Surrey is the first city in Canada to officially offer temporary safe haven to persecuted writers and artists from overseas. The city announced on Monday (Oct. 17) it has become a member of the Norway-based International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN).
“I am proud that we have been designated as Canada’s first City of Refuge for writers and artists who are persecuted, imprisoned or worse for expressing their thoughts or creative ideas,” said Mayor Linda Hepner. “Surrey has a long history of being an open and inclusive community. As we have opened our doors to Syrian refugees, this is another example of our city’s progressive approach to offering a safe haven to those fleeing oppression and persecution.”
Details of the project were formally announced during Surrey’s Creative City Summit. Project coordinator Liz Hughes said the official designation means Surrey will welcome a writer-at-risk to live in the city for two years with assistance from partners Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Simon Fraser University, the Surrey Public Library and PEN Canada.
ICORN cities of refuge have hosted more than 130 persecuted writers and artists since 2005, and residency offers a safe space to work on projects without the fear of government thugs or religious fanatics kicking down the door. Cities also assist with visa and residence permits, travel, accommodation, insurance and a monthly grant. A recent high-profile recipient is Bangladeshi writer and editor Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury (better known as Tutul), who last week was named the 2016 International Writer of Courage at the PEN Pinter Prize ceremony at the British Library.
Tutul, who survived an extremist attack in Bangladesh a year ago and arrived early this year as ICORN writer-in-residence in Skien, was selected by Margaret Atwood from a shortlist of international cases supported by PEN International, a worldwide association that promotes friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers.
“More than 100 applications from persecuted writers and artists reach our ICORN office each year,” said ICORN executive director Helge Lunde in a press release announcing the new partnership. “This high number reflects the sad fact that the conditions for those who dare to give voice to ideas and debate, those who challenge existing societal norms and concepts, has in no way improved in the world today. We are therefore delighted to have the first Canadian city, the City of Surrey, joining our network to host writers and artists at risk, and take concrete action to protect and promote human rights and freedom of expression.”
ICORN first began through the Cities of Asylum Network established in 1993 by the International Parliament of Writers in response to the assassination of writers in Algeria. At last count, more than 50 cities worldwide offered this kind of refuge. In North America, the only three are Pittsburgh, Mexico City and Ithaca, NY.
“In many countries, writers and artists are subject to censorship, harassment, imprisonment, bodily harm and death because of what they say and write,” said Anne Giardini, Chancellor of Simon Fraser University, author and former member of the PEN Canada board of directors. “As an ICORN member Surrey will offer long term, temporary shelter to those at risk as a direct consequence of their creative activities.”