Ithaca City of Asylum

Johnson exhibit features exiled Burmese photographer

Photo by Min Ma Naing, February 2021

Faces of Change: Portraits of Myanmar’s Democratic Awakening,” an exhibit at the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell, features the work of Min Ma Naing, a visiting scholar at Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program. Ithaca City of Asylum has helped Min Ma since she arrived in Ithaca after fleeing Myanmar in June.

The exhibit includes photos and the personal statements of activists and others resisting the military dictatorship in Myanmar, along with other elements. A military coup in February 2021 removed a democratically elected government after six years of rule. You can read Min Ma’s artist’s statement here. The exhibit, in the first floor Bowers Gallery, closes on September 19.

Join ICOA board members in Odyssey conversation

Ithaca City of Asylum board members Athena Kirk and Bethany Dixon will discuss survival, migration, and displacement in a “Virtual Community Conversation” on Wednesday, September 1, 5-6 p.m. The event is part of An Odyssey, a coproduction of the Hangar Theatre and The Cherry Arts directed by Samuel Buggeln. Dramaturg Aoise Stratford will moderate.

Athena Kirk is an assistant professor of classics at Cornell who studies the intersections between literature and epigraphy and the material quality of ancient texts. Bethany Dixon is a writer, baker, and pianist who writes about women in ancient Greek literature.

The presentation is free and open to the public. For more information or to register, visit The Cherry Arts Facebook page. Click here to buy tickets to An Odyssey.

Samarasinghe, Rumi, and ICOA featured in podcast

Former ICOA writers-in-residence Sonali Samarasinghe (2012-2014) and Raza Rumi (2015-2017) recently told their stories to the podcast Asian in Ithaca: Stories of Race, Culture & Identity. The podcast is produced by WICB, the student radio station at Ithaca College. You can listen to the episode here on Spotify and here on Apple Podcasts.

Sonali Samarasinghe

In an emotional and far-reaching discussion, journalist, human rights lawyer, and diplomat Samarasinghe recounted the events that forced her to flee her native Sri Lanka.

She was working for a newspaper that was critical of the government’s conduct of a 26-year civil war that took 80,000-100,000 lives. She and her colleagues also called out cases of corruption and official misconduct. “The government saw us as traitors to the nation for speaking truth to power,” she recalled.

In 2009, she married Lasantha Wickrematunge, her newspaper’s editor. A few weeks later, men on motorcycles surrounded Wickrematunge on his way to work and bludgeoned him to death. Samarasinghe soon received death threats of her own and fled to the United States. In 2012, she found an invitation from ICOA in her spam folder with an offer of a teaching job at Ithaca College. She agreed to come.

“I was dealing with a lot of trauma from the violence that happened to my husband [and] the fear of the death threats. And also having to flee so abruptly and adapt in a few short months,” she recalled. “I had lost my husband after only a couple of months of marriage, and I had lost everything else. I had lost my home, familiar faces, family. I had lost my right to choose to work in my chosen profession, journalism. So I had lost not only my self worth, but my livelihood.”

Her stay in Ithaca would turn out to be “a lifesaver,” she said. “ICOA provided refuge for me in more ways than one. Housing assistance, yes. A two-year paid job, yes. But most importantly, professional, personal, and emotional support.” During her two years in Ithaca, she said, “I felt so welcome and so safe.”

Raza Rumi

Raza Rumi was a well-known broadcaster, editor, columnist, and policy consultant in Pakistan who spoke and wrote widely about the dangers of religious extremism. “I was condemning it every day on television, and also holding different authorities to account,” he recalled. He also argued for peace with India, which is “not a popular opinion” in Pakistan.

In March 2014, the car he was riding in was riddled with bullets from automatic weapons. Rumi survived but his driver, a family friend, was killed. The attack was later found to have been orchestrated by a militant group affiliated with the Taliban. He fled to Washington, then held several temporary positions before receiving an invitation from ICOA.

ICOA helped arrange employment at Cornell and Ithaca College, allowing him not just to advance his career, but to maintain his connection with his country. “I still get those threats and I still get those hate messages,” he said, but “I am very much engaged back home. I still write for publications, I was still editing a newspaper in Pakistan. I didn’t stop my work.”

In 2018, he became director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. He also serves on the ICOA board. “ICOA is an amazing organization. Frankly speaking, I think there are very few organizations like that, even across the world,” he said.

“We need to remind [people] how important it is to have organizations like ICOA survive and do well. Because we must have this space available for writers and journalists and artists who might be feeling the heat in their own countries or contexts…. We need to protect those who deserve protection.”

