A Discussion with Sarah Chhin, Project Sky Co-Manager, International Cooperation Cambodia
August 6, 2010
Background:This interview between Sarah Chhin and Augustina Delaney took place in October 2009 as part of the WFDD Cambodia country review of Cambodia; a further discussion with the WFDD team in August 2010 is also reflected. The interview focuses on the thorny issue of orphanages and programs to help children at risk, and more specifically, on the experience of Project Sky.
How did Project Sky get started and how does it fit in the ICC organizational structure?
Project Sky is one of the projects that comes under the umbrella of International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC). ICC is made up of six organizations that work together in Cambodia, and channels international support. Members include Cambodia Action from the UK (the organization that sent me), SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics), DanMission, Interact from Sweden, FELM from Finland, and NorMission from Norway. ICC operates only in Cambodia; outside we are our individual organizations. All are Christian organizations. Though ICC is made up of different organizations, we work together on projects as a single body. We have different interests and have started different projects, but we all work together on each others' projects and have joint ownership. That makes it easier to mobilize resources. Thus Project Sky is an ICC, not a Cambodia Action project, though Cambodia Action is my organization.
The ICC membership means results in a large number of quite diverse projects. SIL is a linguistic organization; so we work with the minorities up in Rattinkiri, Mondikiri, and Preah Vihear, doing bilingual education, orthographies and language development work. We also do health work, income generation, and general rural development, as well as work with children. Several projects focus on children and single mothers.
In the past most projects grew out of people’s visions and ideas. Today we are trying to base our work more on research. We look for gaps in services, If there seems to be a need and no one else seems to be dealing with it, we do research to find out what the target group would be and what they identify as their needs. We then build the project around what is actually needed, not around the calling or vision of an individual person. In the past, we would receive emails from people saying, “I really feel we need to do a project on x, y or z.” That no longer happens. We are much more professional then we were in the past.
Tell me more about Project Sky.
Project Sky grew from another project that I ran from 2002 to 2007 called HOSEA, which stands for Helping Orphanages Support, Educate and Advance. We started by doing a large survey of all the alternative childcare facilities we could find in Phnom Penh. That included orphanages, day care centers, street kid programs, and anyone who was watching after young people in any way who was not their biological parent. We started from scratch; we had no idea what the situation was or how anything worked so our survey covered many different questions. We came to the conclusion that there were too many young people to look at the needs of each child individually. We interviewed 61 organizations that had a total of 800 staff members at that time; eight hundred seemed a reasonable number of staff to work with and have a positive impact. Thus the program focused on working with the caregivers in the orphanages, because they would have an impact on the lives of the children. As the children grew up, the positive influence that their caregivers had been would have a positive influence on they way they looked after their own families. When their families grow up, they would have a positive influence on the community and society.
That’s the vision statement we came up with: start with caregivers, because they are the key. We were a child welfare organization that didn’t work with children. Everything we did was based on the needs of the children, but we did it through the caregivers. They told us that they needed training in parenting skills, caring for children with disabilities, self-awareness and counseling, and various other things. At that point, that was what was needed.
We realized increasingly as we advanced that orphanages were not the best care for young people and that we did not agree with what the orphanages were doing. We started to think about how to get the young people back into the community and how to keep children in their communities. We began to shift away from working with the orphanages and to look more at community-based support for caregivers who were looking after children in families in rural communities and also in the temples.
What did you find in the temples?
Our research with monks found that the care of children in temples was also problematic also. If you become a monk, you automatically become a caregiver for a child (because so many children come to the temples for care). They are not there for that. They are not fathers and are not cut out to be caregivers; it’s by default. And the monks are not really caring for the young people. The children are sent to school but that’s about as much care as they give them. If a child leaves, they leave. There is no emotional support whatsoever. The monks recognized this and said: “We were given this job, but we don’t know how to do it.” They asked us to give them some skills so we did some training with monks on fathering skills, HIV/AIDS, and disability.
And foster care in communities?
We also did some research in rural foster families, informal fostering. We went to 66 villages and found 128 foster families. They were mainly uncles and aunts and grandmothers looking after relatives’ young people. We realized that training was impractical; they were in dire straits, really poor. We had always trained caregivers, but the numbers in the villages were huge. We could not train each individual family and they wouldn’t have been able to hold the information; the burden of worry was too much. Most had never been to school; they were illiterate.
