Ithaca City of Asylum

2018 Seasons Greetings from ICORN

Year-end news from our friends and fellow cities of refuge at International Cities of Refuge Network:

2018 is coming towards an end and we look back at many achievements in our common work to advance freedom of expression, defend democratic values and promote international solidarity. But we also look back at a year where established democratic practice and institutions are being challenged, and where freedom of expression has been measured at its lowest point in ten years, increasing the pressure on human rights- and creative workers.

Santa. Cartoon by Khalid Albaih, ICORN residency in Copenhagen.

Santa. Cartoon by Khalid Albaih, ICORN residency in Copenhagen.

«The Guardians and the War on Truth»: Just a few years back we would have had difficulties imagining that four persecuted journalists and a haunted newspaper would be declared the TIME Person of Year. Or that the Christmas edition of the same magazine in its entirety reads as a campaign journal for journalists at risk and freedom of expression. These are the times we find ourselves in towards the end of 2018.

On 7 October 2006, Russian writer, journalist and human rights defender Anna Politkovskaya was brutally murdered. During her tireless fight to reveal abuse of power and politically motivated killings in Russia and Chechnya, she received several offers of respite and refuge in Europe. Always on the move and alert to uncover atrocities and human rights violations, she declined her offers. Only the fatal shots in the elevator of her Moscow apartment block could silence her voice.

12 years later, 2 October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went into his nation’s consulate in Istanbul, and never came back out. What the Arab world needs most is freedom of expression was the title of the article his assistant sent to Washington Post after he disappeared. Khashoggi’s editor Karen Attiah held it back awaiting his arrival, but finally sent it for publishing, noting that the column – perfectly captures his commitment and passion for freedom in the Arab world. A freedom he apparently gave his life for.

The period between the killings of these two witnesses of their time, ICORN was formed and has mobilised 70 cities worldwide to offer an alternative to silence. Since 2006, more than 200 persecuted poets, journalists, musicians, bloggers, cartoonists, novelists, painters, playwrights, non-fiction writers, translators and film makers have found refuge in an ICORN City. Be it in Uddevalla or Berlin, Pittsburgh or Barcelona, Skien or Paris, persecuted freedom fighters and trouble makers have found the safe spaces to continue their struggle for democratic values, human rights and freedom. They are, as was duly marked and celebrated during the ICORN General Assembly in Malmö in May this year – safe not silent.

Moments from the Safe Not Silent, ICORN General Assembly in the City of Malmö 2-4 May 2018.

Moments from the Safe Not Silent, ICORN General Assembly in the City of Malmö 2-4 May 2018.

For the first time, more women than men have found refuge in an ICORN city in 2018; strong female voices from Syria, Iran, Bangladesh, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan. Never has ICORN received so many applications from persecuted writers and artists; compared to last years record of 119 application, ICORN has so far this year received 149 applications. During the year, ICORN is in continuous contact with between 300 and 400 new and former applicants; writers, journalists and artists under severe threats and persecution, in their home country or already on the run.

Women ICORN writers/artists 2018: Souzan Ibrahim, Sahar Mousa, Maha Nasser, Wesam AlMadani, Supriti Dhar.

Women ICORN writers/artists 2018: Souzan Ibrahim, Sahar Mousa, Maha Nasser, Wesam AlMadani, Supriti Dhar.

The good news is therefore that more and more cities are joining ICORN to offer the protection necessary to continue to be vocal. 2018 welcomed 7 new cities to the network; Berlin, Leiden, Asker, Poitier, Vestfold County, Helsinki, Östersund, with Warsaw, Bern and Las Vegas among those in the pipeline to join in 2019.

I don’t believe in nationalities, says Wesam Al Madani, who recently found refuge with ICORN. She continues:- I was born in Sudan, grew up in Egypt and later established myself in Gaza, Palestine.  Under the title At Home, Everywhere, more than 300 writers, artists, city representatives, activists, experts and sister networks will gather in Rotterdam 29-31 May 2019 for the ICORN Network Meeting & PEN International WiPC Conference in Rotterdam, to explore what it means to be at home in today’s world, and what it means to be bereft of it. We will discuss the role of cities in supporting writers and artists at risk, so that they can continue to raise awareness globally and be change actors for democratic values and freedom of expression.

