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.


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