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Interview with Eh Thweet




Eh Thweet was born in Burma in 1986. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Early life - Burmese military burning his village - struggle to pay for school - running from the Burmese army - finding food - landmines - fleeing to Thailand - living in a refugee camp in Thailand - religion - religious persecution - taking children from Burma to Thailand - coming to the United States - working for Catholic Charities - hopes of further education in Minnesota - Karen folktales.





World Region



Asian American & Pacific Islander
Oral History Project
Narrator: Eh Thweet Interviewer: David Zander



Cover design: Kim Jackson Copyright © 2012 by Minnesota Historical Society All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy and recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Oral History Office, Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55102.

The Asian population of Minnesota has grown dramatically since 1980, and in particular during the period from 1990 to the present. The Asian community is one of the largest and most diverse in the state, and is particularly noteworthy because its growth has been spread across such a wide spectrum of ethnic groups. The Minnesota Historical Society and the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans formed a partnership to create a series of projects of oral history interviews with Asian community leaders. The projects are intended to help chronicle the history, successes, challenges, and contributions of this diverse and highly important group of Minnesotans. During the past twenty years the Minnesota Historical Society has successfully worked with many immigrant communities in the state to ensure that the stories of their arrival, settlement, and adjustment to life in Minnesota becomes part of the historical record. While the Society has worked with the Asian Indian, Tibetan, Cambodian and Hmong communities in the recent past, the current project includes interviews with members of the Vietnamese, Filipino, Lao and Korean communities, with more planned for the future. These new projects have created an expanded record that that better represents the Asian community and its importance to the state. The project could not have succeeded without the efforts of a remarkable group of advisors who helped frame the topics for discussion, and the narrators who shared their inspiring stories in each interview. We are deeply grateful for their interest and their commitment to the cause of history.

James E. Fogerty Minnesota Historical Society

Kao Ly Ilean Her Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans



The Karen are an ethnic minority group in Burma and Thailand. In Southern Burma, in Kawthoolei state, the Karen have been involved in a struggle for independence since the end of World War II. The Karen villages continue to suffer frequent attacks and persecution from Burma’s ruling military junta. Many Karen fled to safety across the eastern border into Thailand. Since 2000 Karen have been arriving in Minnesota. There are now over six thousand living in Minnesota. They are among the most recent refugees resettling in Minnesota.


Eh Thweet, 2012.


Eh Thweet, in the back row with dark blue shirt, surrounded by friends at Lay Ka Paw Church Campus in Thailand, 2003.


Group of young refugees from Burma at Baw Naw Church, Thailand, 2005.



LMTC college students in Thailand. Eh Tweet second from left, middle row, 2006.

Eh Thweet and two close friends at LMTC, Thailand, 2006. 14


Eh Thweet second row, right as a second year arts student at LMTC, 2008.



Eh Thweet in New Jersey with Lutheran Church volunteer, Jack, 2008.

Eh Thweet and friends buying a car in New Jersey, 2008. 18

Eh Thweet working as an employment counsellor at Southeast Asian Ministry, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2011.


Five rescued Karen students graduation ceremony at Mae La camp.

These are the five students graduating at Mae La camp that Eth Thweet rescued from Burma. 22


Eh Thweet, Dan Murphy and Hared, at Southeast Asian Ministry (SeAM), 2011.



Eh Thweet with his Karen friends in Saint Paul, Minnesota, 2011.



Eh Thweet and Ahmay Ya doing orientation for refugee clients at SeAM, 2011.




Eh Thweet Narrator David Zander Interviewer November 5, 2011 Southeast Asian Ministry 105 University Avenue Saint Paul, Minnesota

Eh Thweet David Zander


DZ: November 5th 2011. It’s about 3:25 p.m. We’re at Southeast Asian Ministry, in the basement of the Christ Lutheran Church opposite the State Capitol on University Avenue. My name is David Zander. I am the interviewer. And I am sitting with Eh Thweet. So let’s begin. Tell me your name. ET: My name is Eh Thweet. Firs name Eh. Last name Thweet. DZ: Alright. When were you born and where were you born? ET: I was born in 1986 in Burma. DZ: 1986. So you are about twenty-five. What do you remember when you were very, very small? What are your first memories in Burma? ET: My first memory in Burma... my mom told me I was born after my village was burned. And they all... My family and villagers had to escape and hide in the jungle. So at that time we all were homeless and they had no food. DZ: Who was attacking your village? ET: The Burmese military junta was attacking. And the KNU [Karen National Union] were defending us. There was fighting close to our village. DZ: So the Burmese came in and destroyed the village of the Karen and your people ran for safety? ET: Yes. We ran for safety. We didn’t have safety there. Conditions were very unsafe. DZ: In your family, how many were there? Did you have brothers and sisters? 32

