Ithaca City of Asylum

Pedro tells his story in Pittsburgh magazine

“I think humor is one of the best weapons that we have when we are dealing with oppressors,” ICOA artist-in-residence Pedro X. Molina says in a 4,000-word interview in the online magazine Sampsonia Way. “But every time they tighten their control and the violence grows, it gets harder to find something to laugh at.”

In “The Complicated Risk: An Interview with Pedro X. Molina,” writer Nicole Arthur questions Pedro on a wide range of topics, from the disastrous situation in Nicaragua to his childhood and development as an artist and his thoughts on humor, fear, and patriotism.

The “complicated risk” of the title refers to the difficult balance he has had to strike between his creative drive, his sense of duty to his people, and the very real threat of imprisonment or worse.

“I could have stayed in Nicaragua and at some point they would have taken me and put me in jail and I would no longer be able to create,” he tells Arthur. “I was not willing to accept this, so to preserve my creative power, I had to leave. This is both good and painful.” 

The writer, Nicole Arthur, is the Content, Communications, and Spiritual Formation Manager at Chesterton House, a Christian living and learning community at Cornell. A native of Pittsburgh, she is also a staff writer for Sampsonia Way.

Sampsonia Way is the in-house magazine of City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. Like ICOA, City of Asylum is a member of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). ICOA and City of Asylum will sponsor a virtual event featuring Pedro and Pittsburgh-based editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers on Friday, October 2, at 7 p.m. More details will follow.

Read the interview here.

Update: Hanging on but could use help!

Illustration by Pedro X. Molina

We send our warmest greetings in this strangest of summers, a season of uncertainty and turmoil, awakening and hope. We wanted to catch you up on what we’ve been up to and invite you to lend a hand.

A busy time for ICOA

As you may know, ours is a two-part mission: to provide refuge in Ithaca to persecuted writers and artists and to speak up about freedom of expression and human rights. Our artist-in-residence, Pedro X. Molina, has been at the center of both those efforts.

Since arriving from Nicaragua in December 2018, Pedro has become an important voice in our community. In addition to teaching an Honors course at IC and guest lecturing in other classes, he has given talks and interviews, sat on panels, curated exhibitions, and participated in numerous public activities and events. This summer he will be working with local children through the Village at Ithaca.

All this while sending six cartoons a week to the Nicaraguan news outlet Confidencial, publishing two books of his work, and contributing to CounterpointPolitico, and other national and international publications.

In the last year, Pedro has spoken (or been invited to speak) in Amsterdam, Austin, Berlin, Chapel Hill, Columbus, Costa Rica, Lisbon, Miami, New York City, Paris, Strasbourg, and Toronto. Other achievements include a World Press Cartoon prize, Columbia Journalism School’s Maria Moors Cabot Prize for outstanding reporting on the Americas, and an Excellence in Journalism Award from the Inter American Press Association. We are very lucky to have him here.

Despite all this, these have been hard times for the Molinas, who have been largely confined to their apartment and cut off from friends and family as the coronavirus ravages their home country.

What’s next

It is looking increasingly unlikely that Nicaragua will be safe enough to return to when Pedro’s term with ICOA is officially over next May, so we have been working with him and his family on a plan for the future. Our capacity to help is diminished by the fact that we have lost important funding from Cornell. We have also begun our search for a new resident, but we’re unsure about what we’ll be able to do given our limited resources. This is troubling, as the risk for outspoken writers and artists is greater than ever.

To that end, we have been working to strengthen the network of cities of asylum around the U.S. and the world, partnering with City of Asylum in Pittsburgh on programming (see below) and sharing our experiences with groups in New York, Detroit, Arkansas, and elsewhere. We have also been monitoring cases of harassment and imprisonment of writers, journalists, and artists through ICORNPEN, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and other organizations. 

