Ithaca City of Asylum

Come to our Spring Writes 2019 panel Saturday, May 4

Ithaca City of Asylum will take part in Spring Writes, Ithaca’s literature festival, with a panel discussion on Saturday, May 4, 12:30 – 1:30pm at the Tompkins Center for History & Culture, CAP Gallery/Program Room.

The event will feature a lively discussion among members of local Amnesty International chapters and Ithaca City of Asylum. Both groups strive to achieve social justice and uphold human rights–and our various projects intersect with the act of writing in thought-provoking ways.

Expression as Freedom: The power of literature in exile and incarceration

Some journalists, poets, and novelists write their way INTO exile for speaking out against oppression or injustice, while people who are incarcerated sometimes write their way THROUGH or OUT. Ithaca City of Asylum and Amnesty International representatives present a panel discussion about the ways the exiled and the incarcerated express their experiences through the arts, and what Ithacans who believe in human rights and the power of the pen can do to promote justice through literature. Panelists include Gail Holst-Warhaft, K.E. von Wittelsbach, Andy Doyle, Cayley Crutchfield, Tony Sidle, and Pedro X. Molina, with moderator Barbara Adams.

And check out the full Spring Writes schedule for four days of 43 juried literary events.


“Journalism in an Age of Despots”

Ithaca City of Asylum writers-in-residence featured at 2019 Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

With a theme of “Disruptions,” FLEFF 2019, hosted by Ithaca College, explored ideas of sustainability across all its forms, including the political, the cultural, and the aesthetic—and intersection that embraces the craft and art of writing.

onali Samarasinghe speaks at a table, backed by colorful banners

Sonali Samarasinghe, Sri Lankan delegate to the United Nations, speaks about threats to a free press in international spaces. Also on the panel: political cartoonist Pedro Molina (center) and Raza Rumi, director of the Park Center for Independent Media.

On April 3, two of ICOA’s former writers-in-residence shared their extensive knowledge and personal experience of international journalism: Sonali Samarasinghe, now Sri Lankan delegate to the United Nations; and Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi, now director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College.

Pedro Molina, a political cartoonist from Nicaragua who is published widely in the international press, joined the panel for a wide-ranging discussion of the issues journalists face all over the world in an age of increasingly authoritarian and oppressive governments. Each panelist addressed the state of journalism in their own country. They also discussed systematic causes of repression.

The panel was moderated by Barbara Adams, professor of writing at Ithaca College and member of the ICOA board. Fifty people from the campus and community attended.


Spring events with ICOA

Ithaca City of Asylum has three events planned for spring 2019. Join us for these collaborations with other literary and human rights organizations:

  • Wednesday, April 3, 2019, 6 p.m. Handwerker Gallery, Ithaca College Library: A panel on “Journalism in an Age of Despots,” part of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF). Speakers include former ICOA writers-in-residence Sonali Samarasinghe, now Sri Lankan delegate to the United Nations; and Raza Rumi, now Director, Park Center for Independent Me as well as special guest Pedro Molina, a political cartoonist from Nicaragua.


  • Saturday, May 4, 2019, 12:30 p.m.Community Arts Partnership event space, Ithaca Commons: A Spring Writes panel, “Expression as Freedom: The Power of Literature in Exile and Incarceration.” Members of ICOA and local Amnesty International chapters discuss the ways the exiled and the incarcerated express their experiences through the arts.


  • Saturday, May 18, 2019, 1-3 p.m. Buffalo Street Books, 215 N. Cayuga St.: A reading by Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Ngyuen, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Co-sponsored by Buffalo Street Books and Ithaca City of Asylum.
Sonali Samarasinghe

Sonali Samarasinghe, former ICOA visiting writer from Sri Lanka. Photo by Dede Hatch

Raza Rumi

Raza Rumi, former ICOA visiting writer from Pakistan. Photo by Barbara Adams

ICOA is part of Spring Writes 2019

Today, we learned that an event proposed by Ithaca City of Asylum made it into Spring Writes 2019, which is set for May 2-5, 2019 in downtown Ithaca.


The competition to get in was keen this year, and we are pleased to return to Ithaca’s vibrant annual literary festival.

Together with local Amnesty International chapter 73 and the Ithaca College chapter of Amnesty International, ICOA will host a panel discussion: “Expression as Freedom: the power of literature in exile and incarceration.”

The date and time of this event is not scheduled yet–we’ll post about it as soon as we find out. Until then, plan to attend Spring Writes, which is a true celebration of Ithaca’s rich literary culture.


Music crossing borders

Upon the signing of a January 2017 executive order preventing foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, “numerous musicians, ensembles, and organizations responded by showcasing art from precisely those places,” the New Yorker points out this week.


A showcase of music on this border-transcending theme will celebrate the music of those seven countries on February 8 at Zankel Hall in midtown Manhattan.

We applaud Kronos Quartet for their concert, “Music for Change: The Banned Countries.” This ensemble, which has been innovating string quartet music for 45 years, will present a musical program of new and remixed music from the seven predominantly Muslim countries targeted by the 2017 travel ban. The program will feature newly composed pieces, songs featuring the Persian vocalist Mahsa Vahdat, and arranged Middle Eastern pop tunes.

The program, says Steve Smith in the New Yorker, amplifies “themes of dignity, resistance, and harmonious existence.”


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.”