The sanctuary had never been
this quiet before during a service.
As Siv Ashley spoke, no one
moved. Not a sound distracted from her testimony. Every eye was focused
intently on the diminutive, black-haired woman before them.
Most in the congregation
knew of the cruelty she described only in theory, but she had once lived its
Now, standing before them
was a woman who had seen the very depths of human depravity. She survived to
tell the congregation of her experiences, but she had also come to tell them of
the God who brought her through it all.
Hers is an accent tinged
mostly by her youth in Cambodia. However, having lived the last 31 years in Ashe
and Yadkin counties in northwest North Carolina, there’s a little bit of
country in there, too. It’s a charming trait that carries her testimony that
much closer to home. As Ashley spoke, tears fell from the eyes of men and women
alike. There was laughter, too.
But most of all, there was
hope. Siv Ashley, a member of Mountain View Baptist Church in Hamptonville, is
the very essence of faith.
Born Siv Lang Sov on Sept.
18, 1965, in Cambodia, her father moved the family to the capital city of Phnom
Penh to have easier access to the “big-nosed people” — Caucasians — who could
tell them about Christ and to maybe get an education. She was about six years
old when what she thought was a parade began.
It wasn’t a parade. At least
not a festive one. The infamous Khmer Rouge regime was about to relocate the
area’s residents to one of its collective farms, which amounted to nothing less
than a Nazi concentration camp.
“The soldiers just started
hitting people, started moving us out of whatever we were living in,” Ashley
remembered. “My dad, at this point, he knew there was something wrong.
“He was looking for us. My
brother and I were playing … we thought it was a parade. It was just so sudden.
He came and grabbed us and said we needed to stick together.”
The family gathered a few
belongings, but only what they could carry. They walked without knowing where
they were headed, and what seemed like days might very well have been a single
24-hour period. For all the horrors they encountered along the way, there was
no way of telling for sure how long the journey took.
It was as if the Khmer Rouge
soldiers were on drugs, Ashley said, because they turned so suddenly vicious.
They knocked down people on
crutches and shot the elderly who couldn’t walk fast enough.
Children were crying, some
couldn’t find their parents. Toddlers were trampled in the chaos.
And … there
Her father hacked her hair
off with a knife to make her look like a boy, so she wouldn’t be raped.
“Pretty girls were being
taken,” Ashley said. “My dad realized what was really going on, so he just took
“Right before they started
taking us, he just cut my hair, just cut it, just cut it everywhere, just to
make sure I looked ugly and looked like a little boy.”
Ashley wound up in the
forced labor camp for about five years, and lost her entire family in the
Twice, Ashley was part of
groups that escaped the camp. The last such effort included some 2,000 people,
on foot, trying to make their way to freedom.
Waiting at a mountain, they
knew they couldn’t go back but were afraid to go forward. Scavenging
desperately for what food they could, many died of starvation.
Terrified, Ashley broke
“In my language, I prayed,
‘Joo-Soo (Jesus), if you are hearing us right now, just let us know a sign.
Save us. Save us children,’” she said. “As soon as I broke down, I heard a
helicopter and there were these packages dropping. I didn’t know what it was.
There was food.”
She grabbed one of the aid
packages, but as soon as she did, bombs started falling.
A soldier — to this day, she
remembers the stars of the American flag on his sleeve — grabbed her in the
midst of the attack and carried her to safety.
“I remember that he had a
gun and he had a backpack,” Ashley said of the man she calls her angel.
“He was scared … I was
scared. This stranger was picking me up, and I didn’t know what was going on.
We were running through that forest as fast as he could go.
“They were shooting at us,
and he was shooting back.”
stopped. The soldier patted her head and shared a pack of crackers. Then, he
She would never know his identity. She remembers only the flag on his
sleeve and that he was one of the “big-nosed people,” a Caucasian. Ashley wound
up in a refugee camp on the border with Thailand, where miraculously, she found
a maternal aunt who took her in as a third daughter.
“She said, ‘It’s OK. My
husband and I will adopt you, and anywhere we go, we’re going to go together as
a family. We’re going to move to a place called America,’” Ashley said, tears
beginning to well in her eyes. “My dad had always told me, ‘You just have to
have hopes and dreams, and you will have a good life.’”
A Place Called America
Eventually, in August 1979,
Ashley made it to the United States when her family was sponsored by members of
Jefferson United Methodist Church in Ashe County.
At age 14, she knew no
English and had never been to school a day in her life. The pictures of her
standing with her kindergarten classmates might be humorous if they weren’t at
the same time heart-breaking.
Still, Ashley didn’t feel
out of place.
“I didn’t care … I didn’t
care that I was with the little kids,” Ashley said. “I was blessed just to be
able to be with them.”
While hearing her new pastor
speak, Ashley made the connection that the “Joo-Soo” her father had followed
was Jesus Christ. She has been a woman of faith ever since and married her
husband, Kenny Ashley. Today, they have two teen-aged children, Tia and Ty.
“Basically, I had gave my
life to Christ when my dad talked about Christ, but I didn’t know it,” Ashley
concluded. “We went to church that first week in Jefferson, and the preacher
held up the Bible and talked about Jesus. I heard the word and it sounded so
familiar. My eyes just lit up.”
More and more, Ashley has
begun to share her life’s story with others. She has a growing conviction to
tell other of her relationship with God, who saved her spiritually … and
— Houston is a Baptist writer in Yadkinville, who most often covers NASCAR
and the space program.)