In June 2007 Norwich became the UK’s first City of Refuge, thereby signalling its commitment to free speech and anti-racism. Norwich is now joined to a network of cities around the world through ICORN (the International Cities of Refuge Network). All the cities have signed up to offer residency to politically exiled writers and promote tolerance and understanding in their home communities.
How Did It All Start?
In an oppressive regime, writers are often amongst the first to be persecuted. The concept of a ‘City of Refuge’ is based on the Cities of Asylum that were founded by the International Parliament of Writers in 1993. Established by Salman Rushdie, Vaclav Havel, Margaret Drabble and Jacques Derrida among others, the parliament was created in response to the assassination of writers in Algeria. The International Parliament of Writers has since dissolved, but the scheme was left intact and has developed in over 30 cities across the world, including Stavanger where the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) is based.
What Do We Do?
“I learnt that refugees shouldn't be given a hard time in their new country, as they've probably had a hard enough time.” Esther, aged 13, Notre Dame High School
Writers’ Centre Norwich (formerly New Writing Partnership) has been promoting the City of Refuge aims through a community programme since 2006. Given that we are a literature development organisation, we naturally started out using the medium of creative writing and later on, other creative arts. Our work in schools, libraries, arts venues and community centres gets students and the wider community thinking about the ideas of home and belonging, and what it may feel like to be exiled:
• The ‘Strangers and Canaries’ schools project pairs exiled and refugee writers with local professional writers in Norfolk schools and youth groups. The students learn about refugees and asylum seekers through creative writing workshops initiated through the topic of the ‘Strangers’ of Norfolk.
• The Shahrazad Letters to Europe Project is a European brings together six of the ICORN cities. Writers across the world have been commissioned to write ‘Letters to Europe’ expressing their feelings on the identity and future of Europe, including how Europe is perceived by refugees and asylum seekers. School children have been responding to these letters by writing their own letters to Europe. Some of these letters have then been made into films (in partnership with BBC Voices).
• Many different members of the community have had the opportunity to create digital films on stories relating to topics like ‘home’ and ‘identity’.
• Each year we take part in and programme various Refugee Week events in Norwich in June, celebrating the contribution of refugees to the UK.
• We have trained journalists in the sensitivities and complexities of refugee and asylum seeker coverage, looking at the legal terminology and at how these stories are often misrepresented in the press.
A Place of Safety
We hosted our first exiled Writer in Residence in 2008. Jiao Guobiao from China arrived in Norwich in February 2008, and was given a place to stay, time to write, and the opportunity to tell his story at various events around the UK. We hope to host another exiled writer soon.
Norwich City of Refuge and Shahrazad
We are also part of the Shahrazad project, which is an offshoot ICORN project. The aim of Shahrazad is to open up a free space in Europe for writers from all over the world to connect and release their stories. These will be created, told and disseminated by poets, journalists, novelists, editors, cartoonists, translators and essayists who are persecuted and silenced in their own homelands. Human rights, free speech, diversity and solidarity are core values within the project. For more details on Shahrazad see http://www.shahrazadeu.org/
If you would like to get involved with any part of the City of Refuge programme, we are always open to volunteers. Contact info(at)writerscentrenorwich.org.uk
Norwich City of Refuge is supported by The Urban Cultural Fund, the University of East Anglia, PEN UK, The Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Anguish's Educational Trust.