“I ran away from home at age sixteen and it took two-months for my parents to find me. When they did, my dad beat me, but it was too late for correction. I showed no emotion, had no tears, my father could no longer discipline me so he gave up.”
Born in Battambang in 1974, for Van and his family it was the dawn of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot who became the leader of Cambodia after his forces captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. Pol Pot presided over a totalitarian dictatorship in which his government made urban dwellers move to the countryside to work in collective farms and on forced labor projects; causing the deaths of about 25 percent of the Cambodian population—perhaps 2 million plus people perished.
In 1981 Van’s parents gathered their children and fled Cambodia as refugees, living in a camp in Thailand for the next 5 years. Now 12 years old, in 1986 his family, comprising his mom and dad and five siblings, received permission to emigrate from Thailand and immigrate to Seattle, Washington.
It was a confusing time for Van. He spoke no English and was an oddity in his school. It did not help that the school placed him in a 5th grade class when he should have been in 8th grade.
Walking home from school, the local kids would pick fights with him, call him names, and beat him up. He found a few others like him, Cambodians, and walked together for protection. They saw what other kids had—they wanted toys too, so they stole.
Van’s first theft was a bicycle, but the illicit acquisition was short lived after one kid snitched. He graduated a few years after to auto theft. It was Mazda 626 and at age 16 he took a joy ride around Seattle until the police pulled him over. He ran from them with a K-9 dog right on his tail. The scars on his left leg tell the rest of that encounter.
In and out of Juvenile Hall, his parents lost control. Now immersed in his gang, he graduated once again, this time to handguns. He got caught with a gun, sent to Juvenile Hall for 3 days.
At age 18, he got his girlfriend pregnant. Feeling the gravity of new life caused him to think, “I have a child to care for.” He got a job, but the allure of the gang magnetized him; He was pulled back in and couldn’t keep away from his old friends. His fateful moment came a year later.
One night after a drinking party, he along with 14 of his gang members decided it was time to retaliate on a guy who had molested one gang member’s sister. Piling into two cars, the gang of drunken vigilantes drove three hours south to take care of their enemy. Justice would be meted out, street style.
Under cover of darkness they moved toward the front door. Knocking on the door, the victim answered, and all hell broke loose. Fifty to sixty rounds exploded through the door, windows, walls. The drunken executioners only wanted to spill the blood of their enemy. They did, although he lived.
Running scared from the scene they staggered to and squeezed into their vehicles, but in the confusion, Van got left behind. Reeling down the street alone, still in a stupor and not knowing what to do, he ditched the gun under a car, but seeing a school bus made him think, “What if a kid finds the gun and hurts himself?” He wrapped it instead in a shirt and threw it in the bushes, intending to come back later for it.
Wandering in a strange city, unsure of a way of escape, he turned the corner and to his dismay walked in front of the police precinct. The word was out about the shooting. His navigational error caused him to be spotted and stopped by officers in a patrol car. They questioned him, but he lied. The officer told him they knew who he was and that his brother Vorn was already in custody inside the police station. In fact, all fourteen were under lock and key inside the jail. Van was the last one arrested.
At the trial, all the men received attempted murder charges that carried sentences up to 25 years. Van was first transferred to prison in High Desert Nevada, then Minnesota, next Arizona, back to Washington. In 2014 Immigration officials took custody of him. Deportation to Cambodia was imminent. But before it happened, change was in the wind.
One of Van’s brothers contacted him and told him he had received a letter from Immigration instructing him to check in and bring a lawyer. Van did not want his younger brother to get deported too. He knew it would hurt his parents. So that night, Van prayed.
He had never prayed. What should he say? How should he say it? As a young boy, after coming to America, Christians took him to church. Those memories flowed back. His prayer was,
“God I don’t even know if you are real, but if you keep my brother from being deported, I promise to believe in you and serve you. I will stop smoking and drinking when I get out, and I will change my life.”
