As an undergrad, Sara Khun-Leng ’99 was studying for a class on hate crimes when she read about Southeast Asian refugees who were resettled in Chicago in the early 1980s – and how they were mistreated by other residents.
“I’m sitting there and I’m numb, because this was my experience, there in the textbook,” says Khun-Leng, whose Cambodian family came to Chicago’s North Side via a refugee camp in the Philippines when she was 5 years old. “The first couple of years, the neighborhood kids would come in and spray-paint swastikas. I was beaten up on a weekly basis.”
That experience – and the trauma of arriving in December, wearing only summer clothes and flip-flops, and then having to walk more than a mile in the freezing cold to a sponsoring organization that could give her and her family warm clothes – has informed everything Khun-Leng has done since.
Her family moved to Lowell, where she attended Lowell High School and then UMass Lowell, majoring in criminal justice and minoring in psychology and legal studies. After graduation, she worked for then-U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan in constituent services for six years, with a focus on helping immigrants and refugees.
Next, the Lowell Police Department hired her as community liaison to the city’s growing population of Southeast Asian refugees. She was soon promoted to family services, where she worked for 10 years in community education and as an advocate for child victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
A decade ago, when the first Burmese and Nepali refugees began arriving in Lowell, Khun-Leng spotted a family wearing only sarongs and light clothing in the cold.
“I swore I’d never let kids go through what I went through,” she says.
So she immediately called on all of her community and university connections to start a clothing drive. Within a week, they had filled an entire room at the Armand P. Mercier Community Center with warm clothing for adults and children of all ages.
In her last few years at the police department, she served as head of community relations. Now she’s taken on a new role: head of constituent services for U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan’s district office in Lowell.
Once again, Khun-Leng is focused on helping immigrants and refugees throughout the district, as well as high school students seeking admission to the U.S. military academies and veterans having trouble accessing their VA benefits.
“It’s my calling – I felt like I had to do this, to speak for people who are not always able to help themselves,” she says. “It’s very near and dear to my heart, because I myself came in as a refugee.”