Ithaca City of Asylum

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.

Ithaca Welcomes the Molinas

Pedro Molina speaks

Pedro X. Molina spoke at the Voices of Freedom event on October 4. Photo by Robert Colley/ICOA.

More than 100 people gathered at the Community School of Music and Arts on October 4 to welcome Pedro X. Molina, his wife Urania Espinoza, and their two sons to Ithaca with music, food, dance, and conversation.

“Voices of Freedom 2019” was highlighted by a folkloric dance demonstration by Espinoza and an illustrated talk by Molina on the power of political cartooning and the deeply disturbing situation in his native Nicaragua.

Alderman Seph Murtagh read a proclamation from Mayor Svante Myrick extending a formal welcome to the Molina family and declaring the day “Ithaca City of Asylum Day” in the City of Ithaca.

Molina is Ithaca City of Asylum’s seventh writer-in-residence. He is the first cartoonist and the first from Latin America.

In his talk, he described how cartoonists have rankled – and sometimes helped unseat – the powerful for centuries. He showed examples of the work of the 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast, who bedeviled New York political operator William “Boss” Tweed, and Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, who landed on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” in the 1970s.

“You can see the trend here: the more ridiculous, abusive and corrupt a politician is, the more they hate humor and criticism,” Molina said.

He reserved his most forceful remarks for Nicaragua’s current president, Daniel Ortega, and his wife, vice president Rosario Murillo. Ortega, who led a popular revolution in the 1970s, has come to resemble the brutal dictator he helped depose, Molina said.

Ortega and mirro

Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and the reflection of Anastasio Somoza, the dictator he helped depose in 1979. Cartoon by Pedro X. Molina

“Fraud, repression, corruption, abuses and killings have been rising steadily for a decade,” he said as he displayed several of his own cartoons. He then described how the situation rapidly deteriorated after nationwide protests against a change in the social security law in April 2018. Since then, he said, roughly 400 people have been killed by police or vigilantes, most from single bullets to the head or chest. About 800 people have been jailed.

“The situation for independent journalism of course also got worse and worse,” he continued. “Journalists were harassed, beaten, and robbed in the streets by the forces of the regime. Radio stations were burned and newspapers started having problems printing their daily editions because the government wouldn’t let them import the paper they needed for the presses.”

He described his own family’s frantic departure on Christmas Day last year, soon after the offices of his main outlet, Confidencial, were raided and subsequently taken over by the police. Cartoonists’ and journalists’ organizations referred him to the International Cities of Asylum Network, which alerted ICOA of his situation. Board member Gail Holst-Warhaft fronted the airfare with her personal credit card, and the group went about finding the family housing, winter clothes, a car, and legal representation.

“Thanks to them, I’m safe, my family is safe, and despite everything that we have gone through, I haven’t missed a single day of posting my daily cartoon denouncing what is happening in my country,” Molina said, holding back tears.

ICOA also connected Molina to Ithaca College, which offered him a position as a Visiting International Scholar in Residence in the Honors Program.

The event was cosponsored by the Latino Civic Association of Tompkins County, Group 73 of Amnesty International, Buffalo Street Books, Cornell’s Latin American Studies Program, and PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection. It was supported by funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, administered by the Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County.

In brief opening remarks, ICOA board chair Jonathan Miller explained that the annual Voices of Freedom event is meant to align with Banned Books Week, which calls attention to the importance of free expression and the dangers of censorship.

“Tonight we celebrate messy, energetic, provocative discussion in the media and the arts,” Miller said. “We celebrate the pushing and stretching and crossing of boundaries. We celebrate a blossoming international movement to provide refuge to people at risk, and we celebrate Ithaca’s place in that movement.”

The event also served as an opportunity for community members to support ICOA’s work. If you would like to help, please visit the “donate” page on this site or go directly to the online giving portal on GiveGab.

Molina: Journalism as basic need


In an in-depth interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, ICOA artist-in-residence Pedro X. Molina says “independent journalism has become one of the basic needs of the population” in Nicaragua since the government cracked down on dissent following street protests last year.

Molina fled Nicaragua last December but has continued to contribute cartoons to news outlets on a daily basis.

“[W]ith the closure of spaces to denounce and protest, not only in the media, but at a general level, where people cannot express themselves, nor march, nor organize, nor sometimes even carry the national flag, criticism and humor has become an escape valve for people, a source of encouragement to resist and persevere in the search for change, he explains.

Read the entire interview here.

Molina will accept the Maria Moors Cabot Award from Columbia University School of Journalism in New York City on October 16.