Community Engagement

“Muslim Journeys on Film” screenings will be held on Tuesday, November 19 at 6:00pm and Tuesday, December 3 at 6:00pm in the Center for Contemporary Culture, Hartford Public Library, 500 Main Street.

The facilitated series, which is free and open to all, is designed to promote cross-cultural exchange and understanding on the topic of: Muslim Worlds.

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 19, discussion begins at 6:00 p.m.

Koran by Heart: One Chance to Remember
(90 minutes) Center for Contemporary Culture

Every year over a hundred young people from 70 countries across the Islamic world arrive in Cairo to compete in the world’s oldest and most prestigious Koran reciting contest – the International Holy Koran competition. Follow three 10-year-old scholars, a girl and two boys, as they leave their countries to compete. Facilitators: Dr. Feryal Salem, Hartford Seminary, Assistant Professor of Islamic Scriptures and Law and Janet Bauer,  Trinity College, Associate Professor of International Studies



TUESDAY, DECEMBER 3, discussion begins at 6:00 p.m

Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World
(90 minutes) Center for Contemporary Culture

Explores the richness of Islamic art from great palaces and mosques to the exquisite beauty of ceramics, carved boxes, paintings and metal work. Nine countries are featured, including Turkey, Spain, Mali, spanning 1,400 years of artistic heritage.  Facilitators: Aida Mansoor, Muslim Coalition of CT and Janet Bauer,  Trinity College, Associate Professor of International Studies

RSVP suggested (860) 695-6334 or by email:

Francis Bacon was to have said, “Gardening is the purest of human pleasures.” I didn’t think this to be true until, as an adult, I had a garden of my own. Every year I plant vegetables for my daughter to pick and my animals to eat. My garden beds are small and manageable, yet still they succeed in exhausting me weekly with a never-ending supply of weeds, all things that keep me busy most Sunday mornings before the sun gets too hot.

The Bharatis with seed packets in hand
I am fortunate that, though I live in a city, I have a small yard. Living in a city does not always afford one the benefits of a yard let alone a garden. Hartford residents have access to only a small list of community gardens around the city, so getting a bed can be difficult.  At an Asylum Hill neighborhood welcoming event, an older couple, the Bharatis, from Nepal expressed an interest in wanting to garden, but they didn’t know who to talk to nor how to find one.  Also, their limited English skills made it difficult for them to communicate (their son Rup served as a liaison for them.) Connecting with the closest community garden, Knox Gardenson Laurel Street was even more of a challenge, so I was asked to help them get a garden plot.
Through talking with the people at Knox, I was happy to learn that many immigrants take advantage of Hartford community gardens. In fact, in the Asylum Hill neighborhood, it is common to see Karen, Vietnamese, and Somali residents walking from their garden plots with an abundance of crops for their own families or to sell or exchange with others. In fact, community gardens can be extremely beneficial to cities with immigrant communities. Not only can immigrants grow traditional crops native to their home countries, they can also take advantage of the cultural exchange between other gardeners.  More importantly, gardening allows people from all backgrounds the opportunity to work side by side on common goals without speaking the same language. Imagine! Working collaboratively without the constraints of a language barrier!
So with the help of the Bharati’s son Rup and the diligence of Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association (AHNA) chair Jennifer Cassidy and Knox Gardens Community Outreach Director Charmaine Craig, the Bharatis received not one but two garden beds at Knox. When I called Rup for an update on his parents, he reported that his parents had toured the Knox Gardens with Charmaine, were given seeds to begin planting, and were extremely happy at the promise of a wonderful gardening season. A good friend and avid gardener used to repeat a quote to me, “A garden isn’t meant to be useful. It’s for joy.” Indeed, this is true! I cannot wait to find out how the Bharati’s garden is doing. I hope it is bringing them much joy and happiness!

