are endangered.

The annual Voices of Freedom event, held in conjunction with Banned Books Week, celebrates literature, social justice and freedom of speech. Kanchana Ugbabe’s visit to Ithaca is made possible by support of the Community Arts Partnership and the partnership of Artists at Risk Connection, a project of PEN America. The event is cosponsored by Buffalo Street Books; the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and South Asia Program at Cornell; the Ithaca College Department of Writing; and the Ithaca College Women’s and Gender Studies Program.

Ithaca City of Asylum on WRFI Friday, Sept. 7, 4-5 p.m.

Ithaca City of Asylum will get some air time Friday, Sept. 7, 4-5 p.m. on the Human Rights and Social Justice Program on WRFI 88.1 FM.

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Board members Edward Hower and Kate Blackwood will have a conversation with host Ute Ritz-Deutch about the project’s mission, about freedom of expression, about about the issues and challenges writers face when they are persecuted for what they write. They’ll also share details and insight about the upcoming Voices of Freedom event October 4 at Buffalo Street Books.

Listen live!

Turkish researcher becomes her own subject

As a political scientist studying the relationship between academia and government, Simten Coşar knew a lot about the ways in which official ideology can undermine academic independence.

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Her doctoral thesis was a study of the state and the intellectual in Turkey. As a professor in Ankara, she advised graduate students, wrote articles and books and lectured widely on politics, media and the academy. A self-defined structuralist and feminist, Coşar grounded her work in both fact and theory.

She was also involved with Scholars at Risk, an international network that provides support for threatened academics around the world. From the relative safety of Turkey, she wanted to show solidarity for colleagues in authoritarian states.

Then, in January 2016, things suddenly got personal.

That was when Coşar joined 1,128 Turkish academics in signing a declaration, titled “We Will Not Be a Party to this Crime,” calling for the government to stop its attacks against minority Kurds. Soon more than 2,200 would sign.

The reaction to the declaration was swift, led by extreme nationalist groups with ties to the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “There was a public campaign accusing the signatories of supporting terrorist activities,” Coşar recalled from her office at the Cornell Institute for European Studies(CIES).

“Just with a click, I was turned into a field of research myself,” she said. “It was what we had been talking about in the abstract turned into practice.”

Across Turkey, university administrators began firing faculty members after hasty hearings. “Some of my colleagues were not only being investigated by their universities, but they were being called to the criminal court,” she said. “In a country where war is not that unusual, where state violence is not that unusual, a call for peace is annoying for the authorities. So they attacked.”

Just with a click, I was turned into a field of research myself. It was what we had been talking about in the abstract turned into practice.

The crackdown took her by surprise. “At first it was just pure fear,” she said. “Fear of being arrested, fear of being dismissed, but mostly the unease of not being able to foresee what was going to happen. This lasted for about a month, or a month and a half, and then I got tired of it. It does not help, it paralyzes you, it consumes you. So I started to get involved in solidarity networks in Turkey. And I started to write.”

By that time, she was on sabbatical at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, working on a project about feminist academics in the United States. When her time at UMass was over, she thought about returning home, but opted to take a visiting professor position at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where she taught until the end of last year.

She is not banned from traveling to Turkey – in fact, she was there in May to help care for a family member. She found the political situation dire, but she was heartened by signs of what she calls “the micropolitics of hope” – the fact that academics, political dissenters and other marginalized people have found ways to stay active despite the limitations placed on them.

But the uncertainty makes it hard for her to focus on her work there. “I was not able to write in my country,” she said. “It was not like someone stopped me from writing, but I couldn’t start.”

This winter, she came to Cornell as a visiting scholar with CIES, with support from the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs, the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund.

At Cornell, she said, the words have flowed.

“It has been amazing,” Coşar said. “I have been able to do the things that I wasn’t able to do for the last two and a half years. I completed manuscripts, I applied for research funds, I submitted a book proposal. The academic environment is so hospitable here. My colleagues are friendly and supportive and understanding. I cannot help but write, and the subjects that I am studying are right at the center of what is happening.”

That is exactly what CIES director Esra Akcan had hoped for. “Scholars with the courage to speak out against repressive regimes are increasingly under threat worldwide,” she said. “Cornell is well-positioned to provide a supportive community for these academics, and the space to continue their research, teaching and activism.”

Since 2004, the university has welcomed four researchers under the Scholar Rescue Fund program. Last year, CIES hosted Azat Gündoğan, a sociologist from Turkey who had also signed the so-called peace declaration.

