A Testimony by Sokha Soong
Growing up as a refugee child, born in a refugee camp in Thailand, fear was my constant companion. I grew up thinking that this camp was my whole existence, I didn’t know about any other countries, continents, or cultures. I went to school and learnt to read, write and how to do mathematics. We were not taught about Cambodian history or how we fitted into the wider world. We knew that the camp was temporarily, this caused me a bit of anxiety but I did my best not to be bothered by it. I imagined a new place that would be in the clouds where we could never be hurt or feel afraid. This gave me hope.
We were aware that we were living among an enemy which was known as the Khmer rouge. This made me afraid, as every time I mentioned our enemy’s name the adults would hush us up, also their reactions showed how uncomfortable they were. I was afraid because some times when night fell, we would hear guns being fired in the distance and when it got bad everyone used to evacuate from every corner of the camp and made their way to the main hospital. I don’t know why the hospital was a safe place, but it was. During these kind of nights men with their faces hidden behind cloths would raid the empty houses or sometimes just plunder from whoever they caught. My middle bother was born during one of those nights and this time some neighbours decided not to run for safety and stay to help my parents. They came face to face with the enemy and one asked them, “why are you not running like everyone else?” One of our neighbours replied that they stayed to help my mum deliver the baby. This masked man actually stood guard for our group while all the chaos was happening around the camp. It was truly amazing my brother Thim was born on a night like this and everyone who stayed for his birth was safe and protected. The masked man standing guard told his accomplices there was nothing to plunder where we were, just a woman giving birth and neighbours staying to help.
Every day I fear for my family. I used to be anxious about what life would be like, if we had to live without a family member. I sometimes found it so overwhelming that my chest used to hurt. Even after we left the refugee camp and found asylum in New Zealand I still experienced fear and anxiety. My fear was different because of the culture and the community we had. I was learning about the freedom individuals had and my school community encouraged me to be confidents as a girl and later as young adult.
I wanted so much to be free to speak my mind and expressed myself. But the Cambodian tradition was pushed upon me by my parents and our Cambodian community. I am not trying to say my parents are bad, they only did what they knew was good and what they have learnt themselves. I was afraid to fail my parents and to be the one who would bring shame upon the whole family. I use to get anxious being in a group where I would have to participate. I often know what to do or have an answer, but I don’t know how to engage. I then became frustrated with myself and for letting others down by not contributing. But I am not going to talk about frustration and anger here, just fear, because I was trapped between two completely different cultures. I was afraid of not being pleasing enough for my Cambodian community and felt afraid to use the freedom to engage because of the lack of experience to participate.
Fast forward to me today. I am now living without fear. Fear has been replaced with wisdom and positive experiences.
From my childhood to now this is what I’ve learnt: Fear cannot touch me; it cannot physically hurt me. It sometimes stopped me from doing things. It slowed me down from doing what was good at, and sometimes stopped me from doing bad thing too. It had taken me two decades to learn that not all fear is as bad as I thought it was and to see it in different ways. I have learned that fear can be a warning or caution, that makes me slow-down, think more carefully and take a best course of action. Fear can something fill me with awe, as when I realised that the Lord had found me even in a place where his people are nowhere near to support me. He has revealed to me who I am and protected me and provided for everything I needed.
I have realised that in scripture there is also more than one meaning behind the word ‘fear’. In Deuteronomy 10:12, we read about fear, not as a caution but an act of reverence.
“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good.”- NKJ
A second meaning for fear is found in Job 4:14. “Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake.” – KJV
In Hebrew these two pieces of scripture give us two literal translations for fear:
- ‘Pahhad’– to caution or to warn.
- ‘Yirah’ – a state of reverence and awe
‘Pahhad’ fear can overcomes us with threats, panics, and sometimes paralyses us.
This kind of fear is better understood as one of human emotions, one that is responsible for warning us of immanent danger. This is how our body will response; our heart quickens its beats, pumping blood to all our muscles to prepare it either for a quick getaway or to fight. Our skin sweats to keep the body cool, our senses heighten and our eyesight sharpens. Everything our body does is to keep us safe. Another example this kind of fear is when you are learning to drive for the first time. You have passed your theory tests and had some practise in operating the car and now you have to practise driving on the road. Your entire body is tense, eyes open wide, heart beats quicken and your palms are sweating all over the stirring wheels. With caution and remembering your road rules you have safe practise on the road, which results in a good experience. The more you practise the better you will get and eventually overcome your fear of driving.
With the warning of potential danger your body will respond in practical ways to keep you safe, with your brain working extra hard to eliminate all the potential danger so that with every step you are well aware of your environment or situation.
If you do nothing when you feel this kind of caution or warning you are actually letting go of an opportunity to discover something or to overcome your fear. It also makes it harder for you to overcome the fear when it returns. Reflecting and learning from our fear is the goal.
Our youngest child sometimes gets really bad anxiety. When it comes it is often overwhelming for her. She would have a meltdown with pain in her tummy, or sometimes headaches. But the good thing is that it all comes out. I don’t know if it is to do with her age or just her character. She is the extroverted one in the family, which makes it easy for us to help her as she always says exactly what is bothering her and where it hurts. She gets fear for new things and experiences. We encourage her to ask herself some key questions when those imaginations get too overwhelming. One of the important things for her to do is to come to us and talk through her anxiety. This really calms her down. One thing we don’t want her to do is to let fear take over and have her pulling out of activities. We think it is important for her to discover what it was that caused her anxiety and then to continue her class or activity with caution. We want her to realise the power of her imagination and be able to tackle the reality of what she is actually engaging in.
‘Yirah’ is the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves about to step outside our comfort zone. Unlike caution or warning fear, we can feel a tinge of exhilaration and awe.
The Hebrew verb Yare can mean “to fear, to respect, to revere’ and the noun ‘Yirah’, usually refers to the fear of God and is viewed as a positive quality. (lifehopeandtruth.com)
‘Yirah’ is ancient Hebrew. According to Deuteronomy 10: 12-14. Moses was asking the Israelites to fear (reverence, hold fast, admire be in awe) of the Lord and keep his commandments. As the Israelites enter the promised land, they were at risk of being influenced by other gods and to be corrupted by their present occupiers. This reminder from Moses was to keep them safe by keeping their covenant with the Lord their God. Encouraging them to stay close to God for their own relationship with Him to grow.
This awe and admiring, submissive fear is foundational for all spiritual knowledge and wisdom. To progress is to 1: teach about God, 2: learn about God, 3: fear God, 4: know God; and 5: imitate God’s wisdom.
I encourage anyone who has fear to be cautious but trust in its warning, to do something but to not stop moving forward because you are afraid.