Chanthy in front of her ISF Community Library

ISF Social Workers Describe Life on The COVID-19 Frontlines

“We’re doing everything we can to stop kids from dropping out of education forever,” says Sree, ISF social worker. “But things are very hard out there. There’s more poverty, more drugs and more violence since the virus came.”

Many people have compared the Coronavirus crisis to a war, in which case the ISF Social Work team is on the frontline. While our schools and football grounds are closed to help control the spread of COVID-19, ISF staff have had to radically change the way they work. Though our Social Work staff still have a crucial day to day role in working at the heart of impoverished slum communities. In fact, given the wave of fresh unemployment, increased poverty and worsening social problems, their jobs are busier and more demanding than ever. We recently spent a day with the Chbar Ampov Community Team to see for ourselves how they were coping and learn more about the crucial role they play in a community facing extreme hardship. 

The first thing we observe is that the team is rarely all in the office at the same time. There are usually one or two members out in the community, meeting students and family members, checking on their welfare. But even when the staff are able to stay in the office, that certainly doesn’t mean that they are left alone for very long. 

Sometimes parents queue at their desks, asking for the team’s help to apply for the official “poverty” certificate that entitles them to a small amount of Government support. Being largely illiterate and often undocumented, most parents don’t know how to apply.  The team knows that helping them is critical, since they need that money to feed their whole family. “The Government has created two categories for the very poorest people in the whole of Cambodia,” explains Sophea, the team leader. “Almost all the families we work with are in these categories.”

Parents scavenging for recyclables on the COVID-19 frontlines
Parents scavenging for recyclables to sell in their flooded community | Photo credit: Daniel Harrington

ISF has to get more directly involved at times to save a family from financial ruin or from going deep in debt to high-interest microfinance companies. Many people have lost their jobs in factories, and we try to help them find new positions where possible. Unfortunately, openings are incredibly rare which is why we have given out 20 small loans to families to set up their own business. “If they have an income, then it means that they can stay in Phnom Penh and the kids will come back to school when we reopen”, Sophea explains. “Some families who have no money are leaving for the countryside and we worry they won’t all come back and so their kids could drop out of school.”

However, the parents popping by the office are usually the easier cases. It’s harder when it’s ISF students, some of whom are struggling with life outside school. At one point Sree notices one young man has fallen asleep waiting outside of the office and spends a while talking with him outside. She returns to explain the situation.

“His family is very poor,” she sighs, “so he feels he has to work. He’s joined a building site and is working in construction, even though he’s not old enough to do that kind of work. That’s why he fell asleep. He stays up late trying to do the homework we give, and then gets up early and goes and works at a construction site. He seems so tired and sad. Normally he is very happy.” She says she loaned him enough money to pay for a cheap data package on his phone, which will allow him to join some Zoom lessons provided by ISF staff. “I hope that he will come back to school when we re-open because this life would be so hard for him if he did it for the rest of his life.”

ISF Social Workers negotiate rent reduction or deferment with landlords for families during COVID-19
ISF Social Workers negotiate rent reduction or deferment with landlords for families during COVID-19

Other students are having an even tougher time. One promising student has already told the team she has dropped out and found a job in a coffee shop. “Her family took out some loans and she’s the only one who can earn money to pay the debt,” Sree says. “She comes into the office all the time because I think she misses school, but she says she can’t come back. We’ll try to change her mind.”

Other children, even much younger ones, have filled up the free time with more self-destructive behaviour. “We’ve heard stories about some of our students,” Sophea says sadly. “They’re drinking and sniffing glue. Even ones who are 11. Sometimes they beg at the gas stations to pay for the drugs. Our teachers have even seen them there. We try to give them advice and speak to their families, but it can be hard when the family was already facing problems. This situation just makes everything worse.”

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We get to meet some of these children when Somphos takes us on a brief trip into the local community, taking care to make sure we are wearing face masks before we go. One of the first children we see is a former ISF student of about 13, who greets Somphos with a smile. They chat briefly about how the boy is doing and how his grandmother’s health is. But when the boy disappears down a back alley, Somphos looks troubled.

“He dropped out a year ago. His mother has always been a drug addict but now she is worse. She can usually be found under the bridge, taking drugs,” Somphos explains when asked. “He is trying to look after himself and his grandmother because nobody else will. He goes and helps out at the fish market in the mornings and sometimes gets given a fish to cook. But that’s a good day. Mostly he goes to the market and begs. I don’t have a lot of hope for him.”

We drop by the fish market to see if there are any other children working there. There are a few young kids waiting for the day’s catch to get dropped off. The fish arrive in water-filled trucks having come directly from the Mekong, and are poured into huge tanks. When a few wriggle or leap free onto the floor of the warehouse, the kids help chase them down and return them to the tank, laughing as if it’s all a great game. In return they will often be given a fish for their family. Luckily, Somphos is able to observe that the kids are being treated well and fairly. This isn’t always the case.

ISF promotes health an hygiene in our communities during COVID-19
ISF promotes good health an hygiene with soap distribution and health workshops in our communities during COVID-19

Later we walk down a narrow, rubbish-filled alley, near the banks of the river. Across the river we can see new condos being built, in stark contrast to the ramshackle homes of the slum, which are often little more than some planks of wood and sheets of metal tied together, practically open to the elements and rainy season. We pass a dimly lit gambling den, where some inhabitants squander what little cash they have. As he walks along, people call out in a friendly way to Somphos – the community knows how hard he and his colleagues work on behalf of the local children, so anyone wearing an ISF t-shirt is usually greeted with warmth.

It’s at the heart of the slum that we meet Dara, an 11 year old ISF student, who starts to chat to Somphors about the homework he got this morning. We ask to see where he studies so he shows us to his home, where we are rather amazed to find a simple but spotless pair of rooms right in the middle of the slum’s chaos. 

Somphos explains that although the boy’s mother is poor, she works very hard to give Dara a good life. The boy asks Somphos when schools will open again. Somphos replies that he doesn’t know, but he has heard that it could be quite soon. The boy smiles hopefully. It’s a rare moment of simple happiness in a day full of challenges and heartbreak, and the kind of thing which keeps our amazing social workers afloat during those moments when things are especially tough on the COVID-19 frontline.