ET: Yes. I have three brothers and three sisters. DZ: And where do you fit? Are you the oldest? ET: I am the middle one. ET: [Chuckles] DZ: Tell me about your brothers and sisters. And I know we need to protect their identities, so we will not mention their names. ET: I have three brothers and three sisters. Two brothers and one sister older than me. Two sisters and one brother younger than me. The oldest sister is thirty. I think, thirty, around there. One of my younger sisters and one of my younger brothers are still in the refugee camp studying in the school. That sister is seventeen, the brother is about thirteen. The other brother and sister are in Burma. DZ: So there you were, you are very young, in Burma, your village destroyed. You are with your mother and father. And you all ran, you ran for safety. How did you mange to go to a school? ET: We started going to school in our village. Our village was poor and we don’t have a big school. We had an elementary school in our village. Our family is very poor so I remember that when I was a child I went to elementary school. The teacher asked me for the school fee, twenty kyat to pay for school. But I don’t have any money. I asked my ma to pay. My ma doesn’t have any money. So the next day my ma told me, “I will get you money. I will pay you money tomorrow.” And then I waited. Tomorrow came. My mom doesn’t have money, not yet. So when I got to school, teacher keeps asking me for the money. So I feel like I’m sighing. So I told my ma, “Today I will not go to school. I will find money and then I will find a job. I don’t want to go to school.” So my ma told me, “Go, I will take care of money. I will give to you so you pay to your school.” But on my way to school, I went to see my grandma, and my grandma have twenty dollar and that paid (school fees) for me. I went back to school. DZ: And that money... How long did that pay for school? Is that twenty dollars or kyat? ET: Twenty kyat. The school had a plan to do a fundraiser or to do something. But it does not cover the whole year fee. The whole year fee is like... a thousand kyat, something like that. DZ: So you managed to stay in school even though your parents were poor. What was school like? Did you like going to school? ET: Yes, I liked school, because the school is close to my family, close by my house, too. But the problem was we didn’t have enough food, we didn’t have enough money to go to school. So sometimes I told my ma, “Ma, I will not go to school anymore. I will quit school. I will look for 33

a job like taking care of buffalo for other people, they will pay me... I will take care of cows on the farm.” But my ma told me, “No. You have to go to school.” At that time you have to go to school. DZ: Did you take care of the cows? ET: Yes. Cows, cattle. And buffalo, ET: And I wanted to work on the farm. DZ: So you are in a village, going to school. The Burmese Army is very dangerous. Tell me what you remember about how dangerous it was. ET: Yes. That dangerous...Our village was not covered (protected) by any government. The government, they’re Burmese military army, so. If they came, we have to run. We have to hide and escape. If they see an old woman, they can rape... If they saw a man, they can use him to be a porter to carry the army supplies and they can use us for their front line when they attacked the KNU camp. We were put in the front. If there were landmines we would have to be the first to walk there. That mean when they attacked the KNU, we were their cover. So when the Burmese military came, (to our village) we had to run... Escape and running as far away from them as we can. DZ: How did you know the Burmese were coming? ET: Oh. Yes. We didn’t know that. When they came, if we saw them coming, we run like we were... The hunted, they’re hunting in the jungle. If the animals saw the hunter, they just run. Our life’s like this... the same as the hunted animals. DZ: Do you remember running from the enemy? ET: Yes. Ah, I have run away many times. I have to be ready to run like the whole time. Like when we sleep, we didn’t sleep safely. Sometimes we sleep under the tree. We sleep on the grass. We sleep underground for safety if the Burmese military came. When I was a child, we have to sleep in the underground. Because if they are firing guns, we already sleep in underground (shelter). Our elders asked us to sleep underground. If we are slept in the village, because my ma has many kids, they can’t carry us the whole time, so we had to sleep underground, in the underground. DZ: When you say underground, do you mean caves, holes in the ground? ET: Yes, a cave. A cave like a cover we put over us...We dig the hole... And then we’d put the wood and sand on the top there, and then we lived under there. DZ: Oh, so you’d make like a hideaway, a place to hide? 34

