In 1982, Vesna left a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand with his mother and father, three sisters, and three brothers, and headed into the unknown. Catholic Charities, helping to resettle refugees fleeing the violent Khmer Rouge regime, sponsored the Nuon family and settled them into a one-bedroom converted barn on the property of a host family in Stoughton, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
With only a few English words between them, Vesna and one of his brothers entered Stoughton High School in the 10th and 9th grades respectively. They had difficulty adjusting to an entirely new culture, new language, new customs, and a background that many fellow students did not understand. The boys were presumed to be Vietnamese, associated with a war that had claimed the lives of many of their fellow students’ fathers, uncles, and older brothers. Despite the challenges, they were determined to succeed.
After a year in Stoughton, Vesna’s family relocated to the Allston/Brighton area and he began the 11th grade at Brighton High School. The family was no longer eligible for financial assistance, so all four boys worked after school. For Vesna that meant school during the day, work at a warehouse in the evening, then home at midnight for dinner and homework. All the boys gave their earnings to their mother.
Unbeknownst to them, their mother saved that money and in time made the down payment on a house in Roslindale. Their new home quickly became very multi-cultural. In addition to caring for her own seven children and her ailing husband, Vesna’s mother welcomed into their home two young Haitian girls from the neighborhood who were left on their own while their mother worked during the day and she also provided daycare for two area Vietnamese children, broadening both Vesna’s and his siblings’ perspective of family.
Vesna enrolled in UMass Boston, having received a Boston Globe scholarship in part because of an essay he’d written about the importance of reading. Vesna’s father passed away during his second year, but he carried on and graduated with a BA in Psychology. His first job after college was for Shawmut Bank in downtown Boston. While he was grateful to have the job, he was much more passionate about his after-work volunteer vocation, teaching ESL classes in Chelsea. Like mother, like son, Vesna has a deep passion for helping others.
This passion lead to a position with Middlesex District Attorney Thomas Reilly’s office—in 1991 Vesna came to work in Lowell as a Victim Witness Advocate. He loved this job, and was proud to be bridging gaps between the Asian-American community and law enforcement authorities. With District Attorney Reilly, he started a task force to educate a community, build trust in the police, and give counsel on how to report crime. He reached out to at-risk youth and worked to break up gangs that had developed in Lowell. After a few years with the task force, Vesna and the team helped secure a grant from the federal government to hire the first two Cambodian officers with the Lowell Police Department.
Continuing his work with the District Attorney’s office, Vesna and his wife Navey moved to Lowell in 1997, eventually buying a house in the Highlands neighborhood. They have two children who were born in Lowell: Nathan in 1998 and Nadya in 2006. In 2000, Governor Paul Celluci appointed Vesna to a full-time position on the state Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB), a position he still holds. As a board member, Vesna is responsible for setting policies and procedures for registration, classification, and community notification of offenders in order to protect vulnerable members of the public. With his reappointment of Vesna to the SORB, Governor Mitt Romney recognized Vesna’s effectiveness and commitment to public safety in our communities.
In addition to devoting his entire professional life to public service, Vesna served for ten years as a member of the Lowell Zoning Board of Appeals, focusing his concern on residents and the impact a project would have on them and their neighborhood. Other community involvement includes membership on the boards of The Center for Hope and Healing, Clemente Park Advisory Committee, Massachusetts Asian American Commission, Collegiate Charter School of Lowell, Southeast Asian Families Against Domestic Violence, Angkor Dance Troupe, Cambodian American League of Lowell Inc., Merrimack Valley Housing Partnership, United Teen Equality Center (UTEC), the George Lewis Ruffin Society, Citywide Parent Council, and Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce.
Vesna was formerly a Lowell City Councilor (2012–2013) where he worked to diversify the City administration and reach out to groups of people whose voices are unheard in city government or whose lives have been uprooted and altered due to violence in their home country but now call the United States, Massachusetts, and Lowell home. Vesna brings his unique perspective to public service along with an unquenchable thirst to make his community a better place for everyone.