After a year in the second refugee camp, the family was approved to come to the United States to live with Phally’s brother in November 1980. He “was a saint” and took care of the family almost as if he were their father, Phally recalled.
“Coming (to the U.S.), you know, I thought was just heaven, heaven on earth,” Phally said.
“(My brother) took care of us,” Phally added. “He took care of my mother, he told her not to work, he was just making sure that she’s well taken care of, because after all she went through, that’s the least that we all could do for her. And we all became a very happy family, the very few of us that were left.”
Phally’s mother still played her role as a caretaker too, but she was also “very heartbroken,” Phally said.
“Imagine yourself in a person’s shoes, having lost so many family members and through murder and starvations,” Phally said. “I reflected back many times, like wow, this woman is strong.”
Phally’s mother continued to pray, crying out to God at night in her grief. After a few years, though, her grief transformed through her prayer. She had newfound hope, and a desire to help those who were still struggling in Cambodia.
Phally and her siblings were hesitant at first. They weren’t sure if they wanted to reinvolve themselves in a still-unstable country in which they had almost lost their lives, and in which much of their family had died.
“When we came here I just wanted to forget about everything, because to me, I didn’t want to be involved in a culture full of death,” Phally said.
It wasn’t until several years later, in 2004, that Phally would return to Cambodia for the first time with one of her cousins. What she saw shocked her.
“Everything just came rushing to my memories, the emotions, everything,” Phally said. “Stepping out of the airport you see poverty, beggars, elderly, just with missing limbs, just trying to get by, and my heart was just broken.”
“I tried not to look down, so I wouldn’t see all these poor people around me. I tried to sneak some money to them discreetly - you don’t want everyone to see because everyone will crowd around you. I tried to give whatever I could to the elderly, those who were just homeless,” she recalled.
“But I wanted to see that. I wanted to confront my emotions, I wanted to show myself what Cambodia is really like, I didn’t want to just go there and see a nice area. I wanted to see the worst of the worst and I saw it. And I came back and I was like ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do something about this.’”
Phally went back in 2005 and 2006, and attempted to lay the groundwork for a non-profit that would help lift Cambodians out of poverty.
But God had other plans. Back home in the United States, Phally’s aging mother needed additional care and support. Phally and her siblings did everything they could to care for their mother - they felt it was the least they could do for her.
In 2010, further hardships struck the family. One of Phally’s sisters was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 48. Phally was in charge of handling her sister’s medical affairs, but despite treatment, her sister died a few months after the diagnosis. That was one of the first times Phally really started thinking about God.
“I was like, where is (God) in all of this? We survived the war, we made it here, she didn’t die there, why does she have to die now and of cancer? All of these questions started to play in my head,” Phally recalled.
She said her sister’s death affected her emotionally much more than the deaths she witnessed during the war, in large part because the trauma of the war was delayed by their own stress and exhaustion.
“But for my sister, I was caring for her, I was overseeing her medical matters...and when she died, my hope just dropped. That’s when I was struggling with faith. I was like ok, where do I go?” she said.
Phally fell into a depression. She didn’t realize at the time that she needed to turn to God. A few years later, those same kinds of questions flew through her mind and heart again, when her brother, the one who sponsored the family to the United States, was diagnosed with liver cancer and died in 2013 at the age of 58.
“My journey of faith, it fluctuated,” she said. “I know my mother never lost faith and she’d constantly pray and all, but I said to myself, ‘How could this happen?’”
But it wasn’t until two years later, in 2015, that Phally would have an encounter with God that would prompt her to start going to church.
Phally was caring for her elderly mother, and they were watching a television series entitled “A.D.: The Bible Continues.” Though her mother had fallen asleep, Phally continued to watch, when the man playing Jesus caught her eyes during a scene during the Stations of the Cross.
“Jesus lifted his head up and my eyes just locked onto him, and it was strange, as if I was asleep, dreaming or something, my body just froze into one place,” she said. “I felt this heaviness on my back and my heart just started to feel like it was crushing, and tears just started flowing down my face, I couldn’t stop, it was as if I was transcended into his position.”
She said it was as if Jesus was telling her: “This is what I’m doing to carry your sins and everyone else’s.”
When the moment passed, Phally started to pray on her own as she had never prayed before - it was a “long conversation,” she said. Afterwards, she told her Catholic husband and her sister about the encounter.
While they didn’t fully understand what she had gone through, she said she told her sister: “Let’s start going to church.”
