|LIFE IN JESUS-MINISTRIES
|A FEARFUL LIFE AND A CRY FOR FELLOWSHIP: TERRY’S STORY
I AM REVEALED
Jun 30 2013
Terry Khem had the misfortune of being born in Cambodia in the early 1970’s, just as the Khmer Rouge regime was
getting under way and killing large numbers of people, as portrayed in the film The Killing Fields. I want to warn you that
parts of her story are incredibly hard to read; I can only imagine how hard they were to live through. During even the
most trying times of her life, Terry longed to be loved by a father, but because her environment was so poisoned by the
atrocities around her, she never found that kind of love. Yet the Spirit continued to draw her to the light, despite her own
protestations, until she experienced a new life in Christ and the acceptance she always craved. Remarkably, Terry has
been able to forgive the atrocities committed against her, and through the power of the Spirit, she has overcome her
fears. Today she desires to use the love and fellowship she has found in Christ to help others who are in similar
The war in Cambodia had only been going on for a year when my father disappeared. He got ill, and some men said
they were going to take him to a hospital, but they didn’t. Either they killed him, or they left him in the jungle to die. I don’
t know what happened, because I never saw him again. I was born sometime between 1970 and 1972. In my country,
people don’t know the date of their birth unless they come from a very rich family. But I do know it was 1975 when my
The authorities also took many of the children in our town. The men said if a child could eat, walk, and talk, they could
work. One day they came through and took as many children as they could up to the mountains to a forced labor camp.
Fortunately, my mother was very clever. When the military came through, she hid my little sister and I so that we wouldn’
t be taken.
During the day, while the adults were at work, inspectors would come through to see if anyone was hiding food. My
sister and I hid in our attic. We quietly spent most of our day there. After the inspectors left, we could climb down from
the attic and play. In the evenings, we were free to roam among the village, because we wouldn’t be discovered when
we mixed in with the other children who hadn’t been taken.
Men and women were required to work from four in the morning until almost midnight. From 1975 to 1979, there wasn’t
one day that the people in our town got enough sleep. And there was never enough food. The workers got a big bowl
of water, some rice, and a salt rock. But those who didn’t work didn’t get to eat. My sister and I had to wait for our
mother to return home and give us her food.
In the evening after the workers returned, the authorities typically held a meeting. If, during their inspections, the
officials had found that someone had stolen food, hidden gold, or disobeyed orders, they would make an example of
The authorities would gather everyone in the center of town, including the children, and force us to watch as they
crucified people – literally nailed them to crosses. I remember watching one couple getting crucified together because
they refused to marry. I was young, and it was hard to watch, but that wasn’t the worst form of execution. The one that
horrified me the most was when they made people dig a hole and then pushed them into it, or dumped a truckload of
people into it, and then buried them alive. They would claw and scrape at the earth as they tried to save themselves
from the inevitable.
We were told that we couldn’t cry and that we couldn’t have sympathy. If you got sick watching the torture, they killed
you on the spot. If a baby cried, they would take the baby away from his or her mother. Best case, the parents would
never see their child again, but worst case, the soldiers would murder the child right in front of the mother. Dead bodies
were always in the streets. Death was everywhere. But we became indifferent because we were trained not to feel.
I watched other children, friends of mine, die from hunger. The girl next door chewed on herself because she was
starving. She was so skinny and so hungry that she would chew on her ankle. Eventually she chewed herself to death.
I watched people kill their wives and their daughters just to eat the meat. We knew our destiny was death anyway, so
what did it matter if it came sooner rather than later? We never grieved the loss of a life; the only pain we felt was the
pain of hunger.
At some point, the soldiers forced us to leave our homes and live in the jungle. After three months, all the government
and military officials suddenly disappeared. We returned home, but all the officials were gone from there too. We
realized the war must be over. We had freedom!
But the food was gone too. If we were to survive, we had to get to the city. People came from the city in wagons to pick
up their family members and take them back. We were able to get a ride with my father’s first wife. Somehow my mother
had remained friendly with her even after she married my father.
The day we left our house, bodies were piled in the street. As I looked closer, I discovered some of them weren’t yet
dead. They were just unable to walk; they were so sick or injured they couldn’t go on. As I climbed into the cart, I heard
a baby. She was lying on the side of the road crying. She was so little. “Mom, can we take the baby?” I asked.
