Jemal Damtawe of Coquitlam, is the 2016 Courage To Come Back Award recipient in the Addiction category.


Photo credit: Jason Payne/PNG

At age 15 in war-torn Ethiopia, he became a child soldier – at the point of a gun. His first escape, stowed away on a cargo ship, left him swimming for his life with other boys, two of whom drowned. In 1986, still a teenager, he tried again, reaching Canada in 1989, getting asylum, starting a restaurant in Montreal, getting married, having a daughter.

But he couldn’t shake his trauma, undiagnosed PTSD. He self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, left his family, moved to Portland, OR, joined a gang and became a drug dealer.

The threat of death led him back to Canada – Vancouver – in 2005. The overdose death of a friend led him to Union Gospel Mission. Sheer will, recovery programs and the caring support of others led him to quit drugs and get sober. He confronted his childhood trauma and vowed to help others kick the habit as he had. He became Reverend Jemal in June 2011.

On Christmas Day, 2015 Jemal Damtawe celebrated 10 years of sobriety. He began working as a volunteer swamper at the UGM Thrift Store and is now a full-time Outreach Worker and Preacher at UGM. He rescues those struggling with addiction and homelessness in the Downtown East Side. He is mentor to dozens of men who have walked on the road away from addiction and back toward self-respect.

Jemal has married again, has a three year-old son, and has joyfully reconnected with his 23-year old daughter.

Jemal will receive his award at The Courage To Come Back Awards gala dinner on Thursday, May 5, 2016 at the Vancouver Convention Centre West. Tickets and information at 

Global News Hour

Sonia Deol in-depth interview with Jemal Damtawe – click to view on Global News BC website>

The Province newspaper

Susan Lazaruk editorial about Jemal Damtawe – click to read on The Province website>


John Ackerman interviews Jemal Damtawe – click to view on News1130 website>