Protecting Freedom of Expression: Interview with ICORN’s Helge Lunde

by    /  August 19, 2010  / 1 Comment

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Since 2005, the International Cities of Refugee Network has been aiding writers in danger by providing them with safe places to live and material support. ICORN is an association of cities around the world who share a common mission: to preserve freedom of expression and to respond to politically motivated threats and persecution writers face in their home countries.

Sampsonia Way is pleased to present a series of interviews with writers from all over the world who have participated in ICORN. By way of introduction we present this interview with ICORN Executive Director, Helge Lunde. Here he tells the story of ICORN’s founding, how it has provided support for persecuted writers, and what inspires him to do this work.

What inspired the formation of ICORN and how did the organization come about?

The idea to create a network of cities to shelter writers in danger came out of the International Parliament of Writers (IPW). IPW was established in 1993 at the initiative of Salmon Rushdie. It was, in part, in response to a series of assassinations of Algerian writers. Starting in 1995, they began recruiting cities to join their International Network of Cities of Asylum (INCA). I think Barcelona was the first INCA member city, while my city, Stavanger, Norway, joined in 1996. Soon lots of other cities followed, and the network also spread to the United States.

Around 2000, IPW and INCA were struggling with considerable administrative challenges. In 2004 the IPW ceased to exist, and in 2005 INCA was formally disbanded.

The remaining question for all the cities and organizations involved was of course: Does the collapse of INCA mean that any organized work of this kind is in vain, or shall we join forces, learn from the failures and successes of the past, and start anew? Luckily the latter alternative was chosen, and I think we can already claim that it was the right choice to make.

The ICORN Administration center was established in Stavanger in December 2005.

What made you want to become involved in ICORN? Were you surprised by anything you learned or encountered?

I personally started to work with Stavanger City of Refuge in 1998, and soon learned that there was a big need for safe havens for persecuted writers.  Subsequently, I learned that there was a lot to gain for the cities and organizations willing to join the movement and become cities of refuge/asylum. . On a municipal level, simply having the status  reminds the city and its inhabitants of important values. The writers’ contribution to the city is, of course, a vital part as well.

I was inspired to engage fully in this work and help make ICORN happened just because I got to know Stavanger’s guest writer, Mansur Rajih from Yemen. Like many of the other writers, he struggled with the brutal process of being separated from what he has regarded as his home. But I learned a lot from him.

During the first years of ICORN, I learned that you have to do at least two things at the same time. Of course, the first thing is to bring as many threatened voices into safe havens as fast as possible. But at the same time, you have to make sure foundations are laid for long-term development of the writers hosted. In 1998, Rajih became a writer in refuge, and now, in 2010, his work is really blossoming.

It is a great dilemma knowing that the writer shall have a life also after the two-year stay in a city of refuge. Should you encourage the writer to just lay back, relax, and enjoy the new (and very well-deserved) free life, or should you from day one remind him or her about preparing for all the challenges that will follow after? No easy answers here, but this is what a network like ICORN is for: Sharing thoughts, ideas, experiences between writers, coordinators, and the engaged communities.

What are some of the challenges you face in working with these writers and helping them leave their home countries?

We face lots of challenges, borders, and boundaries when trying to get writers out of danger zones and into an ICORN safe haven. Sometimes oppressive regimes gladly let their critics go, but many times writers have to take great risks to escape.

As you can imagine, one of our most pressing challenges is to make sure the ICORN cities are ready so they can accommodate the extreme emergency needs of writers, but then also create long-term sustainable solutions for those writers.

As you said one of the aspects of ICORN’s mission is to promote the work of ICORN writers. What are some of the ways your organization is doing that?

Some of our guest writers continue to face threats after reaching their host city and hence choose (with good reasons!) to keep out of the public sphere, at least for a while. However, most of the ICORN writers are interested in using their new safe havens to communicate what is on their hearts and minds. In 2007, six ICORN cities (Barcelona, Brussels, Frankfurt, Norwich, Stavanger, and Stockholm) joined together to create Shahrazad Stories for Life, a website and project to promote the voices of all ICORN writers. It will run until the end of 2012 and has received support from the European Union.

What stuns me the most as I follow ICORN’s development is the willingness among our 31 member cities to share ideas, experiences, and resources. And allow me to say, we have for a long time been impressed by the promotional work City of Asylum/ Pittsburgh has been doing, and look forward to lots of cooperation in the future.

ICORN is dedicated to the protection of freedoms of expression. Do you place any limits on or have any caveats to that?

ICORN works very closely with International PEN. Our charter and guidelines are very similar to those of PEN and other freedom of expression organizations like International Freedom of Expression eXchange, Index on Censorship, and Article 19.

Although we respect every human being’s right to express themselves freely, a writer primarily exercising hate speech, such as Holocaust deniers, will not be a favorite candidate to present to an ICORN member city for placement.

There are thousands of writers in danger all over the world. How do you choose which to support? How do you deal with making those hard choices?

This is indeed a tough question. If we only brought one writer out of hardship and persecution into a safe haven where she can write freely and prosper, it would be an achievement that would legitimize the entire setup of an origination like ICORN.

On the other hand, there are brutal choices and priorities to make because we would soon collapse if our goal was to help all persecuted writers. In close alliance with International PEN (and in cooperation with many other international organizations, and first and foremost our member cities), we are developing an application and placement process that I think is quite unique.

There must be a couple of individual ICORN writers whose stories you find particularly inspirational or highlight the successes of your organization. Would you be willing to share them?

The first writer I worked with was Mansur Rajih, whose story in many ways became formative for my engagement and destiny in ICORN. He escaped his outer prison in Yemen, but he also fought to break free from his inner prison for many years after arriving in our city of refuge. His story is still a source of impression and inspiration.

I also remember the first guest writer to the city of Tromsø, far up north in Norway. Easterine Kire Iralu from the Indian state of Nagaland (situated in the north east of India, near Burma). She would write a poem to every person she encountered. So when she arrived in Tromsø, she met 220 persons and published the same amount of poems. You can imagine, the publisher could count on at least 220 dedicated customers.

Stories like this are mounting up, as the network is expanding, and we need them, of course, as sources of inspiration for the enormous challenges ahead of us.

Read Elizabeth’s bio.

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