Friday, July 5, 2013

One Small Garden Plot, One Giant Step for an Immigrant Family!

Jennifer Kriksciun
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 Gardens on 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!

Reflections from a Cultural Navigator

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.


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ready for Their Citizenship Interview!

Jennifer Kriksciun

It’s a little before 9 on a Sunday morning.  I’ve arranged to video chat with the Misbahs because this week, the whole family will have their citizenship interviews, three tomorrow followed by the remaining four on Tuesday.  I’ve grown close to the family over the years, and have followed them through this whole process, so I’m eager talk to them about how they’re feeling. I begin talking with Saqlain, the oldest.
When Saqlain begins talking, I can already sense his confidence. He’s been studying the material endlessly since beginning the citizenship process a few months ago.  As the oldest, he’s contended with most of the preparation responsibility, and I can see it has taken a bit of a toll on him. I ask him what the most challenging part of the process has been.  Besides collecting and organizing all the data and paperwork, a feat unto itself I’m sure (especially for a family of 8!), he admits he doesn’t like the history part very much. “Why do I have to remember the dates?” he asks.  He admits, at first, that he memorized the dates but then actually began learning the information.  I ask him how he feels about his interview and he tells me he’s not nervous at all , I’m sure a result of being over prepared. “That’s the Misbah way!” I joke because I’ve seen it many times with this family and we all laugh together. It’s this sort of preparedness that has allowed Saqlain and his family to come so far.
Nimrah, the second oldest is next to talk to me.  Like her older brother, she too feels prepared and like him, she has struggled with some of the Constitution questions. I admit to her that they’re not so easy. The two older children did not benefit from going to high school in America so, unlike their younger siblings who went to high school here, the
subject of American government is not as familiar. Despite this, the family has remained close through this process, helping each other to stud, attending citizenship classes at the library together on Saturdays, and quizzing each other relentlessly.
Syed Jr. is next. When he sits down at the computer, I immediately ask him what his name will be once he becomes a citizen.  He laughs. He knows this has been a source of confusion for me because I have come to understand there are differences between what a Pakistani uses as a last name versus what an American uses. The family joins in to set me straight and we laugh together as I try to make sense of it all. Ultimately, citizenship will allow the family, including the parents, to use their proper last name, Syed. No longer will they be Misbahs.
The youngest sisters follow their brother. Moni is the first in the family to have her interview. I make a big deal that she is the first one. “You’re the first!” I say, but this doesn’t faze her. She took AP government in high school, so like her brother, she’s comfortable and confident with the material.  She smiles when I ask her how she’s feeling about tomorrow, replying that she’s excited. Her sister Mumiza feels the same sort of confidence and excitement too. When I ask her what citizenship will mean for her, she tells me she is looking forward to having more educational opportunities, including access to scholarships and academic programs.  She wants to go to pharmacy school. Citizenship may help to make her dream possible.
Nailah, the matriarch of the family, has walked a long road to arrive to today.  Knowing her English skills were not at the level of the rest of her family, she began attending English classes at the library earlier in the year. She also connected with April, a Cultural Navigator at the library. Cultural Navigators can help new immigrants learn to adjust into American culture, gain access to city services, or in Nailah’s case, offer English literacy support. I ask her how she has liked working with April and she smiles, telling me that April has been very helpful to her and that she enjoys their relationship very much; she wants to continue working with her on her literacy skills. Nailah has been working persistently with April on the reading and writing section of the citizenship test, an area she felt would be the most difficult for her.  In addition to her work with April, her devoted children have drilled her endlessly, giving her advice on how to handle questions. Mumiza explains, “I tell her ‘just don’t rush, listen to the key points', and I remind her be careful and to make sure she understands the question before answering.” Her children are all committed to making sure their mother passes along with them. I love this about them.  
What will citizenship mean for them? How will it change their lives? I ask Nailah those questions and she tells me that her children will have access to scholarships and medical benefits. I ask her what citizenship will mean for her (and I really emphasize “her”.) She smiles broadly and humbly and tells me that she feels good because her children will have all these opportunities. Saqlain is looking forward to voting, to “be a part of the democracy.” His siblings all agree that citizenship will provide them with many opportunities, opportunities which they are grateful and will work hard for.
Unfortunately I do not get to see Syed Sr. today as he has to work this morning. His children tell me their father’s name will change to Misbah Uddin Syed, and I smile when I hear this because I think I’m finally starting to get their names straight. I start to think I’m more nervous about their interviews than they are!  I wish them all well and thank them for allowing me to join them on their journey. I can’t wait to hear how it all turns out. More to come later this week! Tune in! 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Homa Naficy, a White House 'Champion of Change'

