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The Long Road To ‘Asylum City’: New Project Chronicles Plight Of Chicago Refugees

90 Days, 90 Voices is raising money so its journalists can spend the next year reporting on asylum seekers in Chicago.

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ROGERS PARK — A team of journalists will spend a year reporting on people seeking asylum in Chicago as they try to shine a light on what refugees experience when coming to the United States.

The stories will be part of a 90 Days, 90 Voices project called “Asylum City: Stories of Immigration and Sanctuary.” The project brings together the 90 Days, 90 Voices team — a group of Chicago journalists covering refugees — to tell the stories of people seeking asylum in the United States through a series of photo essays, stories and a graphic novel.

Among the journalists is Sarah Conway, who’s been focusing on the Kovler Center in Rogers Park. The Kovler Center helps survivors of state torture recover, and Conway will spend the next several months there, writing about the people who volunteer there, as well as those who seek treatment.

“Sometimes those are sad stories, but sometimes they’re also stories that are full of hope and dreams and things that people love. That’s a part of this project, as well,” said Conway, the editorial director and co-founder of 90 Days, 90 Voices. Conway is a Block Club Chicago contributor and Alex V. Herandez, a Block Club reporter, is also part of the 90 Days, 90 Voices team. 

The group is using a Kickstarter campaign to fund “Asylum City.” So far, it’s raised about $2,000 with a goal of gathering $10,000 by Nov. 15. The money will pay for the cost of reporting and publishing stories for the series.

Conway and the reporters will be exploring family separation, identity, the detention centers that asylum seekers are held in and the risks people take to seek refuge in the United States. But they won’t just focus on the trauma, Conway said: Their stories will also highlight “people’s dreams and memories they carry with them.”

The team is also taking extra steps to protect the people they’ll write about, working to ensure the subjects of their stories won’t risk political reprisal for speaking with reporters. That could mean explaining the group’s reporting practices, detailing how federal agencies could use a news story to identify people or giving some people anonymity in stories so their families overseas won’t be impacted, Conway said.

“We want to center the people that have been most impacted by immigration policy and all of those stories, but do it in a respectful, trauma-informed lens, which I think is critical,” Conway said.

Conway has personally been talking with the Kovler Center since April for this project, she said, though she’s been familiar with the center for more than a year and wrote about one of its clinicians for Chicago Magazine.

90 Days, 90 Voices is also working with other groups, like the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society, to connect with more asylum seekers in Chicago.

The stories will be published over the next six months and the project is expected to be completed in the summer, when the graphic novel will come out, Conway said. “Asylum City” stories will be available on the 90 Days, 90 Voices website and in other publications.

“We want to illuminate who is seeking asylum and how they go through that process,” Conway said.

This story was produced by Block Club Chicago in partnership with Chicago Ideas, which is working to highlight organizations and individuals making a positive impact in all of Chicago’s 77 community areas. Follow The 77 Project here.