Pedro Molina speaks to The World

Pedro X. Molina, Ithaca City of Asylum’s seventh artist-in-residence, spoke with the nationally broadcast public radio news program The World on June 25. Host Carol Hills asked him about the current situation for independent journalists in Nicaragua after a flurry of arrests of journalists and opposition figures there.

You can listen to the eight-minute interview here.

Molina discussed the recent departure of Carlos Fernando Chamorro, editor of Confidencial, the news organization that publishes his work in Nicaragua, and the arrest of Miguel Mora, former director of the TV network 100% Noticias. He also spoke about the power of cartooning at a dark and dangerous time in his country.

For Giving is Gorges, support creative expression without fear

Pedro X. Molina among his portraits of Nicaraguans killed by the current regime.

When cartoonist Pedro X. Molina and his family fled Nicaragua on Christmas Day in 2018, they hoped to return after a few months. Since then, conditions for independent journalists in their country have only gotten more dangerous. If the Molinas were to try to go home today, Pedro would likely be arrested and imprisoned — or worse.

Luckily, the family found a welcoming community in Ithaca. Over the last two and a half years, Pedro has not only survived, he has thrived, publishing six cartoons a week, growing his international following, teaching college classes, and earning awards and recognition for his work. Perhaps most importantly, he has remained engaged in the vigorous debate about his country’s future.

Since 2001, ICOA has provided a lifeline to writers and artists from China, Iran, Swaziland, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nicaragua. This year, we’re helping a writer and an artist fleeing Myanmar. To continue this work, we need your help.

Today is Giving is Gorges, a community-wide day of support for grassroots groups like ours. Please make a tax-deductible donation today. Then use the hashtag #GivingIsGorges to tell the world how much you care about human rights and creative expression!

Odysseys series now available for streaming

The four-part reading series “Odysseys: Ithaca Writers on Exile, Wandering, and Searching for Home,” which ran from February to May, is now available for viewing on the Tompkins County Public Library’s YouTube channel. You can also go directly to the session of your choice by following the links below.

  • Session 1:  Gail Holst-Warhaft & Aoise Stratford, moderated by David Guaspari (watch on YouTube)
  • Session 2: Sorayya Khan & Raza Rumi, moderated by Barbara Adams (watch on YouTube)
  • Session 3: Valzhyna Mort & Raul Palma, moderated by Kate Blackwood (watch on YouTube)
  • Session 4: Minfong Ho & Kenneth McClane, moderated by Edward Hower (watch on YouTube)

Our deepest thanks go to our generous and talented writers, whose readings and discussions were universally deep, moving, and inspiring. Thanks, too, to the four ICOA board members who so ably moderated.

We were thrilled not just with the quality of the presentations, but with the response to the series. People logged in from across our community and around the world. Between the livestream and archived versions, attendance averaged well over 100 per session. We are grateful to our friends at the Tompkins County Public Library, who hosted the series on their Zoom platform, and especially to Cady Fontana, Makerspace librarian, who punched all the right buttons behind the scenes.

We also want to thank our cosponsors, Buffalo Street Books, Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County, Global CornellCornell MigrationsIthaca College Department of WritingOdyssey Bookstore, Story House Ithaca for their support in getting out the word to their audiences. We feel very fortunate to be part of this extraordinary community.

Minfong Ho and Kenneth McClane to cap reading series

Odysseys event poster

A poet and a playwright from Australia. A novelist and a journalist from Pakistan. A poet from Belarus and a novelist from Florida. Their journeys have all been different, but all have found themselves living and writing in Ithaca. And their stories have all been captivating.

The online reading series “Odysseys: Ithaca Writers on Exile, Wandering, and Searching for Home” wraps up on Tuesday, May 18 at 7 p.m. with young adult and children’s book author Minfong Ho and poet and essayist Kenneth A. McClane. Novelist and ICOA board member Edward Hower will moderate. The Zoom session is free, but registration is required. Register here.

Minfong Ho was born in Myanmar of ethnic Chinese parents, raised in Thailand, and educated in Taiwan and the United States. She has written several books for young adults and children, mostly set in Southeast Asia. These include The Clay Marble and Hush! She worked as a journalist in Singapore, taught at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, and ran a food program on the Thai-Khmer border for Cambodian refugees. Although she has remained a U.S. Permanent Alien for over 35 years, she says Ithaca has come to feel like home.

Kenneth A. McClane is Cornell’s W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Literature Emeritus and the author of eight books of poems, including A Tree Beyond Telling and Take Five: Collected Poems, 1971-1986. He has also written two collections of personal essays: Walls (1992) and Color: Essays on Race, Family and History (2009). He has served on the board of trustees of Adelphi University, and on the board of directors of the Tompkins County Library Foundation, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, the New York Council for the Humanities, and the Tompkins County Community Foundation.

