The International Cities of Refuge Network takes in writers and artists persecuted in their own countries
By Olivia Snaije
The International Cities of Refuge Network, ICORN, recently celebrated its 10th birthday in Paris, where two days of cultural events were held as well as its general assembly.
ICORN has reason to celebrate; its structure—53 member cities, which host and assist writers and artists persecuted in their own countries—is no easy feat.
The seeds for ICORN were sown in 1994 when the International Parliament of Writers (IPW) was created with Salman Rushdie as its first president. Wole Soyinka was its next president. IPW formed a network of more than 25 cities that provided asylum to writers living in countries where freedom of expression was non-existent, however both organizations suffered from financial and organizational woes and were dissolved by 2005.
Just a year later former members of the network met with representatives of PEN international and, with a sustainable and effective structure as a goal, the Norwegian city of Stavanger agreed to establish, both legally and physically the headquarters for a reborn artery of cities.
ICORN Chairman of the board Peter Ripken said: “After ten years we seem to be able to make it work. It’s a fantastic idea but to move from the idea to reality is not always easy. We have grown from 15 or so cities in the beginning to the 50 plus that we are now. Our biggest challenge is of course bringing the writer to a city of refuge and then following up afterwards.”
The majority of these cities are in northern and central Europe, but three cities in Mexico have joined ICORN, as have southern European cities such as Barcelona and Ljubljana and the Italian region of Tuscany.
Paris city mayor Anne Hidalgo opened ICORN’s two days of events with an impassioned speech for the humanist tradition, underlining the importance of supporting artists in their freedom of expression: “Artists interpret the world,” she said.
Although traditionally ICORN has received writers and journalists, the organization has been protecting and hosting an increasingly wide range of artists including bloggers, playwrights, musicians, poets, visual artists, cartoonists, singer/songwriters, translators, screenwriters and publishers.
Belarusian author and 2015 Nobel Literature prizewinner Svetlana Alexievitch who was ambassador of the Paris event had benefited from one of ICORN’s first residencies in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 2006. This year Gothenburg is hosting a Palestinian rapper from Gaza, Khaled Harara, who has frequently been arrested and detained for his lyrics and music which evoke the socio-political situation and denounce the lack of freedom of expression under Hamas rule.
So far ICORN cities have hosted over 130 writers and artists fleeing persecution.
Many of them remain in their host cities once their residency is over, such as the Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani, who was Paris’ first guest writer. He now contributes to major newspapers and magazines and published a book of his political cartoons.
During the Parisian event Bangladeshi cartoonist Arifur Rahman, (in an ICORN residency in Norway) who founded an online cartoon magazine, discussed with a Syrian journalist Sakher Edris, a Cuban blogger, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo (in an ICORN residency in Iceland) and an Iraqi poet and journalist Manal Al-Sheikh (a former ICORN resident) how best to use the Internet as a tool for resistance. In Bangladesh, where a succession of journalists and bloggers have been killed recently, Rahman said, “If anything happens, we know via the Internet.”
Al-Sheikh said the Internet was “a very, very strong weapon. There are negative sides but there are more positive ones.” However, said Al-Sheikh, commenting on the social media skills of the Islamic state fighters, “I can hide from the government, but not from militants.”
Pardo Lazo said: “Cuba is now in the headlines but I have to say that the only telephone company still belongs to the government. There is an emerging blogging movement in Cuba. But we are talking about a country that for the most part is not connected to the Internet. Recently some cyber cafes were opened but the government controls them.”
As Syrian poet, author and translator Mohammad Habeeb, an ICORN resident in Norway concluded in a session where he explained his decision to become an exile, “In Syria you can’t speak and express your opinion without risking your life…People are silenced. Our future is in our mouth for those who dare to speak. I left Syria because I couldn’t guarantee a life for my family as long as I wanted to speak out against the government.”