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An Urban Oasis

Refugees From Myanmar Cultivate Vegetables, And A Sense Of Community


August 25, 2013

They fled their rural Burmese homeland and have since created an improbable urban oasis here in Hartford. The diversity of herbs, fruits and vegetables cultivated by the Karen people -- an ethnic minority also known as the Karen tribe -- a few blocks from the state Capitol would rival any community garden anywhere.

On a sultry Sunday afternoon behind the Knox Parks Foundation headquarters on Laurel Street, Thaung Chuang, 49, bends down to cut a fistful of waterleaf at its stem. Etched onto his left forearm is a small tattoo of a dolphin. On a crude but efficient charcoal stove, he and his wife, Htay Htay, prepare a typical Burmese stew of fish dumplings, chicken and steamed bean spouts. It also contains sorrel, bok choy and white carrot. Thaung dices a long squash, and the cubes are dipped into rice batter and deep-fried. Family and guests are invited to taste the fritters with his freshly prepared garden salsa, a tangy mix of tomatoes, hot purple peppers, onions, garlic, salt, cilantro and ginger.

As refugees from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Thaung and Htay Htay operated a restaurant while living in a refugee camp in Thailand for five years. About six years ago, they came to Hartford with 103 other refugee families. Hartford's Karen community, most of whom live in a pocket of housing on South Marshall Street, couldn't find the freshly cultivated papaya leaves or the fragrant lemongrass of its tropical homeland until it was embraced by the nonprofit Knox foundation and given the chance to farm.

"The story of the Karen tribe's garden is the story of Knox's mission and Hartford's revival," says executive director Ron Pitz. "We provide the space, the guidance and the connections. All of a sudden, the community does more than take care of itself. It thrives."

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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