Cathrine 2, issue 10

Safety – and then what?

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“The most painful decision for me was to have to leave my country.” -Chenjerai Hove, 2015

Cathrine 1, issue 10

 Most people are survivors. We adapt and work within the limits of what can be said and done in the society we live in and know. But freedom to express ourselves is fundamental to us as human beings, and sometimes, we push and challenge the limits, the laws, norms and traditions within our given context. Lucky for me, where I come from, this right is protected and respected by national and international laws, policies and conventions.

The brave and amazing people I work with however, have all had to pay a high prize for exercising their basic human right to freedom of expression. In their capacities as journalists, writers and artists, they have stood up to repressive regimes, fundamental groups, individuals and atrocities, for the sake of change, for individual rights and better societies, for the sake of humanity, for the sake of art, history and life.

With words, pens, cameras, brushes and music instruments, they have produced beauty and promoted freedom in a world of conflict and suppression. They have reported on life and atrocities under dictatorships; they have testified ISIS’ occupation to the rest of the world; they have cartooned warlords and oppressors and advocated on behalf of detained and threatened colleagues; they have insisted on translating and publishing secular and free thinking writers in societies that are becoming more religious and hostile towards worldly ideas; they have highlighted violations of the rights of ethnic minorities and other groups in society, like women and LGBTQI; or made art and music in societies where this is seen as a sin in itself, regardless of form and content. For this, they have been censored, attacked, harassed, kidnapped and imprisoned, they occur on death lists, and attempts on their lives have been made on several occasions. They never stopped working.

However much harassment they have experienced, the decision to leave their home country was never on the top of the list. Leaving is most often the last resort.

Many organisations work in the field to help journalists, writers, artists, human rights defenders to keep up their work. My organisation is at the end of this lifeline/support net – we help when it becomes impossible to stay safe and continue to work.

Should I stay or should I go?

ICORN offers residencies to writers and artists who are not able to continue to work freely in their home countries or countries where they wish to work. Whereas most artist/writer residencies are short term and focus primarily on artistic/academic merit, the need for protection is an important factor in our programme. For many applicants to ICORN, the choice of staying or leaving is often a question of life and death, be it life and/or career.

The programme therefore provides writes and artists with a long-term residency period of up to two years – for rest and respite and continuation of work.

To plan for the future before arriving in the residency is difficult. Though we try to make a good match between ICORN cities and residents, it is neither completely up to us nor the writers and artists which country or city they will be invited to stay in. Balancing costs and benefits of leaving, processing the load of information about the residency framework, beyond the offer of safety and protection, can be overwhelming. Most have not had time to imagine what to expect from the host communities or how to continue living and working. And if they have, reality will most likely diverge much from their expectations.

Consciously or not, we make our choices based on analysis of risk and opportunity. We make security trade-offs all the time built on our knowledge and experiences, but also on hopes and expectations. Writers and artists who are invited in ICORN residencies don’t just move away from potential danger. They also move away from the familiar environment of their home countries, entailing not only geographical but also emotional distance.

Navigating the unfamiliar

With or without their family, a life starts anew in a city of refuge at the same time as it continues where it left off in Bahrain, Sudan, Burundi, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Vietnam, Egypt, Afghanistan, Russia, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, Iran, Libya, Ethiopia, Nigeria.

Most ICORN cities that offer residency to writers and artists are located far away from their country of origin. The residency offers new prospects, but also new challenges. Culture and traditions are different, systems, norms and rules of law new, the language is foreign, family, friends and professional networks are missing, and the readers and audiences are absent.

Sometimes, though in safety, these factors come to prevail over feelings of freedom and security only to leave a person in an indeterminate state of uncertainty, in loss of control, caught in a sort of Kafkaesque universe, struggling to understand how to navigate the unfamiliar setting. Little things that used to be easy at home, become complicated. Practical issues related to professional activities need to be resolved. When you just want to continue to work, you feel dependent on others on matters you were able to handle your self.

Safety vacuums

It is not hard to see that having lived in constant fear and persecution, being forcibly displaced, and losses caused by uprooting, might cause major impact on mental health. During the first months of the residency, there are many things happening, such as settling in, attention from media and the local community, starting language lessons. The adrenaline is still running. After a while, when things start to calm down, and a distance to previous experiences takes place, it is common that the worries start to emerge. Weare typically confronted with three recurring causes of psychological disruption among writers and artists in ICORN residencies:

 1: Worry about family, friends and colleagues back home. This includes guilt about leaving. Often perpetrators target families to disrupt and stop the work of writers and artists, opponents, even when in exile. This may cause stress and anxiety, feelings of guilt and helplessness, which can impact on relationships with others and the way you live your life.

2: Trauma. Most of the people we work with have experienced some form of trauma from living and working under harsh conditions in societies of fear and mistrust, of war and persecution.

3: Worry about post-residency period and how to keep on working. ICORN is not for life and many, understandably, spend a lot of time worrying about what happens after the two years residency. As many residents are not able to return to their home countries within the nearest future, we advise and encourage them to use the residency as a stepping stone to plan for the next phases of their life and career. There are many opportunities, but they differ from each city and country of residency. Sometimes another uprooting is necessary.


