Hi, my name is Bophal, and this is ‘My Story.’
I was born in early seventies in Svay Rieng Province close to the border of Vietnam when the war with America was just winding down and the war with the Khmer Rouge was just cranking up. It was in the midst of the chaos of ear splitting artillery barrages, food scarcity, fire fights, rampant disease and internally displaced people that I entered this world. Being close the border, my two older brothers, my sister and I got the worst of both wars at once. When I was a year old, my father, a soldier of the Khmer Republic, was killed on the battlefield fighting against Khmer Rouge forces. After my father died, my mother took all four of us from Svay Rieng, inland to Kompong Cham because in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took power, we had to flee because if they knew we were the family of a Lon Nol senior officer, we would all have been killed. The Khmer Rouge in other sectors who didn’t know our background, conscripted my mother to work long hours in the hot sun planting and harvesting rice. First, she injured her hip, and then came down with malaria and died in 1977 around her 30th birthday. My siblings and I went to live with a neighbor lady and it was our job as little children to forage for food in the rice fields for the neighbor woman, mostly catching land crabs. She regularly beat us and accused us of stealing what we foraged for her, and so she also cut back what little food she gave us. Another woman in our village saw how we were being treated and had compassion on us. She did not have children of her own, and invited us to come live with her.
One day her husband heard that the Khmer Rouge knew of our history and wanted to kill us kids, and she secreted us away in the middle of the night to Kratie province. When we arrived in Kratie we found my aunt and she asked for us to be turned over to her care. I did not want to leave my adopted mother, I cried and clung to her leg tightly, but at the same time did not want to be left behind as my other siblings agreed to go with my auntie. When I was with my auntie for a short time, I got very sick and my brother brought me to stay at the hospital run by the Khmer Rouge. But as soon as we got there, the Vietnamese began shelling the area, and my brother grabbed my hand and we ran for our lives. I remember running so crazily I lost my shoes. I was terrified of the noise, the explosions, the fire and smoke. Artillery shells were erupting all around us. The hospital was hit and burned to the ground. The whole area was engulfed in flames and chaos from the shelling. We all headed back to Svay Rieng province and tried to swim across the river but the Vietnamese trained their weapons on us and we returned to travel by the road again. They asked my brother to climb the coconut trees and pick them coconuts to drink. They in turn, let us go and gave us the coconut meat to eat so we had some bit of energy for the rest of the trip.
We made it back to our home town, and lived with my mother’s older sister. By that time, the Vietnamese (Dec 25, 1978) had just invaded, propping up the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. At home it was crowded that my uncle took to state orphanages to house and feed us. We walked for days but the centers were all full and I cried and begged my aunt to let me stay with her. She said there was no food feed to me, so I promised not to eat too each much. This particular traumatic event was the inspiration that caused me to entertain the vision of someday in the future taking care of children who had no home or food to eat. God used this terrifying experience to plant a tiny seed in the life of a small child.
When I was 7, I was enrolled in school as a first-grader and was very happy to have many playmates. Very soon, I realized that I was a good student. Things went well until fourth grade where I had a teacher who hit the students. If we made a mistake he would take a stick and whack our fingers very hard, which happened to me on one unfortunate day. He struck me and I screamed loudly in front of the whole class. I cried and embarrassed myself. His corporal punishment was not out of cruelty, but he was old school and wanted us to do well. In spite of this incident, I was the best student in the class.
Before the second exam of the year, I fell off a water buffalo and broke my right hand and I did not go for a school for two weeks so I didn’t get to take my exam and I had to repeat my fourth year. I was very upset that I had to repeat the year.
I finished my secondary education and when the time came, I passed the exam to enter high school, but my entrance exam grade was low so I was not allowed to enroll. It was by now 1989, and I was 13 years old and extremely discouraged that I couldn’t enroll in high school so I was put in charge of herding water buffalo. I had lots of time to think and reflect on nature, etc., and my thoughts came around to; “Did someone create all this?” I really wondered about where the things of nature came from.
