“The Christians loved me when I was poor and ugly”: Former Cambodian refugee who lost his whole family at 17 and right eye in mine blast
by Gracia Lee // November 7, 2023, 12:06 pm
Ey Vonn’s growing up years were fraught with hardship.
Orphaned at 12, the Cambodian spent his teenage years living in a pagoda, away from his three older siblings.
The year he turned 17, the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and killed his entire family. He fled to Thailand alone and as a refugee.
When he was 23, two years after the Vietnamese army overthrew the Khmer Rouge, he was tasked to carry ammunition back from the border into Cambodia. He was with a friend when they accidentally stepped on a mine.
He lost his right eye. His friend lost his life.
A counterfeit believer
It was all too much for him to bear.
“I was a disabled person who had lost everything,” Vonn, now 65, told Salt&Light over Zoom from Cambodia. “I didn’t want to live.”
After his face was disfigured by the blast, everyone in his refugee camp avoided him. But one American missionary did not.
“He came to talk to me and encouraged me to know God. He asked me to pray together with him,” Vonn recalled.
He accepted the missionary’s kind offer of company and prayer, but did not see the need to believe in what he perceived as a foreign religion.
It was not the last time he would hear about the Christian faith.
While at the refugee camp, a medical team from the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) learnt that Vonn could speak English and roped him in as an interpreter.
As a staff member, he was encouraged to join in the daily devotions. He eagerly joined – but only for the cake and bread that were served after the sessions.
“They would ask for volunteers to pray and I was always the first one to volunteer because I wanted to eat the cake,” he recalled with a chuckle. “I learnt how to pray very fluently, but I didn’t really believe.”
He also feigned interest in the faith so that he would be given a Bible. When he returned home, he would tear out its pages to use as cigarette and toilet paper. “I kept doing this every day until one book was finished. Then I would go again to meet the pastor and ask for another Bible,” he confessed.
Though he would read what was written on each torn page before using it, the words left little impact on him.
In fact, he scoffed at other Cambodians who genuinely believed in Jesus. During worship services with the C&MA team, he would question those sitting near him on why they had placed their faith in a “foreign god”.
Searching for answers
After being repatriated to Cambodia, Vonn left his job with C&MA. Time went by without him giving much thought to what he had heard about God.
Years later, however, as he was looking for a new job, he reconnected with an old friend from C&MA, who invited him to come back to work in the organisation.
Doing so opened up opportunities for him to hear about the Christian faith again. This time, he was in a different place spiritually: He had been grappling with existential questions to which he had found no satisfactory answers.
“Even if we are poor, rich or middle class, we can come together, work together, pray together.”
“I had three questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where do I go after I die?” he recalled.
As he attended church regularly and studied the Bible more seriously, he found in the faith answers that were satisfying. “The Bible says that we are created by God and that everything in the universe does not accidentally happen,” he said.
He was also touched by the love of the Christians around him, especially since he felt discriminated against by society for being poor and half-blind.
“In Christianity, we love each other, we share what we have with each other, we support each other, we encourage each other. We are not classified by rank. Even if we are poor, rich or middle class, we can come together, work together, pray together,” he said.
“The Christians loved me when I was a refugee, poor and ugly. They always encouraged me and loved me; I was not discriminated.”
It cemented his decision to put his faith in Jesus.
The fire of persecution
Following Jesus proved challenging, but Vonn – along with his wife and three children who had accepted the Christian faith too – persisted.
Neighbours killed their dogs, destroyed their farm, stole their belongings and threatened to burn down their house.
With no church on his home island of Koh Dach, he and his family chose to attend one in the city of Phnom Penh. Though the distance from their home to the church was only 12km, they had to cross two rivers. The journey ended up taking some two hours each way.
“Every Sunday we would get up early in the morning. We only had one small motorbike – 50cc, very difficult to carry all five family members. My elder son would use a bicycle and hold on to my shoulder as we drove. It was very difficult, but we tried,” he recalled with a laugh.
They did this faithfully for 14 years.
On Saturday evenings, the family – the only believers in their village – held worship sessions in their home. Some young neighbours would join them, to the ire of other neighbours who were hostile to what they thought was a foreign religion.
Their neighbours made their disdain for them clearly known. They killed their dogs, destroyed their farm, stole their belongings and threatened to burn down their house. Once, they threw a brick through their roof in the dead of night, narrowly missing one of his children.
In a bid to protect his family, Vonn saved up to buy a plot of land in the city so that they could move away from the persecution. Before he was able to move, however, he met with a bad accident that forced him to sell the land so he could pay for medical treatment.
“I consistently lamented about my suffering to God,” said Vonn. In reply, God often spoke to him through passages that exhorted him to be strong and courageous in the Lord (Joshua 1:9) and to love his neighbour as himself (Mark 12:30-31). God also sent His people to encourage, love and pray for him and his family.
“Upon reflection, I can see how God has delivered me. God has never abandoned me even once! His presence is with me during difficult times, the happiest moments and through temptation. He has never left us,” he said.
“Those who are not believers hurt us because they don’t know God yet,” he added. But that soon changed.
One is enough
As a result of Vonn’s perseverance, some in the village came to know God.
When a missionary couple arrived on their island in 2005 with a heart to start a church, Vonn offered a small piece of land at the back of his house. Today, Grace Home Church comprises some 15 people, led by him and his wife.
Even though he still faces persecution from his neighbours, it is much less life-threatening now: Mostly gossip, verbal criticism and judgment.
Still, he shares about God’s goodness in his life when there are opportunities to do so.
“If I can get just one person, one family, to believe in Christ, it’s enough for me,” he said, adding that he is thankful that one family from his village has come to Christ.
“I feel satisfied to be able to provide them with shepherd care so that people can go out, multiply and carry on the work of God.”
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