After spending nights on benches and in a shelter 17 miles from school, a teenage Liberian refugee has been given some of the comforts of home, thanks to concerned Blaine High School faculty and staff.
He claims he's the son of a former Liberian vice president, calls himself Prince and would arrive and leave Blaine High School each day by taxi.
But Boimein Prince Dahn was on a cab ride to nowhere. As thousands of federal dollars were spent getting him to and from school, the teenager remained homeless, spending nights in a Minneapolis shelter or on benches.
Today, a more hopeful story, albeit one with a still-uncertain ending, is playing out: about the way a high school community rallied behind a kid who is believed to have been affiliated with gangs, struggled in school and was shunned by relatives whose patience he exhausted.
"The outpouring of help has been astonishing," said Cassidy Pohl, a student-learning advocate at Blaine assigned to Dahn. "With Boimein's resiliency, people were asking, 'Can't I do more?'"
"I'd come to school crying, ready to drop out," said Dahn, 18, a junior. "And here were these people, just waiting to watch over me."
Dahn says he fled Liberia 11 years ago, the night his father was fatally poisoned. He came to Minnesota in 2005, where he joined his mother, who suffered brain damage in late 2007 and remains incapacitated.
Meandering through the court system much of the past three years, and from relative to relative and shelter to shelter, Dahn caught the attention of the Blaine High School faculty when he arrived at school late on consecutive subzero days, having walked more than 5 miles in the glacial freeze.
"You're turning blue," Assistant Principal Mike Broos recalls telling Dahn. "You're not supposed to walk in these conditions. You need food."
Dahn was spending nights at the River of Life Men's Winter Shelter in north Minneapolis, 17 miles from the high school. Anoka County's lone adult shelter, Stepping Stone in Anoka, has only 16 beds and was often full. Before turning 18, Dahn couldn't even qualify to stay there because he was too young, said Joan Angell, a Blaine High School counselor.
"He found a house with no heat and I gave him a heater," Angell said. "Then he found a place in Coon Rapids with no plumbing.
"Everytime there was a possibility, things didn't work out."
"When you tell the story of any homeless child, you rate the degree of horrible," said Karrie Schaaf, an expert on youth homelessness in the metro area. "But Prince's story is off the charts."
Homeless population rising
A sad tale once thought confined to the inner city has become common throughout Minnesota, said Schaaf, youth director for the Emma B. Howe Family YMCA in Coon Rapids. The number of 18- to 21-year-olds living in shelters statewide more than doubled from 455 in 2006 to 987 in October 2009, according to the Department of Human Services. Homeless families with children rose 27 percent between 2006 and 2009, the most recent state figures, according to a study by the Wilder Foundation. More recent statistics from Anoka County show more promise: While the number of known homeless people ages 18 to 21 rose from 106 to 108 from January 2010 to this past January, the number of homeless youths 17 or younger declined from 49 to 24.
The Blaine High School faculty was determined not to let Dahn fall into the statistical abyss. The school's Tiger Take-Out program has provided him and the nearly dozen other homeless students at the school with backpacks filled with food, toiletries and other essentials. The Anoka-Hennepin School District applied for and received federal funding for Dahn's transportation through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Children and Youth Program. An estimated $2,000 a month was paid in federal aid for Dahn's daily round trips from the shelter in north Minneapolis to Blaine.
Fleeing civil war
Dahn says his nomadic journey began when he was 7, when he learned that the man he calls his father, Liberian Vice President Enoch Dogolea, had died suddenly. Reports claiming that Dogolea was poisoned, beaten or succumbed to cancer were disputed for years by the country's former dictator, Charles Taylor, among others.
Dahn claims he fled Liberia, civil war and the mansion in which he once lived for Ghana with one of his mother's friends. Dahn's mother, following relatives, came to Minnesota in 2000, according to C. Hendrix Grupee, Dahn's uncle and onetime guardian. Dahn would arrive five years later.
His mother, Racheal Zarwu, had children with several men, according to Sherburne County court records. Grupee, who lives in Coon Rapids, remembers her telling him years ago that Dogolea was indeed Dahn's father. Court and school records offer nothing to verify Dahn's heritage. Zarwu is no longer capable of telling the story herself.
In December 2007, she suffered severe brain damage while giving birth, according to court documents. Sustained by breathing machines and feeding tubes in a Robbinsdale rehabilitation facility, Zarwu sits in a wheelchair, unable to recognize her surroundings or communicate, according to court documents. She is 33 years old. The oldest of her seven children is 21, relatives say.
Clashed with relatives
Racheal's husband, James Zarwu, and Dahn did not get along, both admit. Dahn ran away several times, Zarwu said, before a Sherburne County judge appointed Grupee to be Dahn's guardian in 2009.
But Grupee and Dahn also clashed, both said.
"I slept on a bench in Coon Rapids for three nights," Dahn said. "I didn't eat. No water. I was close to killing myself."
The 5-foot-7-inch Dahn said he dropped to 121 pounds. Then he dropped out of school, in the 10th grade.
He returned wearing gang colors, Broos recalled. Dahn rarely got to school on time. He says he sold plasma to get money. His grades plummeted.
"He was on my radar screen," said Broos, who said he strongly suggested that Dahn change his wardrobe and attitude.
In January, the Fraziers, a Ham Lake couple who are empty nesters, took Dahn in -- for now. He does his own laundry, cleans dishes and takes out the garbage. At school, he plans to try out for the soccer team. He says he wants to graduate.
"When I was 7, I got bit by a scorpion," Dahn said. "My grandma heated a banana peel, put it on my leg and blew into it. The pain went down. I went, 'Wow.'
"That's how I feel now. Wow! I'm a kid trying to grow up, maybe too fast. People are trying to slow me down, to give me a chance to do things the right way."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419