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At Hartford's West Middle School, Keeping Ties To Karen Culture


June 06, 2013

HARTFORD The four Karen children swayed softly, crossed their arms and passed around the microphone as they performed "Mother's Tears" on the West Middle Elementary School stage Thursday.

As they sang the popular Karen tune, a group of relatives murmured with endearment in one of the auditorium's back rows.

West Middle's multicultural student assembly featured a salsa number, a Nepalese dance and, in a sign of the school's growing diversity, several performances and skits honoring the Karen culture.

West Middle enrolls more than 90 Karen students from about 35 refugee families that have moved into the city's Asylum Hill neighborhood over the past seven years under a United Nations resettlement program.

The Karen, an ethnic minority, were oppressed under Burma's military junta that seized power in the southeast Asian nation in 1988. The country, also known as Myanmar, has taken democratic steps in recent years, such as convening government elections.

At West Middle, the Karen population includes about 50 children who receive English as a Second Language services, teachers said. Letters to parents are translated into Karen. There also is a translator for families at school events.

ESL teacher Katherine Feltes is helping the students learn English but has made a point of teaching them Karen history and traditions. Thursday's assembly, which began with an 18-student rendition of the Karen national song, was in the works for months.

"It's important for them to know where they came from," said Feltes, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand who has taken a personal role in helping Hartford's Karen families, including taking children to doctor's appointments. "We want them to maintain their cultural ties ...

"And we want them to participate in Karen New Year," Feltes said, a January holiday that coincides with the rice harvest in Burma.

The local Karen community held a New Year celebration this year at Hartford Public Library, an event that West Middle Principal Sheilda Garrison attended. Many of the performers were Karen students in the city school system.

Their parents have been active at West Middle, showing up at parent-teacher meetings and school-sponsored events, Garrison and Feltes said.

"We try to do things ... to make everyone feel part of the school," Garrison said. "I think that's the best thing about our school, its diversity."

"The principal and the ESL teacher are trying to keep the culture," said Soe Naing, 44, a tutor at the school who lived in a Thailand camp for Karen refugees from 1989 to 2008.

Naing's six children, four of whom are West Middle students, were born in the refugee camp, he said. The family entered the U.S. in 2008, which means his youngest children have been in Hartford for much of their lives.

"They're just learning" the Karen traditions, Naing said.

One of the "Mother's Tears" singers, 9-year-old Hae Nay Soe, came to the U.S. from a camp in Thailand. The third-grader said her family lived in New Jersey before arriving in Connecticut about four years ago, so her memories of southeast Asia are bright yet muddled, like an Impressionist painting.

"I remember the ..." Hae Nay thought hard and scratched her head. "It was hot," she said. "Sometimes it's rainy."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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