We chose to look at a few individual villages that had the neediest families. The villages chose two key people; each of those key people have been trained over the years in various things (none were paid). They set up parenting clubs in each village that meet once a month or every two weeks, and pass on what they have learned to the rest of the villages. Some of them are highly successful. That is HOSEA in a nutshell.
How did you get into vocational training and life skills?
Our 2001 research highlighted a need to find out where the young people came from and reconnect them with their families, and to link young people with other resources or services that they weren’t able to access as orphanage members. We saw the need for vocational training. In answer to the question, “Where are these young people going to go when they grow up?” 99 percent of the orphanage facility directors answered, “We haven’t gotten there yet; they are too young, all the young people are six.” We redid the research in 2003-2004 to update the database and two new things came out. First, the orphanages needed training in drug awareness, and second, the children were growing up and the orphanages didn’t know what to do with them. In 2005, our project evaluation and directors were well aware that they didn’t know what to do with their teenagers. They had problems and they didn’t know how to cope with them. We had put the question to them in 2001, but they had done no preparation at all for the young people. By 2005 it was a live problem, so in 2006 as I was handing HOSEA over to Khmer management, it was suggested that ICC look at the problem of young adults living in orphanages. The idea put to me was income generation, helping them to get income to enable them to leave the orphanage.
Using my knowledge from HOSEA, I felt that income generation was secondary; the main problem was life skills, vocational training, soft work skills, and that sort of thing. The young adults also needed some sort of support from the community. We wrote an eight-month project proposal for a pilot project as we had little real idea then what was needed. We spent eight months researching orphanages and the young people. We went to each individual director first and did a quick statistical survey asking who they had, their age, their genders, their status, whether they were HIV positive or not, any disabilities, drug use, what services were provided to them, do they have jobs and where does the money go from their jobs. Through the survey we also asked permission to speak with the young people themselves, which is what we really wanted to do. We surveyed 38 orphanages and three shelters; in those 41 places there was a total of 2,398 children aged zero plus, a third of them aged 15 or above. The oldest we found were two 28-year-olds who were living in the orphanage as staff, because they hadn’t been able to reintegrate; they did not consider themselves children of the orphanage, although the staff did.
We devised a really interactive creative research workshop for the young people to find out what their aspirations were, what their worries and fears were, what they wanted to do, where they wanted to live, what they thought they might need to prepare themselves and what problems they thought they would encounter. We based everything on their future; we didn’t want to bring up their pasts. Through the month of August 2007, we did 15 different workshops with 514 young people aged 15 to 25. We got them to work together and play games, do individual group work, create individual pictures, and many other ways of getting information. Different support workers and facilitators listened in to conversations and jotted down what the young people were saying as they were working, so we had two sets of information, one set answering the questions, the other describing views and attitudes towards orphanage care and each other.
What they came up with was pretty tragic: they were so afraid of the future. They knew that they would be vulnerable. Living in the orphanages they knew the effects of institutionalization, even if they did not know the word. They were saying they are afraid of having no job when they left, of being homeless, never being able to have friends, discrimination, that no one would give them their rights, that no one valued them, that they are so alienated from their family that they would have no place in it even if they wanted to go back, and becoming victims of crime. They observed that because they lived with children and not adults, they could not identify adult body language and the way adults use language. None of them had been to the market to buy food; none of them knew the prices for food. Their life skills were very basic, so they knew that if they were on their own in the community they would be very easy to cheat. They would be easy to exploit and abuse, because they did not understand the way adults work. They had no one to learn from.
Another group said they were afraid of becoming criminals. They were afraid they would be duped into becoming drug runners or into becoming gang members even if they didn’t want to. They would easily be targeted by people who would make them do things, and before they realized it, they would be doing wrong things. Others said that because they would have no money and they would be hungry. they could turn to violence to get what they needed, because nobody would give it to them. It was totally tragic. There was so much more. One young lad said, “I feel like a duck being let out of a cage; afraid that someone is gonna cook it.”
