Friday, October 1, 2010

City of Asylum/Pittsburgh Program for Exiled Writers and Artists Featured on PBS "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer"

The City of Asylum/Pittsburgh program, which provides safe haven to exiled writers and artists on the city's North Side, was featured on the PBS "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on Sept. 30.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: a safe haven for writers in danger.
You don't hear Burmese too much in Pittsburgh, and certainly not Burmese poetry. But, on a recent night, the writer Khet Mar read a poem about seeking shelter in this city, after being persecuted in her native country.
KHET MAR, poet (through translator): Life takes place amid blooming flowers. Thank you very much.
(APPLAUSE)
JEFFREY BROWN: Khet Mar was one of several writers who performed at an annual jazz and poetry celebration for an organization known as City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, which provides writers two years of free living here and a chance at a new life.
KHET MAR: I wrote some political poems with my friends, and we distributed those poems in the crowd. That made me in the jail.
(LAUGHTER)
JEFFREY BROWN: In jail.
KHET MAR: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Khet Mar was a writer, teacher and social worker in Burma in the late 1980s and '90s, when university students, workers and monks first took to the streets to protest the country's repressive military regime.
KHET MAR: Generals in my country don't want people know the real situation. For example, they don't want people know we are -- Burmese people are poor and very, very bad conditions.
JEFFREY BROWN: Much of her writing told of the plight of poor villagers. In one instance, she wrote of an uncle who was forced to work in a labor camp because he couldn't pay a government tax.
KHET MAR: He couldn't pay money. So, he went there and working in the very hot weather, and he died.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, you wrote a story about this?
KHET MAR: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, that becomes a political...
KHET MAR: Yes. Yes. I think I'm writing social issues, but, in Burma, social issues are political issues as well.
JEFFREY BROWN: Because of her work and writing, Khet Mar spent a year in prison and faced regular censorship.
When fellow writers were jailed during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, she sought help from human rights organizations which work with the Pittsburgh asylum program. She moved here with her family 18 months ago. In addition to rent-free housing, she's provided with a $30,000 annual stipend and health insurance.
It's not amnesty in the legal sense, but, for Khet Mar, it's given her safety and freedom she didn't have in Burma. Her artist husband, Than Htay Maung, captured that in a mural he painted on their home, life in Burma on one side, in Pittsburgh on the other.
HENRY REESE, city of Asylum/Pittsburgh: I feel we offer them to a safe place to do what they need to do unencumbered.
JEFFREY BROWN: Next door to Khet Mar is the home of businessman Henry Reese. Thirteen years ago, he heard about the European-based City of Asylum program and decided to start a Pittsburgh branch. He used townhouses he already owned on his block and raised money from foundations and local donors.
HENRY REESE: This was a way that a small community could actually stand up and protect something that we all feel is important, bring that person into our community, and maintain that dialogue within our community in both directions.
We learn from the writers and benefit from it every bit as much as, I would say, initially they benefit from us just by being protected.

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