Melissa McGovern is an artist and recent graduate of Le Moyne College who worked with the New Americans living on the Northside of Syracuse for her Integral Honors Thesis. She finds the Northside to be an inspirational place, bursting with potential and beautiful people.
Editor’s note: Melissa will be sharing some of the experiences she had while researching her thesis and some of the artwork she created during her explorations on the Northside. All posts can be found under the category, “Exploring Northside Markets by Melissa McGovern” category.
Despite it being a cold, dark, Syracuse January, the family inside the home greets me with smiles, cheers, and warm hugs. I walk into their apartment on the top floor, dishes banging and the smell of garlic in the air. Large bowls of rice spread into a circle on the floor with the curry and vegetables sitting in the middle for all hands to grab. The six children come running and sit, while their father begins the meal’s prayer. They scoop up the rice and pat it together in their hands, setting it in their mouth like there’s nothing to it. But, life is not that simple for these families, despite many notions Americans have about refugees living in the United States.
I remember the day I sat inside Thoo Moei Kloo with owner Pay Klay as he told me the story of his Karen people and their struggles.
“We don’t need to run from the bullet, but a different problem. Headache. Mental problem. Over there you need to run for your life cause the country is bad. But your neighborhood [Syracuse] is different. Here you cannot save money. Work hard but not save money. Life is hard, everything is expensive.”
Pay Klay’s statement alone reflects the alienation that can easily occur in refugees while settling in a new place. The majority of Karen people have spent most of their lives in refugee camps, even though they are one of the largest ethnic groups in Burma. The Karen population has endured a long history of persecution and oppression from the Burmese government, making relocation all the more difficult. They have had to uproot their lives and move to a completely different country while their own homeland is struggling.
Just like with any ethnic group, relocation can make it difficult for the Karen to maintain cultural customs, but the Northside allows the Karen to maintain a strong ethnic community.
“Na àw māy wēe lee ahh?” a common way I’ve been greeted, means, “Have you eaten?” because caring for the physical and mental health of the guest is so important to them. This is why I often found myself nibbling on something delicious whenever visiting families on the Northside.
These New American families, especially the Karen, have taught me so much just over one year. How to be a better, more loving person. The importance in caring for my family members and community, and most importantly, how to make an incredible curry!
Life on the Northside shows that we can cherish our own cultural roots while respecting and appreciating others.