So far in 2018, the year when we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reports that 80 journalists around the world have been killed in line of duty, 348 are imprisoned and 60 are being held hostage. It reminds us that it is more important than ever to stand together and fight for the values and ideas we believe in. Based on the first external evaluation of ICORN, the organisation has developed and set into motion a new strategic plan for 2018-2022, preparing to meet the challenges ahead. ICORN’s vision is clear: Improved conditions for freedom of expression world wide. The mission follows in logic order: ICORN enables cities around the world to provide safe havens for persecuted writers and artists, working together to advance freedom of expression, defend democratic values and promote international solidarity.

Back in 2006, when Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk saluted the birth of ICORN, he hoped for himself that he did not have to resort to shelter. However, he continued, the knowledge that such a global initiative exists and prospers, encourages writers, journalists, artists, human rights defenders worldwide to keep on writing and creating, assured that if the pressure becomes unbearable, there exists a refuge to resort to. Let us honor the memory and courage of those who are silenced forever by giving the last words to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (1938-2018): – Freedom of the press ensures that the abuse of every other freedom can be known, can be challenged and even defeated.

The Guardians: TIME honors journalists in 2018

Journalists made the cover of TIME as a collective Person of the Year, 2018. The December 24 cover story featured journalists who endeavored to keep telling the truth during a year of increased violence, censorship, and dismissal around the world.

With TIME, we keep advocating for the “guardians” who keep reporting, creating, and storytelling in the face of wars against the truth worldwide.

time guardians covers

Parting Thoughts

Interning at ICOA this semester has been eye opening. I am a Culture and Communications major at Ithaca College with a Gender Studies minor, a concentration in Urban Anthropology, and a passion for writing. Though I’m a strong advocate for interdisciplinary studies, I’ve often worried about where my chosen path would take me. There seemed to be no clear trajectory for me in terms of a career or my next steps, but ICOA changed that. Ithaca City of Asylum is part of the larger International Cities of Refuge Network, an organization that connects writers and activists around the globe fighting for the protection and preservation of freedom of expression. In an organization like ICORN,  cities are where the change happens, and writing is the means by which people speak their truths.

One of my assignments this semester was to work on ICOA’s website. I  worked alongside board members Meryl Bursic and Kate Klein on the project, and we discussed our options surrounding the website’s visuals and organization. Kate asked me to look at a few other nonprofit sites and highlight what worked. I chose ICORN, Amnesty International, and City Harvest from my hometown of NYC, as inspiration. All of the sites are visually appealing, easy to navigate, bright, colorful, and clearly state their missions. I was teeming with excitement as I scrolled through the sites. As a senior looking ahead, the job openings page held particular intrigue…

As I leave ICOA, I no longer feel discouraged about my future. There are so many organizations out there doing work that is meaningful and important. ICOA has reaffirmed my stance importance of writing and freedom of expression. I believe we all deserve to have our voices heard, especially those experiencing political unrest, and the fight cannot stop until that right is universal. Lastly,  this internship has pointed to the potential of cities in becoming urban sanctuaries— places of creativity, culture, refuge, and hope.

PEN and ICORN connect writers to global migration compact

Last week, 164 governments signed the United Nations Global Compact on Migration. The member states met in Marrakesh, Morocco to discuss the pact, which builds upon the existing international legal system for refugees, and focuses specifically on international agreement in order to expand the basis of support for refugees and challenge public perceptions surrounding migration. The UN has listed four of its goals for the global pact: to ease pressures on countries that host large numbers of refugees, build self-reliance of refugees, expand access to 3rd country or refugees through resettlement, and create conditions that enable refugees to return to their countries of origin. (UN News)

literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals …”

PEN International and the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), of which Ithaca City of Asylum is a part, met prior to the intergovernmental conference to bring together a group of writers with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Together, the groups met to discuss the protection of the human and legal rights of writers.  

PEN is an international charter that seeks to liberate, uplift, and publish authors who have been previously silenced. The organization’s mission statement reads,

literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals … PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible. PEN declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship in time of peace. It believes that the necessary advance of the world towards a more highly organised political and economic order renders a free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions imperative. And since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.”  

This event is part of PEN International’s Make Space Campaign, founded in 2017, which aims to create opportunities for displaced and refugee writers. Through events like this, the program has taken important steps in countering xenophobia and hate, and centering the voices of writers who have been forcibly displaced or are currently living in exile into global migration debates. PEN’s campaign was launched in 2017 with the support of 300+ writers, and it aims to create opportunities for journalists and writers who’ve experienced forced displacement or are living in exile through events, advocacy, digital action, and community organizing.  