Phally and her remaining sister started what she called “church hopping” with their mother. They went to all kinds of different Christian denominations, but Phally noticed that her mother seemed the happiest when they took her to Catholic Mass.
“I noticed the difference in the way she worshiped in the Catholic Church than in other churches that we took her to,” Phally said. Phally had been to Catholic Mass “here and there” with her husband before, but now she started to notice the differences between Catholicism and other communities.
“And my mother, she was looking forward to it. She would count the days, two or three times a week, she would ask what day it is, just waiting for Sunday to come.”
And as she started receiving the Eucharist more often, Phally saw a “profound change” in her mother. “It was like there was no sadness, she was just happy all the time.”
It was also at this time that Phally’s mother started to talk more openly about her faith. Pope Francis was also coming to visit the United States at that time, which added to the family’s new excitement about faith. Phally’s mother talked about Pope Francis’ visit “as if Jesus had returned to earth, and so we got excited too,” Phally recalled.
Even after all of the trauma and death she had gone through in her life, Phally said she was not angry with God, in large part because of the respect she had for her mother.
“I respected my mother so much, the way she cared for us, and because she respected God, I wouldn’t dare to be angry at God in any way at all. My feelings were more like toward people, those that did things to harm others, particularly the Khmer Rouge, and other people that I encountered in my life.”
She started attending Mass frequently, and praying and reading Scripture on her own. The many questions about the suffering she endured during the war and throughout her life started to make more sense to her in light of the word of God.
“When I started to study (the Bible) I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is how the world works. Atrocities are not the work of God, it’s the work of man.’ And I became very in touch with the Lord and just prayed to him and just immersed myself in his presence.”
“One thing that I’m so happy about is that I did not turn away. The more hardship that I experienced, that’s what led me to seek God because I knew I couldn’t get my answer anywhere else, so he must be the one who could give it to me. Because looking at my mother, after what she went through, and she’s full of joy, always happy, so I’m thinking well, God must have done something for her, it must be an internal thing,” Phally added.
“And when I started to seek him, and I’m telling you it’s like instantaneous, he is so gracious. It’s like your heart changes, he comforts you.”
When Phally’s mother died in September 2018, it was already a “sure thing” that Phally and her sister would become Catholic. After finishing RCIA classes, Phally entered the Catholic Church on Easter this year at St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland.
“It just came down to Catholicism for me,” Phally said. “It seemed like everything which is rich and full was in that faith. Not only was my mother raised Catholic, but I felt like I needed to learn for myself why there were so many denominations out there, and it always referred me back to Catholicism,” she said.
“This faith is very full and very rich and I don’t need to go anywhere else because it seemed anywhere else I went...there’s just bits and pieces of that fullness.”
“I prayed to the Lord about it I said, Lord, I need to belong to a Church, I need to be baptized, and dedicate my whole self to you, help me to find that Church and that denomination, and it was just so easy,” she added.
Phally still thinks about her dream to start a nonprofit to help Cambodians in need, but she wants to do everything in God’s timing.
“I think looking back now that was not God’s intention for me,” she said. “He knew my good intentions, but he didn’t want me to approach it that way yet. He wanted me to get to know him first. You know how it says in the Bible, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will be given to you?’...You need a partnership with the Lord,” she said.
She’s also planning on writing a book about her life, to help tell the story of the Cambodian genocide to the world, and to tell Cambodians how the mercy and forgiveness that she found in the Catholic Church can transform their hearts and the country of Cambodia.
“My hope is that the book is going to be the open door to them knowing about Christianity, about Christ, about Catholicism. The Catholic faith is the rich faith that the Cambodian people need, because it has everything. It has that fullness of God’s goodness…that self-effort is not going to help them. They need Jesus,” she said.
“If I hadn’t had that encounter with Jesus, I would have taken a lot of things into my own hands, but that wouldn’t be effective. I’m just a human, very limited capabilities, so I need the divine help, and Jesus is the only one who can provide that.”
And she says she is forever grateful for her mother’s example and witness of faith.
“Her faith, that’s the core of my transformation to come to the Lord,” she said.
Her mother’s faith gave her a powerful example of how to respond to suffering and violence - instead of turning to self-pity and anger, she turned to the Lord, Phally said.
“I would just go back to her experience, and that was what saved me from my own self-affliction.”
Kate Veik contributed to the reporting of this story.