MAY 2021 UPDATE
In recent conversations with Johan and Lenie, group leaders of Project Freedom, provision of food to the people living in the slums continues to be their primary focus. They report that there have been many outbreaks of COVID 19 in Phnom Penh recently. Authorities have designated COVID hotspots as red zones. This means that people living in this zone are unable to leave their houses and must remain isolated and in lock down. Project Freedom were designated an orange zone which meant that they could move around only with permission from authorities.
As of yesterday (7/5/2021) Johan reported that some travel had been permitted. This saw many poorer people fleeing to the provinces. This movement resulted from people not having enough money to pay the rent for their houses and therefore being evicted. Similarly, people who were also unable to pay their utilities had vacated their homes before debt collectors came searching for them.
Project Freedom are continuing to provide a daily meal for hungry people in the slums. They provide staples such as eggs, fish, rice, garlic and soy sauce. Many people within the slum community access the cooked meals daily. Desperate people have resorted to selling themselves or members of their families to men to make money. Their vulnerability is also preyed upon by individuals who seek to exploit their desperation for their own financial gain. It is Project Freedom’s hope that by providing food and support to these families they will not be forced to make desperate choices that put their families at increased risk.
On Sunday, March 15, 2020, at the end of a workday, 340 men and women, working for a foreign building company to build one of the high-rise buildings in Phnom Penh, were called to the office to get their half month payment. The chief project leader sadly announced that they had to cease work on the building project. He said that all the foreign project leaders had to return to their home countries before travel between countries was closed due to COVID-19. Many of the other large construction companies had to do the same.
Vuthy, his wife Jaan and their eldest son had been employed by this company for 6 months and then, suddenly, it all came to a halt. They had lived before without a job for many years, and now they were thrown back into the same situation. Vuthy and Jaan thought they could survive again, but they had not counted on the amount of people, also without work due to COVID-19 restrictions, desperately trying to earn an income. They struggled to earn money.They began collecting garbage items from the garbage bags in the street, to sell for recycling and to get a little money.
As thousands of others without work were doing the same, it was difficult to find enough recyclable garbage to sell so they could buy enough food for their family of 7. Vuthy became more and more depressed. He and his 3 sons continued to work very hard to provide for his family. He often worked late into the night searching for garbage items that he could sell. Jaan tried to find people that would pay her to do their laundry. She did the washing with the help of her 2 daughters.
However, this work also became hard to acquire later in the year, as many other poor families did the same. Cambodia was not so affected by the first wave of the Covid19 virus and the economy was still running like normal, only schools and churches were closed. But in March 2021, there was a larger outbreak and the Government put strict rules in place and closed-off areas. The government run facility where people living in slums could go to get some food, was closed as well. Vuthy had started drinking and his oldest son began to hang out with friends who used drugs. The little money that Jaan could earn with the laundry was taken by Vuthy to buy alcohol and the oldest son often stole money to buy drugs.
The situation was desperate.
For many days the family had nothing to eat. In desperation the daughters said they could get money from older men if they slept with them. First Vuthy and Jaan refused, but Vuthy gave in as their daily struggle to survive with very little food, and his need for alcohol became too great. Jaan was alone now in her protection of the girls, but she gradually became weaker in her spirit and in her health. She got sick due to a lack of food, and continual hard manual work. After a while she was not able to work anymore.
Then Vuthy asked the girls to sleep with more men so that the family could buy food and medicine for their mother, Jaan. They did but some men were violent and beat them. Then Vuthy took his girls to many brothels to ask for work. The girls became prostitutes to help the family to survive.
Currently, the new COVID- 19 restrictions have forced the closure of brothels. So now the family is in a desperate situation again.
MARCH 2021 UPDATE
Food has become a precious, hard to find commodity in the slums around Project Freedom.
In recent weeks, a number of deaths linked to COVID have resulted in the Cambodian Government introducing strict COVID protocols.
It is compulsory to wear masks, main roads have been blocked by checkpoints to prevent movement around the country, schools and many businesses have closed. This has caused loss of jobs for many skilled and unskilled Cambodian workers.
Fear is very prevalent. Prior to COVID desperate people could access food from a government funded and run food distribution centre. Due to the increased fear surrounding COVID outbreaks this centre has been closed which has added another level of desperation to an already tenuous situation.
Project Freedom has stepped into the gap!! They are currently providing a daily freshly cooked meal in the two slums closest to the compound. The number of people accessing this support has increased dramatically from an average of 40 people per day to 180 people. As the COVID situation becomes more desperate they anticipate this number will continue to increase. In two slums further away, Project Freedom are also sending a small truck with food that is distributed by trustworthy team members. This is to ensure that those identified as most in need are cared for first.
