Following a week of yellow-zone lockdowns, on Friday the 17th of September, communes in Siem Reap province were placed into red-zone lockdowns. These measures are as extreme as they come; by law, all citizens must stay in their houses, no one is allowed to go outside… the only exception to this rule, a medical emergency.
The fines for people who disobey these measures start at $250USD per person. Relative to the local income, this is a cost not that even the middle class dares to risk.
Despite having distributed our monthly rations to REACH families one week earlier, our team feared the worst and were worried that our families would be trapped at home starving. We made the rapid decision to respond to the crisis and get emergency food supplies out to everyone in our care. We did not have this budgeted, but in times like this, there is no alternative.
Luckily, our Site Supervisor Chen acquired the relevant permit which enabled him to travel across village borders to deliver these supplies. With every lockdown to date, permits have been challenging to acquire, but in the instance of this red zone, we are learning that many NGOs we work with have not acquired passes at all.
A further 2 permissions were granted by the village chief to our dedicated team who live within Thlok Andoung to support the distribution. Accompanied by local authorities, our hardworking trio Sreynoch, Theap and Chen carried out the enormous job of 10, in 2 exhausting days.
Upon completing the emergency deliveries, Chen told us that the families eyes lit up when they saw the REACH tuk-tuk approaching. All of them were at home, too scared to leave. He told us that every family had little to no supplies left, and that each and every person expressed their utmost gratitude to the team.
Following this, on the 23rd of September, we received the announcement that all red zones were to be extended in our village and other surrounding areas until the 30th.
When we learnt of this, our hearts sank… to us, this felt like rock bottom.
With the “Delta” virus variant surging, we know that staying home is critical to curb transmission and to protect the health of the community, but we also feel it is equally important for the community to have access to food. To think of how many families and children are currently without food in these villages is something we cannot emotionally bear.
With the upcoming national Pchum Ben holidays set to commence on the 5th of October we are very doubtful that the lockdowns will be lifted entirely. This religious holiday is the Cambodian equivalent to Christmas or Ramadan, during this traditional ceremony locals have the week off work to visit their hometowns, gather at the pagodas and meet with their extended family. The Prime Minister has asked that the celebrations be reconsidered or postponed until it is safer.
While we don’t expect miracles, we are hoping with every fibre, that by the end of this week, these red-zones will be eased back to yellow. If this happens, we will be able to safely wire our families financial support so that they can purchase their daily food needs independently.
WHERE DOES THIS LATEST SET-BACK LEAVE REACH?
The raw and honest truth is that today it leaves our team feeling deflated and deeply saddened.
This extreme turn of events has affected our plans greatly. But perhaps where we went wrong was saying our plans out loud?
At the start of this month, with Cambodia’s vaccination roll-out well underway for teenagers 12 and over, and news of government schools re-opening, we were all systems go and team morale was as high as can be. We had all been safely back at the offices for 6 weeks, and with the goal for our soft opening to take place in November, we spent the first week of September welcoming 3 new members to our education team.
To kickstart the re-opening plan, I hosted a welcome to REACH presentation for our entire team. The goal of this was not only to integrate our new team members but to re-inspire our existing team, highlighting all the positive initiatives their programs will be implementing once open. It truly felt like a step in the right direction and to celebrate new beginnings we went on a socially distanced team building bike ride. It was a perfect morning spent out in nature and a much-needed time to reconnect with each other.
Our plans to re-open came to a crashing halt the following week, and with news of the latest lockdowns, we were straight back on zoom working from home.
Although on pause, our plans for re-opening our school are conservative and well thought out, it is a strategy that our management team has been working on for months now. The steps we are taking to reopen has safety at the forefront, we will wait for the government schools to open for teenagers first and then spend one full month re-integrating our youth back to public school. During this time, we will consult with families and provide much needed resources so that their children can comfortably return to their education.
Once the public schools have remained open for one full month, we will then resume our supplementary classes for all students 12+ at REACH, we will do so full-time, Monday to Friday in reduced class sizes. We have reshuffled the classes so that there will be no more than 10 students per room, per session. While our teenagers learn full time, we will continue to distribute at-home learning for all younger learners. We are implementing this strategy with small targeted numbers, to have the best possible chance of remaining open.
Tomorrow, our REACH school family orientation days were supposed to be taking place.
I feel responsible for initiating plans and raising so much hope and excitement amongst the team. These optimistic plans to re-open have made this latest set back so much more painful to grapple with.
This time last year, although our school was closed, we were at least able to engage with 30 of our youths on site in shifts. These resilient teenagers were volunteering their time in small numbers in our garden and bike repair shop. They were riding mountain bikes daily in our cycling club and were outdoors exploring distances as far as 70kms with our team on the weekends.
A number of these youth were identified to be working illegally. To combat this they were put on, and remain on, monthly financial stipends to support their families through these impossible times.
These 30 youth made up only 15% of all REACH students, it was not ideal, but it was still something. What we were able to provide these selected students was inspiring and uplifting to be a part of. Hours upon hours of healthy fitness, team building, and laughter with friends. For some, it was their ticket out of laborious jobs, and for all of them, it was their daily respite from unimaginable home struggles.
Today our hands are completely tied, and we are feeling deflated…we want nothing more than to see our students. We know that without regular face to face monitoring, we cannot implement full-proof measures to stop these children from labouring. This reality frustrates us more than anything.
As it stands, the majority of REACH youth have been fully vaccinated, and our entire team (fully vaccinated) is on standby, eagerly awaiting to welcome them back into our programs. As soon as restrictions lift, and we are legally able to, we will be reinstating our socially distanced club rides and on-site outdoor volunteering. We will simultaneously be submitting requests to the Ministry of Education to resume our English classes.
Like everyone, we are experiencing the unavoidable highs and lows on the rollercoaster that is COVID-19. We acknowledge that his pain is felt globally and send our love and thoughts to our supporters far and wide.
Thankfully, Cambodia sits in the top 20 countries globally for vaccination rates, and although today we feel hopeless, we hold onto the fact that time will heal this situation and we will open one day. It won’t be November 1st as we’d planned, but perhaps if we don’t say the date out loud, it will come sooner than we think.
If you are still reading, I’d like to express my gratitude for following our journey and keeping our dreams alive. Please keep holding in there with us, things will get better…they must, and when they do, our community school will be so special.
Emily & the team at REACH