Long Beach Swears In Its First-Ever Cambodian American City Councilmember

Suely Saro is the first Cambodian American to serve on the Long Beach City Council, in a city that has a large and long-established Cambodian community. (Courtesy of Suely Saro )

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Suely Saro took the oath of office Tuesday, becoming the first Cambodian American to join the Long Beach City Council and one of only a few from the diaspora to reach elected office anywhere in the country.

Saro is a veteran community advocate who once worked for Democratic former State Senator Ricardo Lara. She is a 1.5-generation immigrant who arrived as a child from Cambodia, allowing her to bridge the gap between her parents' cohort and the Cambodian Americans born here.

During her swearing-in ceremony, she brought up her parents, who fled genocide for the safety of a Thailand refugee camp where Saro was born and lived before the family moved to Southern California in the early 1990s.

"Resettling in America was foreign and challenging in every way possible, but together as a family, we overcame all the obstacles we [faced]," Saro said. "I can never forget where I come from."

Saro's rise to City Council was celebrated by Long Beach's Cambodian American community organizers, who over the past decade have been strengthening their push for greater political representation in Long Beach, home to the largest concentration of Cambodians outside of that country.

Watching the live stream of Saro being sworn in was "surreal" for Lara Som, who advocates for genocide survivors at the MAYE Center.

"Oh my God, we actually can call Long Beach our home," Som said. "We can go to a City Hall meeting and voice our concerns. And this woman would understand our culture and she would be able to represent us."

Som said getting a Cambodian American elected to the council was a natural progression from the work of Equity For Cambodians, which she co-chairs.

In 2019, the group successfully advocated for a local ballot measure that changed the city's charter and established a redistricting commission to redraw election lines.

A long-standing concern has been that the voting power of the Cambodian community, centered in the Cambodia Town neighborhood, is diluted by being split among four districts.

That Saro was still able to defeat incumbent Dee Andrews to serve the Sixth District, which includes part of Cambodia Town, was viewed as a major feat for the community.

"I think representation matters in that it's a reflection of seeing that you matter at an official council level," Saro said. "Decisions are going to be made with you in consideration."

Saro said pandemic relief is a priority for her. She's focused on getting constituents access to food and finding jobs, while keeping in mind their different cultures and languages.

Saro said she also wants to tackle the city's most challenging issues, including homelesness and housing costs.

Saro is one of only a handful of Cambodian elected officials in the country. Her candidacy, which was endorsed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, made news throughout the diaspora.

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