In a nation as ethnically diverse as the United States, its inhabitants originating from all over the globe, all Americans ought to be proud to see people of different worlds and experiences come together for common purposes. In Connecticut, a state infamous for significant disparities along racial and economic lines, this unique social phenomenon manifests between Suffield residents, and a vibrant community of Karen refugees and their families who made their home in Hartford’s West End.
The adults of Hartford’s Karen community came to the United States as political refugees, fleeing violence and persecution taking place across Southeast Asia. Elders in the community have experienced the horrors of relocation camps and mass incarceration. As they build their lives in Connecticut, where many Karen children now grow up attending Hartford public schools, they preserve one of their cherished cultural traditions. Over the past few years, Suffield families and the Karen have cultivated not only a genuine friendship, but also a decent tract of land that the community works together.
This year marks the third growing season of the community garden that Suffield farmers and the Hartford Karen share. This friendship began with the meeting of Michael Lefebvre, who owns the land, and Mr. Saw Than, community leader and president of the Connecticut Karen Community Association (CKCA). Prior to meeting Saw, Michael had no awareness of the Karen people, their struggles in their native land, and their journey to the United States.
In learning about Saw’s people, Michael also began a friendship that would bring together people with vastly different experiences and who share a passion to work the land. In his conversations with Saw, Michael became aware of the community’s desire for a garden to grow their own food. Demonstrating his nature as a good friend and neighbor, Michael offered to donate space on land he owns in Suffield, which about 10 families now share as a community garden. Michael calls this project “Common Harvest”.
Michael names numerous other individuals involved in the community garden partnership. Brian Loiseau, a local horse farmer, often supplies growing materials for the farm, and is always acting as a helpful neighbor and good friend to the Karen and other farmers. Steve Sheldon, another active member of this community, and his family have helped prepare the farmland with heavy equipment, and donated many garden plants. Iran Jackson, owner of a local paving company called JRJ Construction Company, donated the use of a bulldozer to prepare the land for expansion of the garden area this year. Others in the community have also worked the land with tractors and bucket loaders to make it more conducive to gardening. The Karen also purchase chicken and other farm animals to raise on the land.
The genuine friendship built around the South Grand Street garden in Suffield reflects the true spirit of ‘community’. The Karen families and local farmers share space, their harvest, and even meals prepared right on the land. Additionally, they all take responsibility for the well-being of their families by providing fresh, natural, and healthy foods. Working the land also teaches the youth about friendship, commitment, self-reliance, and a strong work ethic. These values resonate across Western and Eastern traditions.
The South Grand Street community garden also illustrates the potential of active communities and shared opportunity. Although many of the local Karen come from challenged communities in Hartford, a simple “hand up” enables them to preserve their cultural traditions, contribute to the larger community, and provide for their own families.
Though the Karen continue to face cultural barriers and socioeconomic challenges, such as limited access to housing, education, employment, and health, their progress building a new life in a new land has been incredible. The Karen American youth serve as cultural navigators and ambassadors for their parents and elders, while preparing to become the next generation of champions in their community. The connection with Michael Lefebvre and the gracious residents of Suffield not only represents a true cultural exchange, but also a lesson in compassion, responsibility, diligence, and other traits of effective leaders. It also helps create delicious food!
APAAC greatly appreciates the friendship of Michael Lefebvre, Suffield residents, and others towards the Karen community. We greatly admire the positivity created through their genuine partnership, as well as the example it sets for all diverse communities in fostering understanding and discovering common passions.