BOSTON (AP) – A refugee who survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime has become the first Cambodian American mayor in the United States.
Lowell, Massachusetts city councilor Sokhary Chau was unanimously chosen by his peers on the council to take on the top legislative post on Monday. He also became the city’s first Asian American mayor.
“God bless America, right? I was a refugee, now I’m the mayor of a big city in Massachusetts, ”said the 49-year-old, who works for the US Social Security Administration, after being officially sworn in. “I don’t know if this could happen anywhere else in the world. I’m still trying to absorb it.
Chau, in his opening remarks, referred to his family’s perilous escape from Cambodia and the former industrial town of Lowell’s deep immigrant roots.
Located on the Merrimack River near the New Hampshire state border, Lowell was one of the earliest centers of America’s textile industry, attracting waves of European and Latin American immigrants over generations.
Today, the city of over 115,000 inhabitants is almost 25% Asian and is home to the second largest Cambodian community in the country.
“As a proud Cambodian American, I stand on the shoulders of many immigrants who came before me to build this city,” Chau said Monday in front of a crowd including his wife and two teenage sons.
Chau recounted how his father, a captain in the Cambodian army, was executed by the Khmer Rouge communists in 1975 during the country’s civil war.
He said his mother, who died last year, had managed to keep her seven children alive for four years, surviving “landmines, jungles, hunger, disease and uncertainty” for them. deliver safely to the United States.
Chau said America might not have “streets paved with gold” as her family imagined when they lived in refugee camps, but it is a land where democracy is possible through to “checks and balances” and to principles such as fairness, equality and transparency.
In a later interview, Chau said he was around 9 when his family initially moved to Pittsburgh, Pa. With help from the Catholic Church – an experience that prompted the family to convert. to Christianity.
They traveled to the growing Cambodian community of Lowell in the mid-1980s, where some of his older siblings immediately began working in local factories.
Chau, however, continued his education and eventually got a scholarship to Phillips Academy, an exclusive boarding school located near Andover. He continued his education at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he studied economics and political science, also on a scholarship.
Before running for office, Chau said he worked mainly in financial services, including running a mortgage company in Lowell with his wife before the housing market collapsed in the early years. 2000.
Chau’s election follows the rise of Boston’s new mayor, Michelle Wu, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan. She was sworn in last November as Boston’s first woman and first person of color elected to the post.
Chau is also on the growing list of Cambodian American officials in Massachusetts: at least two other city councilors, a member of the school committee and two state lawmakers, all from Lowell, according to Association president Vannak Theng. Great Lowell Mutual Aid Cambodian.
But while Cambodian Americans have served on local councils and state legislatures nationwide, none have been elected mayor, according to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, a Washington nonprofit that assists Asian Pacific Americans in public office and maintains a list of current incumbents.
In fact, Long Beach, California, home to the country’s largest Cambodian community, did not elect its first Cambodian U.S. city councilor until 2020, the organization noted.
Chau’s election also follows a lawsuit in federal court that argued that Lowell’s electoral process violated the voting rights of minority residents, who make up nearly 50% of his population.
A recent settlement of the case has prompted the city to change its electoral process, starting with the 2021 elections. The result has been the city’s most diverse class of office holders, said Oren Sellstrom, director of litigation at Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston group that filed the lawsuit in 2017.
“Just four years ago, the city’s elected officials were all white and largely unresponsive to the needs of the city’s communities of color,” Sellstrom said. “This historic change in the city’s power structure would never have been possible under the old electoral system.
Certainly, the office of the Mayor of Lowell is largely ceremonial.
The city, about 50 kilometers north of Boston, is ruled by a city manager chosen by the council. The mayor is effectively the chairman of the council, directs its meetings and also chairs the city’s school committee.
Still, Chau recognized the importance of his election for the Cambodian diaspora at large, calling on others to get involved in their communities.
“We can no longer be mere victims,” he declared, closing his inaugural speech. “Now is the time for us to be leaders and to be successful. “
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