Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A long way back home

Trafficked Cambodian children being reintegrated with their families

BATTAMBANG, Cambodia, July 2013 - Sombath*, 21, from Battambang province, northwest Cambodia on the border with Thailand remembers growing up with his widowed mother, Sina*, and six older siblings in a household where they did not have enough to eat. His mother earned no more than a dollar a day growing flowers for sale. Sombath rarely went to school because he could not pay for school materials and fees. His brothers and sisters would travel to Thailand to work illegally and send money back home to support the family. 

Photo: © Komar Rikreay/2013
Sombath (right) practices his make-up skills 
with a client as his trainer (left) supervises.

When Sombath was 13 years old, his mother agreed to a neighbour’s suggestion to take Sombath to Thailand to earn money. “I was really afraid to go to place I did not know,” said Sombath, “but I tried to be strong because my mother was counting on me and I wanted to protect her.”

In Thailand, Sombath worked illegally on a construction site. He earned just 40 Bahts (US$1.50) for a 14 hour day in risky conditions where he inhaled a lot of dust. He slept in a makeshift hut on the construction site with other children in the same predicament. Many of them fell ill without having access to health services.

When Sombath was 14 years old, he was arrested by the Thai Police for working in Thailand illegally. He was taken to the Poipet Transit Centre at the border which receives trafficked and repatriated children. The Centre referred Sombath to Komar Rikreay a non-governmental organisation in Battambang that provides emergency and rehabilitation services for vulnerable children. With UNICEF support and funding from the German International Cooperation Agency (GIZ), the German Committee for UNICEF and the USAID Displaced Children and Orphans Fund (DCOF), Komar Rikreay receives 100 trafficked and vulnerable children each year. It provides a comprehensive range of services to support the children through a transitional period, with the ultimate goal of reintegrating them with their families.

At Komar Rikreay, Sombath attended remedial education classes which prepared him to re-enter the state school system. Even though he was a few grades below his age group, he was not disheartened. “No one in my family ever had the opportunity to go to school,” said Sombath, “My mother does not know [how] to read. One day, I came to visit her when I was wearing my school uniform. She said she was really proud of me and had a big smile. It made me so happy.”

Providing support to the whole family

While at the centre, Sombath’s mother and family were encouraged to visit him and he would stay with them at least twice a year. However, after three years at the centre, it was evaluated that there would still be risks associated with him returning to live permanently with his family, so 17-year-old Sombath was referred to a group home. Group homes create a family environment with no more than five children living in a house. The children are cared for by two villagers selected by Komar Rikreay after a rigorous assessment process.  Group homes are monitored monthly by Komar Rikreay staff and the carers receive ongoing training in parenting and the psychosocial care of children. In this environment, Sombath was able to develop bonds within a family unit and participate in community life. He also continued to go to school and has received vocational training in make-up skills, which he regularly practices on neighbours and friends to earn a small amount which he shares with his mother.

Meanwhile, with Komar Rikreay’s support, Sombath’s mother was able to acquire literacy, numeracy and financial planning skills which helped her to make a plan to develop her flower growing business. She now sells jasmine and lotus flower crowns for Buddhist prayers, which earns her a regular income. Seeds provided by Komar Rikreay enabled her to grow food crops. The resulting financial stability that Sina was able to build, facilitated Sombath’s return to live with her in January 2013. As he completes his studies in high school, Sombath is making plans to graduate and open a beauty shop in 2014. 

With UNICEF support, and in collaboration with the Royal Cambodian Government, Komar Rikreay is one of nine non-governmental organisations working in partnership to strengthen and coordinate civil society’s involvement in the child protection system and build capacity to promote family reintegration.

Sombath and his mother can hardly believe the reversal in the family’s fortunes, thanks to the services they received. “We are human beings again, without any worries about surviving. I am happy that my son lives with me and even more because now he makes me pretty with make up when I got to attend weddings!” said Sina.

*Names changed to protect identities

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