It was around midnight on Christmas Eve 1986. Paul Ratha Yem, then 33, was on a phone call with a friend who lived in Long Beach, California, a long way from the frigid temperature outside Yem’s house in Winthrop. In his six years living in the Boston area, he’d grown accustomed to the cold. Suddenly, an operator interrupted the conversation with an emergency call from the Revere Fire Department.
“I hung up and took the call,” Yem remembers now, 35 years later. A trusted intermediary between authorities and the Cambodian community, he was being summoned to help at a house fire involving Cambodian families.
The first alarm had sounded at 11:56 p.m., alerting firefighters to a growing blaze at 50-52 Shirley Avenue. Witnesses had seen someone throw a “flammable liquid,” as The Boston Globe later put it, at the front door of the multifamily home. It took 30 firefighters from Revere, Boston, Chelsea, and Malden 90 minutes to extinguish the blaze.
Even as the fire still raged, Yem arrived and explained to the more than 20 suddenly homeless Cambodians — all refugees like himself, all fortunately unhurt — what resources were available for their recovery. After making sure they were taken care of, Yem lingered at the site, feeling deeply troubled. Christmas is the season of goodwill to men, he remembers thinking. But to those who torched this Cambodian home, there is no goodwill to Cambodian families.
Yem’s years of work in Revere had been dedicated to overcoming such animus. But with the fire, he’d reached a breaking point: “I said to myself: Enough is enough!”
Yem fled Cambodia in 1975 at age 22, as the Khmer Rouge, Chinese-backed Marxist guerrillas, neared the capital city of Phnom Penh. It was the culmination of a years-long civil war, with the US government backing the Khmer Republic. With the Khmer Rouge closing in, Yem and millions of other residents had to decide whether to stay and hope for the best, or leave and try to start a new life somewhere else. With no way of knowing the horrors to come, it was a difficult decision. “A lot of Cambodians at the time, including my family, believed: Oh, the war’s over. Now there will be peace,” Yem recalls.
Yem left, but his family stayed. Most did not survive. In the ensuing genocide, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.7 million people, roughly 21 percent of Cambodia’s population.
Yem spent the next four years with Christian missionaries in Thailand until a family in San Bernardino, California, sponsored his entry to the United States as a refugee in 1979. He moved to the Boston area in 1980 when the nonprofit World Relief hired him to help refugees adjust to their new lives, finding them apartments and starter supplies, registering them for social services, and perhaps most importantly, providing a friendly face.
Yem’s work involved showing up at the airport, often late at night or in the early hours of the morning. Airline stewards would seek him out and take him on board the planes, where he’d often spot a Cambodian family of eight or nine people, sleeping in the back. “I’d say ‘chum reap suor’ in Khmai” as a greeting, he recalls. “They’d all wake up and they were so happy to see another Cambodian person.” Yem would accompany them to their apartments and teach them basics such as how to switch between cold and hot water in the bathtub or work a gas stove. Families always sought a taste of home first. “They all made instant noodles right away,” he says. “They were so hungry.”
Refugees who moved to cities like Revere were in search of financial security, safety, and a chance to replicate the comforts of life lost to war, genocide, and poverty in their homeland. But before they could do that, there was a different battle to fight.
The 1980s were difficult for many Americans. Thousands of manufacturing jobs disappeared, with many blaming it on a then ascendant Japan. “Buy American” campaigns became popular. The United Auto Workers organized events encouraging members to take out their frustrations on Toyota and Nissan vehicles — sometimes with sledgehammers.
The violence wasn’t restricted to vehicles for long. “A brutal wave of anti-Asian violence followed the migration of Southeast Asian refugees to Massachusetts during the 1980s and 1990s,” explains Shirley Tang, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Anti-Asian bias in the United States stretches back at least to the 19th century, incorporated formally into law with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example. In addition, Tang continues, “The dehumanizing consequences of US wars with Asian ‘enemies’ in the Philippines, Korea, Southeast Asia and elsewhere have contributed to the contexts of anti-Asian violence.”
By the early 1980s, about 150,000 refugees from Cambodia had resettled in the United States, with many sent to Massachusetts. The population climbed throughout the decade as people relocated to join family and friends and to find work. Those who arrived first built cultural infrastructure such as ethnic markets, restaurants, and religious institutions, attracting other Cambodian migrants to the state. The 1990 US Census records the statewide Cambodian population at over 14,000. By then, Lowell and the combined communities of Revere and Lynn had grown to become the second and fifth largest Khmer communities in the country, respectively, according to Tang.