In addition to provision of food, Project Freedom are also caring for the sick by providing transport to the hospital and paying for their hospital costs.
This gives a huge amount of hope to people that are struggling to feed their families even once a day. Many are crying and full of joy because they are receiving help and support.
Project Freedom report that the level of vulnerability and desperation has pushed people to take drastic measures to feed their families. While Brothels are officially closed, Illegal prostituting activity has not ceased. Desperate families are preyed upon to sell their young daughters for prostitution. Sickeningly, clients pay more money for young girls.
It is a vicious cycle that many who live in the slums face daily. For many the rules imposed by the authorities are more dangerous to their wellbeing than COVID itself. They have to make choices for their families that are dangerous both for their safety and health. The reality is that without money they are destitute. They cannot access food, education or healthcare. Their risk of being taken advantage of has increased exponentially.
Project Freedom is continuing to be a beacon of hope within the slums. They are feeding and caring for people’s daily needs, which, in time, will result in increasing financial pressure if the COVID restrictions remain in place. They refuse to look away and are committed to being part of the solution.
DECEMBER 2020 UPDATE
COVID 19 continues to make life very difficult for people living in the slums. Work is scarce, food is limited, and children’s attendance at school is sporadic. Elderly people are suffering from lack of care and food. Children are left at home or on the streets while parents desperately look for work.
Tourism has dropped dramatically in Cambodia. The number of both skilled and un-skilled people now looking for employment has increased exponentially. Cambodians are still attempting to cross the borders into other countries in their search. Many have no papers and are prime targets for trafficking.
Project Freedom are sending their teams into the slums to bring food relief, educational packs for the children, provide health care and take people to the hospital when needed. The project leaders have reported that although they continue to maintain a strong presence within the slums, they are not always alerted to the needs of specific families and individuals that are in desperate need. This has resulted in people dying, who could have been helped, had Project Freedom known of their plight.
Project Freedom will continue their Child Safety program in the 4 provinces they have been working in. This program provides valuable training for parents and children around the dangers of human trafficking and the signs to be aware of. Knowledge is power and providing children with strategies to keep themselves safe reduces their risk of being trafficked. Project Freedom is keen to extend their program into a further 2 provinces in the months to come, extending their outreach to a total of 6 provinces.
SEPTEMBER 2020 UPDATE
The funds from Boonah Freedom Climb – 20k’s in 20 days has recently arrived at Project Freedom! Johan, Lenie and the Project Freedom team were incredibly thankful for the hard work and generosity of all who supported and participated.
Currently, Project Freedom has been sending teams into 4 slums on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, close to the Project Freedom compound. Each team is providing prevention/child safety training to parents and children around the dangers of trafficking and the signs to be aware of. Project Freedom is also keen to invest in education to the provinces in the coming months. Currently they are supporting 3 provinces, but would like to increase this to 6 provinces.
Covid 19 continues to prevent children from accessing the Project Freedom school. Education Packs continue to be distributed to the children in the slums. Project Freedom is continuing their existing visits into the slums to support families during this uncertain time.
Work is scarce and many families are struggling to make ends meet. These pressures have a direct impact on domestic violence, trafficking and abuse. People attempt to cross the borders into other countries without border identification papers seeking work. They are desperate and are easy to take advantage of.
APRIL 2020 UPDATE
Things are not too bad in Cambodia, officially there are 122 cases, 28 in Phnom Penh, and zero deaths because of COVID-19. Currently there is a travel ban between the provinces and the city during the Khmer New Year Celebrations in April to limit the half of the population that would usually travel from doing so.
All schools are closed for a month and religious and social meetings are forbidden. Project Freedom are continuing to help vulnerable children with the distribution of homework packets for the English class and bible stories so they can study at home. Social Workers are helping the poor people with food and medical assistance.
Shops & markets are still open, as well as the big garment factories where hundreds of thousands of girls (and boys) are working, so the economy is still going. There was a plan to close down for 3 months, and some factories wanted to close completely and move to another country. However, the government has made it possible for supplies to continue to come from China, and factories can continue to operate as usual – as long as there is no major outbreak of Covid-19.
All bars, casino’s and brothels are closed. However, there is concern that this is making it harder for the girls who are trafficked and exploited to ear a lot of money for their captors. It is likely they will be forced to work in secret places under much harsher circumstances