ET: Yes. Yes. DZ: And all around you are trees? ET: Yes. We’d cut a tree, we put it over the hole in the ground, to cover us if the soldiers were near… If they fire (bullets)... It’s not hitting us directly. ET: So we hid in the woods like animals. DZ: And you remember that. ET: Yes, I remember that every day. DZ: I know at some point you left to follow the Karen soldiers, the KNU. But, before that, how many years of schooling did you finish? ET: I think, five years or four years, of school. I do not remember, I started school. Started grade one and grade two, grade three, grade four. And I have to go to the elementary. I pass elementary; I have to go up to a middle school. But we don’t have middle school, we don’t have middle school in our village, so, we have to go to the city, to go to the middle school. So at that time my mother doesn’t have... My parents don’t have money to support me to go to the city. But they tried to make it happen so they... They sent the food and for the rent to go to the city to go to school. My parents had friends in the city...They support us... I don’t have too much money, or they don’t have too much money. But I could go to school. At that time, I knew that my parents don’t have money. I have a white uniform, one set and that one set I wear that every day. When I got home I washed my uniform. In the morning, I wore it to school again. DZ: So you left your parents, left your village, went to stay with friends in the city who could help you to go to middle school, continue your education further. ET: Yes. DZ: And you still had to manage on very little money. You had one school uniform, one set, and you would have to wash it every day and take care of it. DZ: Did you like middle school? ET: Yes, I liked middle school. But the problem, I had to quit middle school because my village was burned again, it was burned again. When the fighting was in our village, our KNU and the Burmese military, they were fighting. The Burmese military, they used my parents like animals in the fighting, so our village was burned. We don’t have clothes, we don’t have food, and we don’t have a home. In the rainy season it’s very hard for us. And ah... [Sighs] I feel very sad because in the school the teacher asking for the money, one thousand kyat for the school. We can’t make it. My mom cannot pay this. So I told my mom, “I 35

will quit.” I don’t want to... To stay like the poor life like this, trying a way... try to get a way to... To leave this village. I told my ma, and ma said... my ma said, “No. You can’t. At this time you have to go to school.” I said, “No. Ma, I can’t go to school, we don’t have money.” Our family was very poor. I told my ma. “I will leave this village. I will find a job.” ET: So my... My education was nearly dropped. And they told me, “Don’t go.” Don’t stop school to find a job. You have to go to school. I said, “No, ma. I can’t do that. I can’t go to school.” But my ma asked me to go, so I still go to school, but I didn’t pay that money, that amount yet. So in 1997, I think, 1997 or199, the Burmese military burned that area, the village where we lived, people in those areas of the villages have to move to the city. If we didn’t move in the city, if they saw us there in the village like animals they will kill immediately. So all of our villagers left in the rainy season we had to move to the city. So my mama, my father, my grandma. .And my younger siblings, like they are small, they are kids. Many kids had to walk or be carried with us, so we moved in to the city. Because if the government saw us in the jungle, the forest, in the countryside, they would kill us immediately. So all of us we moved in to the city. DZ: Was this city in a safe protected area, behind KNU lines? ET: No, this was not a safe area. It was between the Burmese and the Karen troops. When we moved in to the city. We don’t have jobs, so we don’t have food; we have to carry the food. In the rainy season we can’t. So it’s very hard to live in the city for us. So because we are kids, My... My... Me and my sister, my younger sister...We went to the city with my grandma. So my ma and my father...They lived in the countryside and they live and run. And that way they will work. So if the Burmese government ever came they run and if they get any money they send it to us. So we lived in the city, it’s very hard. My parents can’t work. They don’t have a job because of the civil war. They could not work on the farm. No one can take care of the animals. The animals ate all the paddy trees so they cannot plant rice, because of that they can’t work, they don’t have money. The city was not a safe place. Burmese military try to catch them to use them as unpaid labor, porters. So we... We can’t live, continuous living in the city. We came back to close with our village because in the city, (you need money) every day to buy food... But in the countryside, we find roots and berries, bamboo we mixed that and then we ate that. We ate the roots, the name is clee tee, but I don’t know how to call in English, We dug up clee tee and then we ate that. (Break in Recording) DZ: Eh Thweet, you were telling me how you found food. There was this root. And it’s called clee tee. And this was a way that you could find food. Wild plants growing. Tell me what you told me about clee tee earlier. That if you eat clee tee you can live on it for three years... ET: For our Karen people our main food is rice. Paddy rice, you know. So if we don’t have rice we cannot survive. Like our stomach is not working. So we have to have the rice. And then 36

either we have chicken or [unclear] you have to have rice every day. So when the Burmese military burned our rice... The rice is burned... Burned, all of this, we don’t have rice as food to eat. So we find the entire clee tee and then we ate that. We can survive for three years if we eat that, the clee tee. DZ: What does clee tee looks like? ET: Clee tee looks like... Looks like potato, but it’s bigger than a potato. But it’s a plant. DZ: So if you were hungry, and there was no rice in the rice paddies, you could search and find and survive by eating clee tee. ET: Yes, but. It’s dangerous to try to find it, because the Burmese military, the enemy army, they put landmines in that jungle, too. If we find the plants, we have to be careful... Sometimes we make a very long, long wooden pole, and then... Before we step, we test the ground, we screen that first, and then we step, like this. DZ: So you’re talking about how to find food in the ground where there might be landmines. ET: Yes, landmines. Yes, landmines. DZ: So you have to be careful. ET: Yes, before we step, we have to be sure landmines are not there... DZ: Did you do that with the long poles? You, yourself. ET: Yes. Yes, I used to do that, too. DZ: Did a landmine ever explode? ET: Yes. But I didn’t see one explode. It was the other villagers; they got like their legs blown off. There was some of that. DZ: So there was danger - always danger. ET: Yes. The Burmese military had many soldiers, a big front line. Sometimes our villages were caught between the fighting. The Burmese come and catch and kill all our animals, our cattle. They eat all the animals in the Karen villages. DZ: I think you told me that you would follow the Karen National Union, the friendly soldiers. The Karen soldiers. Sometimes you would follow the KNU because there was safety if you were close to the soldiers, right?


