Lawmaker Tears Up Remembering the Family She Lost Fleeing Cambodia as a Kid: ‘I Never Shared This’

"I went through the killing field. I lost many of my family. If I could go through that and come out of it and survive?" Massachusetts state Rep. Vanna Howard said. "This ... is nothing"

Vanna Howard for state representative
Massachusetts state Rep. Vanna Howard. Photo: vanna howard/ facebook

Massachusetts state Rep. Vanna Howard has known sweet victory and wrenching loss — a journey she reflected on in a recent interview, including describing her harrowing flight from Cambodia to the United States as a child.

The newly-elected lawmaker won her 2020 election after ousting David Nangle, an 11-term incumbent, in last year's Democratic primary.

"I never shared this to my team, but I considered dropping out," Howard, a Cambodian-American immigrant, told Boston TV station WBTS earlier this month, pointing to racist anti-Asian rhetoric amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Howard has been through far worse, she said.

"I went through wars. I went through the killing field. I lost many of my family. If I could go through that and come out of it and survive?" she said. "This ... is nothing."

Howard's father, siblings and grandparents were killed during the Cambodian Civil War, under the regime of Pol Pot when approximately two million in the country died from conflict and famine, experts say.

At moments during her interview with WBTS, Howard broke down.

"I remember my dad…," she said, choking up. "I'm sorry. I never shared this, I'm sorry."

"What I remember the most, when I witnessed that my sister had passed was that when they opened up the mat, that there were ants crawling all over her," Howard told WBTS, tears running down her face. "So that's the image that I carried to this day."

Vanna Howard for state representative
Mass. State Rep. Vanna Howard. Vanna Howard/ Facebook

Howard told Lowell TeleMedia Center last year that, in 1979, her dad was detained by two members of the Khmer Rouge, Pot's communist regime, while waiting in a local community line for food.

"I remember standing just there with other folks in line and two men on bicycles just come over and take him away," she said. "I remember walking back by myself, but before walking back the other folks in line just looked at me. They knew what was going on."

Howard said the looks on her neighbors' faces told her that her father wasn't coming home.

"It just hit me," she said last year, holding back tears. "I'll never forget it."

Howard and her mother left Cambodia in 1979, after her mother remarried and her stepfather helped lead them to the country's border with Thailand.

But by the time the family successfully fled Cambodia and were taken in by a refugee camp, her father, younger brother and sister and both her maternal grandparents had died.

"This all happened before I turned the age of 9," she told Lowell TeleMedia Center.

"We didn't even know what the United States looked like," Howard said during that interview, laughing as she remembered how in the refugee camp, the family was given the choice to either go to the U.S., France or Australia.

Her stepfather knew a family who came to the U.S., so their family followed.

She, her mom and stepfather and two half-brothers moved to the Brighton neighborhood in Boston in September 1981.

It was a "very lonely" experience at first, she recalled, spending her grade school days studying and "slowly learning" English.

The future state lawmaker went to the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and then moved to Lowell in 1991, where she met her husband at the same law firm where she got her first job as a bilingual secretary.

After a decade working at various firms, Howard took a job with Congresswoman Nikki Tsongas, who ultimately encouraged her to run for office last year.

Now, Howard represents Lowell's district in Massachusetts' statehouse where she sits on committees for public health, education, cannabis policy and the group working on racial equity, civil rights and inclusion.

"It's been a steep learning curve for me," Howard told WBTS. But "I'm learning to use my voice."

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