Ithaca City of Asylum

Samarasinghe’s Class Hosts UNESCO Human Rights Chair

Ithaca City of Asylum’s writer-in-residence, Sonali Samarasinghe, has maintained a lively teaching schedule in her capacity as Visiting Scholar in Residence in Ithaca College’s Honors Program.  Her course Human Rights Litigation has brought a number of guest speakers to the Ithaca College (IC) campus, and March 22, the featured speaker will be Dr. Amii Omara-Otunnu, UNESCO Chair in Comparative Human Rights.

Dr. Omara-Otunnu

Dr. Omara-Otunnu

A professor of history at University of Connecticut, Dr. Omara-Otunnu has managed a dual career in academia and the movements for human rights, democracy, and social justice.  He has published broadly on the interplay of politics, the military, and human rights in Sub-Saharan Africa, and at the same time has been actively engaged in numerous international boards and commissions.

Dr. Amara-Otunnu will present “The Challenge of Leadership and Human Rights in the 21st Century,” on Monday, March 22, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. in the VIP Lounge, at IC’s Athletics and Event Center. A reception will follow Dr. Omara-Otunnu’s talk. This event is free and open to the public.

Festival Film Features ICOA Writer-in-Residence

Silenced Voices: Tales of Sri Lankan Journalists in Exile, was a presentation of Ithaca College’s Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF) this year. The documentary features Sonali Samarasinghe and her experiences with the Sri Lankan government’s repression of the media. Samarasinghe is ICOA’s writer-in-residence and is Visiting Scholar in Residence for the Ithaca College Honors Program in the School of Humanities and Sciences.


Silenced Voices: Tales of Sri Lankan Journalists in Exile

The documentary by Beate Arnestad is about freedom of speech and messengers of truth and how much individuals are willing to risk to bring information to light. Samarasinghe is highlighted in the film as one of four exiled journalists from Sri Lanka who have been “silenced” and targeted for assassination because they exposed corruption, massacres of civilians, and other war crimes committed by the state.

“We shall have to repent in this generation,” says Arnestad, “not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

As part of FLEFF, Silenced Voices was shown on April 5 at Cinemapolis, 120 East Green Street, Ithaca, N.Y. The evening featured post-screening commentary by Samarasinghe with a discussion moderated by Ithaca College writing professor Barbara Adams.

Samarasinghe Featured at Pittsburgh Event

Sonali Samarsinghe, ICOA’s resident writer, was the featured speaker at an event hosted by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, Wednesday, March 6. Samarasinghe gave a reading from her work and, after this presentation, she conducted a two-day residency at the Ellis School, gave further readings, and was a guest on local radio.

Samarsinghe read from her work-in-progress, an autobiographical account of politics and the tension between politicians and the media in Sri Lanka.  This is the project that has engaged her since she assumed her ICOA residency in August 2012. In addition to her writing, Samarasinghe serves as Visiting Scholar in Residence in the Honors Program at Ithaca College and is a visiting scholar in Cornell University’s South Asia Program.

Ithaca City of Asylum and City of Asylum/Pittsburgh maintain an ongoing visit exchange of their resident writers.  In 2011, Burmese activist, poet, and novelist Khet Mar visited Ithaca as the featured speaker for ICOA’s Voices of Freedom, cosponsored by the Tompkins County Library, and in 2007 Horacio Castellanos Moya, an exile from El Salvador whose work in translation has attracted the attention of the U.S. media, spoke to the Ithaca community and visited Ithaca College.

Telling Truths in Arusha

Ithaca College screened Telling Truths in Arusha, a powerful documentary by Norwegian filmmaker Beate Arnestad, on February 11, 2013, at 7 p.m. in Textor 103. A discussion with filmmaker Beate Arnestad and prosecutor Brian Wallace, moderated by politics professor Dr. Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, followed the screening. This screening and discussion took place in conjunction with a class on International Human Rights Litigation being taught at the college this spring by Scholar in Residence Sonali Samarasinghe.