Acts of harassment and violence were growing, too. Yem noticed the area’s unwelcoming attitude almost immediately, he says. “We had people that called Cambodians names,” he says. “White kids in the neighborhood [would] throw rocks at apartments, and then it escalated from there. People were pushed off the sidewalks. . . . And then it continued getting worse and worse.”
Many community members and activists felt their concerns weren’t taken seriously by law enforcement. A stabbing attack on a group of Vietnamese people on Coleman Street in Dorchester in July 1983 left one of them, Anh Mai, a 24-year-old refugee, dead. Boston police did not find the attack by a 19-year-old Marine to be racially motivated, but he was charged with first-degree murder and multiple counts of assault with intent to murder and assault with a deadly weapon, and convicted on all charges in 1985.
A month after Anh Mai’s murder, Yem spotted something suspicious around Shirley Avenue in Revere while doing his habitual drive, checking in on refugee families: two white men on foot were speaking to his friends, Somali Im and his wife, through the driver’s side window of their car. One of the men was carrying a baseball bat. Yem decided to approach. One of the men told him to leave, threatening, “Do you want to be like Dorchester?” which Yem took to be a reference to Anh Mai’s murder. Then, he saw one of the men pull Im out of the car by his neck. “I said: ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that! You need to stop!’” Yem recalls.
Yem said the men, Vietnam veterans, told them to go “back to Vietnam,” though Yem and the Ims are Cambodian. He recollects that the commotion drew others into the streets, Cambodian residents on one side, white residents on the other. Eventually, a Revere police officer on a motorcycle pulled up. “He just talked to the two white guys and then dispersed the crowd,” Yem says. The officer did not speak with any of the Cambodians — the police apparently didn’t even file a report.
For a population whose experience in their homeland taught them not to trust law enforcement, such incidents deepened that rift. “I never trusted the police, they didn’t care about us,” Yem says. “They didn’t think we were supposed to be there anyway.” It was then that a legal assistant with the Civil Rights Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office named Gail Suyemoto stepped onto the scene.
“I didn’t trust the local cops, but I trusted the people like Gail,” Yem says.
From the experiences of the early 1980s, authorities and activists learned that a lack of trust between Southeast Asians and law enforcement, specifically local police departments, was a big part of the problem. Leadership had a lot to do with it, according to Tang. “There was greater understanding and care at the level of state leadership compared with the municipal leadership in Revere,” she says. Massachusetts’ first director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (now the Office for Refugees and Immigrants), from 1983 to 1990, was Daniel Lam, who had come himself from Cambodia to the United States seeking asylum. In addition, Kitty Dukakis, wife of then-governor Michael Dukakis, was a well-known advocate for Cambodian resettlement, both locally and nationally.
And there was the attorney general’s office, responsible for tracking racial bias incidents. Fresh off her undergraduate studies at Brown University, Gail Suyemoto started working at the AG’s office in 1983, her first professional role. The daughter of a Japanese American man who had been forced to live in American internment camps in the 1940s, she knew what was at stake in Revere.
And something curious regarding Southeast Asian Americans had come to light in the Civil Rights Division. Even though they knew harassment was happening from news reports, they weren’t seeing cases being filed. “We noticed we had zero cases from the Southeast Asian community, even though they were a growing population and easy to target,” she says. If the harassment against the refugees was going to stop, law enforcement needed to document the incidents.
One tool was the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, passed in 1979. The law makes violating or attempting to violate someone’s civil rights a felony. In addition, it alters sentencing when paired with another felony, adding up to an additional 10 years in prison if the act results in any physical injury. If there’s evidence of an escalating pattern of harassment based on the target’s race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or other identity, a defendant is more likely to face civil rights violations.
But to set the wheels in motion, people first needed to report incidents — even minor ones — to the police; and police needed to record them. For that to happen, there needed to be trust. Civilians and law enforcement alike needed to be educated on civil rights law, and the onus for that fell on the AG’s office.
Suyemoto and her colleagues began contacting organizations assisting Southeast Asian communities. Yem and other activists slowly came to learn their faces, and he and Suyemoto began to work together. With Yem as interpreter, she would hold meetings for as many as a dozen people at a time in Cambodian immigrants’ homes, churches, and other meeting places “to try and explain to them what their civil rights were and what they were to do if one of those things happened to them,” Suyemoto says. “You want to be face to face with people because you’re asking for their trust. That’s not something that a pamphlet, or a phone call, or in these days, a Zoom call, would do.”
The pair would share their home phone numbers and tell people to call any time something happened, no matter the hour. “[We told them] they have rights to live in peace without any interference from others,” Yem says, adding that he would receive calls in the middle of the night asking him to call the police on behalf of residents’ who lacked confidence in their English.