How you can help

Please consider making a donation to Ithaca City of Asylum today. ICOA is an all-volunteer project of the Center for Transformative Action, a 501(c)3 organization. Donations are tax deductible. Donating is easy online via GiveGab. You can also mail a check to ICOA, c/o CTA, 119 Anabel Taylor Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853. Please make your check out to the Center for Transformative Action and write ICOA on the memo line. We will send donors who give $500 or more a copy of Forbidden Voices, a handsome book that features our former writer-in-residence Sonali Samarasinghe

Save the date!

Please plan to join us on Friday, October 2, 7 p.m. for “Crossing the Line,” our first-ever virtual Voices of Freedom celebration to mark Banned Books Week. We are teaming up with City of Asylum in Pittsburgh to bring you an illustrated conversation between Pedro Molina and Rob Rogers, an internationally acclaimed editorial cartoonist who was fired by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2018 for his cartoons critical of Donald Trump. Both Pedro and Rob have paid a stiff price for publicly calling out their countries’ political leadership. It should be a mind-opening (and even humorous!) evening. More details later this summer. Thanks to the Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County for their support for this event. 
Shoot us an email if you have any thoughts or questions. You can also follow us on Facebook and bookmark our website. And feel free to forward this message to anyone you think may be interested!
P.S. Our thoughts are with the nearly 80 million forcibly displaced people who have had to survive the Covid-19 pandemic in places other than home. More than 30 million of those are refugees and asylum seekers. We’re determined not to forget them as we deal with our own challenges.

Cartoons from the coronavirus crisis

Like most of us during this pandemic, artist-in-residence Pedro X. Molina has been homebound, but he has remained active, remotely teaching his Ithaca College honors course on political cartooning while continuing to publish images for outlets in Nicaragua and elsewhere. He shared a few of those with us.




Yi Ping pens chapter on Chinese peace laureate

Leedom-Ackerman_jkt.inddPoet and editor Yi Ping, ICOA’s first writer-in-residence, has contributed to a book celebrating the life and work of Liu Xiaobo, the late Chinese activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Nobel Laureate was published on April 1 by Potomac Books. Yi Ping’s chapter is titled “Liu Xiaobo, Who Has Ascended the Altar.” 

You can order a copy at Buffalo Street Books.

In a note announcing the publication, senior editor Joanne Leedom-Ackerman wrote:

Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2010, spent his adult life writing and working for a more democratic and transparent China. These 75+ essays and poems, written by those who knew and worked with Xiaobo during his life, reveal the portrait of a man of courage, a writer of more than 1,000 essays and 18 books himself, a man who took on the Chinese government with ideas and nonviolent action and ultimately paid with his life. He has justifiably been called the Nelson Mandela or the Vaclav Havel of China.

A native of China, Yi Ping participated in the Students’ Democracy Movement as a young man. Banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, he was permanently banned from working in education and forbidden to publish his work. He fled China in 1991, living in Poland before moving to the United States. He was ICOA writer-in-residence from 2001 to 2003. He and his wife Lin Zhou have lived in Ithaca ever since. 


Solidarity in times of crisis


We send you greetings in this time of collective isolation. We hope that you are healthy, safe, and supported by family and friends.

Like many of you, we have been asking ourselves what we can do to pitch in, both as individuals and as a group. ICOA’s primary responsibility is to our writer-in-residence, Pedro X. Molina, and his family. Pedro has been grounded but not slowed, as he remains active on Twitter, sends daily cartoons to Nicaragua (many criticizing his country’s COVID-19 response), and remotely instructs his Ithaca College students from the apartment he shares with his wife and two children. Pedro created the image at the top of this post, thinking of the devastating economic impact of the coronavirus. But largely thanks to your support, the Molinas’ situation, for now, is stable.

And so we have decided to skip our spring appeal this year and urge you, our loyal donors, to join us in giving as generously as you can to organizations that serve the most vulnerable members of our community.