Carrying on – a normal reaction to an abnormal situation

Recent studies by the Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR) at the University of York, confirms the need of providing psycho-social support to human rights defenders (HRD). CAHR focuses primarily on support to HRD’s still working in the field. Though many of the writers and artists in ICORN residencies do not perceive themselves as HRDs, and have relocated, they still share many of the same motivations and challenges.

The study recognises HRD’s as being in a constant fight mode, and that the cause and work makes them carry on. The sense of safety and of slowing down that many find in a city of refuge, might be scary and disrupt the normal way of (re)acting. It creates an abnormal situation that is difficult to navigate. But the experience of stress and insecurity that this situation creates, is a normal reaction to distressing events, and needs to be addressed to overcome obstacles to a naturally occurring process of adjusting to a new situation.


ADAPTing a holistic approach to psychosocial support?

It is easy to lose control when all you know is gone and nothing is like before. It is not something unique to the writers and artists who take up residency in the ICORN cities. Various research projects focus not only on mental health issues of HRD’s and artists at risk, but also on the psychosocial conditions and well being of forced migrants and post conflict communities, and they are intrinsically connected. Strategies and collaborations are being set up to establish frameworks to address and accommodate appropriate responses to the needs of many people around the world.

One of our partners in Krakow is currently exploring what makes writers and artists in ICORN residencies able to keep on working. She bases her study on Derrick Silove’s ADAPT model, a conceptual framework for mental health and psychosocial programming in post conflict settings. Her research is still in the early stages, but Siloves ADAPT model offers some relevant clues for collective strategies and infrastructures of support for the hosting communities of the ICORN writers and artists.

I will leave the research to the professionals, but I just want to point out the five elements that Siloves ADAPT model postulates stable societies to be based on. These elements make out the core psychosocial pillars that need to be considered in the possible recovery of disrupted communities or individuals. They are: 1) Security/Safety; 2) Bonds/Networks; 3) Justice; 4) Roles and Identities and 5) Existential meaning.

Whereas safety and security are fundamental to the possibility of mending, without social support, relevant networks and environments that can instigate predictability and enforce the feeling of control of your own life, safety will not feel as a secure condition. According to ADAPT, restoring integrity of interpersonal bonds and wider social support can also be vital, and if possible, reunite previous networks. Restoring a sense of justice, dignity and respect is also essential, but I think Siloves point about laying the foundations for a sense of belonging, being useful and actively removing barriers to participation in the new environments, applies well to the situation of the writers and artists in residencies.


Creating spaces for well being and creativity

How to deal with the psychosocial challenges faced by writers and artists in ICORN residencies will ultimately rely on their own background, situation, needs and wishes. Though many are concerned about their well being, this topic is oftentimes related to stigma in certain communities and thought of as self-indulgent. But our many years experience working with writers and artists who need to leave to continue their work, have shown the importance of addressing these issues, but to approach them with different strategies.

Differences in cultural and personal background require diverse ways of approaching psychosocial issues in the host communities, where the writers and artists should find refuge and the motivation to continue their work. We need to develop knowledge, raise awareness and meet the challenges both on an organisational level and in the ICORN cities to be able to develop, recommend and set up appropriate mechanisms of support.


End note

No matter how relieved and happy we feel each and every time we receive news that an invited writer or artist has landed safely in a city of refuge, there is always a slightly bittersweet taste to it. We know that life will not be a bed of roses. No matter the danger they have fled, no matter the great news of their safety, they are still human beings that have to make a fresh start in a new place, often existing in between and never entirely as part of a community.

We are there to see them off to a good start. Together, the network of writers, artists, cities, partners, policy makers, local and international communities, we have a responsibility to our best abilities to lay the foundations for participation, for voices to be heard and messages to spread. To promote and keep up the values of freedom of expression, to always fight for life and a better world.

All this said, let us not forget the strength and resilience represented in the amazing work that writers and artists in ICORN residencies have done and are doing, and the impact they make, both in their new local environments, in their countries of origin and internationally. I admire and respect their courage and persistence. I have never met so many remarkable and warm people in my life as when we gather the whole network, the ICORN family, once a year in an ICORN city. Sometimes, in those moments, it feels a little bit like home.



  • University of York: Human Rights Defenders Hub Policy Brief 1: Wellbeing, Risk, and Human Rights Practice(2017)
  • University of York: Human Rights Defenders Hub Policy Brief4: Families and Loved Ones in the Security and Protection of Defenders at Risk
  • Derrick Silove: The ADAPT model: a conceptual framework for mental health and psychosocial programming in post-conflict settings
  • Anders Olsson: The strange place of exile writing(speech, 2016)




Cathrine Helland is Communication Manager at ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network ( where she has worked for the past 5 years. She holds an MSc in Communication and Arts History/Museology from Copenhagen and Roskilde University and has previously worked in the arts and educational sector, in institutions such as the National Gallery of Denmark and the IT University of Copenhagen.


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