ET: In my village, we work on the farm. At that time, the fighting is near my village, so I’m on the farm, I just see my father. So I’m just only on the farm, so I didn’t go to school at that time. So when they are fighting, then I try to just hide. And then, oh. I saw the KNU. I followed them. ET: Because the danger is very bad if I’m a villager or rural people, we don’t have a chance to work, to go to school, we don’t have food or safety. It’s very poor. So I followed the KNU. DZ: How old were you when you followed the soldiers? ET: I was thirteen years old. DZ: Were the soldiers friendly? I mean did they say, “Go back,” or did the soldiers let you be with them? ET: They let me be with them. ET: Because I have no food. I followed them. DZ: So tell me about your life from that point on... How old were you when you went to Thailand for safety? ET: When I went to Thailand... I think I was sixteen. DZ: So tell me about your life, from thirteen to sixteen... ET: I spent some time with the KNU... I followed the soldiers. For one year and a half, almost two years. DZ: Where did you sleep? ET: I would sleep... wherever they sleep. Because the soldiers, sometimes they sleep under the tree, they... They would sleep many places. DZ: No tents? ET: Sometimes tents. DZ: Did you sleep in the tent if they had a tent? ET: Yes. ET: And then after one year or two years I thought, I need education. I’m young. If I don’t have any education, it’s my future life... I don’t know what to do. So I talked with the KNU leader. I told him I want to go to school but that my parents cannot support me to go to school, they don’t have any money. “So if you can help me, I want to go to school,” I told the KNU leader. He said, 38

“Mmmm, if you go to school...” And then he tests me. He gets the leader. He had one book in English like grade one, grade two, grade three and then they asked me to read. I read that. And then the other man he asked me to do the math gave me a mathematic test. I did that. “Oh!” he said. “Not too bad,” he said. ET: So he said, “you’re young, too. So if you want to go to school...If I can find someplace, I will send you.” So I still followed the soldiers...They crossed one of the villages there. One of the villages. And then he left me there with people in the village. He talked with one of the family there. He said, "This kid here, he is willing to go to school.” I was happy to go to school there. I stayed with that family. I went to school there almost one year. But it was hard to stay with the other family, they... They are kind, but it’s not so easy for them, because now they have to support me too. DZ: Right. ET: Yes. So they asked me to help. Whatever they want help with I tried to do that. I tried to help. Whatever they asked me to do. And then after that the Burmese military attacked that village again, so we had to flee... all the villages had to flee. We fled to Thailand. DZ: Okay. So now you’re about sixteen. The village had been attacked. Was this the first time you went to Thailand. ET: Yes, the first time. DZ: Tell me about this journey to Thailand, what was it like? How, how many of you were there? Was it nighttime? Was it daytime? Describe the journey to Thailand. When you think about it what do you see? ET: Oh, we started running; it’s in the nighttime first. And to get into Thailand. We had to walk. We don’t have a car, we have no transportation... We’re walking. The Burmese had attacked many villages at the same time, not just ours. So, the Karen could not survive there. Everything destroyed. Many people, almost a hundred, more than that in the group. We went to the city across the border. We passed the border. The Thai police came. They checked us and there... In Burma is the noise…. The fighting... We heard the guns, so they allowed us to go to the refugee camp. DZ: You could hear the guns? ET: Yes. Because sometimes I run from the village the fighting was happening again and again. We have to run. We have no cover. Plus many villagers were shot by the Burmese. The Burmese military is very cruel. DZ: So you are part of a hundred people going to Thailand. Were you on a road? Was it just a little path? What was the route like that you took? Was it a road or was it a path? 39

