The man is right where he said he would be: in the lobby of the public library on the other side of town, far from home. As he gently guides me toward him by cell phone, I search the few faces I can see for some sign of recognition. But I can’t find anyone who fits his description.
“You will see me standing near the glass doors,” he says, and sure enough, he gradually comes into focus. Ehtaw Dwee, intrepid though he is, was hiding behind a pillar and I couldn’t find him. Instead, he found me.
Dwee is eager to tell me his story face-to-face because, “If I tried to write the whole story with my broken English, it probably would not work,” he laughs. His life has been one courageous adventure after another: first in the fight against the Burmese military, then in a harrowing escape with his pregnant wife into a refugee camp in Thailand and now building a coalition to defeat the most entrenched enemy of all: alcohol and drug addiction among the Karen refugee community in St. Paul, Minn.
The point of his story? He is one of the few people with a bird’s eye view of the broken families and squandered lives these addictions have caused across the nation, in Karen communities. From California to Texas to Chicago and far beyond, he says he has seen it all, and it breaks his heart.
Dwee jokingly calls himself “Jungle Man” because he spent so much time wandering the jungles of Burma and Thailand, and now, as a certified Karen language interpreter, he flies across the country on behalf of the federal immigration court and is also under contract with 26 states. Although it sounds like an exciting life — and Dwee is grateful for the work — he contends that it is emotionally draining.
“I have seen so many things, heard so many different stories, about my people,” he says, shaking his head in despair. “And I have had to work very hard to make a living. But so far, I am doing well.”
Affable and unassuming, Dwee is actually a brilliant, self-sufficient Karen refugee, a master strategist and tactician, who has lived in St. Paul for 12 years. At another time and place, he might have been a general in someone’s army.
While living in Thailand, for example, he served as a human rights investigator whose job involved documenting Burmese army atrocities against the ethnic Karen minority.
“I had to go deep into the jungle, deep into the villages in Burma, to report all of the abuses against my people. This was very dangerous work. I interviewed hundreds of people. But when I finally came to this country, it was difficult to use my skills to get work,” he told me, grimacing at the memory.
Once he arrived here and began working at the Ramsey County Health Department, he saw an increasing number of Karen refugees trying to cope with untreated post-traumatic stress disorder and the difficult transition to American life.
“In the old country, people drank alcohol under the table because it was not acceptable according to our religion,” he explains. “Plus, my people did not have the money. But when they come to this country — boom! Alcohol is all over the place, they receive public assistance and start drinking because they think it will help the feelings of frustration after maybe 30 years of living in a refugee camp.”
Dwee interviewed over 300 people during a research project documenting mental health issues facing Karen refugees. During that project, he got to know Dr. Shana Sniffen at HealthEast Clinic — Roselawn in Maplewood and saw that she intuitively understood Karen ways of speaking.
“Dr. Sniffen is very smart,” he says. “Most Americans don’t understand that Karen people don’t answer the question right away. We tell you the story. But, Dr. Sniffen gets it. Also, in treatment, she can read people’s minds and she knows what they want to say because she has worked with refugee populations for a long time.”
He recalls one of the early meetings of the Karen Chemical Dependency Collaboration (KCDC), which illustrated the importance of Karen culture and leadership.
“We brought Karen leaders, the elderly, Karen pastors, educators, agency people together. We talked and talked and talked for 45 minutes in English, and the brainstorm didn’t work, we didn’t get a thing. So, Dr. Sniffen said, ‘Ehtaw, you and PawWah (the other Karen Co-Director) take over the meeting.’ So, we took over the meeting and we talked in Karen. Within 30 minutes, we got the list of things to do, and we went from there.”
From his point of view, the KCDC is an attempt to “connect the dots” so that the Karen people hear coordinated messages about self-care from many respected leaders: pastors, educators, physicians, law enforcement and parole officers. Plus, the project trains these professionals to talk about getting help for harmful alcohol use in ways that Karen people — especially Karen men — can hear and understand.
“We are dealing with many people who do not believe they have a problem with alcohol — at least that is what they say,” says Dwee. “But I believe that heart-to-heart, they know they have a problem. They just don’t know what to do about it. We have to reach them with the message that we are not the enemy and that KCDC is here to help them.”
He is upbeat about the future of the KCDC and determined to use his hard-won skills to help this generation of Karen people and the next to not only survive but thrive. In his own life, he is proud that his daughter received a four-year scholarship to Augsburg College, where she is studying psychology.
“That is her dream: to help the Karen people who are suffering from trauma by becoming a counselor,” he says, smiling. He is committed to inspiring other young people to avoid drugs and alcohol and become successful in life. To ensure their success, Dwee says that everyone must work together with one goal in mind.
Of special interest to Dwee are the probation and law enforcement systems, which often run counter to systems in Burma and Thailand. “It is likely that some of our people who get arrested do not understand that they must follow up with the probation officer. Then they get in worse trouble. Truthfully, we need a system that can be explained to my people that they can understand. And if they understand what is needed and are told how to make it happen, and then they do it, they will be good citizens.
“My point is this,” he says, leaning in. “My people got lost in the jungle. Then we came to the refugee camps, so tired, so frustrated, and we got lost there, too. Now, we are getting lost in the city. I cannot let that happen again. We need to rebuild the village in the city. Because in the village, everybody knows everybody. Everybody helps everybody. That is what we need to do.”
When I ask Dwee if he can find his way back to Maplewood, he looks at me and grins. “Of course. I am Jungle Man. With my GPS, I can find my way anywhere.”