Monday, July 11, 2011

Hong Net blazing diversity trail to Lynn City Council

LYNN — Councilor at large candidate Hong Net landed in the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand at age 15, alone, with no belongings, barefoot and with a broken arm.

But what really scared him was the first time he entered the City Council Chambers in City Hall, he said.

“I had never been in the City Council Chamber until last year,” he said. “It scared me. I didn’t know what to expect.”

The soft-spoken father of two is the first Cambodian to run for a city-wide office in Lynn and he said he is excited at the prospect of bringing a little diversity to a decidedly non-diverse City Council.

“I think no one has run before because people felt uncomfortable, that maybe the city wasn’t ready,” he said. “It’s how I felt too. It’s intimidating but so many wonderful people encouraged me.”

He also made the decision to run for councilor at large rather than for ward councilor because he wanted to speak for the entire city.

Net, 42, works with the Department of Revenue as a child support enforcement specialist and has lived in Lynn for 14 years.

“And I’m proud of that,” he said. The longer I live here the more I like it.”

He was 11 when he escaped from Cambodia into Thailand after the Vietnamese invaded. After traversing a mountain range, spending a month in the jungle with no food, then several more months in refugee camps, he made his way to the United States when a family from Holyoke sponsored him, took him in and raised him.

Net said he went back to Cambodia to help rebuild the war-torn country after graduating from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a degree in political science.

He spent several years helping to create jobs and develop a new government ministry. Later, he said he was assigned to work with the Ministry of Tourism, “because who would want to go to visit Cambodia.”

Net said he followed that with a year of working for an assembly woman where he learned about budgets and did translations and taught English to political aspirants.

“And I founded an international language center in Cambodia and taught English to about 800 people,” he said. “Not me alone, there were others.”

Those experiences along with his work stateside, which also included starting a nonprofit in order to teach English as a second language to children and citizenship classes, has prepared him, Net said, to give back as a City Councilor.

“I have a platform,” he said. “I have four areas that I want to focus on.”

They include public safety, including a smarter neighborhood policing program, investing in education and breaking down language barriers so that parents understand the school system, economic development and creating a unified Lynn.

“As the first Cambodian candidate I hope I can open doors so that all can come together and work together,” he said.

He said his campaign is already improving civic involvement in that more Cambodians are registering to vote and getting involved in the community.

“This is a win-win and I’m very excited,” he said. “This is a learning process for me too. I am very honored to run ... I feel privileged to run but hopefully we will go beyond that.”

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