What does the work of a refuge coordinator look like?

According to the agreement with ICORN, each refuge city has to designate a coordinator responsible for the project. What does this role entail? Jasmina Rihar, coordinator for Ljubljana City of Refuge, here answers that question and gives her personal perspective on the work of receiving and being responsible for a persecuted and threatened writer. 

March 10 2016 Text: Jasmina Rihar

Often, when asked what I do, I get eyes in form of question marks peering at me. The coordinator of ICORN in Slovenian language represents quite a mouth braking series of words. Try to read: koordinator mreže mest zatočišč za preganjane pisatelje. In addition, the word persecuted (preganjane) can be easily understood as persecuting (preganjanje) so many times I end up being the coordinator for persecuting writers! Going more into details, one could also define the role of a coordinator as: taxi driver, counsellor, tourist guide, secretary, baby sitter, PR, translator, literary tour manager, organizer of events, moderator … and I must be missing oh so many. Of course you perform some better some worse and then also seek for help. But if you think for a second … we are all so many things to our closest friends in our everyday lives as well, so basically we could say that the main role and goal of an ICORN coordinator is to simply be as human as possible, to share and give what one has been given to the other.

The arrival of an artist, a writer, a journalist with usually a complete different cultural background and the fact that he or she doesn't just stay for the time of a festival makes you realize how little you know about your own community. So you learn for example that the president of the African centre in Slovenia is an Ethiopian or that Ljubljana is the base of the Slovenian International Ladies’ Association SILA, that there is an active Arab club etc. On the other hand the Slovenian public was perhaps for the first time able to hear and read about writers like Abe Gubegna, Bealu Girma, Solomon Deressa or listen to the exquisite music of Tsegue Maryam Guebrou.

But all is not roses and sometimes a coordinator may find himself in a crossfire. It happened that a guest writer criticised the way a part of the Slovenian writers’ community wanted to deal with presumed defamation of some writers in a local journal. He thought seeking cover from the wider international writers’ community would only represent a danger to freedom of speech since this would apply some kind of pressure on Slovenian readers and journalists and make an appearance that some writers were consecrated and it was not allowed to write in a certain way about them. The guest writer fully agreed that some press in many regimes was specialised to use defamation as a way to discredit and denigrate and that it is possible to find residues of those practices even in older democracies but that if you wanted to defend freedom of expression you had to stick to professional ethics journalists are bound to and use corresponding tools: the right to reply, legal action, mediation etc. Because he “dared” to speak his mind, because he “dared” to be outspoken on some other subjects, our guest writer was accused of having betrayed the writers’ community that so generously hosted him. It was a stab in the back, nothing less.

If we observe this case from a neutral stand, it is interesting to see what induces such course of events. Persecuted writers are dissidents in their closed (mostly Islamic) societies and they cannot identify with their often theocratic regimes. This necessarily puts them on the liberal or left wing side of the political area as understood in Europe. This is totally logical if we bear in mind the hermetic societies they are coming from. The good thing is they know how to be constructively critical and they have proven it for their beliefs are not only a pose that we often find in the western world but represents a big, sometimes a life risk. They have therefore a heightened sense for freedom of expression and a clearer idea of how to defend and promote it. Perhaps in some older democracies freedom of speech is almost as taken for granted but in a transition country such as Slovenia it is quite clear the break with the totalitarian ideas was not efficient enough. So after twenty-five years of democracy we have witnessed a political process that was stopped only by the Constitutional court after the injured party has already served time in prison. That such a thing can happen in the middle of Europe shows our society is still not free from the mentality of the old regime. This is the reason why some parallels can be drawn even with societies that developed outside the European tradition and the described misunderstanding unfortunately confirms it. Here lies, I believe, a deeper chance for our societies and a deeper reason why to host persecuted writers. Their angles and manners are in general so different and free of our unvarying patterns they forcibly awake us from drowse or stagnation and call for betterment. On the other hand, they highlight the values the European civilisation sculptured and fought for over centuries. The same goes for conditions that make Europe an attractive and safe place: they were not created overnight.

Still in this context one can face disappointments. From more than thirty personal invitations to journalists of different media not one showed up to a debate with the two persecuted independent fellow journalists. Not one. Not to mention that despite various offers the Slovenian national television didn't care to ask the Moroccan journalists their opinion about the Arab spring even though the events were just taking place. No. My phone rang incessantly only after 7th of January 2015. After Zineb had long left Ljubljana to work with Charlie Hebdo, the media recalled she had stayed here and desperately looked for her to give a statement. This logic can be compared to a bad joke we say about repairing of roads and streets that are in very bad condition: »First, somebody will have to die on this dangerous section, than they will come and fix it«. Many times it is exactly what happens. While writing this I am thinking to myself that my PR is apparently insufficient. I should work harder on this point.

As for the rose, during the ICORN General Assembly held in May 2014 in Ljubljana the Mladinsko, the Glej and the Puppet Theatre showed great openness and fruitful collaborations throughout the meeting. The biannual assembly and the biannual network meetings are also a priceless resource for coordinators and writers and as the years go they are becoming better and better. A rich platform for exchanging ideas and experiences in debates that respect differences in an amical atmosphere and where free expression can be de facto exercised. While in some ways the European thought may be self-sufficient and somehow clothed in the complex of superiority, sometimes it wanders into the circles where it is hardly justified. Slovenia can be counted in such a circle and so ICORN is preciously broadening and enriching our society. The coordinators are granted the noble and important task to make their voices heard.