Grace will lead us home
Just before Nikum Pon MEd ’08 was born, his father asked that his son be named after their Cambodian village, Nikum, “as a remembrance of our struggles.”
But they nearly did not have the chance to remember. As part of a purge of intellectuals during the horrific Pol Pot years of the late 1970s, Nikum’s father was executed by Khmer Rouge soldiers.
When soldiers invaded their village shortly thereafter, Nikum’s mother and extended family members fled their homes and attempted to make it to a nearby monastery for shelter. Nikum’s mother, nine months pregnant with Nikum, fell into a ditch. Family members worked feverishly to pull her out but once she was rescued, she started to go into labor. She was carried to a nearby hut to hide while she labored.
“My older siblings traveled through nearby villages to look for a maidservant to deliver me,” said Nikum. “My godfather and his wife ended up delivering me that night.”
Complications set in, and it appeared that Nikum’s mother would not survive the trauma. Everyone thought Nikum was dead at birth. “They placed me in the corner of the hut and focused on taking care of my mother,” Nikum said.
Miraculously, Nikum’s mother did survive the night, and to their amazement, so had the newborn. When someone noticed he was breathing the next morning, they pulled him from the corner and brushed ants off his tiny body.
The family later learned that those who made it to the monastery were discovered by soldiers and summarily executed. The diversion to deliver Nikum had saved all of their lives.
They hid for another two weeks while Nikum’s mother regained a bit of strength. But soon they faced yet another life-or-death decision. “If we [stayed] in the village, we would be executed if found by the Khmer Rouge or Vietnamese soldiers. But if we tried to flee to Thailand, there would be little chance of making it to the refugee camps,” Nikum said.
The route ahead was littered with land mines, and the trek would take at least a week through a hostile countryside. Their chances for survival looked slim. Still, the group decided to press through the danger, traveling at night and hiding during daylight hours. They braved torrential rains, mud, and waist-deep floodwaters.
By early afternoon of the last day, Nikum’s tiny body had turned purple from the cold and exposure. His relatives were once again certain the baby had died, and they tried to convince Nikum’s mother to bury him in the field.
She refused to leave him in the country where his father had been killed. If nothing else, her infant son should be buried in a new land. So they journeyed on, his mother stubbornly carrying his limp body in her arms.
In the late afternoon, the family found a plastic bag in a big field and placed Nikum in the bag for the remainder of the journey. “If I didn’t die of hypothermia, I still could have died from suffocation,” Nikum said.
The travelers finally crossed into the safety of Thailand. “My family and my godfather took the plastic bag and opened it. As they prepared to bury me, the Lord breathed that breath of life into me, and I breathed again. Everyone knew it was a miracle. Instead of mourning, they rejoiced!”
A common theme
More than 40 years later, Nikum recounts his dramatic story to acknowledge that amazing miracles happen even in the midst of tragedy.
AFTER THE KILLING FIELDS
An estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died as a result of labor camp internments, disease, starvation, or mass executions during the brutal Khmer Rouge years from 1975 to 1979. In an attempt to remake the country into a classless communist society, political leader Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge regime murdered intellectuals, urban dwellers, civil and religious leaders, and teachers, burying their bodies in mass graves known as the “killing fields.” Today, the loss of an entire generation of educators painfully underscores the significance of Nikum Pon’s efforts as he seeks to build a unique, self-sustaining school.
“When people hear [my story], they may feel pity, or [sorrow]. And you know, in a way, it is sad. But what’s more important is that God gets the glory at the end of the day. I want people to see Jesus through the story. Even through a tragedy like the killing fields, God is still with us. He continues to be with us, whether we know it or not.”
Nikum uses the word grace often to define the story of his life, from near-death experiences and refugee camps, to his family’s eventual resettlement in Minnesota. After a number of years, Nikum’s family made their way to the Pacific Northwest where Nikum became a Christian during his teen years. “The rescue was great, but the greater rescue was that Jesus rescued me, personally. What good is it to be rescued from Cambodia, but not know God? I’d still die and spend the rest of eternity without him. It’s worthless without Jesus,” he said.