“No, honey. It’s not our cart. We need to escape, and the cart is already full. Maybe the mother will come back for her
As the cart pulled away, an unbelievable hatred and anger filled me as I realized how hopeless that baby’s future was
and how helpless I was to do anything about it. The baby continued to cry. And something inside me died. From that
moment on, I stopped talking. People thought I was mute. For the next few years, I responded with only a yes, no, or
When we arrived in the city, the war had been over for about three months, yet there was still no one in control. People
had been taught to think so little of life that they continued to kill. The city was in complete chaos. There was no food.
Women and children without a man to protect them were at the greatest risk of starving. There were a lot of single and
widowed women with children; their husbands had either been killed or worked to death under the communist regime.
So the remaining men went crazy. They would take four or five different wives. “If you don’t marry me,” they’d threaten a
woman, “I will kill your children.”
One day while mother was out scavenging for food, a man approached her. “Do you want food?”
“Yes!” my mom said. “I have two kids I need to feed.”
“You marry me, and I will spare your life. But if you don’t, I will kill you and your children.”
“You don’t even know where I live.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll find out.”
My mother ran from him. But later that day, he showed up where we lived. She had no choice but to “marry” him. At
first my sister and I were excited. Our father had been taken away from us, and now we were going to have a dad
again! Our dad had been kind and compassionate, and I always knew we were loved. I couldn’t believe our good
fortune! But we soon learned our new stepfather wasn’t anything like our dad. He would beat my mom, sister, and me,
and take whatever he could from us to satisfy his drinking. He would bring drunk men over to our house at all hours,
and he also had another wife living somewhere else.
After a while, our stepfather got into trouble with the new government. They were planning to put him in jail. A few days
later, I noticed my mother and stepfather packing things. Then, in the middle of the night, my mom woke us up. “We are
leaving. Get your things; we must go.”
We tied up the belongings we could carry and left the house. The plan was to cross the jungle to Thailand. We had
heard about a Red Cross shelter for war refugees on the Thai side of the border. We didn’t have shoes or warm
clothes, and it was during our rainy season, so we were often soaked and cold at night. Sometimes we walked in water
that was knee high; other times it was up to our necks. Then there were days when we had no food or water.
The more we walked, the more we joined with other groups, and the larger the crowds grew. It felt as if the whole
country was escaping. And there were so many landmines! It seemed as if every ten minutes someone would step on
one and we’d hear a loud explosion.
Sometimes I would wake up to see body parts from landmine victims littering the area. One day we were walking behind
a family with a cart being pulled by a cow. Suddenly they just exploded. The cow, the cart, the people – everything
exploded into the air and rained down on us in little pieces. After the explosion, I heard gunfire from the back of the line.
“Shooting! They’re shooting!” people shouted. Because we were in the middle, we had time to run to the bush and hide
from the snipers.
Somehow we made it to the camp in Thailand. We stayed in that camp, living under a tree for three days until we were
transferred to a second camp. Then again, after that place filled, we were transferred once again. At the third camp, we
got a cement hut that we shared with another family. It was just one big square room built up off the ground. The
ground was used for cooking.
That camp also had a school for children. It wasn’t much, but they taught the Cambodian alphabet and numbers.
Though I still didn’t speak, by now I was twelve years old and I was desperate to learn. I wanted to be a journalist so I
could expose what had gone on in my country. Hate and anger still burned inside of me, and I thought that if I could
write my story, I could let generations of people know about the life we had lived.
But my mother had another child, so I wasn’t allowed to go to school. I had to stay home and help take care of the baby.
The principal of the school lived next door. He was a very educated man, and everyone looked up to him. And unlike
my stepfather, he was also kind to his family. At night he would give lessons to his own children at his home. So every
day, without being invited, I would go there and listen to him teach his family. He allowed me and my sister to take part in
the lessons; it was the only education I got.
One night, the camp had a play, and most of the adults and children went to see it. I was home alone, and so was the
principal who lived next door. I walked over to his house because I wanted to learn. He asked me, “Do you want to feel
what it is like to have a father? How a father loves his daughter?” I still wasn’t speaking, so I just nodded. I was
desperate to feel the love of a father.
He took me into his house. “I’ll show you, but it will be our secret. It will just be between you and me.”
We went inside, where he began to use me sexually. From then on, he would look for opportunities for his house to be
empty. When no one was there, he would come and find me. And since I didn’t speak, I didn’t say anything to anyone.
