Writing Eh Kaw: Notes From Reporting on a Friend

It's rare that I get to visit with people I've written about at length after their stories have gone to press. If it happens, perhaps it could be to write about them again. But that is rare. Often I only see them in passing, known faces greeted on the street. 

Eh Kaw Htoo has been different. I've attended weddings of his cousins. I helped celebrate his naturalization as a U.S. citizen. Yet, even still, our friendship has lapsed.

I don't know if I'm going to write about Eh Kaw Htoo again. When we first became acquaintances in 2012, I published plenty about him and his refugee community in Comer. Back then, I knew our paths would continue to cross. 

Recently, I realized that too much time had elapsed since Eh Kaw and I had connected; nearly two years had passed since we'd seen each other. So I called him up to catch up, and we met at his house to share stories and boxes of soy milk, cubed melon, and grapes. He told me about his progress at tech school, learning machine skills in hopes of getting a job at a trucking company. Then we drove around, checking in on members of his community, folks who'd settled in Comer, Ga., after living in refugee camps along the Myanmar-Burma border for years.

I don't know if I'll write about Eh Kaw again. It's something I'd like to do in some fashion. For now, I'm only taking notes. Those notes follow. 

Eh Kaw Htoo and I sped east along Hwy. 72 through Madison County, Ga. We just left his uncle's house, a single-wide overlooking a feeder creek where the uncle and his nephews hunt frogs by flashlight. We had popped by to check on a fresh peep of chicks just hatched in the backyard, a flock born from a line of poultry Eh Kaw had been raising since he moved to rural Georgia six years ago. Eh Kaw, dressed in camo pants and untied black boots, shuffled through the coop, impressed at the number of chickens now pecking between grass blades. "I only gave him four to start!" he said.

Earlier, we checked on a friend, Semoeneh, who had ripped up a swath of bermuda grass beside his brick ranch and planted a forest of dragon pepper plants. Semoeneh and his family had spread the massive harvest of pinky-length green peppers onto tarp to dry. A pot of bitter melon, okra, and deer meat stew bubbled over an open fire in the carport.

It was time for Eh Kaw's next appointment. I drove and he navigated us toward a bank of City of Comer Housing Authority duplexes where his pastor lives. 

"Slow down," he commanded. We passed a granite stone reading "Welcome to Comer." Population: 1,131. Myanmar refugees like Eh Kaw account for 100 of those residents.

Ahead on the right was a vacant clapboard storefront, the awning posts inches from the highway edge. A few meters past: a wooden sign advertising Bell's Mobile Detailing Service. Between the two, police cars often wait to pounce on speeders, Eh Kaw had learned. But the trap was not set this day and we drove on at a reasonable and legal speed.

"There's more police in Comer than there used to be," Eh Kaw said, looking at me from the passenger seat. A curtain of black hair was draped behind his ears, the dry ends brushing his polo collar. "You have to be careful."

Today's business with the Reverend: the construction of a new church, the first of its kind for the Karen in the U.S. A permanent place of worship. Built by their own hands, their own plans. Not a basement parish borrowed from kind Protestants. In the refugee camps at the Thai border, worship took place under tarps tied to bamboo shoots. Before that, living in temporary camps while evading government persecution, the jungle canopy provided the only cathedral.

he Reverend hoped to draft a cocktail sketch of the building's footprint with Eh Kaw's input; Eh Kaw would then run the idea by an architect he recently met.

When I first met Eh Kaw three years ago, he described the Karen people, who fled their jungle home fearing persecution from the Myanmar government, as country people. When Eh Kaw arrived in rural Madison county in 2009, he heard locals refer to themselves as rednecks: they hunt, fish, farm, spend time outdoors. But as the Karen established themselves in the community — ripped up lawns to plant hyacinth beans and turmeric, trapped minnows in creeks for protein, and cooked lunches over open fires rather than stove tops — it became clear to Eh Kaw who ruled the backwoods.

"I call myself the redneck leader," Eh Kaw said. "We're more redneck than the rednecks."