Contributor: April Adams

Nailah and April
For my first assignment as a Cultural Navigator at Hartford Public Library, I was assigned to help Nailah study for her US Citizenship interview and exam. We worked together twice a week in one hour sessions throughout the months of April, May and June.
Nailah is very sweet, very gentle and was initially very shy around me. For the 4-6 weeks her youngest son Syed would hang around our meeting space at the library, but eventually I saw him less and less. I found Syed to be much more accustomed to the American way of life (I never had a doubt he’d ace his interview and exam) and a respectful young man. Very protected of his mother and very obedient. For example, if mom said wear a jacket today it’s cold, you can believe he was wearing a hoodie! He once asked me why I was helping, was it a mandatory assignment of sorts, to which I replied  “No, I am volunteering to help. I’m very blessed and happy to help others.” His 20 year old jaw dropped in disbelief. I sensed from that day forward I had his utmost respect.
Nailah with Nancy Caddigan,
Intercultural Liaison at HPL
I feel blessed to be an United States citizen, to speak a globally recognized language and I know with that comes an innate understanding about American customs. I understand, for the most part, our US customs (I’m from North Carolina and just myself learning the ropes of living in the Northeast). I tease her often that she has five kids (for I have none so I can’t imagine 5!), the courage to move to another country and the guts to learn the language and become an American. The equivalent would be for me to move at my current age to a foreign land and achieve as much in 5 years. I applaud her! Just being around her helps give me perspective for my problems or life challenges seems quite small in comparison.
Nailah recently aced her citizenship interview and exam. She didn’t miss a single question! Even though we’ve accomplished our initial goal, she has asked me to continue helping her with her English. I’m honored to continue working with her. No doubt I’ll walk away from this experience equally as blessed as Nailah. She has touched and enriched my life. Thank you Nailah.

Jennifer Kriksciun

In less than an hour, the quiet stillness of Hartford Public Library fills with local Karen, preparing for the New Year celebration later that morning.  Girls draped in colorful woven skirts and scarves shuffle quickly in and out of the women’s room in groups to check their outfits and talk.  In the venue, the Center for Contemporary Culture a group of Karen young men practice, dressed in traditional native Karen clothing.  One plays the electric guitar while another plays a modern drum kit. The music they play sounds more like modern rock music and I nod my head in both surprise and appreciation.
When I look around, the room itself has been transformed overnight and now, along the front of the room hangs a massive banner announcing this year’s Karen New Year celebration. It is multi-colored and impressive, taking up the whole length of the wall, with large letters cut out, spelling out the celebration in two languages. The room gradually gets busier and busier.
Members of the Karen community come in carrying large containers of rice, soup, and other traditional foods.  Soon the air fills with the smells of foods that seem oddly familiar to me yet a little exotic.  One after another, like an organized assembly line, the food is set up in a buffet-style fashion in the American Place.  I peek at the foods, mostly shades of green and browns- and it’s hard to figure out what the food is and as a vegetarian, I feel wary to try them. There is no one around tell me the ingredients so I stay safe with sweet brown rice wrapped in banana leaves.
It is here that I spy Shinning.  Sitting quietly to the left of the eating area on a library stool, she reads a picture book.  It seems as if the library shelves are swallowing her, I think. I ask if I can take her picture and Shinning (pronounced “shining”, this could not be a mistake!) looks up from her book, smiles shyly at first, then broadly, and nods yes. I ask her to keep reading, explaining that I want to capture her reading, maybe for the website, I say. I snap away for several minutes, taking pictures of this little girl from various angles as she continues to read the book I will later find out is about colonists coming to settle in America. These are the kinds of books you find in this part of the library. She doesn’t quite understand this so I explain what the American Place space is all about, what people use the space for, and why these books are here. I think she gets it but I don’t know if she’s learned about the colonists in school, so she doesn’t exactly see the connection with colonists and being American. I guess we’ll save that lesson for another day.
Shinning is seven years old. She is, as most of the people visiting the library here on this New Year’s Day celebration, a Karen refugee. She came to the United States when she was just a year old with two older brothers, her mother, grandmother, and some other family members. You can see that she has benefited from her American education.  I ask her about school and she beams proudly that she loves school, especially math. “I want to be a doctor,” she says confidently and I can’t help but believe this will become true.
Later, we walk around together and she tells me how she her mother and grandmother don’t speak English at all and she often has to speak for them. I nod that I understand and ask how she feels about that; she replies that she does her best. It’s all that she knows so there is nothing to think about. It’s then that we are interrupted with the beginning of the celebration. At the entryway to the Center, I see a group of young Karen holding flags, waiting to walk proudly in a flag procession. I try to shuffle Shinning towards the Center but she doesn’t want to go.  Why? I ask her.  She wants to go read her book.
I leave her as I inside to watch the Karen celebrate the first day of their New Year, beginning with a blessing from a local Karen minister and the singing of the Karen flag song.  As I watch the traditional dances, the reenactments of various rituals, I keep thinking about Shinning who is so happy to be taking advantage of a little quiet time to read. I sneak out a few times and every time I walk by her, she has her head in a book. She seems unfazed by the celebration going on around her, and though I’m thrilled to see a budding book worm, in this great library nonetheless, I wonder if I should I feel sadness that she’s rejecting an important cultural celebration. Later, when I leave the event, I say good bye to her and remind her to come visit the library as often as she can. I tell her I am so happy to have met her and that I hope she continues to love school and math and she smiles at me. Her mom and grandmother are at her side and I say thank you to them and smile, wondering if they see the same little girl I have just met.

