Journalist Raza Rumi

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Yi Ping and his wife, Lin Zhou, boarded a bus for Ithaca at the Port Authority in Manhattan. Ping had recently been selected as the Ithaca City of Asylum’s (ICOA) first exiled writer-in-residence and was on his way with Zhou to their new home. Yet when their bus reached the Lincoln Tunnel, it was closed due to the attacks on the World Trade Center, and they were returned to the station. 

Meanwhile Bridget Meeds, who founded ICOA with Anne Berger, was waiting for the couple at Ithaca’s bus station just in case they’d made it out of the city. As she was sitting at the terminal, listening to the news unfold on the radio, a thought struck her: “When towns and cities across the world were closing their doors and bridges and airports, Ithaca was standing there with its arms wide open.” 

It was clear that Ithaca was suited to be a city of asylum for exiled writers.

ICOA hosts one writer-in-residence every two years, a process that entails assisting the writers with relocation, accommodations, employment, community involvement, and the promotion and publication of their writing. During this time, the writers teach courses in their area of expertise at Ithaca College or Cornell while also continuing to produce their own work. 

To date, Ithaca has provided six writers from China, Iran, Swaziland, Georgia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan with this opportunity. In return, the writers have provided the local community with a “wonderful opportunity to get to know the story of a place through an individual,” said Klein, especially at a time when as “Americans we get lots of information, but it’s so seldom connected to a personal story.”   

On Sunday, Sept. 25, ICOA will celebrate its 15th anniversary of supporting dissident voices at its annual “Voices of Freedom” event, which is free and open to the public and will take place at 7 p.m. at the Kitchen Theatre Company on 417 W. State Street. Fittingly, the event will kick off Banned Books Week and will feature four ICOA writers. 

Raza Rumi, a Pakistani journalist, policy analyst, and the current ICOA writer-in-residence, will be reading from his memoir-in-progress. Rumi arrived to the United States in May 2014, just months after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt in which his driver lost his life in Islamabad. Presently he is teaching at Ithaca College while working on his memoir and contributing to a variety of media outlets—including the Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, and The Friday Times. 

Following Rumi’s reading, there will be a panel discussion with former ICOA writers: Yi Ping (2001–2003), a poet and activist from China, who still resides in Ithaca and serves as the editor of the website Human Rights in China; Sarah Mkhonza (2006–2008), an outspoken journalist for women’s rights in Swaziland, who now teaches in the Center for African and Middle Eastern Languages at Stanford University; and Sonali Samarasinghe (2012–2014), a Sri Lankan journalist and human rights activist, who left Colombo after her husband was assassinated in 2009. She currently serves as the Minister Counsellor to the Sri Lankan mission to the United Nations and plans to return home in the near future. 

In the panel discussion, the writers will speak about how living in exile has affected their creative process, the current state of freedom of expression in their native countries, and their hopes for the future. At the same time, Meeds hopes that the event will also serve as a “moment for Ithaca to reflect, as the refugee crisis grows, and to think about what it means to be in a community where you keep the gates open.” 

For more information about Ithaca City of Asylum and the 15th anniversary “Voices of Freedom” celebration, go to: ithacacityofasylum.com

From Sept. 15–Oct. 15, the Tompkins County Public Library and Olin Library at Cornell University are both featuring exhibits about ICOA’s history in honor of the organization’s anniversary. For those interested, the publications of the ICOA writers-in-residence can also be found at the Tompkins County Public Library. • 

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