The overriding trend among all 514 orphans was that they did not want to leave the orphanage. Some were saying, “I’ve been here for so long, how can I think of leaving?” Basically what we found is that the orphanages take on young children and children because they are vulnerable, but they aren’t taking away their vulnerability; they just delay the effects. Many young people will be more vulnerable when they leave the orphanage than when they went in, because when they go in, however dysfunctional their support network, whether they were in a gang of street young people or whatever, they actually had one. They knew how their community worked. No matter how dysfunctional, they had people they could go to. They had people they knew would feed them if they needed it. When they leave the orphanage as adults, they’ve lost everything that they knew about society, so they are more vulnerable than when they went it. This is the exact opposite of what orphanage directors and supporters believe happens. The effects of institutionalization that results from orphanage care have a huge long term negative impact on the children.
Based on the 2007 research, we set up a project that worked on their needs both within and outside the orphanage. We decided to start with the orphanage directors. Each director is invited to a quarterly half day directors meeting where we discuss things they really need to know about. They involve presentations and training, for example on minimum standards for residential care. The government did that session. We’ve done training on child protection, age appropriate life skills, and reintegration policy. A couple of orphanage directors have given presentations on the best practices in their orphanage. The meetings also give us a forum to get permission to do different things with the young people. One choice was to set up orphanage youth clubs; at the moment, nine orphanages have youth clubs.
How do orphanage youth clubs work?
They are not to play games or have snack time. They specifically answer the needs the young people identified. If they don’t have freedom of speech, they aren’t going to be able to learn independence. The whole point of institutionalization is being able to have control over large groups of people, so their critical thinking and freedom of speech and freedom of thought are very seriously curbed; they have to conform. To help them into the adult world of independence, the youth clubs give them an outlet for discussion, opinion making, and opinion forming. We help them set up the club, but they choose their own spokesman and vice spokesman. They choose a name for their club and decide on the agenda for the meetings and what they want to talk about. If they need a presenter, they can come to us and ask. The leaders from each club come to a monthly networking meeting of all the youth club leaders to discuss with each other what they are doing. They also exchange ideas and discuss what the problems have been and any good things that happened that could be shared with others.
It is working really well. For all intents and purposes, it runs itself now. We have very little input. They have chosen to meet on a Sunday afternoon, when my staff is not working. Every so often my staff will pop in and see how things are going, and they are appreciated, but not needed. They like to see the face that says Sky is still there, but apart from that they don’t need it. They use our offices for the youth club leaders meetings and we give the leaders some peer education and youth leader training. Most of the activities we do are done with the young people who are members of the youth clubs for child safety and child protection. When we do monitoring, evaluation, and follow-up, we need to be able to do it in groups of young people. If they weren’t a member of the youth club, it would be very difficult to make it ethical. Now we have 198 youth club members in the nine orphanages.
They learn work skills, mainly soft skills, with Yejj. We initially planned to offer them work experience and job placements but that failed so we dropped the idea. We had initially hoped that they would learn work skills, learn how to work in a team and do the whole interview CV thing, and then we would find them work experience. We networked with many NGOs and different companies, and had ten young people in either a work placement or a job. Within a month, only two were still there. They dropped out for stupid reasons. One girl, who in the future wants to work in the hotel industry, had a work placement in a hotel as a cleaner. They have to start at the bottom. But it doesn’t work that way in their minds; they want to start at the top. The reality is that they are going to have to start in an entry-level job. She was outraged that she would have to clean a toilet. She had never done that before. Two others were in a restaurant and we got a call from their orphanage director asking us to speak to the restaurant manager to say that the two girls needed to eat their dinner at 12 o’clock because that was what they were used to, not 1:30. All the stories were the same.
We decided not to waste our time on job placements because they needed first to work on their life skills; they need to work on their de-institutionalization. They had elevated thinking about their own realities. If you ask them what they want to do, the majority want to be doctors or lawyers or company managers. If you ask them what company they are going to direct, they say their own company, but they can’t tell you want kind of company it will be or how they will get there. Their expectations of the future are so unrealistic. The young people with the most unrealistic views of their futures tend to live in orphanages run by foreigners. Those children are more disadvantaged than those living in local-run orphanages. The orphanage directors think they are doing the right thing, and they have sacrificed a lot to do it. As a result, it is difficult to get them to understand that as they get older, the negative impact on the future lives of the children gets bigger. It’s tragic.
