Since being sworn into office in January, it has been a whirlwind for Vanna Howard, who is the Bay State's first female Cambodian-American State Representative.
It’s a role she could not have imagined as a young child in Cambodia when she was fleeing the Khmer Rouge. One of her earliest memories, she says, is hearing, "we need to leave, we need to leave."
It was the mid '70s and 5-year-old Vanna’s large extended family was being forced out by the brutal regime of Pol Pot, in which 2 million Cambodians died from execution, disease and starvation.
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“I remember my dad…," Howard says as she starts to tear up. "I’m sorry. I never shared this, I’m sorry."
Howard gets emotional recalling how, one by one, she lost grandparents and siblings.
“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 says. "So that’s the image that I carried to this day.”
Talking about her experience for the first time is heartbreaking and difficult but Howard adds, “If it helps someone a little bit, it’s part of my healing.”
After more than a decade working for district attorneys, Howard took a job with Congresswoman Nikki Tsongas. She was often encouraged to run for office but always said no until the coronavirus pandemic hit and she felt an obligation to give back.
But even after getting in the race, it almost never happened.
“I never shared this to my team," Howard says, but, "I considered dropping out.”
Howard says she had become alarmed by the rhetoric coming out of Washington.
“The China virus, China flu. Became very very scary...." she said. "And then it... clicked. 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, this... is nothing.”
Howard says she has been encouraged to see allies showing solidarity with the AAPI community.
“So I’m learning to use my voice," she said. "Especially in my new role now to speak up and speak out."