The AG’s office offered education to police departments as well, reminding officers to write up incident reports. The effectiveness of such efforts largely depended on each department’s leadership and the priorities they gave to civil rights policing — and sometimes, that was dependent on resources. Though many police officers did step up their game, according to Suyemoto, some did not. But knowing a phone call from the AG’s office would get attention, she says, “I would tell people, ‘Call the police and make a report. If the police don’t come, call me. . . . I will call the police department.’”
The efforts appeared to work — they had real data for the first time, and it was chilling. According to Shirley Tang, the UMass professor, by 1987, recorded data showed that 30 percent of the victims of reported racial violence were of Asian descent, though they comprised only 4 percent of the population.
In the mid-1980s, as the situation worsened for the Cambodian-American community, the epicenter was a three-story apartment building in Revere at 9 Walnut Place. Cambodian families had moved into each of the five units in the building and their new neighbors didn’t like it. Residents were subjected to continued violence and harassment, including slurs, broken windows, graffiti on their cars, and smashed windshields.
In June 1985, things spun even further out of control. According to a civil injunction later filed in Suffolk Superior Court, on the night of June 14, 17-year-old Samouen Nol and his friend were repeatedly accosted on the street by a group of white men, including a 27-year-old named Robert Lee Stephens and four others, who hurled beer cans at them and shouted words they did not understand. Frightened, they returned to Walnut Place. Later that night, Nol grabbed a slingshot and shot a marble at one of the teens he spotted on the property.
Just after midnight, Stephens and the others broke a first-floor window of a room where a 2-month-old and another child slept. When Nol opened the front door to see what was happening, Stephens punched him in the face, according to documents filed in court.
But Stephens didn’t know that one of Nol’s neighbors, Samath Chap, was ready to document just such an occasion. “The residents of the area felt like they needed to get the evidence so the police would do something about [the continued harassment],” Suyemoto says. “He got a Polaroid camera and started sleeping with it next to his bed.”
As Nol and his family scrambled to respond that night, their Cambodian neighbors went outside, surrounding Chap to protect him as he took pictures. One image captured Stephens holding a stick as Nol’s father, Nil Por, his shoulder muscles straining, attempted to wrestle it away.
The group started running away, but Por gave chase. Stephens threw a stick at him, striking him in the leg and chest. Police arrived shortly after. The next day, Suyemoto received a call from Chap, who gave her the Polaroid photo. When she showed it to Revere police, they recognized Stephens immediately.
On July 16, after Stephens was charged with felony assault and civil rights violations, 9 Walnut Place was burned down, forcing the residents to find new homes. Though the fire was highly suspicious, no one was arrested.
Stephens, whom the Globe Magazine was unable to reach for comment, was ultimately convicted and sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison. In 1987, his lawyer appealed to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, arguing the state’s Civil Rights Act was unconstitutionally vague. But the court upheld the law, setting a precedent — a pivotal moment for its advocates, Tang notes in an e-mail. “Civil rights charges were too often not used in prosecuting cases of anti-Asian violence then, and this is still true currently. But the Stephens case demonstrated how the MA Civil Rights Act could be used effectively.”
Suyemoto says the moment was crucial in showing Asian communities throughout the state that their concerns were taken seriously and that those targeting them would be punished. But change didn’t come overnight. “It wasn’t like a faucet that suddenly turned off. It took some time, but it started to turn off.”
Seven months later, on a cold Christmas morning, Yem would find himself standing outside the smoldering remnants of 50-52 Shirley Avenue in Revere.
The Shirley Avenue firebombing was a turning point in Cambodian-American history. Yem called local Cambodians and civic groups that Christmas morning to urge them to rally against the violence. He also called the principal of nearby Garfield Elementary School, where many students were Khmer, to request their participation. “The theme was ‘Enough is Enough,’” he says. He gave police notice about the rally. But he ran into resistance from some of the city’s white residents. One neighborhood group tried to persuade him to cancel the demonstration. “They said, ‘We never had such a rally, even during the Vietnam War,’” Yem remembers. “I’m more diplomatic right now, but back then I was young and angry... . I said: ‘Look, we’re not going to stop, because you didn’t do anything to stop the violence. So, we have to do this ourselves, with your support or not.’”
On January 10, 1987, the first Cambodian-American demonstration in US history, organized by Yem, occurred in Revere. About 300 people marched from Revere City Hall to the ruins of the Shirley Avenue home. Over 30 were children from Garfield Elementary and, Yem estimates, another 20 to 30 local Khmer adults were present (he surmises that most were too afraid to participate), alongside another 50 or so locals; the rest were out-of-town supporters. Members of the Coalition on Racial Violence Against Cambodian-Americans, a group established after the fire, also marched.
