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Karen Supermarket: More than a grocery store, a meeting place to build community

Karen Supermarket on Milwaukee's South Side
Joy Powers
Htoo Paw working behind the counter at her store, Karen Supermarket on Milwaukee's south side.

Milwaukee has become home to a growing community of refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Armed conflicts have ravaged the nation for more than seven decades, often dividing people along ethnic lines. Milwaukee is thought to have the United States' largest community of Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Myanmar that's faced persecution and ongoing genocide in their home country. Other groups, like Burmese and Karen, have faced similar persecution during this time of unrest.

That was the case for Htoo Paw's family, which fled to a Thai refugee camp before making their way to the U.S. Paw owns Karen Supermarket, located at 743 S. Layton Blvd. on Milwaukee's south side, is a grocery store and meeting place for people in the community.

While it can be challenging to stock the shelves with all of the items the store’s diverse community of shoppers are looking for, Paw says they make it work. "So we, you know, get feedback from customers ... whatever kind of things they're looking for. Sometimes, they will come in and show me a picture, and we'll just keep the photo of it."

Paw then looks for the items to add to the store's inventory.

In addition to selling food and produce, the store also carries traditional dress clothing and garments. And, the store has expanded its hot food section — offering noodles and fresh sticky rice.

The supermarket has also become a popular spot for gathering. "Like sometimes people are just coming to, you know, have a seat waiting for whoever [is] going to pick them up. Sometimes, they just come and have a chat. [It's a] very friendly family store," says Paw.


Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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