City of Asylum: Meet the New Neighbors

Creative, quirky and caring, Pittsburgh’s Sampsonia Way is also the international Main Street for the City of Asylum program for writers, making sure the pen stays mightier than the sword.

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duarte portrait

Silvia Duarte, originally from Guatemala and now managing editor of Sampsonia Way magazine, in front of one of the City of Asylum homes.

Photo by Martha Rial   

The Urban Homestead

Reese and Samuels’ purchase of a half-dozen small buildings and similar investment by the Mattress Factory and its founder, Barbara Luderowski, had a ripple effect during the past several decades.

The trio—the imperious museum head; the slender, outgoing artist; and the bow-tied Reese—had no master plan. “It was classic bricolage,” says Reese, using an artist’s term for creations that use materials at hand. But as new residents put down roots, crime has been reduced by nearly 50 percent during the past few years.

“This neighborhood has diversity—of all kinds, especially artistically,” says Shallary Boss, who has operated nearby Buena Vista Coffee with her husband, Brent, for the past 15 months. “It’s not unusual to have folks from five different countries sitting in here at once.”

For Khet Mar, imprisoned by the repressive Myanmar regime as a young student, Buena Vista has become a safe place to portray the realities of Burmese life as well as her current situation. “I tell my story over and over. I can’t cry anymore,” she says calmly.

After a childhood in the small fishing village of Maletto, Khet Mar joined student protests at Rangoon (now Yangon) University as the military regime of dictator Tham Shwe tightened its grip on the country. Arrested in 1991, she was incarcerated and tortured.

“I had many fears,” she explains. “I was afraid of [becoming] HIV-positive. In the winter we slept on a concrete floor, and most of the prisoners got sick. A nurse came every day to inject us with medicine, but she used the same needle for all the prisoners.”

Released a year later, Khet Mar continued to write fiction but came under near-constant surveillance. “[There were] police every day—at the hostel, on the bus, at the tea shop,” she says now. Her work was censored. A fellowship at the University of Iowa in 2007 gave her a glimpse of another path. In March 2009, after a 55-hour journey, she and her family arrived in Pittsburgh.

Now enrolled in Pittsburgh schools, her sons “correct my English pronunciation,” she says, and they are quickly gaining friends and learning new skills like basketball. While she admits that the adjustment takes time, she has dipped into American culture, occasionally enjoying TV shows like “America’s Got Talent.”

A Safe Haven

Thirty years ago, Reese and Samuels were the newcomers here, among urban homesteaders buying run-down, city-owned properties.

“It was a community, not a homogenous neighborhood,” Reese recalls of those years.

From Luderowksi, the couple bought a former warehouse for parade floats, which didn’t have running water when they moved in. But during the next decade, they renovated the space and the adjoining rowhouse as living quarters and a studio space for Carnegie Mellon University-trained Samuels, whose meticulous three-dimensional work has been shown and commissioned widely in the United States and Europe.

In 1997, the couple attended a Pittsburgh lecture by novelist Salman Rushdie about threats to writers. “We nudged each other,” Samuels recalls. Why not create a safe house for international authors in Pittsburgh?

By that time, the couple owned a rental property that they fixed up along with several abandoned buildings awaiting rehab in the alley.

Reese, a successful telemarketing executive, arranged for artists’ stipends and health insurance. The couple reached out to European asylum programs but heard no response until early 2004 when American novelist Russell Banks sent them an e-mail. Banks, who was chairman of Cities of Refuge North America at the time, invited the couple to become part of an informal U.S. network identifying writers in danger and doling out potential two-year placements.

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