ET: Maybe we have to pass two or three check points to Thailand and if the Burmese military, if they saw us, they would arrest us and kill us, too. Who ever tried to flee there? So like one family go across first, so if the other families watch, if we didn’t see trouble , then we cross... Sometimes the police come to wait on the border. If they are not there, we tried to get across the river, we crossed the river and then we got to Thailand. On the border there are Karen villages. So we can stay in their homes. Like they keep us safe for a few days... Like for a certain time... The police, they didn’t see us. If the Thai police saw us, they would not let us into Thailand. So the villagers there keep us in their homes. When the police came, the villagers said, “We didn’t see anybody come there.” After that the UNCHR came... [Eh Thweet is referring to UNHCR, which is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations’ refugee agency.] The UNCHR sent us to the camp, Mae La Camp. DZ: The river you crossed, was this the Thoomwe? ET: Thoomwe, yes. The Thoomwe River. DZ: And was it summertime? ET: Yes, summertime. DZ: So when you came to the river. What did it look like? How do you know how to cross the river? ET: Oh. The river, the water is not too deep in the summer. DZ: Eh Thweet, we’ve just described crossing the river. And its summertime, so the river is shallow and there are Karen villagers to stay with on the other side. So now you are safe in Thailand. Tell me what happened next. ET: Oh, in Thailand, we got in the refugee camp. DZ: What was it like in the refugee camp? ET: Oh, life in the refugee camp is... Better than in Burma... When I arrived in refugee camp I feel like I’m in heaven… I’m safe for every day. Peaceful... I didn’t worry... For anything. Because when we were in Burma we had to worry, when the military will come, when they will shoot the guns, so in camp, we didn’t need to worry about anything. DZ: Nobody’s firing guns at you and no sudden attacks. For the first time you’re feeling relief. So what happened next? ET: When I arrived in the refugee camp I lived in the dormitory. Like school dormitory there. We went to school. I started to go to school again. When I got there, I thought I’m safe. And human... I’m like a human again, I have pride. 40

DZ: And I know you start to think about the kids left behind, right ET: There were many children in my village and many people in my village, they are not as safe and they’re unprotected. So I want to help them. I can’t help them there. It’s very hard to... To get there from the refugee camp. So I cannot go... I cannot go back to Burma. It’s very dangerous. So I prayed. Oh, my God, oh God, please help me the next two or three years I have planned to get my brother, sister, children in my village who need my help and then who need your help. So if you help me, I think I can go and then I can make it... smoothly. So I prayed there... Almost every day, I remember, every night when I went to sleep. But sometimes I forget to pray, too. [Chuckles] I prayed... I think four years or three years in the camp. One of my friends in the camp was from Sweden. He writes on Burmese issues. I told my friend, “I need your help because I’m planning to go back to Burma to rescue children in my village. So you have been there, you know how things are in my village. So you have to help me.” My friend in the camp made a phone call, called Sweden. And the volunteer in Sweden said, “Okay, I will help you.” So he sent me the money. Two thousand kyat (Thai currency) And I try to save money. When I have a day off, I work for other families... Cleaning the house, and dig the toilets, they paid me money. I saved it too. I saved this money and there was... A family, they have money, they pay me pocket money to buy and take care for my daily needs. And then I saved that I saved that and then I combined with my two thousand... I think two thousand... I have three thousand kyat so that’s how I have money to go back to Burma. DZ: So there was a Swedish volunteer, and friends. And you told them what you wanted to do and they found you some money. And then you did any job in the camp. Digging toilets... ET: Carry stone, I forgot to tell you that. I carry stone, sand. Building materials for ceilings, roofs. And cement DZ: So you carried materials... And you’d buy something, you’s sell it, sometimes you made a profit. ET: Yes. I collected butter, fish sauce and sold it. DZ: And you saved the money until you had three thousand... Not dollars, right? Three thousand kyat. When the Swedish refugees gave you two thousand kyat, how much money would that be in dollars? ET: One hundred dollars. DZ: So not a lot of money. ET: Yes, a lot of money. A lot of money for me then! [Chuckles]


DZ: I remember you told me how some of the money was to pay for taxis. Tell me, when you decided to go back and rescue kids. Did you feel scared? ET: I feel scared but I pray to God. I think God can help me, so I pray before I go. DZ: Now let’s go back a bit and talk about religion. What religion did your mother and your father have? ET: Oh. My mother is Christian. My father is spiritual... Holy spiritual believer. It’s not Buddhism. They believe in spirits. Animist, I think. DZ: Animist... Like the old, old shamans believe in spirits all around you. So your father was traditional... ET: Traditional believer. DZ: So tell me how and where you learn to pray. Tell me, how did you learn religion? ET: Oh, when I was a child my mother taught me to go to church, to pray... But I didn’t listen to my mother too much. [Chuckles] DZ: But there was a church in the village. ET: Yes. We have a church there. ET: But the church was burned two times. And then they tried to build that again, out of wood or the bamboo but... it was burned again. Like my church in my village is small and poor. They don’t have any money there... They don’t have equipment; they don’t have like microphone, guitar, pianos... But sometimes when I got money and worked here, I sent money to buy and when. We celebrate something we like to cook... I sent money to buy a pot. And then I sent money for the pastor, too. In my village we have a pastor. One pastor is a lady but their congregation, the Christians there, they are very, very poor, cannot support there. So if I got money, I sent. To her. To the pastor. But because she loved Christ, I think that... She is trying to work very hard for the village there. DZ: I don’t want to be critical of KNU, but it seems like... Your villages get burned, your churches get burned. It seems KNU is not able to do a really good job defending, protecting... ET: Yes. They cannot do a really good job, too. They cannot cover, protect... No. KNU didn’t cover us... The Burmese military didn’t cover us in our villages there, it’s very bad. The worst, I think in the countryside far for the city. ET: In the city is Burmese military. In the countryside, it’s KNU, so they are fighting. Our village is vulnerable... We don’t have any chance. Sometimes we look like animals. Unsafe. 42