The joint event featured a panel of PEN and ICORN writers and activists including Asieh Amini, Abduljabbar Alushili, Dr. Regula Venske, Helge Lunde, Juan Diego Catalano, and Sarah Clarke to discuss the relationship between migration and public perception, legal pathways, and writing. The goals of the campaign—and the event—parallel those of ICOA. Writers, who put so much at risk, deserve adequate legal protection and audience willing to act.

Jamal Khashoggi stands for many more silenced journalists

Jamal Khashoggi: The name of this Saudi journalist, who wrote for the Washington Post and had been residing in the US, has headlined the news this month after he disappeared into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Political circumstances have brought his death, confirmed by Turkish authorities this week, to international attention.

It is a tragedy whenever a writer loses his life in connection to the things that he or she writes; as America’s attention is riveted on the death of this one writer, we remember that hundreds of journalists, creative writers, cartoonists, and other artists are threatened, harmed, or imprisoned each year. The number is growing, and many suffer or even die in obscurity.

So far, 43 journalists have been killed in 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists; 262 were jailed in 2017. PEN International reports that 217 writers (including journalists, poets, songwriters, playwrights, bloggers, and publishers) were killed, disappeared, or detained in 2017.

Ithaca City of Asylum and the network of like-minded cities of which we are a part, the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) identifies writers who face threats because of their work, helps them reach safety, protects them as they continue to write, and advocates for a world in which this basic human right—freedom of expression—is upheld.

Poignantly, Khashoggi’s last column in the Washington Post proclaimed that what Arab countries need now is free expression. Published on October 17, after his disappearance, the essay is a powerful statement of the need for a free press and unfettered artists, and against regimes that silence both individual voices and opposing parties through force.

“The Arab world is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power,” he wrote in the piece. “During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe, which grew over the years into a critical institution, played an important role in fostering and sustaining the hope of freedom. Arabs need something similar.”

Ithaca City of Asylum and the network of like-minded cities of which we are a part, the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) identifies writers who face threats because of their work, helps them reach safety, protects them as they continue to write, and advocates for a world in which this basic human right—freedom of expression—is upheld.

The Washington Post, the column points out, translates his articles about democracy in the United States and other western countries and publishes them in Arabic, giving people in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, and other Arab countries living under authoritarian regimes access to the western world.

Tragically, this is the last column Jamal Khashoggi published in any language. In a note published with the column, Karen Attiah, the Washington Post’s Global Opinions editor wrote: “This column perfectly captures his commitment and passion for freedom in the Arab world. A freedom he apparently gave his life for.”





Exiled writers: display at Buffalo Street Books

Ithaca City of Asylum supports writers whose works are suppressed, whose lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing, and whose languages are endangered. Many writers in today’s world  find themselves in this position–but being persecuted for the written word is nothing new.

Our project is partnering with Buffalo Street Books this month in a display of books by authors who have been persecuted, exiled, jailed, or threatened for their creative work. Books by our writers in residence join books by Nobel Prize winners and bestsellers who share the common thread of writing courageously in the face of persecution.

Stop by the store in the Dewitt Mall at 215 North Cayuga Street in Ithaca, and take a look.



Stories from Jos, Nigeria

Kanchana Ugbabe reads her story "Blessing in Disguise."

Kanchana Ugbabe reads her story “Blessing in Disguise.”

Thank you to everyone who attended Voices of Freedom 2018 last night, October 4, at Buffalo Street Books. Kanchana Ugbabe, Writer at Risk in Residence at Fordham University, shared stories of the current violence and division in her long-time home of Jos, Nigeria. She read a story from her collection, Soulmates.

Kanchana Ugbabe and an Ithaca High School student.

Kanchana Ugbabe and an Ithaca High School student.

On October 5, Kanchana visited a fiction class at Ithaca College, where she talked about the craft of writing, and the role her stories came to play in her life when she lived–as an immigrant from Asia–in Nigeria . “Writing became the lens through which I experienced the culture,” she told the class.

We’ll add more about this evening in support of literature and human rights soon.

Kanchana Ugbabe and Raul Palma, creative writing instructor at Ithaca College.

Kanchana Ugbabe and Raul Palma, creative writing instructor at Ithaca College.

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

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

Kanchana Ugbabe, writer and scholar from Nigeria

Kanchana Ugbabe, writer and scholar from Nigeria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Listen live!

Turkish researcher becomes her own subject

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

Simten Cosar outdoors 1200px

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

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

Then, in January 2016, things suddenly got personal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Cornell, she said, the words have flowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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