Under Erdoğan, Turkey has become an international battleground for academic rights. Since 2016, an estimated 6,000 researchers, teachers and others have lost their jobs at Turkish universities because of their political views. Having experienced the crackdown firsthand, Coşar has been struck not just by the numbers, but by the emotional effects.

“You cannot be sure of yourself, how democratic you are, how egalitarian you are, until you are pushed into a situation where your principles are tested,” she said.

Coşar sometimes questions her own response. “After a year or so in North America, I still feel that divide in myself, asking whether I would rather be in my country, directly involved in the solidarity networks, rather than being abroad. But for now the balance is tipping toward staying away. Perhaps I’m being selfish.”

After a pause, she adds, “I’m always critical of myself, but my conscience is okay.”

It helps that she and her dog have found a place where they feel at home. “I love Ithaca,” she said with a smile. “There’s a sense of community here. And Cornell is a great place for academic production.”

Jonathan Miller is associate director for communications at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell University. This article was first published by the Cornell Chronicle.

Finding Asylum: Ithaca City of Asylum’s first short-term writer in residence

Short-term writer-in-residence for Ithaca City of Asylum Raad Rahman will lead lectures and public readings through May 9. She will present a seminar at Cornell’s South Asia Program on Monday, April 23 at 12:15 p.m. in G08 Uris Hall. During her residency she will work on a novel. 

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Read more about her work and mission in The Ithaca Times.

Raad Rahman, spring 2018 visiting writer with Ithaca City of Asylum

Raad Rahman, spring 2018 visiting writer with Ithaca City of Asylum

Dissident Bangladeshi writer visits Ithaca April 8-May 9

Raad Rahman, a journalist, novelist, essayist and human rights advocate from Bangladesh, will be in Ithaca from April 8 to May 9 as a writer-in-residence with Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA). She will meet with Cornell students and faculty and present a seminar at the South Asia Program on April 23 at 12:15 p.m. in G08 Uris Hall.

Raad Rahman, spring 2018 visiting writer with Ithaca City of Asylum

Raad Rahman, spring 2018 visiting writer with Ithaca City of Asylum

Rahman has worked for media and human rights organizations in the United Kingdom, India, Jamaica, Hungary and the United States. She says she focuses her fiction and journalism on bringing repressed stories into the open. She has received death threats in Bangladesh for her writing on LGBT issues; fellow journalists there have been murdered.

“The situation in Bangladesh is dire for writers,” she said. “Muslims like me are under attack. I want to continue to tell our stories at a time when diverse voices regarding Islam and Muslim females are few and far between in mainstream media.”

Rahman’s writing has been published by The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Baffler, The Guardian, Guernica, VICE, The Rumpus, Roads and Kingdoms and UNICEF. Guernica nominated one of her essays for the 2017 Pushcart Prize.

She holds a bachelor’s degree from Bard College and a master’s degree from Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. She has received fellowships and grants from the Rory Peck Trust, the International Women’s Media Foundation, PEN America, Open Society Foundation, Bard College and Harvard’s Kennedy School and completed residencies with the OMI International Arts Center, Hedgebrook and Hypatia-in-the-Woods.

Ithaca City of Asylum, a not-for-profit project of the Center for Transformative Action, provides refuge in Ithaca for dissident writers and promotes freedom of expression. Founded in 2001, ICOA is one of two North American members of the International Cities of Refuge Network, a worldwide consortium. The project has hosted six writers for two-year residencies in Ithaca. Rahman is ICOA’s first short-term writer-in-residence.

Rahman will give two public readings. On April 11, she will be the featured writer at the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival’s literary showcase. Her reading from her work, “When the Politics Becomes Personal: Using Fiction and Nonfiction to Address Political Violations,” is at 6 p.m. at Ithaca College’s Handwerker Gallery. On May 6, she will read from her fiction as part of Ithaca’s Spring Writes Festival. Her presentation, “Love, Justice and Extremism in Bangladesh,” is at 2 p.m. at Buffalo Street Books, Ithaca.

Rahman plans to use her residency to work on her current project, a novel that tells the story of two teenagers pitted against each other after a high-profile terrorist attack, and to finish a book of essays.

The residency is made possible in part with funds from Cornell’s Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs. ICOA is also a community partner of the Kitchen Theatre Company, Ithaca College and the Tompkins County Public Library.

New film on Ithaca City of Asylum

This short documentary was produced by Maureen Wietecha, ICOA’s spring 2017 intern. It provides an overview of ICOA work and features interviews with Raza Rumi, our current writer in residence, as well as three of our board members, Barbara Adams, David Guaspari, and Kate Klein.