DZ: Did you ever have trouble face to face with Burmese military? ET: I have trouble face to face one time. When I was just a boy, when I went to the city with my brother. When we went there, they asked about the Christians. They said, “Where is Christians? I heard in your village... We have Christian family... You have in the village, there are many Christians there, families there.” ET: If we say we are Christian, they will give us trouble. So I say, “Oh. In our village we have many Christians there close with the school. My house was there too, but they didn’t know I was Christian. But we’re trying to flee to... To the city. So they asked are there many Christians there. We told them, “Not too many... three or four, five Christian families in my village,” Like I’m not Christian... Christians are there we told them. But really we are Christian, my parents are Christian. DZ: So it is very dangerous. Back to the rescue. You said a lot of prayers. Then did you cross over the river again? To get back to Burma? ET: Yes. DZ: And how long a journey was it to find the kids to rescue? How far did you walk...? ET: Three days, I have to cross the forest for three days or four days. We have to sleep at night there. So I tried to get there. But the Burmese military were on one side, on the other side KNU, I have to cross between them, we have to worry for landmines, too. We crossed but I prayed every time. I’m scared, too. [Chuckles] Because I’m scared to die! [Laughs] If the Burmese catch... Arrest me, they would hit me, they would torture me... I’m scared. So I tried to walk between there, they didn’t know. But when they are quiet, sometimes they are fighting Sometimes they’re quiet. When they’re quiet, I have to go between them. DZ: And there are landmines. You had to travel across landmines. Now when you get to this village, do the kids know you’re going to come and rescue them or not? ET: No, I went to see with their parents. So when I arrived in my village, we had three or four villages there, so when I arrived, I went to see their parents. Oh. So I see we have our village very poor. So you can’t support your kids, your children. Whoever wants to go school... if you wanted to send your kid to school, let come... Came with me. So I will take care to the camp, to get to the camp and then to go to school. But many parents came to see me, so they are very happy. “Oh, take my kid. Take my kid,” they said. I said, “But I can’t take too many because the... I will have problems. I don’t have too much money, I just have three... Three thousand.” So when I came back I used that money... ET: I say, “I don’t have too much money.” So like seventeen people I can take there. DZ: So you took seventeen at one time? 43

ET: Yes. Yes, that’s at one time. DZ: So you are making an argument to the parents, look, let your kids come with me. They will get educated; they will have a better life. ET: Yes. DZ: What ages were the children... When the kids are all getting ready to go with you, what ages were they? ET: I think some were six or seven, the youngest ones, and then the older was fifteen. DZ: All boys or girls too? ET: Yes, boys and girls, mixed. DZ: Boys and girls. The youngest was six or seven, the oldest was fifteen. Roughly, how many boys, how many girls? ET: One, two... One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight... Nine. I think nine boys. DZ: Nine boys. And about eight girls or so. Were there any brothers and sisters of these boys and girls? ET: Yes. Seventeen including my younger brother and sister. DZ: So it included your brother and sister... Plus fifteen others. So now you’ve got to make three days’ journey back to the Thai border and it’s very dangerous. With some kids as young as six or seven . ET: Yes, they can walk, run, many times they have worked... They are strong. But I worry about for them. If they are sick... It would be very trouble for us, we would have trouble. DZ: Did they cry? Were they sad to leave their parents...? ET: Yes, they cried. But they are very happy to come to the camp. Their parents told me, “take my kid and if they graduate, they get a better life. Use their (labor) whatever you want to use. If you need to. “But I said, “No! I take your kid not for profit, not to work for me... They have to have an education higher than me. If I went to college, they have to finish higher than me.” I just told them that. Their parents were very happy. DZ: Excellent. So did any bad things happen on these three days’ journey to safety?