We continue engaging all the orphanage directors, opening up the life skills training to all orphanages, beyond those that have chosen to have youth clubs. The life skills training is based off what the young people identified as their greatest need, and they aren’t practical things. Practical stuff we can give through the youth clubs or in other ways. What we give through our life skills training needs to be taught by people who know what they are doing. We do self-awareness: “Who has made me what I am, what has made me what I am and what effect does that have on my life?” If that is not done professionally, it can do real damage, so we have professional counselors and therapists. It’s all creative stuff. They don’t just sit there and listen; they work it out for themselves. We do community awareness and safety and community, relationship building and reproductive health, goal setting, and life planning. Because the youth are still in school, we do those during the main summer holiday. The course has four modules; each module is two days. They come two days a week to study and they get a certificate at the end. On the last day of the last module, an adult who left an orphanage some time ago gives a presentation. The participants get to question them about their life. They interact with someone who has been there and done that, and benefit from that experience. We only do the training with an individual once and it is done with 16-plus-year-olds. Each year there is new intake. We get the orphanage directors to choose the young people they think will reintegrate soon.
What about mentorship and the befriending programs?
Outside the orphanage we have a community mentor program. We recruit the mentors. We originally wanted to have Buddhist and Christian mentors, to see which group would be more effective. Going through the churches we found Christian mentors really easily. We asked for older men and women with time and experience to come and be trained to help mentor the young people as they prepared for life outside the orphanage. We wanted to do the same thing with the temples, and went to the head monks at about nine temples around the Phnom Penh. They were enthusiastic, and went out to see if they could find people within the community who wanted to do it. Nobody said yes, which we thought was interesting. This creates a problem, because our recent evaluation found that young people do not want Christian mentors. They say that if they have romantic problems or problems with drugs or anything else that could get them into trouble; they feel that the Christians will frown at them or pray for them, but not actually be very practical.
So the Christians want to be the mentors and the Buddhists don’t, but the young people want the Buddhist mentors or non-committal people. We decided to stop calling them mentors. Instead we will have a befriending program, so that they are more role models than mentors. Then those who have particular skills in mentoring can be trained further. It will be similar to a big brother program, but because they are already adults, it will be more like an uncle-nephew program. In some cases, it is working really well now. Two of the mentors have asked to foster the young people that they mentor (we are not talking children, we are talking adults) and we are pleased to see this happen. The mentoring, however, could have been more successful if young people saw their mentors more as role models; the change is to help that happen.
What about programs in the community, and reconnecting with families of the orphans?
Our research continues. Over the last two years we have focused on family values of the rural families who have sent their young people to orphanages. We randomly chose 10 young adults from the 2007 survey and asked their permission to go find their families, if they had any, and interview the families. We did focus groups with the families and focus group with the community to find out how the young people got there, what the circumstances were, what they think of orphanages, why they thought it was a good idea at the time, do they have any siblings, etc. We found that even though people think that young people in orphanages are orphans, they are not. Out of the ten young adults only two were orphans. The rest either had one or both parents living and if they didn’t have parents, they had uncles or aunts who identified themselves as parents, and they identified themselves as middle class or upper poor, but not poor. They were sending their young people to the orphanages for reasons of education; poverty was secondary. Education was the answer to nearly every question in each group.
We are working with UNICEF on their research on societal attitudes. They have asked us to recreate our 2007 survey in Battambang and Kampong Thom. We work very closely with them.
Are some orphanages less open or willing to work with you?
Yes. Basically, the foreign-run orphanages tend to be more difficult to work with. My theory on that is they have sacrificed so much more to do the work that they are doing that they don’t want to hear that it has its bad points. They see that they are providing a lovely house with electricity, computers, and English classes; they do not want to hear that what they do is actually detrimental to the young people. They really take exception. One Christian organization in particular says it does not have orphanages. According to them, the children are living in churches; it’s a church orphanage. They have over 100 orphanages and are ready to open more and more. The children say they are all Christian.
How do you view orphanages as a solution to the tragedy of children at risk? What plans do you have for the future?