Jennifer Kriksciun
It’s not too often you can tell people your boss is at the White House receiving an honor. Today I could do just that. Homa Naficy, our library’s Chief Adult Education Officer, was recognized along with 12 other librarians from across the nation as a Champion of Change. A Champion of Change. Like a Wheaties box. Like the Queen song. When I heard the news of Homa’s award weeks ago, I was unfamiliar with President Obama’s Champions of Change Program initiative. Nonetheless I knew that this honor signified great change in the role libraries are playing and that Hartford Public Library was leading the way.
If you don’t know who Homa is then just look around the American Place. She’s the reason the American Place is even here. It was her dream to create a place for new arrivals to come to get information about immigration, places to learn English, or how to become a U.S. citizen. Because of Homa’s vision, today the library offers citizenship preparation services, citizenship classes in a variety of languages, ESL classes, and a Cultural Navigator program to mentor new arrivals.  The space probably isn’t as meaningful as the people who have been affected by these programs. They come back and visit often. They bring gifts. They bring smiles. They send their family members and friends to the classes. That’s how we know these programs work.
Today, on a rainy Tuesday morning, Homa traveled down on the fast train to Washington D.C. with Matt Poland (HPL CEO),  Mary Tzambazakis (HPL CFO), and Nancy Caddigan, Intercultural Liaison.  Later that afternoon, there would be a formal panel discussion on immigrant integration and Homa would give a five minute presentation on her initiatives with immigrant civic engagement. On our end, the library was going to broadcast her panel discussion live on the big screen in the atrium.  It was a pretty big deal.
Homa sat first at the table. She looked lovely. Someone remarked that she was glowing. Homa spoke of the need to foster building trusting relationships through mentoring programs like the Cultural Navigator Program and community dialogues. She told a story of a community leader who had remarked that they never saw immigrants at community meetings (even though they knew they lived in the neighborhood), yet after some community dialogues, immigrants were coming together and getting involved. I’ve seen this happen, so I could feel Homa’s pride.
Later, during the question and answer session, the panel was touting the benefits of technology. Earlier, people had talked about using Nintendo Wiis and iPads and no one needs to convince me of their worth, believe me. But when Homa talked about the value of the human touch. The American Place provides the human touch. Patrons come with all sorts of questions and needs, from the merely confused (and confusing!) to the serious and, sometimes, even the desperate. We give them whatever time and help we can. That's part of the human touch. But the most important part is what they give us in return .....

Friday, May 24, 2013

Meet the Misbahs

 Jennifer Kriksciun
     On this day the Misbah family begins their Citizenship studies here at Hartford Public library. There are seven in the family: parents Syed and Nailah and their five children, Saqlain, Nimrah, Mumiza, Syed Jr. and Moniza. They shuffle in and wait patiently for class to begin. I walk over to welcome the oldest son, Saqlain and the family. I’m excited they’ve come. I know today is a special day for them as it marks another important step towards their citizenship, an accomplishment for each of them individually but with greater significance as a family.

         The Misbahs have worked hard since arriving her from Karachi, Pakistan in 2008. They were all formally educated in their native country, and the children studied English so they all had a basic language foundation when they arrived here however not enough to not need English classes when they got here. The younger siblings enrolled in the public system and have only a slight hint of an accent as they arrived here at a younger age. The older siblings enrolled in more intensive ESL classes at Capital Community College to study English.

     The Misbahs hope­­­ for a better life here in America. Besides the freedoms this country gives them, they want the right to vote. They are excited to participate in the next election. And as much as they want to contribute their ideas and their vote, they want to pay taxes and becoming contributing members of the United States. They know that doing so will allow them the opportunity for medical care, social security when they retire, and scholarships for their education.

     They want the opportunity for better education and em­­­ployment. Already all four children are enrolled in college, Saqlain’s younger siblings are all full time students at Capital Community College and Saqlain has just graduated with a degree in industrial technology with a minor at business from Central Connecticut State University. When I talk to him, he cannot contain his excitement for his new job working as an IT Engineer at the Travelers. They all have higher aspirations- aspirations that would be difficult if not impossible to achieve in their native Pakistan. Syed, Sr. holds two degrees in mathematics in Pakistan. After achieving citizenship, he hopes to become accredited to teach mathematics here in the United States. 

     The young Misbah women are strong and determined. This much is clear the moment they start talking. They are full of energy and enthusiasm. I ask them how classes are going and they all respond in a simultaneous echo, “incredible!” They are all excited to have learned so much about American civics, and to be entering this new place in their lives. But they are sad to be losing their citizenship to Pakistan, especially Nimrah, the eldest of the three daughters. I ask their mother Nailah how she feels; she smiles in assignation, acknowledging all the freedoms and opportunities available to she and her family with American citizenship. I can tell she is excited and hopeful, and so am I. I look forward to following them on their path towards citizenship. More to come!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Update on Encouragement: She passed!

Jasmine Cardi

I am so excited to share that our student from the January 2013 post Encouragement has earned her citizenship! She studied hard each day for 60 days and went back in and passed her interview! We are all so proud of her. After her ceremony she came to the library and shared her experiences with her classmates. In this photo our student (center) is with the judge (to the right) who presided over her ceremony and Sangeeta (to the left) one of our interns who helped her study countless hours and attended the ceremony with her. This is truly an inspiring story of what hard work and perseverance will do regardless of age, race or other obstacles that one may face. Hers is a story of hope and of hard work paying off. Congratulations!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Karen New Year Day Celebration

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.