Telling Truths in Arusha

Telling Truths in Arusha

Telling Truths in Arusha follows the case of Father Hormisdas, who was put on trial by a United Nations tribunal 15 years after his alleged involvement in the 1994 Rwandan massacre. Prosecutor Brian Wallace vigorously pursues the case, but with little hard evidence, the Norwegian judge, Erik Møse, has to base his judgment solely on witness testimony — and their versions of “the truth.”

The documentary explores the complexities of seeking justice after genocide. Arnestad handles the subject with sensitivity as she follows the legal processes that seek to bring about justice after genocide. Unique courtroom access makes this a documentary of rare insight.

Samarasinghe was one of the subjects of Arnestad’s most recent films, Silenced Voices. A lawyer and journalist who focused on government corruption in her native Sri Lanka, Samarasinghe fled the country with other members of her family in 2009 following the assassination of her husband. Silenced Voices, which will be screened at this spring’s Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, tells the story of the civil war in Sri Lanka from the point of view of journalists who have faced threats for exposing war crimes, corruption and massacres of civilians.

The Ithaca College Honors Program sponsored the February 11 screening and discussion, with co-sponsorship from the school’s departments of politics and writing.

The Fierce Urgency of Now: Samarasinghe is Keynote Speaker

Sonali Samarasinghe provided the keynote speech for Ithaca’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Celebration on January 21, 2013. During her talk she spoke about how she had to flee her native Sri Lanka with only a few belongings, one of which was the book her father gave her, What Manner of Man, a biography of Dr. King.”My presence here is a testament to the inspiration (King’s) life has been, not only to Americans but to the entire world,” said Samarasinghe.

The day’s events focused on “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” and included a morning workshop provided by the Dorothy Cotton Institute’s 2012 delegation of civil and human rights leaders. They discussed their recent visit to the West Bank and what they saw and learned there after meeting with Palestinians engaged in non-violent resistance.

In addition to Samarasinghe’s speech, the luncheon also featured performances by Vitamin L who sang two songs from their new CD entitled Sing for Dr. King!. Cal Walker and John Simon also performed. The day concluded with a live viewing of the 2013 presidential inauguration.
MLK13Community (web version) (2)

The title of the day’s events, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” comes from Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a Dream” speech that he delivered on August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.:

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

The full text of King’s speech, including an audio file, is available online.

A local newspaper report on Samarasinghe’s talk is available here.

European Court of Human Rights Vindicates Kakabadze

On October 2, 2012, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) awarded monetary recompense to Irakli Kakabadze, former Ithaca City of Asylum writer in residence, and others who filed suit against the Republic of Georgia after being detained during a demonstration in 2006. In the case of Kakabadze & others v Georgia (No. 1484/07) the European Court of Human Rights found Georgia to have violated the applicants’ right to liberty, fair trial, and freedom of assembly.

Irakli Kakabadze

Kakabadze and his fellow defendants attended the 2006 demonstration in support of the “Equality Institute,” a group that monitors the penal and law-enforcement authorities and promotes the independence of the judiciary in Georgia. Demonstrators chanted slogans such as “we should not have political prisoners in Gerogia.” Court bailiffs forcibly restrained and arrested demonstrators for “breaching public order,” for “contempt of court, insults,” and “disregard of the bailiffs’ lawful orders to stop wrongdoing.” The president of the Tbilisi Court of Appeal sentenced them to thirty days detention.

The ECHR disagreed with the Georgian government’s insistence that the detention was appropriate for the crime committed. The court found that the arrests and sentencing violated the applicants’ right to liberty (Article 5) of the European Convention and agreed that the applicants’ freedom of expression and right of appeal in criminal matters (Articles 11 and 2) were also breached. The Court awarded the applicants 3,000 EUR each in damages. Kakabadze and his fellow demonstrators were represented before the court by the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), based at London Metropolitan University, and the Georgian Young Lawyers Association. For more details see the full release provided by EHRAC on our press page.

Kakabadze sought asylum in the U.S. from the Georgian government in 2007 after receiving death threats following an editorial he published criticizing the government’s persecution of its citizens. He was Ithaca City of Asylum’s writer in residence from 2008 through 2011.

