Where were you in 1978?
I was a young newlywed. My husband was building his career, I was building our home. Life was good. We were secure. Safe.
Yet, the world was tossing and turning in places I never heard of, and as a young adult, I still had much to learn.
Today, in 2016, I had the privilege of meeting a former refugee from Cambodia…he shared a much different perspective of where he was in 1978…his own world nearly 40 years ago.
The Khmer Rouge, 1975 – 1979.
Imagine…just for a moment…
It was if it happened over night…his world as he knew it…disappeared. What he held dear – family, friends, safety and security…suddenly and instantly….gone. In a bloody vengeance, generations of families, traditions, and quality of life…lost forever.
Turmoil and fear became his new reality. How does one even manage…survive…in the every day?
By direct order of the new organized government, my new acquaintance was commanded to report to a particular address. Upon entering the facility, the designated room was filled with other townspeople like himself…anxious, grieved, hungry, afraid. Each were directed to stand in a line – women on one side – men on the other.
Loud threats pressed this man and the others to file past a selection committee. Realization set in. Each person was under examination for marriage. Selections were random regardless of age, social standing, appeal, or family. In what seemed a blur, his turn came – he was matched with a woman he’d never seen before. He had no idea who she was, or where she was from. His once familial traditions were obliterated. Sorrow and confusion mixed together as he and this woman were forced to sign documents. Marriage vows, written by the authorities, were read by he and his new wife.
Bound in marriage by this new government, they are followed and ordered to ensure their marriage is consummated. By threat of greater harm, the newlyweds can only obey every order. Children are expected for a new society. Constant surveillance becomes the new normal. They do not deviate from what is decreed by authorities.
He is unable to rely on family as he would in days past…because…they were forcibly taken away…many killed before his eyes. Parents, siblings….aunts, uncles. His wife’s family just as scarce. Yet, they dare not talk about it, even with one another, for fear of betrayal. Who is this person to whom he is married? What secrets does she keep? Will he say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, and will she report him? Is he obligated to report her?
And, then, one day, my friend is taken ill. So severe is his health, he fears the worst. It is when his wife comes to check on him, he beckons in his desperation for her to come close. The walls have ears, and he draws her near enough so as to barely speak above a whisper.
“Please…,” he implores his wife, “please don’t say a word…I am a Christian…I beg you, I need you to pray for me…please pray for me!”
It’s done. His forbidden secret…revealed. His very life now stands in the balance. The one who in better times ought to be the closest thing to his very soul, could turn and betray his plea.
As he begs for her prayers, suddenly he sees. Tears streaming down her cheeks. Leaning even more near, his wife speaks just as softly, “I, too, am a Christian.”
Radah and Samen Manickam are US citizens today. Welcomed to these hope-filled borders following a difficult journey, they found a haven for rest and healing, to raise their family, and worship God in freedom. No longer forbidden, this couple shares their story here and in their homeland of Cambodia. (Radah’s full story will be published spring, 2016)
As for my encounter with the Manickam’s – I knew of these refugees coming to our city in those days. Little did I engage with their journey. So, when my husband and I met these folks, we wanted to hear of their journey over the years. Today, their story is living testament of deep faith in God, even when their world turned upside down. They have lived the refugee life. They have survived. Today, they are telling their story for those who have ears to hear.