Partly why he loves America so much, Htoo Doh says, is because he was always looked upon as “less than” before arriving here. Less than the majority in his native Burma, now often called Myanmar, enduring religious persecution, and then less than living alone in a Thailand refugee camp.
It’s why he chose to live where we often take our freedoms for granted.
“This was the first country that ever recognized me as a human being, as a person,” Doh said. “I feel like this is my country, and I want to give back to my community.”
That is also why Doh never gave up on his dream of becoming a police officer despite getting turned down five times. He joined the police department at Purdue University Fort Wayne last fall and recently returned from four months of academy training, which though intense, was not nearly as challenging as his early life.
Born into the Christian Karen ethnic group—which has been persecuted since 1949 by the Burmese Government—Doh said he never expected to live past his 13th birthday. Soldiers would terrorize their village, burning churches and houses, leaving it surrounded by landmines.
“We lived in fear,” he said. “We never had enough food because my dad didn’t have a chance to work because we were running all the time. A lot of our people were killed, and I am so thankful I made it this far. Now I feel guilty because, why me?”
Doh’s family attempted to leave Burma when he was 13, trying to avoid patrolling soldiers and hundreds of landmines. After the rest of his family turned back, Doh and a friend continued, eating bananas and wild plants on their six-day journey to Thailand before they met Karen soldiers.
“I am so blessed, and that’s the reason I survived,” Doh said. “I don’t understand how I never stepped on a landmine when I went to Thailand. God has a purpose for me.”
Living in an orphanage, Doh made money for food by helping friends with chores. Because he was alone with no family, at age 17, he told officials he was a year older to acquire travel papers. Most of the money he had saved was stolen when the local police captured and beat him until he gave it up.
“They put me in this cell, and they punched me in the stomach,” Doh recalled. “`Just give us the rest, and we’ll let you go.’ That’s the Thai police. They do that to everyone.”
This happened just before Doh left for America in 2008, landing in New York City where he noticed police officers kindly offering directions and helping people. Soon after relocating to Lansdale, Pennsylvania, Doh and some friends were walking in the summer heat 10 miles home from grocery shopping when a squad car pulled alongside.
“We thought we were going to get arrested just like in Burma or Thailand, but he offered to give us a ride,” Doh said.
It was his first close encounter with a U.S. police officer, but the friends declined and kept walking.
Five years later, Doh was attending community college when an instructor and former police officer suggested Doh consider joining a department. By then, his family had finally made it to Thailand. He heard in 2011 that his mother had died in 2007, while his two sisters had married men from Thailand. He had reunited with his wife from Thailand, and they had moved to Fort Wayne to join her family.
After becoming a U.S. citizen in 2013, Doh started applying for various police departments. He was rejected five times before joining the Parkview Hospital force in 2022, and PFW’s last fall.
“I can’t give up,” Doh said “This is my passion, the way I want to serve my community.”
He speaks six mostly Southeast Asia languages, which helps, but Doh's servant-first approach makes him lead with being the peace officer part of the job. Because of his abuse by authority figures, he swears he’ll never do the same, and many in Fort Wayne’s Burmese community ask for his help and guidance.
“I have a heart,” Doh said.
And it’s one he’s happy to share, talking to students every day, especially international students who he tells his story.
“I love it here,” Doh said. “I love making contact with all the people. We’re really diverse here, and you meet different kinds of people every day. I want to make them feel at home and safe here. It’s the little things I can do that can help a lot.”
Doh said this is his last job and wants his two daughters to attend PFW someday.
After all, he finally found his family a home where they feel safe and accepted.