October 29, 2013

Ithaca Organization Houses, Protects Exiled Writers

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Sonali Samarasinghe’s husband, Lasantha Wickramatunga, who was a vocal opponent of the Sri Lankan government, was shot on his way to work in 2009.

Samarasinghe, a journalist, was receiving death threats and feared for her life. She fled the country the year her husband was shot. Three years later, she found herself in Ithaca, where she has been hosted by the Ithaca City of Asylum, an organization that protects writers whose lives, writings, cultures or languages are in danger in their home countries.

Samarasinghe, a Sri Lankan journalist who is the fifth writer hosted by Ithaca City of Asylum, is currently a Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College. She was the editor-in-chief of the Sri Lankan newspaper The Morning Leader, but left after being threatened by the government.

Samarasinghe said she found Ithaca to be “exquisite and charming.”

“I love the restaurants and bakeries. … I can take my dog for a walk in the beautiful parks and, of course, the gorges,” she said. “Ithaca has that enchanting college town feel without the pomposity and arrogance.”

Samarasinghe’s life in America did not start in Ithaca, however. She found it very difficult to find work in the U.S., and though she was able to find fellowships at Harvard University and the City University of New York, those were only temporary positions.

According to Samarasinghe, she was contacted by ICOA just when she needed help the most.

“When the ICOA offered me this position, I had already been out of work for nearly a year, living in a basement and in dire straights,” she said.

Since coming to Ithaca in 2012, Samarasinghe has worked at Ithaca College, which she says has been “a wonderful opportunity.”

Adjusting to American culture was difficult, she said. But she considers ICOA to be her “family in Ithaca.”

“Because of ICOA and its very sensitive and individualized approach to their writers, we have been able to easily integrate and make new friends and start life afresh,” Samarasinghe said. “It is really one of the hardest things to do –– to navigate a new culture, a different way of doing things –– even little things like a left hand drive car and driving on the right side of the road or having to ditch the metric system.”

ICOA, which is part of the Center for Transformative Action — an educational non-profit organization affiliated with Cornell — is a nonprofit that receives funding from various sources, including The Park Foundation.

Earlier this month, the organization announced it would be receiving a $10,000 grant from the Park Foundation.

“The Park Foundation gave us our very first seed grant,” said Bridget Meeds, chair of the ICOA board and a senior individual giving associate at the University. “They were our first supporter and our most loyal supporter.”

Meeds founded the organization in 2001 with Prof. Anne-Emmanuelle Berger, french literature.

Meeds said she got the idea when she saw a USA Today article about a city of asylum being started in Las Vegas.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea,’” she said. “If there were ever a great city for an exiled writer, it would be Ithaca.”

Writers are recommended to ICOA by the International City of Refuge Network, which vets them to make sure they are deserving of asylum, according to Samarasinghe.

Once a writer is selected and comes to Ithaca, ICOA serves as a support group for their professional and personal lives, according to its website.

“Ithaca City of Asylum provides housing assistance and provides friendly faces to help with starting over,” Meeds said. “We help them make professional connections in the Ithaca community and we’ve been known to even move furniture.”

Meeds said Samarasinghe’s term will be expiring this year, and ICOA is currently searching for a new writer to come in the spring.