Two years ago Rous Na, her husband and two children were living on the streets near the Russian Market. Now they have their own home, and a small plot of land where they raise pigs and grow vegetables.
Rous Na and her family are among the nearly 50 previously homeless families who live in two villages on lush Kohkor Island 20 km south of Phnom Penh in the Bassac River. The villages are funded by two international NGOs.
“I would be homeless if I did not live here,” Rous Na said on a recent afternoon at her home. “I have nowhere else to go.”
The village she lives in was set up in mid-1996 by the Japanese-based International Volunteers of Yamagata, or “Ivy.” Twenty-three families live there, 13 of them headed by single mothers. Each family has a 5-by-5-meter house with thatched walls and corrugated tin roof.
The other village was started in late 1995 specifically for single mothers by Youth With a Mission. There are 29 families living there. It’s part of a larger program known as the Hagar Project.
Combined, there are more than 150 children in the two villages. Some peer shyly out the doors of their homes when a stranger walks by; others rush out to have their picture taken.
The settlements are close together on the island but are independent of each other. The island is dotted by papaya and palm trees, small huts and wooden community buildings. There is little noise except the chirping birds and the pigs snorting for their dinner.
Kohkor Island is owned by the city of Phnom Penh, and was once a prison for former prostitutes. It was part of Kandal province before the city took control of it 15 years ago. There was a village there then, and Rous Na grew up there. Her family fled during the Khmer Rouge regime, and she later ended up in Phnom Penh.
Roth Oun, deputy director of social affairs for the city, said the NGOs were asked to help fund the homeless projects in 1995 because the city did not have enough money for such programs.
“I believe this project is really good because it helps alleviate the burden of the city, too,” he said.
It is difficult to know how many people live on the streets of Phnom Penh, but they can be seen everywhere. They range from people who came to the city looking for jobs to squatters who have been driven from their homes. Many are single mothers, and often children are found living alone on the streets.
The villages on Kohkor Island are just two of the many projects aimed at helping the homeless. Several NGOs have set up training programs and shelters, and send workers out to the streets to find and counsel the homeless.
The Kohkor Island project seeks to give people a place to live, a steady income and a support group all at one site.
The people who live on Kohkor Island came in different ways. The Ivy village residents came from a city shelter for street people from the Meanchey district of Phnom Penh. The city sent them to live at Kohkor whether they wanted to go or not. Project director Haruyo Nakamura said the residents are free to leave whenever they want, but so far none have.
Residents of the Hagar Project came from a shelter run by Youth With a Mission. Project coordinator Pierre Tami said the women who live there are often victims of abuse, prostitution, alcohol addiction and crime.
“Quite a few of them have attempted suicide,” Tami said. “They don’t believe in themselves.”
Tami said some of the young girls that live there with their mothers were kidnapped into prostitution and later rescued. In other cases, women sold their babies for money to buy food but have now been reunited with them.
The women go to the Hagar shelter voluntarily and can stay up to six months. Women who want to move to Kohkor are screened to determine their ability to live on their own and, if selected, can live there permanently.
The goal of both NGOs is to eventually pull out and leave the villages to operate on their own. Ivy hopes to turn its project loose by June 1999. The Hagar Project has a five-year schedule.
The villagers are taught skills that help them earn a living, build self-confidence, and live on their own.
The Hagar Project teaches sewing and farming and pays salaries. Silk handbags and other products made by the women are sold overseas. Some of the vegetables grown are sold wholesale.
The residents pay rent of 8,000 riel a month. Tami said the money goes into an account used for maintenance and repairs of the house.
Tami said the village started with 39 women. A total of 13 have left since the beginning, and some new residents have moved in. Tami said most of the women who have left did so either to move back to their home villages or to get married. Two women were forced to leave the village because they were alcoholics.
At the Ivy village, each family has a plot of land to farm and four chickens. There are 10 cows to share, and some families have bought their own pigs. They take their crops across the river to sell at the market at the village of Chhung Leap, a five-minute boat ride.
Loap Chrom, an older man who moved to the Ivy village after he married a woman already living there, is one of the residents who has benefited from learning to farm. He tends his crops carefully, gathering water from a pond to irrigate his rows of cabbage. He walks through his plot carefully, tipping his shoulders from side to drop water out of the buckets suspended from either end of a bamboo pole.
“I like agriculture, especially growing vegetables and rice,” Loap Chrom said.
He was unemployed before he learned to farm.
Nakamura said farming gives the residents a steady income.
“A lot of people want to go to the city but when they reach the city it’s hard for them to get a job. They beg on the street,” Nakamura said. “Instead of that, give them a piece of land. They can start to live their lives independently.”
Each village has a resident’s council selected by the villagers, and Cambodian staff who live on site.
“We solve the problems together and we take care of things together,” Tami said.
The Hagar village council members receive training in leadership, economic development and conflict resolution.
Both villages also have preschools. Older children go to school in Chhung Leap.
But the settlements are not ideal. The Ivy residents have no medical care. Sar Ponh, the Cambodian site manager, said some of them need more rice to eat. Some of the women who are single mothers cannot work as hard in the fields as men and so do not make as much money as the women with husbands.
Tami said his project has security problems and armed guards are on duty at night to protect against robbers that come in by boat. And, he said, he expects growing pains as children grow up and decide they want to stay on Kohkor, which has limited room.
Tami and Nakamura said the villagers do not feel isolated on the island.
“You have to go where you can get the land,” Tami said. “But you can cross the river in two minutes, you can go to the market, your children can go to school.”
So far, supporters say the two projects are successful. But relocating people to new settlements does not always work.
The Urban Sector Group, an NGO that works with squatters in Phnom Penh, gave up efforts to relocate people and decided to concentrate on keeping squatters in the city. Lim Phai, a manager with the group, said some people might not want to live that far from the city. And he said relocation projects are expensive because things such as houses and irrigation systems have to be built from scratch.
Ivy has spent $120,000 on its village. Youth With A Mission has spent $200,000.
The Cambodian NGO Licadho supports projects such as the homeless villages by teaching hygiene, human rights and other issues. Licadho president Kek Galabru was at Ivy last week for a meeting with the villagers. She said she likes the project because it focuses attention on one community.
“I think it’s a very good project,” she said. “One NGO cannot save the whole Cambodia. It’s better to do it in one small group like that and do it well.
“We have to teach them how to manage by themselves, how to take their destiny by themselves.”
Sar Pohn agreed.
“It’s good for the people,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong)
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