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Ithaca Out Loud

September 6, 2017


Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) will celebrate literacy and freedom of expression and commemorate Banned Books Week 2017 with “Ithaca Out Loud,” an evening of literature and theater, on Wednesday, September 27 at 7:00 p.m. at the Tompkins County Public Library (TCPL), located at 101 E. Green Street in Ithaca, NY. The event is free and open to the public, and refreshments will follow.

ICOA, a not-for-profit project of the Center for Transformative Action, provides refuge in Ithaca for dissident writers and promotes freedom of expression and human rights. Founded in 2001, ICOA is a member—one of only two in North America —of the International Cities of Refuge Network, a worldwide consortium of cities of asylum. ICOA is also a community partner of TCPL.

An Ithaca version of the National Public Radio show “Selected Shorts,” the September 27 event will feature stories, poems, and drama by six of Ithaca’s most beloved authors read aloud and brought to life by six of the region’s most celebrated actors. Among the featured works is a story by Raza Rumi, ICOA’s emeritus writer-in-residence, a Pakistani journalist and policy analyst who has authored a memoir, Delhi by Heart, and a political history of Pakistan, A Fractious Path, both published by HarperCollins India. Rumi is currently teaching at Ithaca College and has taught recently in the Cornell University Institute of Public Affairs. He also serves as consulting editor of the Pakistan weekly The Friday Times and contributes to international media outlets, including the Huffington Post, New York Times, al Jazeera, and others. Since he arrived in Ithaca, he has participated in numerous local events, including Spring Writes and the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.

Greg Bostwick, professor of acting at Ithaca College with more than 70 regional roles to his name, will perform a passage from Rumi’s memoir Delhi by Heart.

Also appearing in Ithaca Out Loud 2017 are:

Godfrey Simmons, artistic director of Civic Ensemble, performing a short story by Anthony Di Renzo, who teaches writing at Ithaca College.

Cynthia Henderson, professional actor and associate professor in Ithaca College’s Department of Theatre Arts, performing a folk tale by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alison Lurie.

Kate Klein, Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca graduate, performing a poem by Diane Ackerman, author of two dozen award-winning works of poetry and nonfiction including The Zookeeper’s Wife.

Camilla Schade, actor and teaching artist, performing “Don’t/Dream,” a monologue by playwright and scholar Saviana Stanescu, assistant professor in Ithaca College’s Department of Theatre Arts.

Katie Spallone, co-director of the Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca, performing a poem by Katharyn Howd Machan, author of 32 published collections and professor of writing at Ithaca College.

This event is made possible in part with funds from the Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County.

New film on Ithaca City of Asylum

May 9, 2017

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.

Journalist Killings in Sri Lanka Predicated on a Deadly Irony

May 3, 2017

This article was originally published by Thalif Deen on IPS News as part of special IPS coverage of World Press Freedom Day. It features an interview with our previous writer in residence, Sonali Samarasinghe. 

UNITED NATIONS, May 2 2017 (IPS) – The widespread belief in the politically-motivated killings of journalists in Sri Lanka is predicated on a deadly irony: the hidden hand has always been visible, but the fingerprints have gone missing.

Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Sri Lankan journalist killed in 2009. The two most widely publicized killings relate to IPS UN Bureau Chief in Colombo, Richard de Zoysa, 30, in February 1990, and the Editor-in-Chief of the Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge, 51, in January 2009.

But both murders remain unsolved—due primarily to political coverups — despite several leads pointing to the killers.

As fate would have it, the politician who apparently ordered the killing of de Zoysa, and the police officer who executed that order both died in a suicide bomb blast in 1993, three years after de Zoysa’s murder.

But the rest of the conspirators are still on the loose and fugitives from justice.

And as the United Nations commemorated World Press Freedom Day, there were reports last week that one of the suspects in the Wickrematunge killing– far from being investigated or prosecuted — had been elevated to the rank of a diplomat and posted to a Sri Lanka embassy in an Asian capital years ago.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ), which has an arresting headline on its website titled “Sri Lanka: Where Journalists are Killed with Impunity,” lists the killings of 25 Sri Lankan journalists since 1992, with 19 where “motives were confirmed” and six with “motives unconfirmed.”

