A celebration for the Chicago City of Refuge project for exiled writers was held at Loyola University Chicago, Lake Shore Campus' Piper Hall on Feb. 19.
The project is a collaboration between the International Cities of Refuge Network ( ICORN ) and PEN International, the Chicago Network for Justice and Peace and the Guild Literary Complex. Its purpose is to assist exiled writers, unable to express themselves in their homelands, with developing and promoting their works, establishing and fostering connections with other writers and artists and contributing to the cultural life of various institutions and organizations within Chicago.
The launch celebration featured readings from Unoma Azuah, in exile from Nigeria because of her writings on sexuality and freedom for women, and Osama Alomar, in exile from Syria because of his writings on human rights and dignity and his work for freedom of expression. Both read passages from their own works at the event. Riad Ismat, a Syrian playwright, short story and screenplay writer, critic, theater director and diplomat also spoke to highlight his work that will be performed for the Chicago City of Refuge project.
Azuah, who identifies as a lesbian, teaches writing at the Illinois Institute of Art. At the event, she read from her recently completed book, titled Blessed Body: Secret Lives of LGBT Nigerians. In a statement to Windy City Times, she said that the LGBT community is demonized, particularly in Nigeria, and it is necessary to find an outlet and voice that opposes the impression that LGBT people have nothing positive to offer.
"Most of the narratives in Nigeria about LGBT are always negative and incidentally, Blessed Body happens to be the first LGBT true life stories to come out of Nigeria and that's very affirming for us as a community in Nigeria," said Azuah. "I feel that gradually from text we may move onto visual representation to illustrate our lives, the way it is exactly, instead of the propaganda they use in Nigeria to demonize us. So, it's important that I share my story and I share the stories of my transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay family in Nigeria."
"It breaks my heart because any writer or artists always loves to share his work with an audience," said Alomar, unpublished in Syria, but has his short story collection Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories being published in April 2017. "The American audience has encouraged me a lot and I'm so happy for that."
Loyola University Chicago's Ann Ida Gannon Center for Women and Leadership sponsored the event.
"It's more important today, than it has been even before January, to hold an event where we celebrate how the arts are liberating and how an environment, like the Chicago environment, in which people are free to create, free to critique and free to dialogue, fosters an environment of stimulation and free expression and we think that free expression is the seedbed of democracy," said Janet Sisler director of the Gannon Center.
"We see a mutually beneficial situation between our [American] writers and the exiled writers who come here to live," said Nick Patricca, president of the Chicago Network for Justice of writers contributing to each other by sharing experiences. "We see this is not an alien thing, this is not foreigners, this is a universal process."
To learn more about the writers and Chicago City of Refuge project, visit www.facebook.com/ChicagoCityofRefuge/.