My Refugee Story

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Welcome to Cambodia: a country rich with cultural traditions, art, and architecture, all infused with elegance and beauty. One common worldview permeates our heritage: Buddhism. Embedded in everything, from the garments we wear, to the birthday, wedding, and funeral ceremonies we observe, are symbols of the Theravada Buddhist religion. In the 1970s, more than 95% of the country was Buddhist and only 1% was Christian. My family was traditionally Buddhist, but our encounters with missionaries at work in refugee camps in Cambodia and Thailand led us to know and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. 

COMMUNIST CAMBODIA

On April 17, 1975, Cambodia was taken over by the Cambodian Communists (“Khmer Rouge”), led by Pol Pot. My family was held captive and forced into slavery. The Khmer Rouge had a militia of adults and children holding machine guns. They were brainwashed into killing the natives as part of a cleansing ritual. My parents were separated—my father was sent to smash rocks in the countryside and my mother to the rice fields. They worked from 5 am to 7 pm, seven days a week with no holidays. They were only given a small bowl of rice porridge, twice a day. Even as a Buddhist, my grandmother told my father that he should “pray to the God who made the Heaven and the earth.” This was strange given our family had never heard about Jesus, but her words resonated in my father’s head as he endured hardship. God was at work even when we didn’t know it! Many died from malnutrition and others were shot and executed. More than four million Cambodians (60%) died during the Pol Pot regime, from 1975 through 1979. I lost one set of my grandparents and a few aunts and uncles during that time.

MY FAMILY’S JOURNEY

My family was reunited at the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, but the best gift we could have received was the Word of the Lord. My father always remembered my grandmother’s words, “pray to the God who made the Heaven and the earth.”

“I always remembered those words at war and in communism for 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days,” says my father. “When we reached Khao I Dang Camp in October 1979, we saw the Red Cross and missionaries from different places around the world. They cared for the poor and the sick, and they taught us about Jesus. The Bible says God created the earth and Heaven, so we decided to accept Him as our own Savior in November 1979.”

During their escape from Cambodia, my family encountered many dead bodies, across what became known as the Killing Fields. They walked through land mine fields; and in order not to set off a bomb, they were forced to walk on top of the dead bodies. Some mines were set off by people just steps ahead of them. They witnessed explosion after explosion.

Over the border, they finally reached a refugee camp in Khao I Dang, Thailand. Representatives from both the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Red Cross assisted Cambodians who managed to make their way out of Cambodia and through the horrendous Killing Fields. My uncle who lived in the United States sponsored my family to move to this country. My brother went to the United States with my grandparents. My mother was pregnant with me while at Khao I Dang Camp, and my parents (and I) traveled to another refugee camp in Bataan, Philippines before we arrived in this country. They later became soldiers at the Bataan Corps and taught other refugee Cambodians about the Word of God. On the day I was born, my father felt the Holy Spirit speak to him and he asked The Salvation Army if he could hold Sunday worship services in one of the rooms. It was quite a miracle to have over 170 Cambodian refugees come together to learn about the Word of God every week. I was later dedicated at the Bataan Corps in March of 1981.

Image of the the Sun Family 1981

Sun family reunited in Providence, RI, 1981.

A POT OF SPAGHETTI

Our transition as refugees and immigrants into the United States was only made possible due to the grace of God and His people perfectly positioned at the right time and place in our lives. The Salvation Army corps officer in the Philippines, Lieutenant Nacional, called the Providence, Rhode Island corps officers, Majors Wade and Joyce Watson, to let them know a Cambodian family would be arriving shortly. Major Watson did not know how to reach us, but by God’s grace we found each other. Once we arrived at the Providence Corps, they welcomed us into their family with all of their hearts. I vividly remember the Watsons bringing over a huge pot of spaghetti for our family of 12. During these days, I felt different and almost ashamed because I grew up on rice and Cambodian food. When the other kids at school had their American food at lunch, I couldn’t relate. While the Majors may have felt this was a small gesture at the time, to me, as a child, it made me feel like I belonged here and that I wasn’t different from the other kids.