David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on ‘the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression’, called on governments “to investigate and hold accountable all those responsible for attacks on journalists.”

In a statement released May 2, he said: “This past year has seen repeated attacks on journalists, leaving many dead or injured. Often terrorist groups carry out such attacks to silence opposition, secularists or atheists.”

Too often, he pointed out, threats are not met with effective protection by law enforcement or, in their aftermath, genuine investigation and prosecution.

“States need to make accountability a priority,” he declared.

In an interview with IPS, Sonali Samarasinghe, Minister Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, confirmed that both high profile killings in Sri Lanka were meant to silence press criticism of political higher-ups.

Speaking strictly as a former journalist and widow of Lasantha Wickrematunge, she said “the authorities at the time wanted to silence Lasantha and cripple two newspapers — The Sunday Leader of which he was Editor-in-Chief and I was Consultant Editor– and The Morning Leader of which I was Editor in Chief.”

In Richard de Zoysa’s case, Samarasinghe said, he was the first Sri Lankan journalist to pay the ultimate price for his journalism.

Like Lasantha, Richard was beloved during his life, and like Lasantha, he has, since his death, become an icon in the media industry in Sri Lanka. Richard was a man of extraordinary talent and range who wrote haunting poetry and powerful plays, she noted.

There is no doubt in my mind that his killing was politically motivated as well, said Samarasinghe, a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, an Edward R. Murrow Fellow in Washington DC, and an International Journalist-in-Residence at the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: Since Lasantha’s killing, has there been any credible investigation to track down his killer or killers? Why has there been no trial or conviction for 8 long years?

SAMARASINGHE: Before January 2015, there had been virtually no serious investigation into this crime. There seems to have been a deliberate cover-up and stonewalling of the case. Such emblematic cases are not properly investigated for several reasons; among them, to hide the truth, to perpetuate a fear psychosis in the people and to create chaos. These assassinations affect not only the families of the victims but society as a whole. A break down in the rule of law and a lack of freedom of information leads to social divisiveness and generates mistrust between groups and in the institutions of the State. They send messages of fear, despondency and submission – and slavish/divisive societies are easier to manipulate.

However, since the change in administration in 2015, a special Criminal Investigations Team was established and there have been concrete steps taken not only in Lasantha’s case but in the cases of other journalists who were beaten, threatened or who disappeared during the previous administration. Lasantha’s body was exhumed late last year as part of this new investigation. These are extremely gut-wrenching circumstances and for me very difficult to endure as his wife. However, for the sake of the greater good and for the purposes of a thorough independent investigation, we have to go through this.

The proper conclusion of these investigations are important in order to re-establish Good Governance and the Rule of Law in our country, and halt the cyclical recurrence of violence in various forms. This is why the present administration has said it is deeply committed to these democratic principles.

IPS: How safe is the political environment for journalists now — as compared with 1990 or 2009?

SAMARASINGHE: As a nation that had suffered a dark period under the yoke of terrorism and an accompanying culture of impunity, this administration has demonstrated in several concrete ways that it is actively conscious of the value of a nation built on the principles of democracy and the Rule of Law. The cornerstone of any democracy is freedom of information. Without this there can be no meaningful advancement of peace, development or human rights. Among others, the proper handling of Lasantha’s case will become the symbol of a restored and renewed democracy where once again, the people of our country will have faith in our judiciary, and in our system of Justice. This is a slow and steady process.

Clearly the current administration has taken several steps in the right direction. For instance after years of civil society activism the Right to Information Act was signed into law in August 2016 and came into force on February 4, 2017. The government unanimously enacted the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses Act. A Permanent Office for Missing Persons (OMP) has been established. These are all structures and mechanisms that serve to rebuild trust in the state. I would say that today we have an administration that understands the value of an independent fourth estate and the serious perils of lapdog journalism.

QUESTION: With the increasing attacks on journalists worldwide, is there a role for the UN to stem this onslaught?

SAMARASINGHE: There is definitely a leadership role for the United Nations. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 19 which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” to the unanimously adopted Sustainable Development Goals – particularly Goal 16, to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” we see that member states fully realize the UN’s critical role in this regard.

Target 10 of Goal 16 recognizes that public access to information and fundamental freedoms are indispensable conditions to sustainable development. It reads, “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.”

