The Journey Out of the Killing Fields

Ellen Lu

By Max Hunter, The John Perkins Center Teaching Fellow


Nikum “Niko” Pon is a reconciliation-minded Seattle Pacific University 2009 alum. He is a Cambodian-American who arrived in the U.S. in 1982, fleeing with his family from the violence in Cambodia. He received his undergraduate degree in cell molecular biology from the University of Washington, becoming one of the first in the Cambodian community and his family to attend and graduate from a university.


After graduating, Pon worked at SafeFutures Youth Center in West Seattle for four years and was a board member for another four years. He then studied at SPU and earned his master of education degree.


Currently he is working toward his doctor of philosophy degree in education psychology at the University of Washington. His ultimate desire is to become a professor at a research institution while traveling to Cambodia and other developing-world countries to plant churches, build orphanages, and train teachers.


Can you tell us about yourself?


I was born in the jungles of Cambodia in 1979 during an atrocity known as the killing fields. From 1975 to 1979, more than 2 million Cambodians died from harsh labor in the fields and mass executions ordered by the country’s leader, Pol Pot, who wanted to create a classless agrarian society and get rid of Western influences. Prior to my birth, at least 40 of my relatives had been killed, including my father. Immediately after I was born, my family fled to a refugee camp in Thailand.


After residing in the camp for two years, we were blessed to come to the United States through the sponsorship of a Lutheran church in Minnesota. The acculturation process was extremely difficult, as we had to learn a new country and language, and navigate through various government systems. My older siblings worked as hotel cleaners to support the family while my other sisters and I attended school. After three years, we moved to Tacoma, Washington, to escape the cold winters and lack of job opportunities in Minnesota.


Because my family never processed or healed from the tragic events of our past, there were always arguments and strife at home. Another stress factor was our poverty: Seven of us lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and my family couldn’t afford to buy me nice clothes for school.


How did you cope growing up in the United States?


During my adolescent years, I found refuge and acceptance from my friends, who were mostly gang-involved. I was heading down the path of becoming a gang member until at age 16, in my high school cafeteria, I heard the gospel for the first time. I was drawn to the message of salvation and realized that I was a sinner and needed a Savior. On that day — September 17, 1995 — I became a Christian, the first in my Buddhist family.


From then on, my life changed little by little as the Lord convicted me about my sins. Through the process of constant repentance, I lost the desire to use profanity, lie, steal, and perform other sinful actions. I thought these were a normal part of life before coming to Christ.


What about your family?


For the past 15 years, my family has been in the process of healing. Most of them are Christians now, and we are closer to each other than ever. I’m still in awe of God’s goodness, and do not understand how it all happened. In response to his mercy and grace, I must give God all the glory he deserves and daily show my gratitude for his transformation of me and my family’s life.



Max Hunter Max Hunter joined the staff of the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University in 2008. While at Harvard University, he studied in the Graduate School of Arts and Science, the Graduate School of Education, and Harvard Medical School. He has an A.M., Ed.M., and the certificate in bioethics from Harvard Medical School.


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