Living the American Dream in Comer, Georgia: The Garden of Refugees

Photo by Udo Schröter (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Oxford American, André Gallant tells the story of Eh Kaw Htoo, a Karen refugee from Myanmar — a man who “extolled the redneck’s work ethic” and helped build a community of 150 Karens who sustain one another by living frugally and sharing the bounty of the land in the rural community of Comer, Georgia.

I met Eh Kaw in 2012, when I approached him as a reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald to tell his story to our shared community. Those first meetings enchanted me. In our earliest conversations, Eh Kaw explained that the Karen’s ability to keep gardens, trap rabbits in nearby woodlands, and slaughter chickens helped his people retain their cultural identity.

From the beginning, I loved Pa Saw’s food: roselle green and chicken skin soup, eggplant and anchovies in turmeric, hot dogs and canola greens scooped with rice mounds into sweet gum leaves. The debtless and quasi-agrarian lifestyle she and other Karen adhered to stirred a primal gene somewhere within me. After I reported that first story, we became friends, and in 2014, I attended a party to celebrate Eh Kaw and Pa Saw becoming U.S. citizens. Dozens of people gathered around a buffet table anchored by goat stew—the whole animal (organs but no hide) cooked in a tall pot. A few months later, I went to a joint wedding of four Karen couples, after which we dined at an outdoor buffet on tables hewed from pine trees.

Every few months, I returned to Comer to visit Eh Kaw and the other Karen. On one trip, he took me to various Karen houses to show off their infrastructure.

Each home we visited was organized in a similar fashion to Semoeneh’s property but adapted to the particular footprint of the lot. The houses were made of materials ranging from cinder block to clapboard, and every yard teemed with life: vegetables, poultry, the odd goat, droplets of brook water falling from minnow-snatching nets, a horde of shoes at the back door arranged as a roll call for those snoozing inside.

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