Tuhin Das was put on a hit list in 2015. He became the target of a militant fundamentalist group that murders writers, activists, bloggers, and publishers. Fearing for his life, Das escaped his home country of Bangladesh.
A blogger and poet, Das found sanctuary at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, an organization on the North Side that provides residence to exiled and endangered writers.
“The mission is to bring people together under the umbrella of promoting and supporting freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” says Karla Lamb, Senior Project Manager at City of Asylum.
The organization Reporters Without Borders reports that approximately 1,035 professional journalists and writers were killed globally between 2003 and 2017, and more than 60 have been killed since January 2018. The recent death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi highlights the risks writers face when they criticize authoritarian governments.
City of Asylum recognizes this risk and in turn has dedicated its entire organization to promoting inclusivity, freedom of speech, and a safe space where writers can express themselves creatively without fear of persecution.
Das was forced to go into hiding after learning that his name was put on a hit list in 2015 for content that he published in his home country of Bangladesh. He went to the police for help, but instead of protecting him, they collected and examined his writings for anti-Islamist statements. He left his country in April 2016.
“It was not my choice to leave, I was forced. They’ve killed more than 50 people who have different views. Like LGBTQ activists, like publishers, secular writers, and artists. I don’t think I can ever go back home,” Das said.
Das found out about residency opportunities from one of his writer friends who was able to find residency in Sweden but was unexpectedly gunned down in the middle of the street before he was able to leave the country. After his friend’s tragic death, Das connected with the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), an independent international organization of cities and regions that offer safe havens for writers and artists at risk. Das applied for a residency through ICORN and his application was then forwarded to City of Asylum.
“I am now part of an art community with writers like me. I like that City of Asylum is a space that is working for human rights and who are sending a message to the world. It is very important to me to be a part of that,” Das said.
Like Das, Osama Alomar was forced to flee his home country. He left Damascus, Syria and immigrated to America after his short-story, The Boot, led Syrian intelligence officials to contact Alomar’s publisher, asking of his whereabouts.
“I was so scared. I did my best to avoid all public places. I used to go to the café almost every day so, I stayed home,” says Alomar. “Luckily at the time I had my American Visa because people in Syria can disappear with the snap of a finger.”
Alomar found sanctuary with City of Asylum in February 2017 when he became its newest writer-in-residence. Alomar met co-founder and president of City of Asylum Ralph Henry Reese at PEN American Center, a nonprofit organization located in New York City that works to defend and celebrate free expression in the United States and worldwide through the advancement of literature and human rights. Alomar accepted an invitation by Reese to do a reading of his work at City of Asylum. Alomar then applied for residency with City of Asylum and was accepted for a two-year residency. He is currently working on a new novel that takes place during Syria’s ongoing civil war.
“Now I feel much more secure. I’m describing everything in my novel about Syria without any censorship,” Alomar said.
Alomar and Das currently live in the City of Asylum’s residences on Sampsonia Way in the North Side. According to Lamb, City of Asylum offers all of their writers up to two years of free residency as well as the opportunity for short-term residency that could last a few days or a few weeks. City of Asylum’s past and current writers are able to design the outside of their houses—another way they display their newfound freedom to speak and create without fear.
“Each house has its own story, its own legacy, its own mural. If you’re walking down Sampsonia Way, you can read the houses. It’s like a walking library,” Lamb says. “You see Chinese, you see Burmese, you see [musical] notes. You walk down this alley way, which is sort of arbitrary, and feel like you’re taken somewhere else or that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.”
Another goal of City of Asylum is to help the writer’s gain independence so that when their residency expires, they are ready to live on their own.
“I take them to the doctor, I take them to the dentist, and I take them to the different events that they do. It’s great to see Tuhin in the office because he does accounting work for us too,” Lamb stated.
City of Asylum is currently looking to provide residency for an exiled, female writer in hopes of giving them safety and a place where their voice is no longer silenced.
This is the first of an ongoing series of stories produced for Pittsburgh City Paper by Point Park University students, under the direction of Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media