When I failed the exam, I went to live with my oldest brother so I could learn English. My brother paid for my English but during the day I would do all the house work and yard work. When I returned from school exhausted and hungry, his wife, who resented the fact my brother paid for my classes, would not save me any food. I had to secretly set aside some food for myself in the morning before I went to work or I would have starved. What little I had to eat in the morning would have to see me through the whole day.
After a few months, my second older brother saw that I wasn’t in school, so he brought me to Phnom Penh to learn how to sew. But instead, I become their house help but asked him if I could go learn English. My brother wasn’t home much, as he was soldiering in Kompong Som. I was left in the hands of his abusive mother in law and wife. Soon then I found a job working in a government printing house to pay for my English lessons but got ink poisoning on my thumb and had to stop. I still suffered terrible abuse my brother’s wife because she was angry with my brother for being away for so long at times. Sometimes she would dump rice on my head and chase me with a knife, trying to stab me. I ran through the neighborhood, jumping fences, and doing whatever I could do to get away from her.
One day in 1990, the mother in law went missing for a day and at night she turned up with my aunt, Pastor Im Sithan. She asked Pastor Sithan to help my brother’s wife who seemed to be suffering from the demonic or psychotic episode. My aunt led church members to pray, sing hymns, etc., over her. When this happened, it seemed to soothe her. Two weeks later, I went to see my aunt the pastor. I asked her the same questions I asked when I was tending the water buffalo, “Who created the whole world?” Her husband said out loud, “What a great question!” They opened the Bible to Genesis 1:1 and I read it. They explained to me in a simple way that God created the world, and I told them about my situation and the questions I had as a young girl. I asked them if I could be in the Jesus faith, and they led me to pray the sinner’s prayer. That same week, I heard someone singing a hymn, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’ I listened and began singing along to the song. Then I heard a voice calling my name, I ran to ask my cousin if she called me. No, no one called you. I heard someone call my voice three times, and I kept asking her who calling me, but they began to call me crazy. I told my aunt (the pastor) and her husband about this and they in turn told me about the story of Samuel and told me that I probably really did hear the voice of God calling out my name. This made me think, “Wow, God really is with me and near me and is comforting me.” They gave me a Bible to read, and so I read Psalms and memorized the 23rd Psalm. Before I believed, my brother’s wife called me to sleep on the porch with her where it was cooler. During the night I suddenly woke up because she was beating me and choking me with all her strength, but after I believed when she called me to sleep near her, I did not go, but instead prayed through the 23rd Psalm. When she heard me recite the psalm, she would say, “Never mind, keep that Jesus stuff away from me.” I began to pray a lot during that time and soon my unstable sister in law was sent to a psychiatric center, and then I was able to begin attending church where I made many new friends. That was 1991, and I was baptized that year.
At church, I met Ms. Alli Blair who seemed to know my name and take an interest in me. How did she know who I was? She told me she heard about me from my relatives. She asked me if I wanted to come be her house helper. I said, “Yes, I do.” After church she gave me the tour of her place and showed me what I was expected to do. She asked me, “Do you need a week to think about it?” I told her, “No, I will start tomorrow at first light.” Alli was so kind to me, and even offered to share her meal time with me. Every meal she would set a place for me and when I saw that, it brought tears to my eyes, as rarely had anyone valued me in the least over all the years. She treated me like sister and listened to all my heart aches and cried when she heard about all I had gone through. She would also teach my friend Ms. Vuthy and I the Bible once a week. Once when I had typhoid fever, I was so sick and wanted to work but Alli made me rest. She came to check on me from work every hour, and made sure I had what I needed.
In 1993, she asked me to come work with her at World Vision but I told her about the vision had since I was a young girl, that I wanted to work with children at risk so she led me to World Concern where I was trained to be a trainer of trainers for Sunday School teachers. I was trained by World Concern at their day care center for a year, and then Alli left to serve in Rwanda. When Alli left, I went to live with Marianne Stattin of World Concern. These two women showed me what warmth, care and love really were because I never really experienced such concern and care before from anyone.