He knew I wouldn’t. It happened so often that it became a normal part of life for me until his family got sponsored to
leave the camp and move to America.
Later, as the camp neared capacity, another husband and wife moved into our hut. The house was divided by some
fabric that we hung, but even then I could hear the man beating his wife. One day I was there alone, and I didn’t realize
the man was on the other side of the fabric. I was cleaning our side of the hut when he grabbed me and pulled me over
to his side. He stuck a small piece of candy into my mouth and whispered into my ear, “If you make a noise, I will kill
you.” And I knew he would. I knew what was coming, and all I could think was, Get it over with. My nightmare of sexual
After he finished, I ran to the Buddhist temple they had built inside the camp. I entered the temple and approached the
god, a statue of Buddha, and said, “I don’t know what I have done to have a life like this.” I shook my fist and continued,
“I will never accept that there is a god in this world, and I will never submit to any god. From today forward, my life is my
own, and I will take care of myself.” It was the first time I had spoken words out loud in years.
I hated men. I hated my father for leaving me behind. I hated my stepfather and others who had used me. I hated life. I
became calloused and cold and no longer responded with even a yes, no, or okay. My stepfather would hit me, and I
would just sit there and let him do it. I wouldn’t even cry, which made him angrier. As he hit me, I let the bitterness grow.
In 1985 we moved through a series of camps, always getting closer to the population centers, until finally we were
transferred to New York. I was excited to come to America; it was a dream come true. I thought, now I am going to get a
chance to be educated and to do everything I want! Everything was so different though. The language was different,
and so was the weather. I had seen a few white people before, but never so many, and I had never seen a black person
before. Everyone was so tall and confident that it scared me. And they never got hit. When I had walked down the
streets in my country, men would hit their wives and their children, but in America, no one did that.
In school I had to speak if I wanted to learn, so for the first time in ten years, I answered questions. Around that time, I
also took a health class, and they educated us about sexual abuse. That was the first time I knew what happened to me
with those men. I had been raped.
At home my stepfather continued to drink and to beat my mother. The only way I could escape it was to get married,
because that was an acceptable reason to leave home in my culture. So I looked for a Cambodian guy I could marry,
and I found one. He was kind of cute, and when I told him I wanted to get out of my house, he said he would marry me.
I was around fifteen years old when we ran away together. Once we slept together, our families recognized it as a
marriage even though we never had a wedding. While we were away at school, my mom continued to get beaten by my
stepfather. Sometimes we’d come home and find her bloodied from the beatings she’d taken. My husband and I didn’t
know what to do. We didn’t call the police in our culture. So we kept quiet, and we moved home to help Mom out.
I eventually dropped out of high school and started working for cash under the table. Now that I was earning money, I
was able to buy a bigger place for my husband and myself, plus my mom and my sisters. My stepfather would still find
us and come back to beat up my mom, me, and even my husband. I never could understand why. I felt powerless to
Then I got pregnant and my world fell apart.
Lying in the hospital bed after giving birth, the nurse said, “Congratulations, you have a son!”
“No, I don’t have a son. I have a daughter.”
“No, honey you have a –“
“I don’t want that son. You go get me a daughter. I don’t want a son!” All I could think about was what having a son
meant. I have a monster. He is going to grow up and rape someone. He is going to abuse someone. I’ve got to kill
him. Dark thoughts flooded my mind.
Of course, the nurse couldn’t understand and wanted to make things better. “I’ll go get him so you can see him.”
The nurse brought him in and put him in my arms. But despite my bitterness, I felt love for him and experienced the
euphoria of being a first-time mother. But at the same time, I somehow hated him; I couldn’t accept that he was male,
because I hated men. Then I decided the only answer was for me to kill both of us.
Not long after he was born, I started hearing voices speaking inside my head. I heard my father talking to me. My evil
thoughts increased. I experienced flashbacks, remembering faces exploding, dead bodies, and the men who took me to
their beds. The thoughts and voices would come and go. I had no idea that it was post-traumatic stress disorder. I
thought my only way out was to kill myself, and I hated myself enough to do it.
I went to the pharmacy and bought over-the-counter sleeping pills. I took fifty of them. My family found me and took me
to the emergency room. I was put in a psychiatric hospital for a while, and then they released me. The second time I
tried to kill myself, I took a hundred pills. It still wasn’t enough.