-Theresa Mendez

When They Came for Us: Freedom to Write in Sri Lanka

“… when you are compelled to leave your … family, your work, your country, and your life as you knew it, that’s when you realize you cannot give up. You have to do more, you have to speak louder, write bolder. And now, it’s personal.”   ~Sonali Samarasinghe

“When They Came for Us: Freedom to Write in Sri Lanka,” was the title of Sonali Samarasinghe’s talk at Ithaca City of Asylum’s 2012 Voices of Freedom event at the Tompkins County Public Library on Sunday, September 30. Samarasinghe is an award-winning journalist and human rights activist who had to flee her home country of Sri Lanka after her husband was assassinated and she and her household were threatened. During Voices of Freedom, Samarasinghe read excerpts from selected works, including her article “When They Came for Us” and her letters to the president of Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka Samarasinghe was the editor-in-chief of the Morning Leader, a mid week national newspaper, and the consultant editor of The Sunday Leader. She has been recognized nationally and internationally for her journalism and human rights work, including awards from Amnesty International, the NGO Initiatives of Change, the International Federation of Journalists, and the Global Investigative Journalism Conference.  Samarasinghe received the 2009 Oxfam/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression in recognition of her work in covering human rights and freedom of the press and was also presented with the Award for Print and Digital Journalism by the organization Images of Voice and Hope, after the launch of her website, She created the website in May 2011 after arriving in the United States, and it quickly gained credibility as a reliable and balanced news source, devoted to truthful coverage of events in Sri Lanka and to freedom of the media in that country.  To learn more about Samarasinghe, a film about her work is available for viewing on the Human Rights Watch Film Festival website.

Samarasinghe, Ithaca City of Asylum’s fifth writer-in-residence, is a visiting scholar in residence within the Honors Program in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Ithaca College. During her stay in Tompkins County, she will teach at Ithaca College and continue work on a book that details the recent history of media and the government in Sri Lanka.

One of only four cities of asylum in the United States, Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) is a community organization that works closely with Ithaca College, Wells College, and Cornell University to provide sanctuary to writers whose works are suppressed, whose lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing, or whose languages are endangered.

Voices of Freedom is an annual event as part of Freedom to Read Week and is sponsored by ICOA in partnership with the Tompkins County Public Library. Additional support for this event was provided by Amnesty International Group #73 in Ithaca, Gimme Coffee, Mia Restaurant, Taste of Thai, Vista Periodista, Wegmans, Wells Dining and the Inns of Aurora, Wells College, and ZaZa’s Cucina Restaurant. ICOA, affiliated with the Center for Transformative Action, is also appreciative of Ithaca College’s major support of our mission.

ICOA’s Fifth Writer-in-residence: Sonali Samarasinghe

Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) is proud to announce that its writer-in-residence for 2012–14 is the human rights activist and award-winning journalist Sonali Samarasinghe.

Sonali Samarasinghe
(© Barbara Adams 2012)

While practicing law in Sri Lanka, Samarasinghe worked as an editor and journalist focusing on government corruption and human rights. She left Sri Lanka with other members of her family in 2009 when her husband, Lasantha Wickrematunge, a high-profile attorney, publisher, and activist for freedom of the press, was assassinated and her household was threatened. Since coming to the United States, she has established The Lanka Standard (, a website devoted to truthful coverage of events in Sri Lanka and to freedom of the media in that country.

ICOA is a community organization that works closely with Ithaca College, Wells College, and Cornell University to provide sanctuary to writers whose works are suppressed, whose lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing, or whose languages are endangered. Ithaca College is providing primary support for Samarasinghe’s residency and has appointed her Visiting Scholar in Residence within the Honors Program in the School of Humanities and Sciences. During her stay in Ithaca, she will teach at the college and continue work on a book that details the recent history of the media and the government in Sri Lanka. To learn more about Samarasinghe, a film about her work is available for viewing on the Human Rights Watch Film Festival website.

Sonali Samarasinghe is the fifth writer to be supported by Ithaca City of Asylum. Formed as part of an international network of cities of refuge, ICOA includes in its membership individuals from Ithaca and the surrounding communities and area colleges. The group welcomed its first resident writer, poet and essayist Yi Ping (China) in 2001; its second, playwright and novelist Reza Daneshvar (Iran) in 2004; its third, poet and memoirist Sarah Mkhonza (Swaziland) in 2006; and its fourth, poet and playwright Irakli Kakabadze (Georgia) in 2008.

