Text and photos : Jean-Matthieu Gautier
In front of the “Tuol Pongro” school, in the rural area north-east of Cambodia, two cars stop after a few manoeuvres supervised by the school director. He, himself a former sponsored child, is now the head of the school that he created and welcomes several children from impoverished families. It was in June, and despite the rainy season that had been around for a while already, the air remained humid and hot in every corner. This, however, does not discourage the three social workers and Martin Maindiaux, director of the Children of the Mekong Cambodia based in the Centre of Sisiphon for the past 20 years. The newcomers slam the car door and walk towards the group standing under a tree.
Each family has designated a member who stands still beside a 25kg sack of rice. Since January, this is the 20th distribution carried out as part of the Children of the Mekong COVID-19 project concerning 940 families. Martin then follows up with a speech; he reminds them that each family in need is encouraged to talk about their situation so the charity can act where necessary. A new program will begin in the region to help these families in the near future.
Adapting at All Costs
It is in this same context that Srey Phan, a young girl with a motor disability, was noticed by the charity in September 2020, like several other new sponsored children since the beginning of the pandemic. “We will give rice to families in the pagoda to help them combat the COVID-19 crisis”, explained Men Leng, one of the social workers of the Sisophon Centre. Known by his team for his sincere smile and happy eyes, he is as devoted to his colleagues as he is to the young people he is responsible for. Today, seated behind his desk, he appears focused. He replays the scene that he has seen many times in the past for the other sponsored children “The mother of Srey Phan came towards Martin to ask him for help for her young disabled daughter. She is intelligent and performed well in school, but she needed to travel a long way every morning to get there. This is why she asked to be housed in the centre.”
I remember the conversation I had with Martin a few hours earlier: “It is very dangerous for a young girl to make long trips to school alone. There are a lot of very isolated places and, therefore, risks of serious aggression. Some children need to overcome this fear every day while going to school. This is one of the criteria for choosing the young girls who come to stay in our centre where they are safe,” he told me.
A smile lit up proudly on Men’s face. “We gathered her information, took her picture, and she was welcomed in the centre as early as January. Srey Phan only stayed in the centre for two weeks before returning home. It was too difficult for her to be far away from her family in her situation. Today, she receives money and rice every month thanks to her sponsors. “I went to see them yesterday, Men added, she has a loving family. Before schools closed because of the health crisis, her father took her to school every morning on his motorcycle so she wouldn’t have to make the trip alone. For the team of social workers, this is a success. The rice distribution in response to COVID-19 is bringing in new, more isolated and needy families whose children are ready to go to school regularly and are full of ambition. This is precisely the profile that the Children of the Mekong want to support.
Meeting the Most Isolated
A little further west, at the Thai border lies the village of Poi Pet, one of the areas most affected by COVID-19, faces similar problems. The mothers receiving rice have all lost their jobs because of the crisis: they were working in Thailand as fishmongers. When the borders shut down, they went back to their village and since then have not found stable work. Poi Pet’s proximity to the border makes it a strategic crossing point to Thailand for Cambodian workers attracted by better wages. These populations are considered today to be among the most destitute in Cambodia: they lost their jobs and are rejected upon return for fear of being infected. Accompanied by Bundol, the spouse of Martin’s assistant and employed by Poi Pet’s church, they decided from the beginning of the pandemic to collect plastic bottles from dumpsters to resell them.
Bundol told me about his experience thanks to a picture: “This woman is 36 and has 6 children. Her husband left without saying anything and she does not have a stable job anymore to feed her family. The parish I work in offered her condiments, and the Children of the Mekong provided rice.”
Bundol showed me another picture of a smaller family: “I saw this woman yesterday. She has 3 children, one of them is disabled. Luckily, her husband did not leave but she also does not have a job anymore since she returned from Thailand. It is difficult for them to find something to eat.” His eyes saddened when I pointed to one of his picture showing an elderly man, sick and gaunt. “I came across this man in Poi Pet when I went there to distribute rice. He did not have a home nor a family. This is why he everyone calls him “Ta Ron” (Grandfather in Khmer). However, nobody appreciates him because he has no possessions and lives in the street. Because of his age he will not be able to find work anymore even when the COVID-19 crisis is over, but he also tries to sell plastic bottles. I then relayed his information to the Children of the Mekong and he will be looked after every month to get help.” COVID-19 will at least have made this possible: reaching out to even more isolated families, providing long-term help to those who need it most, while prioritizing the education of youth.