Building a little bit of heaven in Hartford and elsewhere

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Karen youth, refugees from Burma (Myanmar), performing a traditional Karen folk dance at the annual South Marshall Street Block Party.

They are courageous.

When Lare and Batana Bougonou arrived in the United States to build a new life, never did they think they would become pioneers helping to rebuild a neighborhood.

Their success has been hard earned. With no prospects for a better life, and living on just a few dollars a day, Lare and Batana secured a rare visa in 2006 to immigrate to the U.S., fleeing the slums of Togo’s capital city, Lomé. Fate brought them to Hartford’s South Marshall Street with what (to them) was the good fortune to rent just a bedroom in a shared apartment in the street’s rundown immigrant and refugee housing.

It was the start they prayed for. They found life safer with more opportunities than in Togo. Lare believed Hartford had everything they needed to succeed.

“Blessed” with minimum wage jobs, the next seven years led them to their own one-bedroom apartment on Collins Street, the births of two daughters, and better paying jobs. Lare became a CNA, and is completing courses at Capital Community College for her dream job as an RN.

Batana has a steady job at a home products distributor. Their daughters are receiving a great education at the Achievement First Hartford Academy — all unimaginable opportunities back in Togo.

“People don’t know how lucky they are to live in America,” Lare told me. “If you live right and work hard, you can have a better life.”

In 2013, the Bougonou’s jumped at the opportunity to return to South Marshall to realize the impossible dream of home ownership. Through their determination to succeed, and with lots of nail-pounding sweat equity, they bought a Habitat for Humanity townhome that they helped build — a new life, a new home.

“Every time I open the front door I’m going to heaven,” Lare said, wiping her tears.

In 2011, Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity embarked on the most technically challenging development in its 25-year history, the construction of 16 affordable townhomes on Asylum Hill’s notoriously troubled South Marshall Street.

With construction underway, a discussion I had with Rev. Ed Horstmann, then senior minister at nearby Immanuel Congregational Church, raised a critical question, “What more could be done to improve the quality of life for all residents on South Marshall Street that the new Habitat homes by themselves won’t address?”

That launched the formation of the South Marshall Interfaith Coalition — a coalition of several Asylum Hill and Hartford area faith leaders uniting to address longstanding barriers to neighborhood improvement. Recognizing the extensive challenges, the coalition knew its efforts, as an unfunded network of faith communities, could not be a go-it-alone endeavor. Other organizations had been focused on these challenges, some for decades. We needed to team with them.

With the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association (AHNA) heading the list, these organizations included The Aetna, The Hartford, St. Francis Hospital, the Marshall House shelter, Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services, the Hartford Public Library, the City of Hartford, The Stowe Center, the Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (NINA), Mutual Housing, Foodshare, and the new Habitat homeowners association.

The coalition’s role is clear: Invest in each other and work together.

Under AHNA’s direction, the collaboration has increased understanding of the issues facing South Marshall Street residents. Coordinated advocacy has rallied more volunteers and greater resources to support South Marshall’s transformation. Projects include an expanded family-friendly annual block party, immigrant and refugee-welcoming programs, ESL classes for adults, nutrition programs, a playground, urban gardens, improved public safety, and more Habitat homes.

While these initiatives hold much promise, long-term success depends on sustained commitment. Transformation of South Marshall has the potential to improve many lives as it has for the Bougonou family.

While the coalition is making a difference, it is essential to recognize that important work on South Marshall by some members was underway before the coalition convened.

By creating a common table around which to share work and stories, the coalition has brought groups together to invest in each other – to come together to work together – improving life on South Marshall Street. It’s a model worth replicating elsewhere in Hartford, and in communities everywhere.

Don Shaw, Jr., is a board member and former interim director of Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity. 

 

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