ET: This three day journey in Burma... It went smoothly. We get safely across there. I think it’s the grace of God. Because the kids, they are innocent, so we can cross there... We can come smooth, we can come smoothly. DZ: Did you travel during the daytime or during the nighttime? ET: Oh, just only daytime. Nighttime we’d sleep. DZ: Nighttime you slept. Under trees? ET: Under trees, yes. DZ: What food did you have? ET: Food, we carried with us. We brought with us in from the village. DZ: Rice? ET: Yes, rice. Rice and salt. Brown rice, I think. DZ: Was the rice cooked? ET: No, we brought a pot. We cooked, and then we continued our journey. DZ: You cooked the rice. Did you carry water? ET: Water we didn’t carry. Because in the forest, we have many rivers there. We had to cross many rivers. So we climbed up the mountain, because big, big forest. If you going in Burma, you will see that. Forest very big there and very green. DZ: Is it jungle or forest? ET: Forest is just like jungle for us DZ: Yes. I guess I speak about jungle... Big leaves and different kinds of thick vegetation. Forest more space between, ET: I think jungle. Jungle and forest, but we have the small road there. We can walk along trails used by some hunters, they pass through Thailand. Some of them, they carry the traders to go to Thailand to sell some products. ET: If the military are not a threat, not active, people can breed animals and they send them to Thailand to sell. But that is sometimes dangerous there. If the military… Burmese military saw us there; they will arrest us and then give us trouble. 45

DZ: So you got back to the refugee camp... ET: No, not the refugee camp. Because first the problem is on the border again. After we crossed the river, we have to find a way to get to the refugee camp. Because the Thai police... Big trouble. So after I arrived there, I tried to organize the taxi... To take my kids to the .refugee camp in small groups. And then I paid each taxi... I think for each taxi I have to pay like seven hundred or something. I had three thousand baht, so I can rent four taxis. But before I call the taxis, I tried to call many people to help me. But people are kind of scared. Because many kids, they think if they help me, it looks like we are kidnappers and then we’re selling children to other countries… So, they didn’t help me. So I tried to make it happen and then I prayed again. Other people, they come and ask me, where is the kids’ real parent? I said, “It’s me.” [Chuckles] DZ: [Chuckles] ET: Then they look at me! But they didn’t talk to the police. They act like sweet people, too. When they saw that I brought the children, many children to safety, they gave five dollars, five dollars to each of my children. People helped them there. DZ: So before the tape runs out, I want to get us to America. When did you leave the refugee camp for America? ET: I left in Jan 31st, 2008, I think. DZ: You came first to New Jersey. ET: Yes. I arrived the first day in New Jersey. DZ: And tell me about the last three years, 2008 to now, 2011. What have you done? ET: First I came through Catholic Charities. So they found me a job at a casino, like housekeeping. I was there one month. And there they offered me to work for a caseworker assistant. But I didn’t do that. I helped my friend there. A worker at the casino told me, “That job is not too challenging. You’re young. Try to find another job.” And then I quit. [Laughs] I worked at Wal-Mart. I worked at a Wal-Mart nine months. DZ: Catholic Charities was helping you resettle. They offered you a job in the casino. So there was a housekeeper job, and then you found a job in Wal-Mart. In New Jersey? ET: Yes, New Jersey. DZ: And you were nine months there. And at some point you moved to Iowa... When did you go to Iowa? 46

ET: VSS (Vietnamese Social Services) they post on their website a job opening job at Tyson in Iowa. The pay is good, like thirteen dollars an hour. Forty hours if you work overtime. You will get paid like sixteen dollars. You can work sixty hours a week. So I thought that, oh, this is just right, the right place for me to work and then support my children and my family in Burma and Thailand. So I called Tyson. They said if you’re willing to work that job. I told him, “Oh, I’d like to work there.” So I’m planning to come to Iowa. DZ: So you went to work for Tyson, a meat processing company in Iowa, ET: In Storm Lake, Iowa. DZ: So you saw a job posted on the Internet… You actually found the VSS website. ET: Linked to the Kareni website. DZ: And VSS helps Karen through the Karen Project... DZ: How did you get from New Jersey to Storm Lake, Iowa? ET: A flight. I flew to Minnesota. I have one friend there in New Jersey. His name is Jack. He is retired. He worked at U.S. Military ten years. After that, he retired. He taught me how to drive. So I drove in New Jersey... I told him I would like to go to Minnesota.” He said, “Minnesota is not warm... In fact, it’s very cold there.” [Chuckles] DZ: [Chuckles] ET: I said, “Oh, I’d like to work that job there.” “Oh,” he said, “Okay, I can help you.” And then he drove me to the airport. And then he bought a ticket for me. So I came and landed in the Minneapolis airport. Kaw Thoo Lei Zar picked me up there. DZ: So with the help of VSS you went to work for Tyson and you made some money. How many years... how long were you at Tyson? ET: One year and then I came to Minnesota. I was there from March 13, 2009 to March 13, 2010. DZ: Now your friend Jack who is in the U.S. Military. Retired. Where did you meet Jack? ET: When I arrived in New Jersey. He is nice man and he is a volunteer helping refugee people who .are New arrivals, taking them to the hospital... For everyday general assistance. He is very kind. I have pictures with him. I want to post his picture. DZ: We’ll put his picture in this book.