You can watch previous sessions on the Tompkins County Public Library’s YouTube channel.

  • Session 1:  Gail Holst-Warhaft & Aoise Stratford, moderated by David Guaspari (watch on YouTube)
  • Session 2: Sorayya Khan & Raza Rumi, moderated by Barbara Adams (watch on YouTube)
  • Session 3: Valzhyna Mort & Raul Palma, moderated by Kate Blackwood (watch on YouTube)

“Odysseys: Ithaca Writers on Exile, Wandering, and Searching for Home” is organized by Ithaca City of Asylum and cosponsored by Buffalo Street BooksGlobal CornellCornell MigrationsIthaca College Department of WritingOdyssey BookstoreStory House Ithaca, and Tompkins County Public Library.

Thanks also to the Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County, which has included this session in its Spring Writes series.

Writers Valzhyna Mort and Raul Palma share their journeys

Please join us on Tuesday, April 13, at 7 p.m. for brief readings and a conversation with poet Valzhyna Mort and fiction writer Raul Palma. Writer, actor, and ICOA board member Kate Blackwood will moderate.

UPDATE: The event was a success! Watch it on YouTube.

Valzhyna Mort is a poet and translator born in Minsk, Belarus. She is the author of the poetry collections Factory of TearsCollected Body, and Music for the Dead and Resurrected (FSG, 2020). Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, The New Yorker, PoetryPoetry Review, Poetry InternationalPrairie SchoonerGranta, Gulf CoastWhite Review, and many more publications. She has been honored with the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry and the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award. Mort teaches at Cornell and writes in English and Belarusian.

Raul Palma is a novelist, short story writer, and assistant professor of writing at Ithaca College, where he serves as the faculty advisor to Stillwater Magazine. His fiction has been included in Best Small Fictions 2018 and rated distinguished/notable in Best American Short Stories 2016. He has been supported by fellowships and scholarships from the CubaOne Foundation, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, Santa Fe Writer’s Conference, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and the Sundress Academy for the Arts. He is working on a novel titled A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens.

The session is the third of four monthly readings in “Odysseys: Ithaca Writers on Exile, Wandering, and Searching for Home.” The series is organized by Ithaca City of Asylum and cosponsored by Buffalo Street BooksGlobal CornellCornell MigrationsIthaca College Department of WritingOdyssey BookstoreStory House Ithaca, and Tompkins County Public Library.

You can watch earlier sessions and register for Session 4 at the links below.

Hear Pedro X. Molina in conversation with Barbara Adams at FLEFF

UPDATE: Watch a video of this event on YouTube.

Pedro X. Molina, an internationally acclaimed political cartoonist who fled Nicaragua with his family in December 2018, will reflect on his experiences, his cartooning, and current conditions in Nicaragua in a conversation with ICOA board member Barbara Adams on Friday, March 26, from 12 to 1:15 p.m.

The online presentation is part of the 2021 Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, or FLEFF. You can register for the event here.

In 2019, Molina won the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot Award from Columbia Journalism School in 2019 for “career excellence and coverage of the Western Hemisphere that furthers inter-American understanding.” In 2018, he won the Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award from Cartoonists Rights Network International and an Excellence in Journalism award from the Inter American Press Association.

In May, Molina will finish his terms as ICOA’s artist-in-residence and Visiting International Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College.

Poet, war survivor to read March 19

Ithaca City of Asylum is pleased to cosponsor a reading by Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley on March 19 at 4 p.m. The free online event is organized by Cornell’s Institute for African Development and will be moderated by Dr. Naminata Diabate, associate professor of comparative literature at Cornell.

You may register for the Zoom session here.

Dr. Wesley fled Liberia’s civil war in 1991 and settled in the United States with her family. She has published six books of poetry: When the Wanderers Come Home, Where the Road Turns, The River Is Rising, Becoming EbonyBefore the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa, and Praise Song for My Children

“Vulnerable in their combination of grief and levity, Wesley’s poems deal with family, community, and war,” the Poetry Foundation writes.

Wesley’s poetry and nonfiction has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Harvard Review, Harvard Divinity Review, Transition Magazine, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard ReviewNew Orleans Review, Black Renaissance Noire, and in dozens of anthologies.

In addition to her writing, Wesley is a professor of English, creative writing, and African literature at Penn State University’s Altoona campus. She has conducted research on Liberian women’s war stories, chaired the African Literature Division of the Modern Language Association, and served as an expert witness in the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Hearings in Minneapolis.

A native of Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa, moderator Naminata Diabate is a scholar of African and African diaspora studies with an emphasis on questions of sexuality and gender studies.