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.