IPS: Are most UN member states paying only lip service to the cause of press freedom?

: In the final analysis, it is the responsibility of individual member states to implement nationally the international agreements and UN resolutions in accordance with their own domestic laws and cultures and to establish Rule of Law and end impunity. The two indicators set by the United Nations Statistical Commission for tracking progress in the achievement of target 10 are pertinent as they relate (a) to the number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates, and (b) to the number of countries that adopt and implement constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information. Therefore SDG 16 is significant in mainstreaming safety of journalists in the international development agenda and for tracking progress in individual countries.

IPS: Do you think the UN should at least name and shame these countries where journalists are constantly in danger of losing their lives in the line of duty?

SAMARASINGHE: There is in fact a UN plan of action for the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity, with UNESCO taking the lead in developing and implementing the plan. This plan includes a number of actions including standard-setting, policy-making, monitoring, reporting, building capacity and awareness-raising.

And yet, according to the UN itself every five days a journalist is killed in pursuit of a story. So yes, clearly the international community must be more proactive in addressing this issue. The numbers from civil society are staggering as well, with the Committee to Protect Journalists reporting that some 370 journalists were murdered between 2004 and 2013 in direct retaliation for their work, with 48 journalists killed in 2016 and 8 already killed in 2017.

However there are several soft approaches that the UN already explores, and awareness-raising through commemorative events or International Days (including World Press Freedom Day) is one. These soft approaches, if constant, can be very effective in shining a light on national situations, transporting incidents to the international stage and affording activists and family members an international platform to make their case.

IPS: Is there any role for journalists themselves to take up the fight at home or, more importantly, internationally?

One way to do this is to highlight or give prominence to the journalists who have been victimized in their own countries. For example, as an exiled journalist at the time, I was invited to speak at international events organized by UN agencies. During this period, I was also given the opportunity to speak at various other international venues, including on Capitol Hill, at the National Press Club, Universities and was also invited to serve as key note speaker at special events, including to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr Day. This kind of exposure helps keep the issues alive on the international stage.

Furthermore, UNESCO has the annual UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize awarded on 3 May that honors a person, organization or institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the promotion of press freedom. Lasantha was awarded this prize in 2009. He became only the second journalist to be honoured posthumously since this prize was created, and a testimony to the risk many journalists run in the pursuit of their calling. Again, this award, and the buzz it created, became a megaphone opportunity to highlight not only Lasantha’s case, but also the plight of all journalists persecuted everywhere for their work.

And in 2009 Mr Ban Ki Moon the then UN Secretary General highlighted Lasantha’s assassination during his remarks on Press Freedom Day. The world’s top diplomat giving prominence to Lasantha’s case was an important step in the right direction. Other UN agencies and diplomats expressed concern as well quite publicly, and these statements sent a message that the international community was watching. But yes, given the horrific numbers, it is important that the international community remains ever vigilant.

Ithaca City of Asylum to Read at Spring Writes Festival

April 27, 2017

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.


‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ is a testament to courage

April 13, 2017

This article, written by board member Barbara Adams, was originally published in The Ithaca Times. Read it on

One little-known story of opposition to Nazism is that of a young Polish zookeeper and his wife, who saved the lives of more than 300 Jews. During the German occupation of Warsaw, zoo director Jan Żabiński, an officer in the Resistance, regularly risked his life in ways he couldn’t even share with his wife. Antonina kept the household and zoo running, protected their son Ryś and infant daughter, and personally cared for the many Jews who passed through their shelter on the way to safe houses both in and outside the city.

Antonina’s story is strikingly recounted in The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, a nonfiction work by Ithaca-based essayist, poet, and naturalist Diane Ackerman. Published in 2007, the book was on the New York Times best-seller list for a year. In 2008, it earned the Orion Award for its originality in exploring the human relationship to nature –– showing that “a book can be at the same time a work of art, an act of conscientious objection to the destruction of the world, and an affirmation of hope and human decency.”

The book was soon optioned for a film, which took eight years to be realized. Significantly, the Focus Features film set a record for women crew members (around 20%) –– with a woman director (Niki Caro), three women producers, screenwriter (Angela Workman), author (Ackerman), camera operator, stunt coordinator, and designer.