Samarasinghe will meet members of the Ithaca community in September when she will be the featured speaker at Voices of Freedom, an annual event sponsored by ICOA and the Tompkins County Public Library to celebrate Freedom to Read Week. Voices of Freedom will take place at the library in Ithaca, September 30, 2:00 p.m., in the Borg Warner Community Room.

New Officers for ICOA’s Board

Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) has elected four new officers for its board of directors. For the 2012-2013 year Dan Renfrow will serve as chair of the board, with Bridget Meeds as vice chair, Kathleen Gemmell as secretary, and David Guaspari as treasurer. “Ithaca City of Asylum provides sanctuary for writers who are persecuted because of their writing and activism. While our focus is supporting writers, our work is fundamentally a social justice project.” said Renfrow, the new chair of ICOA’s board and a professor of sociology at Wells College. “As a sociologist, I believe this is important work.”

ICOA is a local organization that provides sanctuary to writers whose works are suppressed, whole lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing, or whose languages are endangered. Part of its purpose is to serve as a bridge to the community, assisting writers in residence and their families in meeting the challenges of a new environment while encouraging their creative output. ICOA welcomed its first writer in 2001 and is about to introduce a fifth writer to the Ithaca community.

Part of an international network of cities of refuge, ICOA is one of only four cities of asylum in the United States. ICOA is a project of the Center for Transformative Action, a non-profit organization affiliated with Cornell University, and works in partnership with Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Wells College.

ICOA Participated in Arcades Project’s “The Poem of Display”

ICOA participated in the Arcades Project on Friday, May 4, in the Historic McCormick-Cowdry House at 408 E. State Street in downtown Ithaca. The biannual Arcades Project is a curated event featuring artists, designers, and independent presses. The event coincided with the annual regional literary festival Spring (W)rites, and its aesthetic goal was to highlight the intersection between dreaming and consumer consciousness.

Irakli Kakabadze, ICOA’s writer in residence from 2008-2011, was a special guest of literary journal Essays and Fictions. He read a poem he wrote in English and his native Georgian specifically for the event titled “Decolonizing Self.” The following is an excerpt from his poem:

Irakli Kakabadze reading his poem during the 2012 Arcades Project in Ithaca

I talked to my friend today:
He has peed with Salman Rushdie and got to know him in Toilet.
It has made his day – to pee with the classic of post-post-post colonial literature.
They have exchanged few words while peeing:
Discussed Puchini at Metropolitan Opera, Mayor Bloomberg’s Presidential aspirations,
Wall Street and Morgan Stanley, and having all vegetable diet.
My friend was so happy that I was happy for him.
I could sum it up like this.
Ever since 1989 – whole generations grew up in Georgia
Dreaming to pee with Salman Rushdie.
And write at least one scandalous work
With commercial success
America the land of the dream
And Europe was a paradise.
We were colonized by our own dreams.
We have colonized ourselves
And helped to colonize others.
We came out of former Soviet Union and
We have declared:
Liberal Democracy is great!
Without knowing anything about it.
We have screamed:
Capitalism is the only way to
Without knowing anything about Capitalism!
We were sick post-Soviet generation
Of McDonald Diet and Coca Cola dreams,
Of Freud’s materialism!

ICOA also helped to transform the Historic McCormick-Cowdry House into an experimental marketplace of literature, art, and design that night by manning a table displaying books for sale from previous writers in residence. Other Arcades Project participants included local and regional independent presses, makers of art books and editions, conceptual artists, and indie craft vendors. The founders of the Arcades Project drew inspiration for the event’s theme from Balzac’s quote: “The great poem of display chants its stanzas of color from the Church of the Madeleine to the Porte Saint-Denis.” The arcades are a center of commerce in luxury items. In fitting them out, art enters the service of the merchant. With this concept in mind, the Ithaca Arcades Project provided gallery visitors and shoppers with a chance to purchase affordable and original works of art and literature.

The event was sponsored by Spring Writes and The Community Arts Partnership. For more details visit the Project’s web page at