Ithaca City of Asylum to Read at Spring Writes Festival

The public is cordially invited to a reading by five writers who are active on the board of Ithaca City of Asylum. The authors will give short readings from their own poetry and prose as part of the Spring Writes Literary Festival.

“Ithaca City of Asylum is a literary-minded group,” said board member Edward Hower. “The organization supports writers from abroad, many board members themselves are published writers, and we have fun.”

The lineup:

Katherine Anderson
Brenna Fitzgerald
David Guaspari
Edward Hower
Gail Lillian Holst-Warhaft

The event will take place on Sunday, May 7, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., at Buffalo Street Books.

 

First Ithaca-bound refugees to arrive later this month

This article was originally published on Ithaca.com

Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga has announced the first family to come to Tompkins County through the agency’s refugee resettlement program is scheduled to arrive later this month.

“After months of preparation, Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga (CCTT) was approved by the U.S. State Department last October as a Refugee Reception and Placement Site,” said Renee Spear, executive director of the agency. “We have recently gotten word through that we will soon be receiving a family from Afghanistan as the first people to be welcomed through our new program.”

This family is entering the U.S. under the Special Immigrant Visa program, intended for people who were employed by or on behalf of the United States government in Afghanistan or Iraq.  The rigorous process of obtaining SIV status is administered by the U.S. State Department, which issues these visas in very limited numbers, according to a news release.

“This is a different immigration status than people who have been vetted and designated as refugees by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees,” said Sue Chaffee, director of Catholic Charities’ Immigrant Services Program. “However, once these SIV holders enter the U.S., they are welcomed and oriented to life in this country through refugee resettlement agencies like ours.”

In order to respect the privacy of this family and in recognition of the upheaval and trauma they have experienced, Chaffee said, the family’s name, address or further details about them will be made available to the public.  However the organization has been working closely with the Ithaca School District, local physicians’ offices, community organization Ithaca Welcomes Refugees and others to help ensure this family will have a “warm welcome and a smooth transition to our community.”

As for the future of the rest of the 50 refugees the charity has pledged to take in, the agency remains uncertain: A presidential executive order signed in late January suspended refugee resettlement in the U.S.  Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a ruling from a lower federal judge blocking parts of the executive order, which allowed refugees who had advanced booking notices into the country again.  Because of the uncertainty of how further court cases will be decided or new executive orders will be worded, Catholic Charities staff, according to the release, is unable to predict the timing of any future resettlement of refugees.

Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga has announced the first family to come to Tompkins County through the agency’s refugee resettlement program is scheduled to arrive later this month.

“After months of preparation, Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga (CCTT) was approved by the U.S. State Department last October as a Refugee Reception and Placement Site,” said Renee Spear, executive director of the agency. “We have recently gotten word through that we will soon be receiving a family from Afghanistan as the first people to be welcomed through our new program.”

This family is entering the U.S. under the Special Immigrant Visa program, intended for people who were employed by or on behalf of the United States government in Afghanistan or Iraq.  The rigorous process of obtaining SIV status is administered by the U.S. State Department, which issues these visas in very limited numbers, according to a news release.

“This is a different immigration status than people who have been vetted and designated as refugees by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees,” said Sue Chaffee, director of Catholic Charities’ Immigrant Services Program. “However, once these SIV holders enter the U.S., they are welcomed and oriented to life in this country through refugee resettlement agencies like ours.”

In order to respect the privacy of this family and in recognition of the upheaval and trauma they have experienced, Chaffee said, the family’s name, address or further details about them will be made available to the public.  However the organization has been working closely with the Ithaca School District, local physicians’ offices, community organization Ithaca Welcomes Refugees and others to help ensure this family will have a “warm welcome and a smooth transition to our community.”

CUMEME Benefit Concert

Thank you to everyone who attended the Cornell Middle Eastern Music Ensemble Concert at Cinemapolis on Thursday, February 9th.

This event had an outstanding turnout. We sold 99 tickets, and as the theater only sat 87 people, we had to bring in extra chairs! Thanks to this large audience, we raised about $1200 to go towards future ICOA projects. CUMEME played a wonderful selection of songs from the Middle East that delighted the crowd. In addition to the music, the audience enjoyed a variety of Middle Eastern sweets like baklava and Turkish delight. 

If you have any photos or video from the event that you would like to share with us, please send them to us on Twitter (@ICOAnews) or share them to our Facebook page.

Ithaca Times: Ithaca City of Asylum Benefit Concert

 ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 1 EDITION OF THE ITHACA TIMES.
WRITTEN BY LISA LAFFEND. 

Freedom of speech is a crucial part of the United States’ foundation.  As citizens, we use and abuse it daily.

