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Karen man’s journey takes him from a Burmese jungle to a life in Minnesota

Now a U.S. Citizen, Saw Poe Thay Doh is one of 9,000 Karen who live in the Twin Cities, the largest Karen community in the nation.

Saw Poe Thay Doh, left, Mu Kpru Law, center, and Par Nay Htoo, right.
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

One thing Saw Poe Thay Doh experienced at age 7 still remains fresh in his mind: seeking refuge in the jungle as the Burmese army burned his village to the ground.

“I was very afraid of them,” he said of the regime, which continues to target and persecute people of his Karen ethnicity, a group that’s been fighting for separation since Burma, also known as Myanmar, gained independence from Britain in 1948.“They [would have] killed us all if they saw us.”

When Doh emerged from hiding, he entered a Thai refugee camp and lived with his grandfather, Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, a prominent opposition leader. 

Even though life in the camp didn’t provide Doh all the basic needs, he said it was better than living in the jungle. “There was no place to sleep,” he added. “No food or clean water.”

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Rainy seasons were particularly dreadful, he added.    

In the camp, however, there was at least a place to call home. Plus, he was able to visit a nearby United Nations food station twice a month and collected free rice, beans, oil and salt, among other things.

But in 2008, his grandfather Phan, who spent decades fighting on behalf of Karen state and its people, was assassinated. 

Coming to America 

Several months after the death of Phan, Doh arrived in the United States through a U.S. resettlement program, which admits thousands of refugees escaping persecution and violence in their home countries each year.

“U.S. humanitarian assistance provided through these organizations keeps millions of people alive every day in nearly every country where vulnerable people need assistance,” according to the U.S. Department of State website.

“The U.S. government’s goal is to help refugees become self-sufficient as quickly as possible. After they arrive, refugees begin looking for jobs, learning English, and enrolling in training programs.”

And Doh did all of those, one step at a time.

When he first landed in North Carolina, Doh secured a cleaning job at a local hotel. “I did not have the chance to go to school,” he said, “but I worked for my own survival.”

Four months later, Doh told his supervisor that he was moving to Minnesota to pursue better opportunities with the growing Karen population here. 

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But more than anything, said Doh, what the supervisor said inspired him to stay optimistic about his new life in the United States: “You’re doing a great job,” the supervisor told Doh. “If you come back, I’ll help you get back to work.”

“That made me feel happy,” Doh said.

New life in St. Paul

Since Doh’s arrival in St. Paul nearly seven years ago, he earned not only a high school diploma and completed office administration training, he secured a full-time job as a receptionist with the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM).

“I really like my job and enjoy working with all the staff and supporting them with all the hard and important work they do,” Doh said.

The organization provides employment and immigration services as well as youth and health programs to the estimated 9,000 Karen refugees in Minnesota, which houses the largest Karen population in the nation.

“The biggest wave arrived in 2006 and 2007,” said Saw Morrison, a program manager at KOM. “Karen refugees started applying for refugee resettlement in the U.S. and in Europe. But most of the people choose the U.S. because it has a big name and it has respect for human rights.”

With that in mind, Doh — who lives with Saw Kwah, a pastor of the Emmanuel Karen Baptist Church in St. Paul — arrived here to pursue a dream he said would have been nearly impossible to come to fruition in his homeland: to become a public servant for the Karen people.

Doh, 26, has already begun that service: He volunteers at the church when he’s not working.

Said Doh of his volunteer service at the church: “I get to use my talent making films and writing stories to help spread the word about the church and the Karen community,”

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Doh also mentors newly arrived Karen teenagers, including Mu Kpru Law, 14, and Par Nay Htoo, 18. Mu and Htoo arrived in the U.S. a year ago from the refugee camp Doh left seven years ago. 

“We are members of the church,” said Mu, who attends Harding High School in St. Paul. “Whenever I’ve questions about stuff or need advice, I come to him. I look up to him.”

Htoo, who goes to Leap High School in St. Paul, added: “[Doh] is like a teacher to me. He is my good friend, too.”   

Not in communication with family

Doh — the oldest of five siblings — may have adjusted to new life in the United States, he said, but he worries about his parents and siblings who still live in Myanmar.

“Communication is tough there,” he added. “The only time I can speak with them is when they come to Thailand … once or twice a year.” 

Now that he became a U.S. citizen last year, however, Doh said he’s eager to visit the family when he’s financially able. 

Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.