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March 03, 2022

Meet Sokhary Chau ’92: The first Cambodian American mayor in the US

From Cambodia's Killing Fields to Mayor of Lowell, Massachusetts, Chau's election signals a time of new activism
by Rita Savard

Sokhary Chau experienced more by age 8 than most people do in a lifetime.

He was raised in a middle-class family in Cambodia, his father a captain in the army. Chau’s world was turned upside down on April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge, led by dictator Pol Pot, stormed into Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, and forced 2 million people to evacuate.

Those who resisted were shot on site. Chau’s father was killed that day.

For the next four years, Chau’s mother, Hem Hay, did everything in her power to keep her seven children together—including saving her two eldest sons from execution. Finally, she devised a plan to escape through land mine–laced jungles under the cover of night.

Miraculously, despite hunger, sickness, and uncertainty, Hay managed to escort her entire family to the safety of a Thai refugee camp; they emigrated to the United States in 1981.

“My mother’s courage gave us the hope and strength to survive—and then thrive in America,” says Chau, who, in January officially became mayor of the city of Lowell, Massachusetts—and the first Cambodian American to hold the office of mayor in the United States.

Sokahry Chau ’92 in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts with supporters. Courtesy photo.

The symbolic importance of Chau’s own story is not lost on him. Like many Cambodian Americans in Lowell, his life is marked by the legacy of the Killing Fields, the five-year campaign of terror and genocide that left nearly 3 million Cambodians dead. Chau wants his story to highlight not just the struggles of overcoming adversity, but also how the next generation can be strengthened by diverse representation in governmental bodies small and large.

“By including people from all backgrounds and working together, we can truly build a future that meets the needs of our communities,” explains Chau, who credits his experience at PA as an early introduction to international relations.

A student in the Lowell public schools, Chau had a teacher who recommended Phillips Academy as an option for high school. He recalls his first time touring the campus grounds with “eyes wide open.”

“It was an amazing world, but mentally I wasn’t there yet,” Chau says. “Just coming out of death and into life in America, I was just happy to be alive—and the thought of leaving my family was unbearable. When you live through war, you set your sights on two goals: Stay alive. Stay together.”

When Chau’s acceptance letter arrived, he hid it. But encouragement from his family, his teachers, and Bobby Edwards, former senior associate dean of admission and dean of the Office of Community and Multicultural Development, helped him follow a path that would influence his life’s work.

His first day as a new student was nerve-wracking, Chau confides, but seeing—and hearing—the Blue Key Heads on the corner of Chapel Avenue, holding welcome signs and shouting positive messages, eased his fears.

“What helped make me comfortable and settle in was meeting students from so many different parts of the country and the world,” Chau recalls. “When we started talking to each other, you realized that there weren’t many students who had the same background. Everybody was unique, and in those differences we bonded. To this day, I absolutely value what that grew in me.”

Near the end of his upper year, Chau had even earned a spot as a Blue Key Head, and, in the longstanding tradition of Big Blue spirit, joyously helped welcome new students to campus that fall on the corner of Chapel Ave.

Mayor Sokhary Chau ’92 stands alongside his two sons, Phillip and Matthew, and his wife, Somong Rattanayong, during the Lowell City Council swearing-in ceremony in January. Photo by Peg Shanahan.

Chau’s reelection to the Lowell City Council in November 2021—and his unanimous appointment as mayor by the new 11-member council in January 2022—comes on the heels of a federal court lawsuit that argued Lowell’s election process violated the voting rights of the city’s residents of color, who comprise nearly 50 percent of its population.

A settlement in the case prompted Lowell to change its election process and redraw its electoral map, starting with the 2021 elections. The result was the city’s most diverse group of officeholders in history.

Chau’s mother, Hay, died at 89 on November 15, 2021, shortly after casting her ballot for her son’s second term.

Acknowledging the election’s significance to the wider immigrant diaspora, Chau hopes it will signal a time of new activism.

“Lowell was built on diversity,” he notes, “but there are still feelings of exclusion depending on who you are and what neighborhood you live in. By prioritizing social justice in all city services, I believe we can eliminate the gaps, encourage every resident to trust that every vote does count, and empower them to be stakeholders in the future of their community.”

Categories: Alumni, Magazine, Magazine Online

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