Jessica Chastain, who plays Antonina, wrote from the set about working with so many women: “It’s been a very collaborative experience, and it’s been heaven for me…. We know how rare making this kind of film is. We’re giddy with happiness.”

The Zookeeper’s Wife opens this week nationally and in Ithaca on Friday at Cinemapolis, where the 4:15 p.m. screening will be followed by a talkback and book signing with Ackerman. The film has already had special viewings worldwide, including at the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

The Ithaca Times spoke recently with Diane Ackerman about the book and the film.

Ithaca Times: How did you discover this story?

Diane Ackerman: I was traveling around the world researching endangered animals, when I heard that there were ancient horses running around a primeval forest in Poland. I really wanted to see them. Both my parents had come from Poland before the war, and my grandfather had told me that the countryside, the old forests, were very beautiful. I was writing for National Geographic and proposed a piece on the Przywalski horses, but they sent me to the South Pacific instead. But in 2005 I went to Poland. 

IT: You did massive research for the book –– what was your process?

DA: I wrote the book in layers, both researching and writing. As narrative nonfiction, it needed to read like a novel with the usual fictional devices of plot and character, but I couldn’t make anything up. How do you do that if you weren’t alive at the time and events took place in an unfamiliar culture? It’s possible to learn an enormous amount about the history, the culture, the natural history, and the personal lives relevant to the book.

For example, I knew Antonina and her son were hiding in a lampshade store at one point. She doesn’t describe the store in her diary, but I could find out what Baltic lampshades of the era looked like. And it’s possible to learn the navigation patterns of birds over Warsaw in 1939 –– so I knew what she saw when she looked up.

Warsaw was nearly leveled during the war, but its old town has been entirely rebuilt, a replica based on Renaissance architectural drawings. And when I actually went there, the zoo’s villa still stands. So I could stand on Antonina’s balcony and see what she saw and have the same sensory experience, could see the linden trees, the dew on the tiles. The hollow wooden staircase still sounds like a musical instrument when you walk on it. Many of the same animals are at the zoo today, and you can find out what they smell like, what order they call in in the morning. I also visited the underground museum and the sites where things happened. And I interviewed Ryś, who still lives in Warsaw.

IT: You were originally pursuing information about the horses when you happened onto Antonina’s diary?

DA: Yes, an Ithaca friend had a Polish friend whose uncle had been a vet at the zoo. He remembered that the zookeeper’s wife had kept a diary, which he sent and the Polish woman translated. I was thunderstruck by the splendor of Antonina’s sensibility, her almost mystical relationship with animals. She treated them with enormous care and respect, and as a result they trusted her. She was a kind of animal whisperer, adopting orphan animals from the forest and raising them in the villa. It was from her diary I learned she was sheltering Jews from the ghetto –– she and her husband were so disgusted by Nazi racism that they decided they had to do something about it.

They began hiding people after the bombing of the zoo in 1939 –– in the backs of cages were rooms, and the pheasant house was enclosed. They were all connected by a ribbed underground tunnel from the lions’ house. Everyone they sheltered passed through there. And they also hid “guests” in the house –– in the basement, between the upstairs walls, in the attic, in cupboards.

Interestingly, all accounts of rescuers in Poland said the same thing: “I wasn’t really a hero; anyone in my situation would have done the same thing –– it was the right thing to do.”

IT: What aspects of your book does the film reflect well?

DA: The film is very good about the relationship between the different characters, which has a lot to do with the nuanced responses of the actors. For me, that brought a richness to the story.It’s also excellent on the Żabińskis’ relationship with the animals. And Jan’s going in and out of the ghetto is very powerful in the film.

IT: Antonina’s relationship with Berlin zookeeper Lutz Heck goes much further than in the book.

DA: Yes, but I read his autobiography and it’s clear he was sweet on her. But I didn’t have enough evidence at the time to include that. I felt the film handled it well, and Antonina’s daughter Teresa was fine with it too.

IT: Your book provided a strong picture of the underground –– the varied and complex levels of resistance –– and the incredible uncertainty of every moment.