Some local efforts you might consider:

Community Foundation COVID-19 Response Fund
United Way of Tompkins County COVID-19 Relief Funding
Ithaca Welcomes Refugees
Center for Transformative Action
Loaves and Fishes

Please also consider patronizing local businesses that have shifted to online sales, delivery (e.g., here or here), gift cardsvirtual tip jars, and other ways of staying afloat. Our hairdressers, landscapers, house cleaners, music teachers, and other service providers (not to mention freelance artists and writers) will also be grateful for our support through this crisis.

You may also want to consider supporting groups that, like ICOA, protect writers, journalists, artists, and other vitally important voices in places where governments may be using the pandemic to suppress human rights and free expression. Some examples are PEN America, the Committee to Protect Journalists, International Cities of Refuge NetworkAmnesty InternationalHuman Rights WatchInternational Human Rights Art Festival, and Artists At Risk Connection.

In gratitude and solidarity,

The ICOA board

Pedro’s IC talk is canceled

Pedro at Cornell

Pedro X. Molina speaks to students, faculty, and community members at Cornell’s Latin American Studies Program seminar on March 9, 2020.

A public conversation between Pedro X. Molina, ICOA’s current artist-in-residence, and Tyrell Stewart-Harris, assistant professor of writing at Ithaca College, planned for March 25 at IC, has been canceled, along with the rest of the 2020 Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival. The college has canceled or postponed all major events in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Pedro’s March 9 talk at Cornell drew an estimated 45 people. He spoke about the political crisis in Nicaragua and showed slides of his own work along with that of other artists resisting the authoritarian regime of President Daniel Ortega.

Pedro to speak at Cornell & IC

GuerNicaraguaICOA artist-in-residence Pedro X. Molina will speak about the ways in which Nicaraguans are using artistic expression to bring international attention to their political crisis. His presentation, called #SOSNICARAGUA, will take place on Monday, March 9, 2020, at 12:15 p.m. in G01 Stimson Hall on the Cornell University Campus.

The talk, part of the Latin American Studies Program‘s spring seminar series, is free and open to the public.

Pedro will also appear in conversation with Tyrell Stewart-Harris, assistant professor of writing at Ithaca College, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 25, at the Klingenstein Lounge in the Campus Center at IC. The free presentation is part of the 2020 Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.

[UPDATE: The March 25 event has been cancelled because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.]

PEN America launches free speech campaign

Free Speech 2020 imagePEN America, an important partner of Ithaca City of Asylum, has launched a campaign called Free Speech 2020 to “catalyze action across the country to defend press freedom, fight online harassment, combat disinformation, and uphold protest rights.”

The initiative seeks to promote the public discussion of free speech issues as America selects a new president and Congress. You can follow it on Twitter at #FreeSpeech2020.

Founded in 1922, PEN America works “to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.”  With more than 100 partner centers around the world, PEN plays a crucial role in attracting and vetting writers in residence for ICOA and other organizations offering refuge to persecuted writers.

You can sign up here for PEN America’s Daily Alerts on Rights and Expression (DARE) newsletter. 




Exiled journalists share their stories

Journalism in Exile panel

From left, ICOA residents Pedro X. Molina, Sonali Samarasinghe, Raza Rumi, and moderator Jonathan Miller.

In an emotional discussion before a rapt audience, ICOA’s three most recent writers-in-residence shared their stories of adjustment and perseverance while living in exile in Ithaca.

All three were forced to leave their home countries because of their work as journalists, and all three managed to continue that work while here.

Investigative reporter and editor Sonali Samarasinghe (resident from 2012-2014) told of her depression and despair after fleeing Sri Lanka after her husband’s assassination in 2009. It was only years later, after managing to collect her own writings from Sri Lanka, that she felt like she had regained control of her life. 

Pakistani writer, editor, and commentator Raza Rumi (2015-2017) discussed his own grief and confusion following an attempt on his life in which a friend was killed. Now director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, Rumi shared his determination to expose injustice not just in Pakistan, but in the United States. 