The whole team at Project Sky does not like orphanages. We feel that if the amount of money that is poured into orphanages around the world every year, were poured into supporting families in crisis, the world would be a completely different place developmentally. However, with the orphanage directors we scratch an itch. We provide services for a problem that we know they have and for a problem the young people know they have. What we try and do through the orphanage director meetings and all the other things that we do is get them to realize that if the young people were reintegrated at an earlier age, like the day they arrive, it would not be so much hassle, money, and heartache for everyone involved. What we are hoping to do, and what is slowly happening in the mind of some, is a self-initiated U-turn. We want to bring them to a realization that this is their problem, and get them to start reintegrating earlier.
We know that orphanages have a problem with adolescents, because we know from our survey in 2001 that the majority don’t prepare for the young people to grow up. When the young people reach 15, 16, 17, 18 they realize that the young people are not ready. They still act like 12-year-olds; they can’t let them leave, because they can’t take care of themselves. The orphanages blame it on other things like educational level, but education isn’t a reason to keep people institutionalized.
We plan to work on a new proposal next year. The nine or ten orphanages with the youth clubs show a certain amount of commitment and understanding of the issues, even if they do not quite realize what they are getting into, and we will concentrate our efforts there. We will continue the life skills work, because the young people need it, but we will consider that advocacy and try to get other orphanages to a place where the other nine or ten orphanages are. What we have found over time is that they deny the problems of institutionalization completely. They don’t think it happens in their orphanage, but they complain on a regular basis that their young people are immature, can’t take care of themselves, are naughty, and they can’t leave, all classic symptoms of institutionalization.
We have also found that by providing these services, we are institutionalizing the directors and they are beginning to depend on us to give services to the young people. We want to stop that as soon as possible in a way that will allow us to continue to serve them. We’ve worked on a new program that is quite integrated. The nine orphanage directors will be part of a fast track. The directors are so far removed from the youth at the moment that we provide services to the youth and the directors don’t understand what’s going on. As a result, when the youth come up with a new idea, the directors are not taking it on-board. The orphanage directors send representatives to the directors meetings and the orphanage representatives think the information is great. They take it back to the director and the director ignores it, because they haven’t heard it first hand and they haven’t got into the spirit of it. The staff gets frustrated and the youth are also frustrated, and it comes down to the management.
We find that when they latch on to the word reintegration they immediately think vocational training and life skills training so that the youth can go back and live in the community. We plan to devise an orphanage directors training and a youth leaders training. The youth leaders training will be a training of trainers. The orphanage directors will learn about the things they need to know about management to work on reintegration policy: conflict, anger, anger management, proposal writing skills, report writing skills, child protection policies. They will learn what they need to build individual exit strategies for young people as part of a reintegration policy. At the same time, the youth will be trained in life skills/work skills training that will match what the directors are doing, but that is age appropriate and specific to their needs. They will then take that training to the youth club and, with support, train the other youth. To get the directors and youth leaders to start talking, their homework after each training model will be to meet together, discuss what each has learned, and decide on an action plan based on the material. They will present this action plan at the next module.
This whole system would last two years. By the end of the two years, the directors should have a workable reintegration policy that they are already working towards unconsciously. The youth will be training each other in life skills, work skills, and relationship building skills, and they will have a curriculum to continue teaching with. Lastly, the directors and youth will be in the habit of talking to each other. After this, they will need very little input from us, so it will be completely sustainable. We can’t continue to work the way we are working to achieve our vision. The quarterly directors meetings will become bi-monthly and full days. This was suggested by the staff who were sent as representatives, to get the directors to come. They also asked us to provide training and food to participants as an extra incentive.
Do you give the directors a per diem for attending?
We will not pay anyone; if we did the program would be unsustainable. For the life skills training, we provide transportation for the youth just to keep them safe, but we hope that the directors will commit to that in the future, as a way of showing commitment to the program. In the befriending program, we will lower the recruitment age and recruit young families, business people, and business owners. We have decided not to recruit university students, because the young people we work with want to go to university, but it’s just not going to be possible for them. Encouraging that expectation would be very unhealthy. Many young people arrive at the orphanage at the age of 10, 11, or 12 with very low levels of education. Their education gets better and better and they expect to be in school until they reach grade 12, but some of them are 24 or 25 when they get to grade 12 and then they want to go to university and they expect to be living in the orphanage the whole time. What will a grade 12 education give someone who has no vocational skills, life skills, or life experience? It won’t help them.