DZ: I know there are people who volunteer like that here too, helping through World Relief. So he put you on this flight to Minnesota. But Jack says, “Don’t go to Minnesota, it’s cold.” Was there a job in Minnesota? Did you say to Jack, “Shall I go to Minnesota? ET: For the job in Iowa we have to go through VSS here. After that we have to go to Iowa. DZ: So Jack says Minnesota is very cold. But did he say Iowa would be okay? ET: No, Iowa, it’s cold. DZ: Oh, I see. Iowa is cold too. ET: Yes. [Laughter] DZ: Now how did you get from Iowa back to Minnesota? ET: A lot of people from Minnesota went to work at Iowa because they don’t have jobs here, so they went to work there. I have friends here. So I helped my friends that live in Saint Paul, I came to see them. After that they told me, “If you came here, then you can get a job like a social service agency or helping other people they know. And my goal is helping people, so they told me, “If you come to Minnesota you will find work social service here.” DZ: Tell me a little about your life in Minnesota. Where have you worked and what work did you do here? ET: I volunteered at Neighborhood House, helping people get green cards. Then I went to see Benjamin Aung (a Karen leader). Benjamin runs a translation service. He suggested I work in transportation. He sent me to apply at Good Samaritan and Family Care, two agencies. Then Sept 2010 I started work at Southeast Asian Ministry (SeAM). I worked there till January 2012 as an employment counselor. Now I am at CAPI, a nonprofit agency. DZ: May I ask why you left SeAM? ET: I wanted to get more experience in social services. Now at CAPI I work in social services and employment services. At CAPI I must meet placement goals. I have to try to place 35 clients in social services. DZ: How about employment services? Do you have a quota for that? ET: I have to try to find work for six clients per quarter. I send money home to my family to help them. DZ: What are your goals for you?


ET: I want to get a degree. I have a diploma. Two years of college from Thailand. I studied psychology. I was in charge of students in the student campus. Like their dormitory monitor. The school principal paid me like twenty baht a day. I was a leader in charge of four group leaders. University management.

Appendix: Karen Folktales DZ: After we had finished taping the interview at South East Asian Ministry, Eh Thweet and I were chatting about SeAM and looking at the display of a Karen bags and the Hmong embroidered crafts for sale, Eh Thweet picked up a small cloth deer adorned with antlers and spontaneously began telling me a Karen story. ET: There was a deer that was very proud of its beautiful antlers. It liked to look at its reflection in the water. “Look at my antlers.” he said. “They are so beautiful:” But one day the deer noticed its feet. “Look at my ugly feet!” he said. “They are so ugly.”A few days later the deer was in the forest and he was chased by a hunter. It tried to escape but its antlers kept slowing him down and were getting caught in branches. “Oh these ugly useless antlers!”He said. But it was his feet that carried him away to safety. “Oh my wonderful feet!” he said. They saved my life. DZ: It seems this story is a very good parable for your life. The Karen had to drop everything and run when they were shot at like animals. No time to carry any valuable possessions! Possessions like the antlers were a burden, a danger. But like the deer, for you, your parents, and the kids you saved, strong feet brought you all to safety. DZ: I am interested in hearing stories that were told to you when you were a boy. Can you tell me one? ET: Sure, here is a story told to me by my grandmother when I was a small boy growing up in Burma. A Daughter who disobeyed her parents Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a girl named Naw Wah. She always disobeyed her mother, disobeyed what her mother told her to do. During that time people were facing problem with robbers in Burma. The Villagers fear when the robbers coming. They used the long bamboo as pillow when they slept at night. When they saw something different, or heard the robbers coming they moved the pillow Bamboo and everyone woke up run away from the Robbers. Naw Wah always didn’t listen to her parents. She visited her friends without her parent permission. Once day Naw Wah went to her friend's house and played with her friends. Unfortunately the robbers were coming in the village. All the villagers escaped and hid out of the 49

village. Naw Wah parents tried to find her in her friend’s house but they didn’t see their daughter and they also escaped and hid in the forest. When Naw Wah heard the Robbers came in the village. She came back to her house as fast as to her house to see her parents. When she made home no one was in her house. She was shouting loudly, “MoeER, MoeER,” and walked around in the village and she met with Robbers. The Robbers ask her for the things what she had with her. I don’t have anything with me said Naw Wah. The Robbers killed her. After she was dead she became a Bird. The name of the bird was Toe Moe Oo. Even when she became a bird she was still calling and looking for her mother and shouting “Moe Oo Moe Oo…” That mean, “Where are you mother?” Nowadays if you go to the countryside in Burma you will hear this bird’s song andshouting like saying “Moe Oo Moe Oo.” If you ask the Karen people who live there they will explain to you about the meaning of the birds. They will tell you what happened long, long ago with the girl and how she is still trying to find her mother.