Marianne befriended me, mentored and coached me in my personal and professional life. She took care of me when I got sick. I was with her from about 5 months until I moved into the day care center with a girlfriend. I worked there from 1994 to 2000.
In 1991, there was a Cambodian man who was interested in me and I was open to considering him as a future husband but he strung me along for almost ten years. In 2001, he wanted to get engaged but I heard some disturbing things about him, so I told him we were done.
In 2000, World Concern discontinued the project and but gave me some equipment and left over funding. We began with 15 kids and the parents paid $15 per child per month and they received day care and two meals. In 2001, we started Center of Peace with 15 children at risk who needed refuge from domestic violence, or whose mothers were widowed and could not care for them.
In the beginning, I just had my older sister to support me morally and physically. We had many needs during that time but I was happy that my vision was beginning to take shape and in the second year, we were providing for 50 children in recovery. Our budget was next to nothing and I had to sell all my jewelry to keep us going. We had one or two foreigners who helped keep our doors open, and Sister Kiko, a Japanese missionary was one of those who helped us from right the beginning up until now.
In 2003, I married Kosal. On the day of our honeymoon, there was a big misunderstanding concerning our trip which put a big wedge between us that could never be healed. It was over even before it began. We struggled together for a year and half, and in 2006 he left. We signed the certificate of divorce in 2007. After that I was seriously discouraged by this turn of events and did not accept any training invitations like I normally did and cut myself off from the larger Christian community and my friends and family. Soon my faith began to wane. It was a rough few years for me. In fact, it was a rough life.
As Kosal left in 2005, I adopted Johnnathan when he was one year old. His grandfather brought him to the center and said he’d drop him off for a week but he never came back for him. Johnnathan had been physically abused and had bruises and contusions on his face and body so I agreed to take him into my personal care. I tried to contact his family but the grandfather gave me a false address so here he is, with us until this day.
I got my high school diploma 2006 and I immediately started a B.S. in English and finished that degree in 2010. The next year, 2007, was when I was visiting Svay Rieng and one of our staff saw a mother trying to bury a tiny infant alive, and they stopped the women in the act, saving the baby from a imminent death. I took that baby girl and gave her the name Pich. She was only a week old.
Also during that time, I began to attend church again and that next year I enrolled in a number of short courses, but a very significant event in my life was my enrollment in Peace Bridges, a local NGO started by an Australian expat where I learned family mediation. It helped me to process much of the trauma of my past, and brought healing to my heart and soul. I was grateful to God for Peace Bridges, especially learning how to listen and trust another (a couple mentors) with the deepest parts of my soul.
After things settled down and I began to feel lighter in spirit, and no longer hated men, I met Brian through Pastor Seila. Brian was a friends with my many relatives who worked with him at World Vision, especially Aunt Molly. Though I knew of him since 1994, we only met officially in 1996 when he invited me to teach children at the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia. He often invited me to teach at youth camps, youth seminars, and the Diamond Project Level 1, but we never really talked until the day Seila re-introduced us late in 2010. We dated casually for about two years, and were engaged on December 22nd 2012.
In 2012, I enrolled in the Diamond Project Leadership training offered by Dove and finished at the top of my class. This course helped encourage my faith and helped me process my whole life by having me make a time-line during our Focused Living Block. This enabled me to see how God shaped me in a unique way through all the hardship in my life to make me exactly the person I am today, with the talent and capacity to love and nurture children at risk. Looking at his work in my past shows me that he will continue this good work in me into the future in good times and bad. DP also arranged for us to have a personal quiet retreat for few hours which opened up a whole new window of hearing God’s voice. Another great impact on my life was field work where we went to serve and do projects in squatter villages where the people had next to nothing. They were evicted from their homes and dumped in some rice fields. It helped me realize that there were others who maybe have had it worse than me, and I stopped blaming God for having taken my parents away, having been born in the midst of a regional war, and for being sick of being emotionally and physically abused by many adult figures. Thank God for all the people He brought into my life, for helping me see my vision fulfilled, and for healing in my soul.
Yos Bophal, December 18th, 2012
Bophal Teaching Focused Living to Diamond Project Students in Kompong Cham Province