Political cartoonist Pedro X. Molina (2019-present) described his and his family’s flight from Nicaragua on Christmas Day 2018. They carried only cabin luggage so as not to raise suspicions at the airport and had little idea of what they were getting themselves into. A year later they are still dealing with challenges such as driver’s licenses and cell phones. But Molina has managed to send a cartoon back to Nicaragua each day during his exile.

Moderated by ICOA board chair Jonathan Miller, the November 16 “Journalism in Exile” event was part of “How Did We Get Here?”, a monthlong exhibit and event series on migration at the CAP ArtSpace Gallery on The Commons in Ithaca. ICOA co-organized the series with several other community groups under the name People’s Pop-Up Project. Pedro Molina curated a selection of political cartoons about migration from around the world.

A postscript: The day of the “Journalism in Exile” panel happened to be election day in Sri Lanka. The eventual winner has been implicated in Samarasinghe’s husband’s murder. In December, Samarasinghe was removed from her human rights post at Sri Lanka’s UN mission.


Coming events look at migration and exile


Immigrant's burden

Illustration by Pedro X. Molina.

Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) is taking part in several community events in November. Each seeks to expand the local conversation on migration, immigration, displacement, and exile. Three are part of the monthlong exhibition and event series How Did We Get Here?.

Organized by the People’s Popup Project, How Did We Get Here? is a community response to the Cornell Johnson Museum’s current show how the light gets in. All events are free and open to the public.

How Did We Get Here?
Exhibition opening
Friday, November 1, 5-8 p.m., CAP ArtSpace Gallery, 110 N. Tioga St., The Commons

Join us for the First Friday Gallery Night opening of How Did We Get Here?, a monthlong exploration of migration, immigration, and displacement in Ithaca and beyond. The exhibition features political cartoons from around the world curated by ICOA artist-in-residence Pedro X. Molina; documentary photography and text from the Their Story is Our Story project; immigration maps of Ithaca; and art from Ithaca College students. Many additional events are scheduled through the month. A full listing is here.

Getting Here: Personal Stories of Immigration, Migration, and Displacement
Storytelling event
Saturday, November 9, 3 p.m., CAP ArtSpace Gallery, 110 N. Tioga St., The Commons

How did you get here? What kind of life did you find? How does it compare to the promise or myth of America? Local residents will tell their personal five-minute migration stories in a Moth-style storytelling event. At the end, host Raza Rumi, former ICOA writer-in-residence and now director of the Park Center for Independent Media, will moderate a Q&A session with the storytellers. The event will later be broadcast on WRFI, the community radio station for Ithaca and Watkins Glen.

Tuesday, November 12, 8 p.m., Barnes Hall, Cornell University

For Jews and Christians, the exile from Paradise is the beginning of history. For Muslims, it is the exile from Mecca. For political dissidents, exile is one of the principal forms of “reeducation,” punishment, or annihilation. Athens-based musician and scholar Kyriakos Kalaitzidis joins Boston’s Pharos Ensemble to present the original work “EXILE” as well as a repertoire of Greek traditional music. Organized by ICOA board member Gail Holst-Warhaft and cosponsored by Cornell’s Institute for European Studies and Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies; Cornell’s departments of music, Near Eastern studies, and religious studies; and Nick Lambrou of Lambrou Real Estate.

Journalism in Exile
Panel discussion
Saturday, November 16, 3 p.m., CAP ArtSpace Gallery, 110 N. Tioga St., The Commons

Journalists Sonali Samarasinghe (Sri Lanka), Raza Rumi (Pakistan), and Pedro X. Molina (Nicaragua) were all deeply involved in their countries’ political life. All were forced to flee under the threat of violence. And all ended up in Ithaca as writers-in-residence with ICOA. In this informal discussion, they share their stories about the challenges and rewards of living, working, and staying connected in a faraway place very different from home. Cosponsored by Buffalo Street Books. A new coffee table book featuring Sonali will be available for purchase.