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Sokhary Chau is the new mayor of Lowell, Massachusetts, which has the second largest Cambodian-American population in the U.S. Photo: Getty Images

The U.S.’s first Cambodian-American mayor was just sworn in

New Lowell, Massachusetts mayor Sokhary Chau first came to the U.S. with his family escaping the Khmer Rouge.

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Sokhary Chau, a city councilor in Lowell, Massachusetts, has just become the city’s first Asian-American mayor and the first Cambodian-American mayor in the United States. 

Chau is a 49-year-old refugee who survived the Khmer Rouge’s radical communist movement that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, and is responsible for one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. 

“God bless America, right? I was a refugee, now I’m a mayor of a major city in Massachusetts. I don’t know if that could happen anywhere else in the world. I’m still trying to absorb it,” Chau said after being officially sworn in. 

In his inaugural remarks, Chau reflected on his family’s treacherous escape from Cambodia and the former industrial city of Lowell’s deep immigrant roots. 

Lowell is located on the Merrimack River near the New Hampshire state line and was an early center of America’s textile industry, drawing waves of European and Latin American immigrants over generations. 

Now, the city of more than 115,000 residents is nearly 25% Asian and has the second-largest Cambodian community in the country. 

“As a proud Cambodian-American, I am standing on the shoulders of many immigrants who came before me to build this city,” Chau said.

Chau spoke about his father, a captain in the Cambodian army, who was executed by the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975. 

He also spoke about his mother, who managed to keep her seven children alive for four years, through “landmines, jungles, hunger, sickness and uncertainty,” and delivered them safely to the U.S. 

After initially moving to Pittsburg at the age of nine, Chau’s family arrived in Lowell’s growing Cambodian community in the mid-1980s, where some of his older siblings got to work in local manufacturing operations. 

Chau continued his studies and earned a scholarship to an elite boarding school in nearby Andover, and studied economics and political science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

Before running for office, Chau mostly worked in financial services, including running a mortgage lending company in Lowell with his wife before the housing market crashed in the early 2000s. 

Chau’s election follows that of new Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan. She was sworn in last November as Boston’s first woman and first person of color elected to the position. 

Chau was unanimously elected by his 10 colleagues on the Council, which he believes sent a positive message to the city’s largely immigrant population. 

“We have millions of Cambodian diaspora around the world. We love our country and we try to achieve a level of success and establish roots and history wherever we are, wherever we decide to make a home,” Chau told GBH News

Chau wants to see more diversity in city government and more access to vital city services for immigrant residents. 

He also wants to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the city’s population by helping small businesses, improving health information access and decreasing homelessness. 

”Housing supply is a huge issue,” Chau said, adding that even if a couple has three jobs combined, they can’t afford a good, safe living arrangement. 

He said that finding solutions for the working-class population is a priority. 

“Congratulations to Sokhary Chau on becoming America’s first Cambodian-American mayor! We are thrilled to see our country’s leadership continue to increasingly reflect the diversity of our nation,” the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus wrote on Twitter. 

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