DA: That context –– also history and the way daily life is registered –– is covered better in the book, whereas the film concentrates on characters. Though for a more elaborate sense of the characters’ internal lives, you have to read the book.

IT: Any negative aspects of the Żabińskis’ relationship that you didn’t show? Jan’s masculinist values certainly come through…

DA: I was really candid in the book about the parts of their relationship that might have been difficult. Partly that has to do with the role of women in Poland’s culture at the time. For context, I read a great deal written by women in that era and spoke with two women in their 80s who’d been Resistance bicycle messengers. I cared a lot about showing the Żabińskis as multifaceted personalities –– nobody is perfect –– and their children are fine with this.

IT: As a naturalist and poet you seem to have a personal connection with Antonina, her instinctiveness.

DA: Yes, I discovered that by reading her children’s books, in which she becomes other animals, and in her diary on daily life in the zoo. She was attuned to the textures of everyday life in a way that’s very familiar to me. I identified with her kinship with animals, how intimately woven into the seasons and nature she was. And the movie captures that quality –– from the very opening you see her genuine love of animals, which for her exists on a continuum that includes humans.

Antonina herself was an orphan; her parents had been murdered early in the Russian Revolution. She grew up as orphans often do, needing to pay attention to the behaviors of the people around her. Her gift, her sensitivity, made it possible for her to handle the Nazis who stopped by the zoo –– she was able to read them in the same way she could read animals. 

IT: What was the adaptation process like for you?

DA: I chose not to be involved writing the screenplay; that’s not my area of expertise. But I spoke with the writer and producers at enormous length. And they showed me the script to make sure I was happy with it. My job was to make sure that the filmmakers could be trusted with the story because the Żabiński children were still alive. Teresa loves the film; she even appears in an early scene. My first response to reading the script was “this is so cinematic!” I spent four days on set in Prague and was amazed at how one art form gets translated into another.

This was very much a woman’s film, and we all came to it because we were attracted to Antonina’s story –– a story of good coming out of evil, a story of different forms of heroism. As head of an underground unit that blew up trains, Jan was heroic in the traditional way. But Antonina risked her life every day; she was in constant danger. Yet she made sure the people in her care survived the war with their humanity intact, that they were able to continue leading their lives despite the trauma. She understood that if you keep the physical body alive, but the spirit dies, how do you go on living your life?  

Ordinary people can rise to extraordinary acts of mercy and heroism. Antonina was performing radical acts of compassion –– something that happens every day on our war-torn planet, but we don’t hear about it very often. It’s especially the form that women perform.

IT: Seventy years later, this story still has intense relevance today.

DA: Unfortunately, these are still days of genocide that we live in. The refugee crisis continues, and we see a resurgence of racism and prejudice in our own country. Today’s political climate has caused so many people to compare it to the early days of Nazi Germany. I think this story offers a message about the need for tolerance –– about what can happen if we’re not vigilant about free speech and human rights, about our interconnectedness. •  

First Ithaca-bound refugees to arrive later this month

February 15, 2017

This article was originally published on

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

February 12, 2017

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

February 6, 2017

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.”

Bring Pakistan’s Missing Bloggers Home

January 31, 2017

Our resident writer, Raza Rumi, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on January 20, 2017. Read it below or on the New York Times website 

Since Jan. 4, at least five bloggers and activists have disappeared in Pakistan. Perhaps the best known is Salman Haider, a poet and academic who has been a vocal opponent of religious extremism and the Pakistani authorities’ abuse of opposition activists. The others who have vanished had the courage to critique organized religion, the influence of clerics in Pakistan and the country’s powerful military on social media.

Throughout Pakistan’s history, dissent and free speech have been muzzled by a state that inherited a repressive legal framework from the British colonizers who ruled the Indian subcontinent until 1947. Journalists, poets, intellectuals and many politicians who questioned the state were labeled traitors, sometimes jailed or exiled, and on occasion killed. Almost every Pakistani government — military or civilian — has tried to control and manipulate the news media.

That kind of control has become more difficult as print and electronic media have expanded in the past decade and a half. Since the deregulation of electronic media in 2002, Pakistan has gone from three to 89 television channels. The state’s monopoly of the airwaves is over. Noisy talk shows regularly challenge the elected governments and their policies. But when it comes to the military, journalists and commentators are cautious, often indulging in self-censorship. Laws governing freedom of speech and the news media are vague, and their enforcement is arbitrary; critics are often accused of endangering national security.