Judy Wyman Kelly

Last Tuesday morning, a group of the library’s adult English language students went for a tour of the majestic Hartford City Hall, located just across the street.  The place is amazing!

Veteran Hartford resident and current town clerk, John Bazzano, was our guide. Constructed in 1914 on land donated by Hartford resident and financier, J.P. Morgan, this city jewel boasts exquisite turn-of-the-century architectural designs, including marble stairways, gilded décor, and vaulted glass ceilings.  The Christmas tree made from red poinsettias added some nice holiday cheer.

But more importantly, we had a chance to find out what City Hall does for Hartford residents, such as providing birth, marriage, and death certificates, property deeds, and voter registration cards.  City Hall is also home to the Mayor’s office and is the place where city laws are passed by the city council.  We had a chance to visit these rooms and even sit in the city council chairs!  Hartford residents are welcomed to go to the Mayor’s office with any questions or needs, and to attend city council meetings on the second and fourth Monday of each month at 7pm.

Jennifer Kriksciun

On a warmer than usual Saturday morning in October, organizers from around the Hartford community made their way to the Mark Twain library branch with food and decorations to prepare for the noon Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association Welcoming event.  In co-sponsorship with Hartford Public Library, the event’s main purpose was that of encouraging relationship building and community conversations among Asylum Hill residents who ranged from long term, native-born city dwellers to new arrival immigrant families from around the globe.
By noon, the main room of the library was filled with over 100 guests. Neighbors greeted neighbors while newcomers mingled easily.  Soon the air was full of chatter and laughter as residents and their children, hailing from countries as far as Bhutan and Burma, Indonesia and Thailand, Iraq and the Congo and as near as Colombia and the Dominican Republic, all found seats at tables with members of the receiving community. Child care was provided for the younger children, who, irrespective of language or culture happily played together for the entire three hour event. The friendly words of welcome by Jennifer Cassidy, longtime Asylum Hill resident and current Chairperson of Asylum Hill’s Neighborhood Association – launched the afternoon’s festivities.  Greeting the packed room of over eighty attendees, Ms. Cassidy reaffirmed her association’s mission to “promote a safe, stable and diverse neighborhood for all who live, work, and worship in Asylum Hill”.  Beside her stood a Karen interpreter who translated for the many Karen-speaking Asylum Hill residents who have emigrated from Burma and Thailand.
After the opening words, guests dined on a variety of international foods prepared by local Thai restaurant, East West Grille as well as Puerto Rican restaurant, the Bean Pot. Aromas of vegetable fried rice and chicken, Spanish rice, homemade Peruvian potato dish, papa a la huancaina,and vegetarian sushi drifted through the room and guests were eager to get in line to fill their plates. It was clear to see how the sharing of a lunchtime feast could help unify a group of people of such incredible diversity.  Indeed, it was a wonderful sight.
Carolyne Abdullah, of Everyday Democracy, introduced the dialogue portion of the event.  Guided by facilitators, each table discussed what they most liked and disliked about their Asylum Hill neighborhood.  At my table sat several people, including two lovely women from Burma and a young man from Bhutan. As facilitator, I encouraged participants to express what they liked about their neighborhood.  My new Bhutanese friend responded quickly that the neighborhood was very nice and welcoming and the Karen women sitting next to him nodded in agreement.  Language barriers were the main issue at the table, so we discussed possible neighborhood-level solutions that could improve this problem, including more access to and availability of educational services for adults and the delivery of health services in the Karen and Hindi languages , to better serve these growing populations in the neighborhood. 
After thirty minutes, facilitators reported out on those ideas most commonly expressed at their tables. Many praised the cultural diversity of the neighborhood as well as the many initiatives such as new building construction and a stronger police presence which have made Asylum Hill feel safer and more welcoming.  Despite identifying some positives, a number of attendees still aired their concern about safety, residents’ poor housing conditions, and the lack of a comprehensive support system to aid families.  When asked what they would like to see changed, comments included the following: retain more tenants in the neighborhood; develop neighborhood pride; improve road conditions; open new ethnic restaurants; and, increase after-school programs. The event concluded with former AHNA Chairperson, Bernie Michel, expressing how appreciative he was that this day that he had waited 10 years to see realized had finally taken place.  He invited everyone to attend the next meeting of this group to be held on December 13th at the Mark Twain library branch at 5:30 PM as well as the next monthly meeting of AHNA on December 3rd.
Guests celebrated a wonderful afternoon of good conversation with desserts of cake and donuts while Asylum Hill resident Mr. Sawtha, closed the event with his own story of living in Asylum Hill.  A Burmese native, he said that many attendees come from countries where they do not have the freedom to express their opinions and at this event we all had the chance to do so.  He thanked everyone and invited them to attend a Burmese New Year celebration at the downtown library on Sunday, January 13, 2013.
AHNA and the Library will continue to convene monthly meetings to sustain momentum and cultivate the relationships newly formed at the event. One of the key agenda items at the follow-up meetings will be the planning of a spring forum to seek avenues for addressing the key issues raised on November 10th.