Soon after, the City of Revere hired a liaison recommended by Yem to work with the Cambodian community, and eventually established a human rights commission. (Yem had started working for the state in 1986 as a Southeast Asian community liaison in the public safety office, where he’d serve off and on until 1997.)
And Suyemoto remembers noticing something else. “I went back to Shirley Ave. after that,” she recalls, “and I saw the parking signs were in Khmer and English. And I thought: That is a sign of improvement.”
Yem is finishing off a bowl of kha thiew — Cambodian pho — at the Senmonorom Restaurant, a popular Khmer spot in Lowell. It was here where he held the only fund-raiser for his 2021 run for City Council. A young woman stops by his table on her way out. “Hello, Bu!” she says, using a Khmer word for uncle, a sign of respect.
It’s a brisk day in late December 2021, not unlike the one 35 years ago when Yem got the phone call for help from the Revere Fire Department. Only now, the Cambodian American, a US citizen since 1986, lives in Lowell with his wife, Robin Lunn, and their two teenaged sons (Yem has four other sons from a previous marriage). He first became involved in the Lowell business community when he worked at a bank, serving Cambodian clients. In 1992, he helped launch the Cambodian American League of Lowell, later becoming its executive director for five years, and moved to the city in 2003. In a week, he’ll be sworn in to the Lowell City Council, a seat he ran for so he could give voice to the many immigrants in the district he now represents.
Lowell’s Cambodian community continues to grow. Roughly 23 percent of its approximately 115,000 residents identify as Asian, according to the 2020 Census; almost 15,000 people claim Cambodian descent. Cambodia Town, a business district near downtown, is populated with well-established markets, eateries, and jewelers. Nonetheless, Cambodians nationwide still struggle economically, earning more than $20,000 less per capita annually than Asian-Americans nationwide, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center analysis. There’s an even greater disparity in Lowell, where Cambodian-Americans make $5,000 less than the average per capita income of $27,064 of Lowell residents, the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston found. The community also lags behind in education, where almost one-third have not earned a high school degree, compared with around 18 percent for the general population.
At the restaurant, Yem ponders his path from refugee to activist to elected city leader. It’s part of a wider story, not so much of Khmer assimilation into the United States, but of integration, he says. “It’s the stages. We fight for our rights to live free of harassment or violence. And then we want to integrate and then become Americans.”
Reflecting on the impact of his activism, he sees a greater connection, across geography, across generations, across culture. “I carry the torch,” he says. “My children and the next generation will carry the torch, will continue to educate, continue to fight the battle because racism is there.” He talks about Cambodian-American Rothanak C. Sarath, the 27-year-old spokesman for the EAST movement, which stands for Every Asian American Ally Stands Together. The multiracial group started in 2020 in response to the rise in targeted harassment and violence against Asian American communities since the onset of COVID-19. “For us, this is not something new. This is something that we’ve been fighting since we’ve been here,” Sarath says. “We just want to use our voice to speak up, saying: Look, we’re here with you, and you don’t have to go through this alone. We’re in this fight together.”
January 3 arrives, and Yem takes his seat onstage at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. An audience of around 200 people watch as he and the other city councilors take the oath of office. With three Cambodian-Americans and one councilor of mixed race, the 2022 council of 11 members is the most diverse in Lowell’s history, thanks to a new electoral system, and reflects the city’s population far more than the all-white council of just four years ago.
On Yem’s right, Sokhary Chau rises to give his inaugural address. He’s the first mayor of Cambodian descent in the nation. “[It] is not so much a land of milk and honey, of streets paved in gold, as we imagined the US, but of democracy,” says Chau, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime.
On Beacon Hill, the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act is back on the drawing table. State Representative Tram Nguyen, a Vietnamese American who was 5 when she arrived in the United States as a refugee, has sponsored a bill designed to encourage consistent enforcement by making the act’s provisions more specific and easier to interpret, as she explained at a November hearing.
But Gail Suyemoto, whose career after the AG’s office included a years-long stint at the Boston Police Department, has concerns. She says it’s the broadness of the law that makes it so effective. “The current statute makes no mention of the amount of injury, which is how Stephens was prosecuted as a felony,” she says. “My concern is with so much definition and focus on defining more serious injury in the proposed statute, cases with less serious injury will be handled as misdemeanors.” That, in turn, would ultimately discourage civil rights charges and the accompanying justice.
Yem is proud of his early activism in Revere. He believes he made a difference, though he’s saddened and frustrated by the current wave of violence. That civil rights fight is ongoing. “Remember that racism, it’s America’s problem.”
Kevin G. Andrade is a journalist based in Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter @KevinGAndrade. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.