Trying to get them to face reality is a major issue and one of the reasons we refuse to do income generation. They want money, but they have no sense of the value of money. They are given money to go to school, to pay for English or computers and sometimes they get pocket money, but they have no idea where that money comes from. If they were living at home, they would see their families struggling to make money. For them, it just comes out of thin air and then it goes; they have no respect for it.
At their current level of institutionalization and complete naivety, as far as money is concerned, to set them up in business would be to set them up to fail. We have money in the budget for vocational training. The first year nobody wanted it; they would not commit to any type of vocational training, then waited for the next best option; or they would start and decide that they didn’t like it, knowing that the orphanage would take them back. The orphanage isn’t going to throw them out. There was no commitment at all. Part of the fast track two year training will include soft skills for business, and we are hoping that in the befriending program we can ask the role models if they have family that owns their own business, even just a little shop at the front of their house, the young people can pop in on a daily or weekly basis to see how it works. We will link the work experience with the befriending program so they already have a relationship with the people who will bring work experience with them.
Are most of the foreigner-run orphanages Christian-based?
Most of them are, but not all of them. There are actually more Khmer-run orphanages than foreign-run in Phnom Penh.
How much does faith play a role in what you are doing?
It is our motivation. We are registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so we have an agreement with them and inside the agreement it says that we are not allowed to evangelize and proselytize. If people want to ask questions, they can. For Project Sky, we try to use Christian presenters and the Christian mentors, but we also try to work through temples, so at least people who share our morals and values are presenting. It’s our main motivation.
How long have you been living in Cambodia?
Nine years. My husband is Cambodian.
How did you become involved in the ICC?
When I was six, in 1980, the news started coming out about what had happened in Cambodia. A children’s news program in the UK explains world issues in a way that children can understand. Cambodia was constantly coming up in that program. At the same time, my parents were reading a book about a guy lived who lived through the Khmer Rouge and discussed it in front of me. It was the first time my world had expanded outside of family, ballet, etc. I realized there were other people out there, and they didn’t share the same life, and that for some, life was actually quite horrible. Cambodia became my pet country from then on. All my project work for schools had something about Cambodia. I left university with a degree in modern languages and went to work for SIL in Africa, as a short-term literacy specialist. We were in the middle of the desert and had very little contact with the outside world. We would get our post once a week, but it was always six weeks late. Every week we would get a copy of the Guardian Weekly, also six weeks late. About a year before I was due to leave, I knew I had to start thinking about what I wanted to do next. Looking through the jobs page, I saw an advert for Cambodia Action, which was SAO at the time. They were looking for a director. It just popped off the page at me. At age 22 I was not really director material, so I just forgot about it.
One of my duties was to print all the books we created, page by page, on an old German press. You needed to dry one side and keep it clean so you could print on it the next day. Because we were in the middle of the desert, it was really dusty, so when a page came off of the machine, you would put it between pages of newspaper. Every newspaper we received went to my printing shop when everyone was through reading it. Every time I went down there for three months, the newspaper with the advert for Cambodia was always there. It was always on the top of the pile. After awhile I took the hint and wrote to Cambodia Action. That is how I got involved with Cambodia Action. That was in 1998. I returned to the UK for two years and worked as a recruiter for another organization and then in 2000 I came here with Cambodia Action. I learned later that the advert was the first time they had advertised in an international paper and I was one of only 2 people to reply.
Where do you see Cambodia in 10 years?
When I first arrived you really didn’t have to travel that far to be in a rural area. Driving from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, in five minutes you would be out in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing in-between. Now, you keep driving and it’s just an extension of Phnom Penh for about an hour and a half, then you get a little bit of nowhere, then you start getting restaurants and businesses lining the side of the street, and before you get to Siem Reap, there are houses. The urban areas are spreading and that will continue. The wealth is spreading out; the rich people will not want to live Phnom Penh or in the city centers, so they will start forming suburbs. That will spread development outside the city. But the gulf between city and rural is vast and may deepen as the rich get richer.
Do you have concerns about the new NGO law (which is tightening government controls over NGOs)?
Yes, because nobody has read it and no one knows what’s in it. I am especially concerned because I have an NGO visa and I am married to a man who doesn’t have an British visa. Everything we do is in line with government policy, and also I helped write the government policy on alternative care, so as an organization I do not believe we are at much risk.
What does the word “development” mean to you?
Having access to choices in all areas of life.