Sokhary Chau was sworn in as mayor of Lowell, Massachusetts, on Monday.
Chau, 49, is a Cambodian refugee and came to the U.S. at a young age to escape the Khmer Rouge. He became a Lowell city council member in 2019, and he was unanimously picked by the city council members to be mayor on Monday, according to the Associated Press (AP).
He is the first Asian American mayor of Lowell and the first Cambodian American mayor in the country. Lowell is home to 115,000 citizens, 25% of whom are Asian, as well as the nation’s second-largest Cambodian community, according to AP.
While Cambodian Americans have served on local boards and state legislatures nationwide, none have been elected mayor, according to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies.
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“God bless America, right? I was a refugee, now I’m mayor of a major city in Massachusetts,” Chau said. “I don’t know if that could happen anywhere else in the world. I’m still trying to absorb it.”
In his inaugural speech, Chau talked about how his family escaped Cambodia and made the journey to the U.S. His father, a captain in the Cambodian army, was executed by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Chau’s mother, who died late last year, kept her seven children alive through “landmines, jungles, hunger, sickness and uncertainty” before delivering them safely to the U.S., he said.
“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 told the Associated Press he was only 9 years old when his family arrived in Pittsburgh with the help of the Catholic Church. His family arrived in Lowell in the mid-1980s, and his older siblings began to work as he continued his studies. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover on scholarship and studied economics and political science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, also on a scholarship.
Before running for office, Chau ran a mortgage lending company in Lowell with his wife and also worked for the Social Security Administration.
“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,” he said.
Chau claimed he can make a difference in the community by ensuring better representation in the city, acknowledging that his election is especially notable for Cambodian refugees.
“We can no longer be just victims,” Chau said as he closed his inaugural remarks. “It is our time now to be leaders and to succeed.”