When Khemarey Khoeun is sworn in as a park district commissioner in Skokie, Illinois, on May 16, she’ll be making history as the first Cambodian-American woman elected to public office at any level of government in the United States.
A health tech specialist, she was six months old when she arrived in suburban Chicago in 1981 from Sa Keo, a Thai refugee camp where her family went after escaping the Khmer Rouge genocide.
Khoeun’s victory on April 4 defied expectations as Skokie’s Cambodian population is small compared with the substantial Cambodian communities in Long Beach, California, and Lowell, Massachusetts.
But she ran on a simple platform: “I want to ensure our parks are friendly and sustainable spaces for all families in our community,” she said. And she picked up an endorsement from Mayor George Van Dusen.
Khoeun, the second Asian-American park district commissioner elected by village voters, also represents how times have changed for Skokie. For many, the village is known for a 1977 free-speech legal case that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court finding the neo-Nazi National Socialist Party of America had a right to march in the village, which at that time was home to thousands of Holocaust survivors.
“Skokie is now a very diverse village. It has more than 100 languages spoken in the households and has an open-hand policy welcoming immigrants,” said Jerry Clarito, 68. In 2005, he was the first Asian-American elected to be a Skokie park district commissioner.
Khoeun, 36, ran on the ticket with incumbent Commissioner Mike Reid. They won the hotly contested election for two seats on the Skokie Park District Board of Commissioners.
“I am very honored and thankful to be where I am right now,” Khoeun told VOA Khmer.
A full-time employee at Healthjoy, a health tech company, Khoeun plans on bringing a new viewpoint to the commission.
“I have two young children who are going to the park district programs, so that allows me to have a unique perspective,” she said.
Khoeun also wants to “increase engagement” of immigrant communities, who she believes lack a platform for making their needs known.
“She will be an advocate for the parks and recreation [program], which is open to all, especially young people,” said Clarito, who encouraged Khoeun to run after knowing her for a decade.
“Now, as an elected official, she will be a voice for the Cambodian-American community in Illinois and nationally,” said Josina Morita, 36, a Chinese-Japanese-American elected as commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago in late 2016.
Bridging two generations
As Khoeun was growing up, her parents told her little of their experience with the Khmer Rouge genocide. She learned what happened to others as she worked with local Cambodian refugees and their children.
“She speaks a lot about intergenerational issues. She speaks a lot of how we, the new generation, can participate and take part in what is going on now and the issues we have,” said Elizabeth Keo, 32, a board member of Chicago’s National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Field Memorial and a community activist for 15 years.
“She has this passion of [getting] the community together,” said Vany Wells, the Cambodian American president of the Cambodian museum. “I’ve noticed how caring, compassionate and competent she is.”
Khoeun earned a bachelor’s degree in social work at Loyola University in Chicago and went on to become a youth leader for the Cambodian Association of Illinois, serving one term on the board. Recently, she became vice president of the Cambodian Museum.
Cambodians in the U.S. rarely participate in politics, in part because of their country’s history of upheaval. But Khoeun thinks her election will help Cambodians see there is little risk in taking an active role in their new home.
“The goal is to raise our visibility in our community so that others can see that it is achievable, and that we should try and support each other as well,” she said.
“Now we have a voice. It might not be big, but it’s still a voice,” said Wells, adding that after Khoeun won, “people began to pay attention.”
Khoeun’s victory has “definitely paved the way for other young women, and she is a role model for our community,” said Keo. “We can do things.”