In the fall of 2006, Nikum found himself thinking about attending graduate school on the SPU campus. He had graduated from a public high school and college and longed to continue to learn at a private, Christian school. “It was pretty intimidating being the first in my family to make it to college, one of the few from my community,” Nikum said. “And then to make it to graduate school.”
“I walked through the campus and just continued to pray for God’s direction. I felt SPU was just the right place for me to really push through my training and education, so I could fulfill the call of God in my life.”
Former School of Education Dean Rick Eigenbrood was one of the first people Nikum met when he visited the campus. “He was the one who encouraged me to pursue my studies at SPU,” Nikum said.
Eigenbrood, professor of education, remembered Nikum as someone who didn’t aggressively push his faith and beliefs in your face. “He is a very gentle spirit. He’s very low-key. But it comes with a certain level of confidence and focus,” Eigenbrood said.
SPU Professor of Counselor Education Cher Edwards was especially impressed with Nikum’s commitment to social justice issues, as well as his passion for serving the historically underserved with “authenticity, compassion, and respect.”
Nikum earned a master’s in education from SPU and then a doctorate in educational psychology and educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Washington. He worked as a graduate assistant and adjunct professor at SPU, and then Nikum’s desire to work in the urban core among the most marginalized led him in a new direction.
Grace in the Rainier Valley
Nikum helped form a new church in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, where he served as a counselor and also did gang interventions. Nikum met his future wife, Jessica, at the church. They were coworkers, then their friendship blossomed into a romance.
“It was all about God’s timing,” he said. But Nikum and Jessica soon discovered new challenges.
“When my wife and I got married and we were doing ministry in the Rainier Valley, that’s where I thought that the dream that God gave me [to do overseas mission work] died off,” he said.
At first, the newlyweds lived in a tiny studio apartment and faced a looming mountain of school loan debt. Finances were more than tight. Then Jessica became pregnant with their first child, and Nikum thought it was now impossible for them to move overseas or pursue mission work.
Nikum changed jobs to work in the Bellevue School District where one of his coworkers had a connection with some orphanages in Cambodia.
“He pursued me for about two years,” Nikum said. “I kept telling him I couldn’t go. I couldn’t leave my wife. We just had a newborn. I just started a job.”
His friend wouldn’t give up and readily agreed to fund a vision trip for their family to visit Cambodia and just see the orphanage. It was another moment of God’s provision in his life.
For three years in a row, Nikum and his family spent several weeks to a month in Cambodia, exploring possibilities and rekindling the dream to serve others in Asia. Nikum and Jessica had another child. And he became regional director for the Puget Sound Educational Service District for Equity in Education, a job that suited him well.
“But God’s calling was strong,” he said, “and you have to respond.”
They sold their home in the Rainier Valley, along with nearly all their possessions. Nikum resigned his job, and the four of them boarded a plane last August for Phnom Penh, to live there permanently.
Ups and downs
The Pon family is still adjusting to life in Cambodia. There’s the lack of dependable mail service. The language barrier. Getting lost. Getting around. Loneliness. Jessica is realistic about the adjustments they’ve had to make as a family.
“It was really hard in the beginning, because we would have to drive an hour into town to maybe find something, maybe not,” she said. “But now, as we’re settled, actually it’s been a great lesson in minimalism. Do I really need that? Is it going to enhance my life? We’ve spent a lot less money on stuff.”
Nikum misses similar things. “There’s a loss that comes with change,” he said. “We lost our community. I miss our church family at home. I miss our friends at home. We miss the little things, like my wife misses Target. I miss going to Lowe’s and Home Depot.”
When friends heard about their move, people told Jessica, “You’re so brave” or “I can’t believe you’re doing this.”
“We’re just normal people living our normal lives,” she said. “I still clean toilets and make my kids peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We don’t feel like we’re super special or brave or anything. We’re just very rooted in our ‘why’ and our cause.”