The next day, Van made a call to his brother. There was no answer. He tried a second time; still no answer. Surely he had been arrested and would soon be deported. “Maybe there is no God” Van thought. He called his brother one more time later in the day and he picked up. Van asked, “What happened? You didn’t get taken in for deportation?” His brother replied, “It was strange. I went in with my lawyer, but I don’t know what happened. They should have locked me up, but they didn’t. They said, “you’re okay, you can go”.” In his heart, Van knew the reason.
“God is real!” was all Van could think. He reassured God he would make good on his promise. He believed in Jesus. No one knew he believed. He kept it to himself, not because of fear or shame, but he didn’t know what he should do or how to act as a Christian. Van only knew he believed and was a changed man.
His cell had 12 guys living side by side; all MS-13 gang members. They were a rough bunch. As he went to his cell, after talking with his brother, the guards came and said, “Van, you are being moved to a different cell.” It was a life changing move.
In his new cell he found his bunk. His new cell mates announced, “It’s time for Bible study.” That was confusing to him, but okay, he went along with it. They asked him “Are you a Christian?” and he said “Yes.” They asked if he had a Bible, he said “No.” “Okay, we’ll get you one.” The new cell housed all Christians. God was helping Van make good on his promise.
The day came to fly to Cambodia. It was a long flight, from Seattle, to Seoul, to Bangkok, to Phnom Penh—guarded all the way by two immigration officers. For most deported men it is a woeful day, but for Van it was joyous. After 18 years of prison, new life awaited him across the Pacific. He was not going alone, God was going with him.
Van landed in Phnom Penh. A week later distant family members came for him and drove him to Battambang, 6 hours north of Phnom Penh. He had gone full circle–back now in the place it all began 41 years before; the place of his birth.
Since his family had fled when he was only 7 years old, Van remembered nothing about Battambang. He moved in with his auntie and was at a loss of what he should do. For several days he walked outside his auntie’s house to a little market next door, all the time he kept his head down, feeling out of place and not wanting people see the tattoos on his neck.
One day, as he walked outside with his head down, he did something he had not done since arriving, he looked up. When he did, he saw a cross on top of the building. He asked his auntie, “Is that a church next door?” She said, “Yes, I go there.” Van knew God was helping him and directing him.
The next day, the pastor of the church came to visit his auntie. He looked at Van and said, “Are you a Christian?” Van told him he was. “We are having a Christian conference this weekend, would you like to go?” Van thought, “I don’t even know this guy, but I think I will go.” The pastor registered Van and got him a room at the local hotel. At the meeting, Van noticed a woman sitting nearby, but he saw she had a ring on her finger. He wasn’t looking for a wife, but still he thought, “No chance with her”. Ravy was the woman. Her husband had passed away, but she still had a ring on. It was not just Van who saw her, she noticed him from across the room. Stealthily she snapped a few pictures of him with her phone.
The next day the pastor said to Ravy, “Ravy, stay by Van today and assist him if he needs help to understand anything.” It was a divine appointment.
Over the next several days and weeks they talked and found out about each other. Not too long after, the local pastors married them.
Van came to Battambang in November of 2015. He saw other deportees like himself and wanted to help them believe in Jesus Christ as he did.
In January of 2016, he started a monthly service with 12 deported men and women from America and each month he has held a service where he preaches the gospel of Jesus and provides a meal and fellowship for those who attend.
In the meantime Van and Ravy are serving the Lord together and want to be faithful to him. Van’s father gave up tying to discipline his son, but his heavenly Father was there correcting, working and training him to discover the plan for his life.
Van’s story is one of hope and redemption.
Will you join me in praying for this couple as they grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ?
Postscript: Our Institute for Pastoral Leadership and Development ended this week. As I worked with Van, Mout and Chantha, it was a time of great growth for each of us. Each of these men are now working with Hope Now Cambodia. Chantha is becoming re-energized; Mout desires to lead a Bible study; Van is back in Battambang working with the men and women deportees and planning his next service for April 30.
For me, it is humbling to have a part in the life of these men and I pray for their protection and their growth in Jesus Christ. For you as a supporter, you can take heart in knowing God is working through your prayers and financial support. If you would like to financially support this expanding and dynamic ministry, click here to donate to Hope Now For Youth.
I fear opposition is around the corner, yet I appeal as the apostle Paul did in Romans 16:17:
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”