Soon we learned that Tong was the young girl's nickname, apparently given by her hated brother-in-law. Her real name is Mni Sarapon. She and Sceur Ly asked for our help in gaining permission for members of their family to come to the United States from one of the camps, so we filled out detailed paperwork for them and sent it to the State Department. The group was large--13 family members--and the bureaucratic wheels ground for months. A number of other Americans got involved, most notably our congressman Chester Atkins. But my paperwork was critical, and someone--I will never know who--got it into his head that the lack of progress in reuniting the family was my fault. So one day I received a phone call from Kitty Dukakis, who said she'd been told I was ruining everything by not sending in the paperwork. I gave her quite an earful, letting her know exactly what I had done and when and to whom it had gone in the State Department--and by the way, she had a nerve calling me when she didn't know what she was talking about...blah, blah. The paperwork was quite involved, and I said I'd do it once more and only once more. She backed off. I felt defensive and angry, but it sure felt good to tell off a big shot.
But the person who went way out on a limb was Atkins. He made a big public show of helping reunite the family, which eventually occurred. He lived in the affluent town of Acton, in the same district as Lowell but culturally like the other side of the Moon. A whole lot of people resented all the attention he paid to refugees as opposed to the needs of his working-class constituents. The local news carried a man-on-the-street interview where a young working-class man expressed his anger that Cambodians were coming to Lowell and the government was giving them cars, which was completely untrue. What did happen was that several members of a family would pool their resources and buy a car for all of them. There was welfare, but there were also many refugees who had jobs and worked hard at them.
The political upshot for Atkins was that he lost his congressional seat. Other factors came into play, but my Cambodian friends were an unwitting factor in the election.