Jasmine Cardi

You know the warm fuzzy feeling you get when you see a crackling fireplace? A mug of hot chocolate? Warm chocolate chip cookies? Today I felt that as I witnessed some of our ESOL students see snow for the first time. They were on the computer doing a lesson when a woman looks over and says, “Wow! It’s snowing.” Two women in the class had never seen snow before in their lives. They walked over to the window and were so happy and amazed to see the flurries. A few students, including the teacher who is from Peru, began sharing stories with one another about the first time they experienced snow. It was quite amazing to witness!

Jasmine Cardi
This photo is of two of our citizenship students. Acenscion to my left and Olga to my right were both applying for a passport on Passport Day. The American Place extends its passport services for the entire day to accomodate the people who become naturalized citizens. Passport Day is usually on the first Friday of the month. This is such special day for them. They have studied long and hard and this is the final step in their citizenship journey. Once they obtain a passport they are free to travel in and out of the country as they please without worry. Some people have said they feel as a if a big weight has been lifted from their shoulders. For many earning citizenship has been quite the process. This includes learning how to read, speak and write in English and learning about our government and history. Acenscion has studied in our Spanish Citizenship Class for over a year. She is in her 70′s and was nervous about her test. Olga is in her 60′s and was also nervous. Her test date happened to fall on my birthday and just a few days past her own birthday. Although both ladies were nervous they supported each other and kept a good attitude. They studied and were well prepared and now they are proud U.S. Citizens! Congratulations!
Jasmine Cardi
My coworker and Dr. Bernard LaFayette

About a week or so ago I had an afternoon meeting with 3 citizenship students. Our plan was to go over some self study materials they could use to supplement their weekly classes. During this time there was a program going on close to my department on nonviolence and high school students. It was their graduation and one of the guest speakers was Dr. Bernard LaFayette. One of my coworkers calls me and says “Jasmine, you have to come and see this man. He knew Martin Luther King Jr!” So I tell my citizenship students we are going to take a little detour and stop in the next room. We were able to hear some of his speech. The students were amazed that they were seeing someone who knew Martin Luther King Jr, was beaten and arrested 27 times for his participation in civil rights activities and who still today in his 70′s travels promoting nonviolence. What started out as an appointment to check out books and learn about computer software turned into an impromptu history lesson live in the flesh! It was such a remarkable experience for me and the students!