Spend five minutes with State Rep. Tram Nguyen (D-18th Essex) and you see the bright future of this country.  Her immigrant journey not only radiates a classic American success story, but also the obligation one immigrant feels to those who have followed.

Tram NguyenNguyen (pronounced WIN) was five years old when her family “had no choice” but to leave Vietnam and then settle in Lawrence with less than $100.   Twenty-five years later, she became the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to the Massachusetts legislature.

Talking to her now, it’s not a surprising achievement, but when they arrived in 1992 that might have been harder to predict.

“After the war ended my father (who fought on the losing South Vietnamese side) was in a reeducation (prison) camp for eight years.  Even after his release, he was completely blacklisted,” said Nguyen.  “He then struggled for nine years in Vietnam to make a living, but could not.”

Tram Nguyen, in front, is with her younger sister and parents at a party in December, 1992, their first year in the U.S. Photo by Tram Nguyen

Arriving as a five year old, her first memories of life here are admittedly vague.  But she does remember struggling to learn English and “being bullied” because she could not pronounce words.

While her English at the Wetherbee School in Lawrence came quickly, her parents’ struggle to earn a living lasted a few years longer.

“My parents worked odd jobs. I am not ashamed to say we were on welfare at first,” she said. “That is why I believe having a safety net is still so important to move people out of poverty.”

Living in public housing just a 10 minute walk from Lazarus House, it was among the places her family turned for help at the holidays from Project Bethlehem, which enables families to have gifts for Christmas.

“We had no money, but we would get presents from Lazarus House,” she said.  Not only did it allow them to share the experience of children around them, “We believe it’s a season for families to celebrate blessings in their households.”

She and her sister now “pay it forward,” by helping with gifts so that families today can have Christmas.  “We remember what a difference it made for us,” she said.

While Nguyen is the first in her family to finish college, not going was never an option.

“My parents had sacrificed everything so we could have those opportunities,” she said.  “We were going to make something of ourselves.”   Nguyen graduated from Tufts and then Northeastern University Law School.

State Rep. Tram Nguyen visits Lazarus House with then Executive Director Bridget Shaheen.

Working as an attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services was her first exposure to advocacy, seeing the impact of their work on the lives of current immigrants and low income families.  It also shaped her decision to run for public office.

“As an attorney with GBLS, I did policy work.  I had to meet with representatives and senators to explain why these things are important,” she said.

Rep. James Lyons, who she defeated, “seemed to oppose every single bill I ever worked on without giving me a chance to explain to him why they were important.”  Knocking on doors again and again throughout a district which goes from Tewksbury to Boxford, she defeated him easily.

In office she now prioritizes labor rights, domestic violence and climate change, along with reproductive rights and the opioid crisis.

But her immigrant roots are never far from her thoughts.  “I am setting an example. There has never been another voice like mine, because of my background.  I hope I can inspire others like me to see themselves as perhaps running for office someday.”