 “Here in America, we sort of take it for granted,” says Joseph Prusch, the director of the Cornell University Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, CUMEME. “Serbia doesn’t believe in free speech and so many people have died because of that.”

 In Turkey, learning about one’s own culture and history, outside of what’s taught in the classroom, can be dangerous. A professor at Istanbul University and Ithaca College’s own former visiting scholar, Vedat Demir along with many others were arrested in late July 2016 for being academics. Several other countries have similar issues and finding refuge is challenging.

 For some, there’s Ithaca City of Asylum, ICOA.

 “Ithaca City of Asylum brings writers whose work has placed them in danger to Ithaca,” says Gail Holst-Warhaft, an ICOA board member and adjunct professor in the department of Classics, Comparative Literature and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. “Ithaca and Pittsburgh are the only cities in America that offer this opportunity.” The visiting author stays with ICOA for two years and teaches at Ithaca College or Cornell University.

 The current ICOA resident is Raza Rumi Ahmad, a policy analyst, journalist and author from Pakistan. He’s currently a scholar in residence at Ithaca College’s School of Humanities and Science, but, back home, his work brought him under government surveillance and made him the target of an assassination attempt.

 Taking in refugees is a costly undertaking, so CUMEME will be performing a benefit concert for ICOA at Cinemapolis on February 9 at 7 p.m., with a cover charge of $7.50 for students and $15 for the general public. The proceeds from this concert will go towards airfare, legal expenses and the cost of living for ICOA writers and their family.

 ICOA and CUMEME have collaborated before, since the forum for cross-cultural discussion CUMEME prides itself in complements ICOA’s mission. Despite being a Cornell University student organization, membership is open to the Ithaca community. Consisting of new and experienced performers, the ensemble performs both popular and classical music from the Middle East, or Near East, and from areas influenced by these cultures. They’ve been a resource for individuals to learn more about their own and their peers’ cultures as well as providing a sanctuary for Middle Eastern students.

 “I come from Kashmir,” says Ahmad Rafiqi, a graduate student in the math department at Cornell University and percussionist in CUMEME, “and the music we play is very similar. I was drawn to the familiar melodies and just wanted to follow the group; I was amazed they would let me join without being able to play an instrument.”

 “What I’ve enjoyed the most is performing songs from my childhood,” says Doga Tekin, an interdisciplinary studies major at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as well as a singer and kanun player in CUMEME. “It’s nostalgic for me. Each performance is an opportunity to share my love for my home with the audience and others in the ensemble.”

 Heavy research goes into each set ensuring the fit of each song for the performance and their reflection of current events.

 “My intention with every program is to show the common thread of humanity that runs through all cultures and people,” says Prusch, “and to glorify the shared history of nobodies with the hope of preventing the ongoing dehumanization of people, especially refugees, but also women and minorities, regardless of nation.”

 This set will consist of songs from Lebanon, Greece, Jordan, Algeria, and Turkey. Songs about foreign police brutality – like Marcel Khalife’s “Asfur” addresses issues in Palestine and the Algerian-inspired “Ya Rayah” about a man tortured under a dictatorship – are mixed with those about a young fisherman’s sad voyage (the Greek sea chanty “I Trata Mas Kourelou”), blooming flowers or feminine sexuality (the Turkish songs “Ayva Çiçek Açmi5” and “Bala Çiçek Acar Bahar Gelende”), and the story of a young woman who gains the attention of a shepherd at a water spring (“Ya Ayn Mawlayitan” by Lebanese singer Samira Tawfik). All of which the ensemble is excited to share.

 “‘Yedikule’ and ‘Çadırımın Üstüne’ are my favorites,” says Tekin. “‘Yedikule’ has nice instrumentation and is fun to play and ‘Çadırımın Üstüne’ is a classic Turkish song with so much life and character to it.”

 “I enjoy ‘I Trata Mas Kourelou,’” says Alicia Freedman, a longtime member of CUMEME as both a dancer and percussionist, “because of the simple chorus that makes me want to spin like the wind. ‘Ya Ayn Mawlayitan’ has an unusual rhythm with no downbeat, and that’s why I like to dance to that as well. It’s like you’re holding your breath, landing on each measure a beat later with more weight.”

 “‘Ayva Cicek Acmis’ is definitely my favorite,” says Mathew Roth, a pianist and composer who plays mandolin, among other things, for CUMEME. “It’s fun to play, catchy, and outlines what I like so much about this group. It’s a song you can really lose yourself in.”

 CUMEME will be playing these and more in hopes of helping make a change.

 “It’s a matter of educating and reaching out across our political spectrum,” says Prusch. “Music is one of the key ways of doing that.”