The rise of social media and blogs has further expanded the space for dissent. Pakistanis can say on Facebook things they still could not get away with on television or in print. The missing activists, for example, were allegedly affiliated with satirical Facebook pages that ridiculed the hypocrisy of religious clerics and the flawed state policies of using jihad to further foreign policy goals.

Last year, the Parliament passed a draconian cybercrimes law curtailing digital freedoms. This law grants the government overarching powers to control and block information that state officials find offensive, examine and retain users’ data, and impose harsh penalties for a variety of offenses. The law builds on the narrow definition of freedom of speech that the Constitution guarantees in principle but with a number of exceptions that include “glory of Islam,” “the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan” and “public order, decency or morality,” among others. Such ambiguous terms are easily invoked to suppress dissent.

After the enactment of the cybercrime law, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies reportedly asked for legal cover to take pre-emptive “action” against people they believed were breaching national security. This demand was accepted. It is unclear whether the five bloggers and social media activists have disappeared under this arrangement. In fact, there is no information from any official source. But there is good reason to be worried.

In recent years, hundreds of suspected insurgents from the southwestern province of Baluchistan and religious militants from other parts of the country have allegedly been picked up by security agencies, never to be heard from again. A government commission is handling at least 1,129 cases of “missing” persons.

Even if the five activists reappear, they will face the wrath of zealots who want instant justice for blasphemers. In recent days, right-wing social media users and pundits have been smearing the missing men as blasphemers. In addition, they have been accused in absentia by conservative sections of the Pakistani media and right-wing trolls as pawns of foreign powers (read India, the eternal enemy) who are waging an information war against Pakistan.

The exact relationship between these right-wing loudmouths and the security services remains, as ever in Pakistan, murky. But these activists’ lives are most likely in danger. In 2011, a police guard killed Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province, because he had publicly defended a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy law, a law he said needed to be reformed.

By cracking down on people opining on social media, Pakistan joins Turkey, Bangladesh, China and other countries where journalists and activists are hounded by the state and by extremists. Pakistan’s elites, both civilian and military, frequently complain that their country has an image problem. Such disappearances certainly don’t help. Moreover, in an interconnected world, such moves are counterproductive. The elected government of Pakistan must be held accountable for such brazen curtailment of rights. The Parliament needs to review the scope of internet freedoms as well as reconsider the nebulous guarantee of free speech provided by the Constitution.

The international community should help, too. It can remind the Pakistani government of its obligations under the United Nations Convention against Torture and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to put an end to enforced disappearances. In its 2015 compliance report on the civil rights covenant, the government stated that it was “firmly committed to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” It is time to move beyond lip service. Upholding freedom of speech will only bolster Pakistan’s fragile democracy.

But most of all, these missing men should be returned home safely as soon as possible.

Raza Rumi, who teaches at Ithaca College and the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, is a consulting editor for The Friday Times, a weekly in Pakistan, and the author of “The Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition.”

Middle Eastern Music Benefit Concert for ICOA

January 30, 2017

As a benefit for Ithaca City of Asylum, Cornell’s Middle Eastern Music Ensemble will perform a concert of music from Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and Iran at Cinemapolis on Thursday, February 9th at 7pm. Middle Eastern sweets will be served.

Tickets are $15.00. $7.50 for students. Tickets available at the door (price includes a pastry).

Your support of ICOA at this time is particularly valued as our prospective next writer is from one of the 7 countries that Trump has imposed a ban upon.

ICOA is not-for-profit project of the Center for Transformative Action. It provides refuge in Ithaca for dissident writers and promotes freedom of expression. Founded in 2001, ICOA is a member—one of only two in North America —of the International Cities of Refuge Network, a worldwide consortium of cities of asylum.

Cornell University’s Middle Eastern Music Ensemble was established in 2002 and in its various iterations, the group has been delighting audiences on and off the campus ever since. Under its current director, Joseph Prusch, students, faculty, and community members interested in the rich variety of music from the region can come join to study and perform.

Find more information on CUMEME on their website or Facebook page