I am impressed by people’s courage: An interview with Elisabeth Dyvik

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ICORN is an organization that provides residencies for writers and artists who can no longer express themselves freely in the countries where they want to live and work. Many who approach us have already had to leave, or are in hiding.  Some are still working at home, but under considerable pressure.


Elisabeth Dyvik has been the Programme Director for ICORN since 2007. She faces almost-daily challenges in safeguarding and protecting writers, artists, and journalists from the dangers they face in their respective countries. Her observations on recent political and humanitarian crises have a unique perspective. Moreover, she has had the chance to see the new lives and works of the writers, artists, and journalists who have been fortunate to get to safety through the help of ICORN. Keeping these points in mind, I had the opportunity to ask her some questions, to which Elisabeth sincerely and candidly replied. However, she had to refrain from answering certain questions, just as I had to refrain from asking others due to my active involvement with sensitive issues. Nonetheless, we hope that this brief interview will be helpful in opening the door for more fruitful discussions in the future. Elisabeth Dyvik has experience working in the areas of international relations, culture, and free speech. She has also served as the Head of Newsroom Research and Archives at the Norwegian national daily, Dagbladet for many years. Elisabeth completed her higher education at the University of Bergen, the University of Uppsala, and the University of Tromsø. – Editor

Shuddhashar: As a human rights defender and as a professional, what types of challenges do you usually face to provide support to those who had to flee from their land?

Elisabeth: ICORN is an organisation that provides residencies for writers and artists who can no longer express themselves freely in the countries where they want to live and work. Many who approach us have already had to leave, or are in hiding.  Some are still working at home, but under considerable pressure.

So the first challenge is often time.  We have to find out how urgent it is to find a solution, and what is the risk if the person stays where s/he is?  There is sometimes a gap between the perceived risk, or fear, and the real risk.  Some people who get in touch with us are very confident, and able to manage the risk and the fear they face well. They might even under-communicate the risks or threats.  Others have had terrible experiences and want to leave as quickly as possible. If we cannot help them as fast as we want to, we try to help them to manage the risk, and the fear, and stay as safe as they can where they are. As I sit in my office, in a safe place, I also have to try to manage my own fear, the fear that we won’t get people out in time.

Then there are a lot of practical issues that might be a challenge.  Like finding money for travel, or for living costs. Another practical issue is everything related to border crossings. Can they get a visa to a safe place? Where can they travel without a visa?  How can we get a residency permit so s/he can stay safe for more than just a few weeks? What if the person don’t have a valid passport?  What about their family members? Do they also need support? At the same time I have to say that most of those who approach us are amazing and very creative in the way they are able to get from one place to another, bur often at great risk.

The last challenge I would like to mention is to find a good place that can host each individual that need a safe place to work.  We spend a lot of resources recruiting new ICORN cities and residencies.  We would like to assist each host community in preparing as well as possible for the next resident so each one find it easier to pick up their work where they had to leave when they left home.  This could always be improved, I think.

Shuddhashar: You meet numbers of creative people from different parts of the world; listen to numbers of stories about sufferings, oppressions and sorrows. What types of reactions or feelings do they create on you?

Elisabeth: First of all, I am extremely impressed by people’s courage and willingness to work to improve the situation in their home countries and communities, and it is quite humbling to hear these stories and get to know each one. It often makes me wonder how I would have reacted if I had experienced the same?  It also makes me angry and leaves a deep sense of injustice.  None of them has done anything that I consider a crime; still they are so harshly punished and sometimes even fear for their lives.  In the long run, though, I strongly believe that it is their persecutors who really lose out.  By threatening and harassing writers, journalists and artist they are missing so many new ideas, ideas that could lead to positive development in their countries.  They are also missing the inspiration and beauty that artists and writers create. It’s such a waste for many countries that really need change.  But it is a privilege for me to see and experience what many still manage to do when they can work in the safety of an ICORN residency.  Still, it really would have been even better if they could be closer to their primary audience.

Shuddhashar: How much do the rehabilitated people can continue their creative work, you think? Do you have any assistance program to help them to continue their creative work? What is your assessment and observation about the ultimate destiny of refugee writers and artists?

Elisabeth: ICORN residents are individuals who live in very different places in the world.  Their needs, traditional ways of working, and resources are often very different. And most of the assistance happens locally in the host city.  Still they are all, as I have seen it, united by a longing and a wish to go back to, or at least reach, their communities, primarily to improve the conditions for their country and their people. Absolutely most see themselves not as refugees, but as ‘temporary relocated’.  They develop strategies to reach their main target audiences at home, be it through the internet, radio, or other means. Moreover, they do this on an international level.  I think the ICORN network could be better at tapping into this knowledge and learn from each other.  We encourage all residents to meet at our network meetings and share ideas, tactics and practises. The experiences of a radio journalist from Ethiopia who knows how to reach his home audience from Sweden, could surely be useful for an Iraqi journalist trying to reach his home audience?  Another good example is this magazine, Shuddhashar; both the way it is created and how it is published.

I do not think it is useful to talk about an ‘ultimate destiny’ of anyone who is still alive.  Life does not stop because you have had to move against your will, or because you have suffered great loss.  It is full of changes, although some take a long time.  It is difficult for many to live in exile, especially if it looks like there is no way to return.  In the longer perspective, we see refugees and exiles from old conflicts who have eventually returned, maybe after ten or twenty years.  I think it is important, although I know this is maybe the most difficult thing, to try not to be stuck in an emotional in-between, spending a lot of time and energy longing for the lost, and as a result being stuck a bit on the outside of the place one is currently living.  The goal must be to find that what you are doing is meaningful, wherever you are.  I do not think there is any easy way to do this, but I hope the ICORN residency can help.

Shuddhashar: Nowadays, we are experiencing an international form of Islamic extremism almost everywhere. They are trying to Islamize everything through terror. What is your observation about this? Specifically about Bangladesh, which is for the first time experiencing challenges of internationally connected terrorism?

Elisabeth: This is another difficult question, and what I am about to say is my personal view, not the view of ICORN.  First, I would like to say that I mourn for the many who die at the hands of these violent extremists, and I feel for those who are maimed or left without their loved ones.  It is so totally meaningless.

Then I think violent extremism has always been there, and so has violence justified in religion. I do not think religion is the root cause of the violence, nor of the extremism.  Religion is often a pretext; it could just as well be ethnic violence, or political extremism.  I also believe violence of extreme groups do not happen in a vacuum.  There was a culture of violence in Syria before the rise of IS, executed by the state.  In Bangladesh, you also had state supported violence, manifested in groups like the RAB.  The aim of the state should always be to minimise the use of violence in society.  I have no good ideas on how to stop the violence except to exercise and enforce the rule of law.  In my view, terror should be considered a crime as other crimes.  A murder is a murder.  In the long term, I am more worried about political changes that limit people’s freedom.  If you have a robust society, with law enforcement, that honours human rights, the terrorists will never win.  However, if you have politicians and rulers who abuse their powers, who neglect rights and use violence to suppress their people, then I am afraid we lose.

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