My husband was the greatest guy on earth. He was very kind, and he never hit me. He would never argue, and though I
would argue with him, he never even raised his voice. But still, I felt I couldn’t go on living.
Every six months or so I would make another attempt to kill myself. I often tried around Mother’s Day. I would always get
depressed in May. The last time I tried, I took three hundred sleeping pills. When my mother found me, blood was
flowing from my eyes, nose, mouth, ears – everywhere. She thought I was dead. They took me to the hospital, and
three days later I woke up. I couldn’t believe it. I was still alive.
I stayed in the hospital for three months, I wanted to die, but I wasn’t allowed to. Why was I so hated? I didn’t
understand America. What was wrong with this country? In my country, if somebody said they wanted to die, everyone
would say, “What are you waiting for? You don’t know how? We’ll help you.” But here they rushed you to the hospital. I
thought this was a free country, but what freedom do you have if you can’t die when you want to?
Even death didn’t seem to want me. I had to try something else. During that time, I learned about the AIDS epidemic on
television, so I thought, If I can get myself infected by disease, I can die that way.
So I became unfaithful to my husband.
I would sleep with anyone and everyone. When I got pregnant, I would have an abortion. But I still didn’t catch a
By the time my son turned four, I had tried to kill myself six times and had nine abortions. After the last attempt, my son,
Ricky, asked, “Mommy, why do you hate yourself? Why do you want to die?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”
“Mommy, you beautiful. Love yourself; then you will want to live.”
After that, I stopped trying to overdose, but I continued with the infidelity. But I still wasn’t a loving mother to Ricky. I was
cold, almost devoid of emotion. I didn’t know how to give or receive love and affections. One day I said to my husband, ”
I don’t think I love you. Even if I do, I don’t know how. I am not good, and I don’t know how to change that. We have to
go our separate ways.”
He didn’t want to, but he said, “I love you, and if this is your way, then we will separate.
I couldn’t afford to pay rent on my own, so I rented a room to a mother with two grown children from Mexico. Ricky lived
with me, but he would come and go between his father and me. About eight months later, I met a married man, and we
started seeing each other.
The Mexican family I rented to were Christians, so I decided to try and convert them to Buddhism, the religious tradition I
had grown up with. But the mother kept talking to me about Jesus. She knew about the situation with my husband and
that I was also dating a married man. Although she was very kind and gentle, she would tell me, “What you are doing is
I didn’t understand her, and I thought she had no right being in my business. From then on, I tried to avoid her, but
since we also worked together, it was hard.
One Sunday afternoon, I dragged myself home after being out all night. When I got there, the family was in the kitchen
talking and singing.
“Where were you?” the mother asked.
“I was out somewhere. What have you been doing?”
“We went to church, and it was exciting.” Then she offered an invitation. “You have to come to church with us. You’re
not doing anything; why don’t you just come? If you don’t like it, you never have to go back.”
“That’s very kind, but no thank you.”
I rushed to my room and vowed to try harder to avoid them.
But the same thing happened on Wednesday evening. They were in the kitchen when I walked in. They had been at a
church service, and they were still praising God. I cooked my dinner and then finished. “Good-bye,” I said as they got
up to go to their room. “Um, by the way, I want to go to church with you on Sunday.”
Why did I say that? I tried to take it back, but I couldn’t. As soon as the mother heard me say it, she started jumping up
I ran to my room and began pacing. Why did you do that?
From where I lived, it took two hours to get to their church in Queens. When we entered the church, they wanted to sit
down front, but I insisted on sitting in the back. I shook like a leaf. I didn’t want to be there. If the Buddhists knew you
were here right now, you would be in big trouble. You already have enough problems.
I decided to pray to Buddha. Buddha, I really love you. I was born a Buddhist, and I’m going to die a Buddhist. But I
decided to talk to Jesus too. Jesus, I don’t know who you are, and I want you to know I’m not here because I am
seeking anything. I am just here because I am bored. I don’t have anything else to do. I am here to waste time. I am
not here to look for you. But I see all these people, and they say that you are God. If you are, you will have to show me.
After church the family said, “We’ll take you to the fellowship.”
“Can’t we just go home?”
But they insisted. At the fellowship, everyone was very nice, but I must not have looked well, because people came up
and said, “We should pray for her; she looks sick.” As soon as it was over, I ran out the door.
“Wait!” the daughter called. “My mom is old, and she can’t walk fast.”
