Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” The first time I heard those words, I was 14 years old. It was a cold, still night at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand.
I’d only been there for a few weeks, and the sensation of safety was still new and surreal. It was hard to really believe I could close my eyes and sleep without fear of being captured, of being found out, of waking to find that a loved one had been dragged away in the night. We had worked hard to get here, to cross the border from Cambodia and find a place where we could live again.
I was lying in my bed when “Amazing Grace” came rippling in through the window. I couldn’t make out the words, but the melody woke something in me. With it came a presence, at once unnamed and familiar. I’d felt it before.
Praying for help
I’d been raised Buddhist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Each morning, my mother would set out a plate of fresh fruit for our ancestors and light incense so that a tendril of smoke would rise like our prayers to them. We sometimes went to the temple, bowing before statues of earth, water, fire, and rain. I remember the great statue of Buddha towering over me. But I never lingered in the temple. As a child, I didn’t have the patience or decorum to sit still so long.
When the Khmer Rouge came, it changed everything. I was ten years old at the time. Like everyone else in Phnom Penh, my family was forced from our home and sent into the countryside to work in labor camps.
The name of God was erased from our world, just like the colorful clothes and the lively city streets of life before communism. No one spoke of him now, except in hushed tones. When the Khmer Rouge split my family apart, sending me away to a child labor camp, my mother knelt over me and whispered, “If you are ever in trouble, Sida, pray to God. He will help you.” Of course, the god I pictured was the great stone statue of Buddha. There was no other god I knew.
It wasn’t long before my mother died, withering away from starvation and sickness. My father too. The Khmer Rouge soldiers came for him, and we never saw him again.
I had four siblings remaining, and it fell to me to keep them safe. Taking my mother’s advice, I prayed to God for help. There were so many times when I needed it. Like the time I had malaria, which rattled my bones with bitter cold and melted my body with relentless fever. Or the times of hunger. So much hunger. Month after month in the labor camps, as we survived on as little as two teaspoons of rice a day, the hunger clawed a relentless pain in our bellies.
One day, the hunger chased me deep into the cornfields. It was illegal to scavenge like this, but I’d dared it many times before. This time, I wasn’t so lucky. The Khmer Rouge’s spies were in the fields, and they caught me. When a machete swung toward my head, I was sure I would die, but I woke up a few hours later with nothing but a welt on the back of my head and no explanation for why I’d been spared.
That was the first time I began to wonder: Was there actually someone out there watching over me and answering my prayers?
Months later, with the Khmer Rouge collapsing after the Vietnamese invasion, I led my siblings on a desperate scramble for safety in the Vietnamese zone. But a soldier fleeing the new regime separated my older sister and me from our three younger siblings. As soon as the soldier was out of sight, we turned and ran back toward our siblings. But we came to a fork in the road and didn’t know which way they’d gone.
I fervently prayed for direction. And I found the answer in my feet, which took the road to the left, where we found our siblings a short distance away.
As we fled the Khmer Rouge, we came across an old temple. It had been a beautiful place of worship once, painted with vibrant colors, scrawled with Sanskrit, and alive with spiritual significance. It had been so long since we’d seen anything that pointed toward a world beyond the strangled life we endured day after day.
Inside the temple, I found an old Buddha statue. It had been broken, torn down, and scattered in pieces, but someone had taken the time to pile the stones back together, so that we could see something of its former grandeur.
I knelt before the statue and prayed. What should we do?
The answer came. I left Cambodia, my four siblings in tow, and we embarked on the perilous journey across the border to Thailand. “It’s too dangerous,” my sister tried to tell me, but I knew something she didn’t. I knew there was someone watching over us.
That didn’t mean it wasn’t frightening. As we crossed the rice paddies away from the Vietnamese zone, soldiers would shout and shoot at us. We waded deep through the paddies, hoping the water would slow their bullets. When we plunged into the dark rainforest, I was frightened of getting lost or stumbling upon Khmer Rouge guerrillas who were known to take refuge there.
Once we did stumble upon them. They were ready with an ambush. As I knelt in the dirt, hearing the footfalls of their rubber sandals and the heavy thud of guns against their palms, I was terrified, but I prayed for help. And when I looked up, the guerrillas were gone.
The very next day, we made it into Thailand. We were safe.
Time after time, I came near to death, near enough to feel its ghostly breath. Yet when I called for help, it came. I began to believe there really was someone out there looking after me.
As I lay on my bed in the refugee camp, with “Amazing Grace” billowing over me, I felt the presence of that someone. He had been there the whole time. He was the reason I was alive.
The next morning, I walked around the camp, asking everyone I encountered about the mysterious music from the night before. Only one woman had an answer. “Oh, there’s a church over there,” she said, pointing.
I didn’t know what a church was, but I knew I needed to find out. So I approached the building and found several ladies gathered inside. “What is this place?” I asked. “This is a church. God’s house. A Christian place,” one of the women explained.
Christian. I had heard the word before, but its meaning was only a vague recollection, the stuff of rumors I’d heard as a child in Phnom Penh. “I heard some singing last night. Was that you?” I asked. “Yes,” she told me. “We often sing. We sing praises to God.”
I came back to the church as often as I could. It wasn’t easy. I had to sneak there after school each day, with my sister making up excuses for my absence from the camp.
When my siblings and I were granted visas to the US, a Catholic church in upstate New York banded together to give us a home. In college a few years later, I found a small Protestant church whose members graciously offered to give me rides to worship services and potluck dinners. In both places, I learned more and more about the God who had watched over me, who had heard my prayers, and whose grace was—and still is!—so amazing.
Sida Lei is a clinical microbiologist living in Springfield, Virginia. She and Monica Boothe, a writer, are coauthors of Two Teaspoons of Rice: The Memoir of a Cambodian Orphan.
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