This is a story that I wrote for the Khmer Post USA, a biweekly newspaper published in Lowell that serves the Cambodian community in the city and throughout the east coast. The paper is primarily written in Khmai, however, it does include some articles published in English, such as this one, which are accompanied by a Khmai translation:
Fifty years ago people in Lowell knew little about Southeast Asia but then young men from here were drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam. Some of them died there. Arcand Drive, which runs from Lowell City Hall to the Tsongas Arena, is named for PFC Donald Arcand who died at age 20 when his Army helicopter was shot down on September 1, 1965. Callery Park, which lies between Stevens and Wilder Streets in the Highlands, is named for William T. Callery who was killed by hostile fire on February 22, 1966. He was 21.
When America’s involvement in the Vietnam War ended in the 1970s, people in Lowell assumed that the only future connection between the city and Southeast Asia would be the local monuments and plaques erected in memory of those who died there. No one imagined how wrong that assumption would prove to be.
The first refugees from Southeast Asia arrived in Lowell in the late 1970s. They were mostly from Vietnam but some were from Laos and Cambodia. A 1980 census found fewer than 100 people from Southeast Asia living in Lowell. That early group was resourceful, however, and quickly established small businesses, community support organizations, a temple and the other things needed to create a thriving immigrant community. Over the years, a small but steady stream of Cambodians and Laotians came to Lowell.
In 1986, however, that stream became a flood. The “Massachusetts Miracle” saw this state’s economy booming while the rest of the country suffered from high unemployment and economic stagnation. Southeast Asian refugees who had settled in other parts of America were soon moving to Lowell, attracted by plentiful jobs and the already vibrant Cambodian community in the city.
By 1987, conservative estimates held that Lowell’s residents included 3,000 people from Laos and more than 18,000 from Cambodia. Later estimates said that number was as high as 30,000. While there were plenty of jobs, such a large number of new residents arriving in such a short time created strains on people and resources, especially rental housing. But the greatest impact was on the Lowell public schools which struggled to find space and bilingual teachers for the dozens of new students who were enrolling each week.
In early 1987, the state department of education granted an emergency waiver that allowed Lowell to place 160 bilingual students, both Hispanic and Asian, in rented rooms at the YMCA and the Boys Club on the condition that the city would bring those students into regular facilities at the beginning of the new school year. The state also demanded that the city implement a central enrollment system that would begin to address the racial segregation that had arisen in the Lowell school system.
The school committee refused to adopt such a plan and so a group of parents, mostly Hispanic but with the support of many Southeast Asians and the U.S. Department of Justice, filed a lawsuit against the city in federal court.
While that lawsuit was pending, the people of Lowell in the fall of 1987 elected several new school committee members. Almost immediately, relations between the minority parents and the public school system began to improve. After countless hours of negotiations, the lawsuit was settled and the city adopted a central enrollment system that would desegregate the schools. As a result of this plan being adopted, Lowell moved to the top of the state’s school building assistance program and by the early 1990s, more than a dozen brand new schools had been built with the state paying 90% of the cost.
Today, Cambodian people are an integral part of the Lowell community and for many, the events of 1987 seem like ancient history. But it is important to understand that things might have ended differently if many people of good will from all groups had not come together and struggled for outcomes that were in the best interest of all residents of Lowell. It is a lesson worth remembering today.