They’re also committed to making sure their two children, now ages 4 and 5, find their place.
“My son, leading up to our move, he was really upset,” explained Jessica. “He wrote me a note: I love Seattle. And then ‘Asia,’ he put an ‘x’ through Asia. He didn’t want to move. And you know, it breaks your heart, and there were moments when I would just cry with him.
“He would tell me how sad he was to leave his friends, and I would say ‘Me, too.’ And that’s OK. We can sit in our grief, and we can sit in our sadness. I never want to brush those emotions under the rug; they’re real. We have to just welcome them.”
Over time, the kids have come to love their new home, and Nikum and Jessica have connected readily with their new neighbors, who often stop in unannounced with gifts and warm smiles.
“The first few months here have been great to be able to get to know our neighbors, which never happens in the States,” said Nikum. “I remember [in Seattle] it took a year just to know who my neighbor was. Here, it’s instant. They will come in. A lot of it is an open-door policy here.
“And there are a lot of kids in our neighborhood, so it’s good for our kids. They have an instant community, and they love it. Kids come over every day. This house is always half-full with kids.”
Many of those neighborhood kids attend an international school in Phnom Penh and thus speak English. That allows her own children to make friends more readily, which Jessica considers a clear answer to prayer.
The dream, revisited
So Nikum’s lifelong dream of making a difference in Cambodia is very much alive again. He is focused on two primary goals: improving the quality of higher education for families through teacher training and school development, and supporting local orphanages.
He regularly visits a local school to help train teachers and oversees an online program, as well. He also meets with local pastors to figure out how to improve schools in remote villages. He’s looking for ways to offer free training to local teachers. The “free” part is critical, he said, pointing to the wide gap between elite, out-of-reach international schools and the local (but under-supported) public schools.
“International schools here are very expensive, and [they are] only accessible to the rich because international schools recruit and retain new teachers from overseas. By doing that, they’re getting a handsome teacher salary, and they’ve got to pay for the plane ticket, living expenses, and all that adds up,” he explained. Tuition for many international schools in the capital city of Phnom Penh can average between $10,000 to $20,000 a year.
In contrast, the average Cambodian worker might earn the equivalent of $200 to $300 a month.
Nikum and Jessica also stay connected with an orphanage they support, located just 20 minutes from where Nikum was born.
“It’s been a great lesson in minimalism. Do I really need that? Is it going to enhance my life? We’ve spent a lot less money on stuff.”
A new perspective
Nikum’s perspective has changed over the years as a survivor, refugee, believer, student, educator, husband, and father, but the most significant shift came when they decided to move to Cambodia, as opposed to just taking vision trips.
“Once you’re here, you get to see firsthand how things operate. I thought things were bad here. Once you understand the system, it’s really bad here,” Nikum said.
Nikum dreams of building a new school, implementing a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics) curriculum for pre-K to eighth grade, and introducing the kind of education that will “innovate ourselves out of poverty.” The school will be self-sustaining, with herbiculture and livestock to help feed the children at lunchtime, along with solar panels and rainwater collection for energy and resource independence.
“It would be a gift to the community,” he said. “The kids would learn how to really innovate, to live into what God has created us to be. We tend to forget that he is God our creator, and he has made us to create things.”
Although Cambodia is predominantly Buddhist, he said, not many actually practice Buddhism. “[People] are very open to the Gospel, and the harvest is plentiful,” Nikum said. “We’re definitely praying for more laborers for the harvest field.”
Building costs in Cambodia remain relatively low, compared to the U.S. Nikum estimates initial costs for the primary school would not exceed $30,000.
“We have the land [donated by the pastor of the orphanage]. We have the kids. Everybody’s ready. It’s just a matter of resources,” Nikum said. “I’m still trying to think of ways to funnel resources to build this school, but the beauty of it is, we already have the relationship in place.”
If Nikum is able to build the school, it’ll be done by God’s grace. Fortunately, Nikum has had a lifetime of experiences to trust in that.
To learn more about the Pon family, visit theponfam.com