Commentary: Writers in exile find welcoming support in Chicago

by Lara Weber For a writer in exile, the setting couldn't have been more welcoming: a stately mansion overlooking Lake Michigan on the campus of Loyola University. A sunny, freakishly warm February afternoon. And a gathering of a several dozen people, eager to offer support and refuge to the two guests of honor: Syrian writer Osama Alomar and Nigerian writer Unoma Azuah. The crowd was assembled in the drawing room of the nearly century-old Piper Hall for the launch of a new Chicago City of Refuge initiative for exiled writers — a collaboration of the International Cities of Refuge Network; PEN International, an association of writers; the Chicago Network for Justice and Peace; and the Guild Literary Complex. Alomar and Azuah each read from their published works, discussed the events that pulled them away from their homelands and took questions from an audience keen to know how the Trump administration's efforts to curb immigration were affecting their lives. They weren't, directly — each writer had become a U.S. citizen in recent years — and, although they expressed wariness about President Donald Trump's worldview, they chose to focus that day on the oppression their friends and family still experience in Nigeria and Syria. As a lesbian, Azuah was ostracized in Nigeria, where there is no legal protection for homosexuals and violence against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people is common. She came to the United States for graduate school and lived in several American cities before settling in Chicago. Alomar was born and raised in Syria, where he began his writing career. He writes in Arabic but teamed up with his translator, C.J. Collins, whom he met in Damascus years before the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011. Alomar moved to the U.S. to pursue new writing opportunities, and started driving a taxi in Chicago to pay his bills. While Alomar drove his cab around, Collins worked through the English translations of Alomar's "very short stories" from the front passenger seat, in between fares. After about nine years in Chicago, Alomar says he is homesick for Syria. But instead of going home, where war wages on, he is settling in Pittsburgh for a year, where a residency through the Pittsburgh City of Asylum program will provide housing and financial support so that he can focus on building his writing career in the U.S. Chicago's City of Refuge initiative might eventually offer such residencies, but Nick Patricca, a professor emeritus at Loyola and one of the initiative's founders, said that for now the group has launched with modest ambitions. Presently, it is supporting writers who have relocated to Chicago on their own by promoting their work and helping them develop connections within the arts community. -- Lara Weber is a member of the Tribune Editorial Board. Read Unoma Azuah’s "An ode to Chicago: My city of refuge." Read Osama Alomar’s very short stories: Copyright © 2017, Chicago Tribune PRINT EDITION FRIDAY 03 MARCH 2017 Please contact Nick Patricca for additional information on Chicago City of Refuge initiative