But I had to get out of there.
I was quiet the whole way home. I was angry with them and angry with myself. But they were so happy. I couldn’t
understand it. Why would people go and listen to music and the pastor and then give their hard-earned money away? I
remembered my mom saying that people in church just take your money.
That Wednesday it was the same scene all over again. I came in, and they were all sitting in the kitchen praising God. I
heard myself say, “Oh, by the way, I’m coming to church with you this Sunday.”
Okay, Terry, I thought, shut up! You don’t want to go to church.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the mother said. “We can’t go to church this Sunday.”
“No problem,” I heard myself say. “You just give me directions.”
Saturday came, and I said to myself, I am not going! Yet I still got up, got dressed, and went to church. This time I felt
the need to sit in the front of the church, I sat just as they began singing. Then, for some reason, I pictured that baby on
the road in Cambodia as we drove away in the cart. I started to cry. I hadn’t cried since the day we had left the baby
behind more than twenty years ago. You don’t cry, Terry. You can’t cry. That is a weakness! But I couldn’t control it. I
Inside of me, everything hurt. I felt as if my heart was broken into a trillion little pieces. Why am I so empty? So lonely?
Suddenly it seemed as if Jesus as sitting next to me. I leaned into his shoulder and poured out all my pain as his arms
seemed to wrap around me. I cried all through the singing and all through the preaching. I didn’t pay attention to
anything that was going on around me. I just wanted to keep my head buried in his shoulder.
The pastor said his last prayer, and everyone sang. Then they were done, and everyone started to leave. But my life
had changed. I had peace – a peace like I had never known before. I had no more tears, and there was no more pain
in my heart. Everything was just gone.
The people around me had no idea what had just happened inside of me. They just smiled and said, “God bless you” or
Have a great day.”
When I got home, the family was in their room. I banged on their door and loudly asked, “What happened to me?”
“Calm down,” said the mother. “What happened?”
I explained everything.
Then the mother and daughter explained Jesus and his love for me.
That night as I lay in bed, I somehow sensed that I had conceived a child from one of my sexual encounters. Ten days
later I would find out that I was right. But that night I heard a voice inside of me say, “Terry, I am here, and I have always
loved you.” It comforted me.
The next Sunday, I got up and went to church. And the one after that. And the one after that. I would go to church
empty and come home full. I had never felt so secure and comforted, because I had never known the love of Jesus. In
January I confessed Jesus as my Savior, and a year later I got baptized. My life began to change. Now, instead of
wanting to die, I wanted to live.
But for nearly a year, I hid the fact that I was going to church from my family. I didn’t want them to know about all the
changes that were taking place inside of me. But I couldn’t hide my pregnancy. I’d already had nine abortions, and I
thought about getting rid of this baby also, but for some reason, I couldn’t do it. The woman who lived with me
encouraged me to keep it.
“No, you can’t have an abortion. That’s a baby growing inside of you!”
I decided to keep the baby. Four months later, I gave birth to a beautiful daughter.
As I came to understand more about Jesus and how he works, I began to look over my life and see how God had been
there, protecting me even during the worst times of my life, even when I tried to take my life. But I had a lot to heal from
because so much damage had been done. Eventually my husband and I divorced and went our separate ways.
I moved in with my mother. Now I was the only Christian living in a house full of Buddhists, and that put a strain on me.
Often the only Christian fellowship I had was with God. I started attending the Brooklyn Tabernacle, and eventually my
daughter also accepted the Lord.
God took away my broken heart, every pain I ever felt. I am not perfect, but the Lord is changing me as I depend on him
every day. I discovered that I am a good cook, and now I work as a private chef for a family in Manhattan. At church I
am the head cook for a homeless ministry, and God uses my ability to cook for his glory.
Through the grace of God, I have forgiven those who hurt me when I was young, and now through the power of the
Spirit, I want to reach out to young girls in Cambodia and Thailand who are victims of the sex trade. I’ve been praying
and working to raise money. I hope to return one day and give my testimony of Jesus and what he has done to change
and heal me. My scars are no longer reminders of a painful life but arrows that daily point me to Jesus. I wouldn’t
change my past for anything, because if I didn’t have my past, I wouldn’t love my Lord the way I do now.
SPIRIT RISING, by Jim Cymbala with Jennifer Schuchmann, Copyright 2012, Zondervan.