The Army’s generosity was amazing, but we still endured hardship. The 12 of us lived in a small, low income home infested with rodents and bugs. My five-year-old brother once complained that his ear hurt, so my mother placed drops into his ear. At that very moment, a cockroach crawled out of his ear! Also, our neighbors always looked at us like we were different and oftentimes with malice. We had stones thrown through our windows and people screaming outside, “Go back to your country!”

No one in our family spoke English, so we were grateful for all of the ESL classes that the United States offered as temporary support to help immigrants learn.

My father worked in a factory assembling belts, and my mother entered high school as a junior, at the age of 21. God gave them both the strength to study and work hard to create a new life for their two children. My mother labored to translate her high school assignments from English to Cambodian in order to complete her homework and pass her tests. It paid off—she graduated in two years as valedictorian of her high school class! With a full scholarship, she went to Rhode Island College and graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. When she was offered a job in Danbury, Connecticut, we relocated. We sought out The Salvation Army in Danbury as our place of worship, as we continued to serve the Lord. Captains Gordon and Janice Magill showed us God’s love by providing afterschool care and helping us transition into our new home.

MY WALK WITH JESUS

God has blessed me with the gifts of keen observation, deep reflection, and constant appreciation for the people and things around me. I knew I loved the Lord since I was young. He saved my family from torture and wreckage so that we could live here and tell others our story. He has blessed me with a beautiful family of believers with whom I learn and grow. He has showered me with a lovely corps family at Times Square, where I have been nurtured by His Word for the past 11 years. He has led me to career opportunities that provide me with far more than I would ever need on this earth. I currently help Fortune 500 companies as a management consultant. God has created a pathway for me to flourish in this industry and is always putting wonderful new challenges in front of me. I pray that I continue to be a strong witness to the wide variety of people I meet, so that others may accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

A LOVE STORY FOR REFUGEES AND NATIVES ALIKE

The United States provided our family with not only a safe haven from the sufferings of our native country, but also an environment that allowed us to study, work hard, and create a foundation of health, happiness, and prosperity for our family. Throwing stones through windows is extreme, but most people can relate to wanting to protect what’s theirs, to rebelling against things and people that are different. But, maybe it is as easy as making a pot of spaghetti to find out that people are not as different from you as you may think.

I praise the Lord for bringing my family to this country, for the role that our Salvation Army family has played in my journey, and for the constant adventures I have been blessed to enjoy as I continue to be saved to serve!

WHAT DOES YOUR “POT OF SPAGHETTI” LOOK LIKE?

Five ways to love your displaced neighbor:

1. Introduce yourself. Offer to help or pray for your neighbor.

2. Make a pot of spaghetti. Cook a meal and deliver it with a smile.

3. Give the gift of Scripture. Write out Scripture verses that breathe hope despite trial. Verses could include Psalm 46:1, Proverbs 18:10, Isaiah 41:10, Exodus 15:2, Psalm 9:9-10, Exodus 33:14, Deuteronomy 33:27, and Psalm 34:17.

Place the verses inside a gift bag with a note for the family to reach in and claim a fresh word of hope each day.

4. Offer a ride to church.

5. Offer to babysit their children for free.

If you cannot identify someone who’s been displaced, pray for those who are!

As you walk through your own home, allow the following items to move you to prayer:

Door handle: Ask God to open doors for refugees to find shelter and safety.

Meals: Pray for God’s provision for the physical needs of refugees.

Pillow: Intercede for rest of travelers who may be worn and weary.

Shoes: Ask God to reveal Himself to refugees at every turn of their journey.

Money: Is God calling you to make a financial contribution to the needs of others? See pages 5 and 14 for ways to be a practical help to those in need.

—Lyna Sun, Greater New York Division, Eastern Territory