CONSTRUCTION: THE RIGHT TO DECENT HOUSING

The Construction subprogram is the “oddball” of the School Continuity Program: although oriented like all the other subprograms, for the children, its purpose, content and running has nothing to do with the rest. The goal here is not to keep children away from the dumpsite and in a secure environment during summer holidays, but to provide them, as far as possible, with a decent housing.

THE SUBPROGRAM OF CONSTRUCTION: “THE ODDBALL”

The Construction subprogram is the “oddball” of the Continuity Program since, unlike other subprograms, it was created to ​​collaborate with PSE´s Social Services in rebuilding houses located in the most marginal areas of Phnom Penh. It has nothing to do with the games and activities that constitute the daily routine of the rest of the camps. In addition, this subprogram does not have a permanent coordinator: David, one of the School Continuity Program´s supervisors, is directly responsible for coordinating it.

David, the coordinator of the Construction suprogram, with one of the teams

Nor does it have a stable team: monitors from other subprograms who willingly dedicate a week to this task constitute the team. They are permanently assisted by a construction worker – or several, depending on the size of the work -, who are always aided by neighbours or people close to the families affected who want to collaborate in the restoration. Nevertheless, none of this atypical performance is a problem, since behind this subprogram the PSE Social Services Department is fully present.

Construction subprogram does not have a permanent team as the other subprograms have. This team is new each week

HAND-TO-HAND WITH THE PSE SOCIAL SERVICES DEPARTMENT

Before the beginning of the School Continuity Program, the PSE Social Service Department selects, within the range of its own tasks – specifically, in the area of ​​actions designed to meet the urgent needs of the families – four homes that need to be restored, to be incorporated into the Construction Program. The objective is to restore a house each of the weeks that the Program lasts. The Social Service Department also decides the budget dedicated to each house, although it is assumed by PSE Spain as part of the School Continuity Program´s cost. The material to buy, usually wooden planks, bamboo piers, nails, and corrugated metal tiles, as it´s suppliers, are issues that are also resolved by Social Service prior to the start of the program.

“At first, we thought that the room next door, where we ate and rested after lunch, was another room of the house, we couldn´t have imagined that the house would just be that.”

A week before the monitors´ arrival – during the coordination week – David accompanied the Social Service Department to see the families whose homes were going to be restored and to close the material purchases. Furthermore, once the restoration begins, the Social Service Department supervises its development two times per week, usually Mondays and Tuesdays.

THE PROGRAM´S HOUSES

This year, two of the restored houses were in Sen Sok, one in Steung Meanchey —a district of Phnom Penh— and another one in Phum Russei. All of them, with the exception of the house in Phum Russei are made of wood.

A house to be rebuilt: It occupies three square-meters, with no windows.

“Phum Russei’s was small,” says David, “but it was a better house, because it was made of concrete and brick. It had a firmness that the others did not have.”

“The most incredible thing is how they treat us, bringing us drinking water, inviting us to eat their food, even offering us a pillow to rest after lunch.”

This week, a house in Steung Meanchey —a marginal neighborhood that can be reached from the PSE centre— is being restored, the team is composed by five European monitors and a construction worker.

The construction team has had to remove almost everything of the house, helped by a social worker and a neighbour

In addition, a big man, friend of the family, is participating in the job. “Three families live here,” David says, “a total of ten people.” By “Here”, he refers to a three-square metre space. The houses in this small neighbourhood are all wooden-made, with a single room used to sleep, cook and eat  —the toilet is in a tiny space outside the house—.  Three families can hardly fit in such a tiny space surrounded by pallets, clothes, food, an endless amount of old things and rubbish accumulated in every corner.

BOTTLED WATER

“At first,” explains a monitor, ” we thought that the room next door, where we ate and rested after lunch, was another room in the house, we couldn´t have imagined that the house would just be that.” The houses are squared shaped without natural light —no windows— nor artificial —there is also no electricity— with a single pipe supplying non-potable water. These are attached to one another and connected by narrow corridors where everything that doesn´t fit inside is accumulated there. They are all built on stagnant water and piles of garbage, with a filthy smell that sneaks through every corner.

The houses are on stagnant water and piles of garbage, with a filthy smell that sneaks through every corner.

In the Steung Meanchey house, the floorboards were rotten and dangerously wrecked in some places. The zinc roofs, filled with holes, were covered with coloured plastics – with the resting parts of signs advertising bottled water – to prevent the house from flooding when raining. It was necessary to empty the house and to remove everything: the planks on the floor, the ceiling´s zinc plates, the walls, leaving only the most basic structure: four wooden beams that enable to see the standing water on which the house rests on top of.

“We continue to pull out rusty nails from the old woods, it seems silly, but the truth is that when you have been two hours, you are sweating buckets.”

In the Steung Meanchey house there are mostly women and children, there are hardly any fatherly figures. A woman breastfeeds a baby, sitting in the hallway, waiting to be able to occupy her house again. Also in the hallway, a grandmother is rocking a baby in a hammock. A girl, with ringworm, greets and smiles at everyone who arrives. There are so many women and children at the entrance of the house that it seems impossible to reach it. “The most incredible thing is how they treat us,” says Vicky, a monitor, ” bringing us drinking water, inviting us to eat their food, even offering us a pillow to rest after lunch.”

Families are so thankful with the help they receive that they try to care the team as much as possible, sharing everything they have with the team

Vicky is the only girl in this group. “They start laughing when they see me work, a woman working here does not fit in their head,” she says, laughing, “but they let me do everything.”

A woman in the Construction team is something strange for Cambodian people. They aren’t used to that

“You are incapable of understanding anything until you see their houses, until you see how they live. It´s terrible.”

REBUILD

Rebuilding a house like this is not difficult, it is not a complicated work because these are very basic houses, but it is a truly tiring task in a complicated environment: a suffocating heat, without large means and balancing on a wooden structure that rests above stagnant water. Andrea, another monitor of the team, has been taking notes of their work this week:

“We continue to remove nails from the trunks of the floor and begin to throw the roof and walls with a very fine and professional technique: hitting with all your strength.”

“We continue to pull out rusty nails from the old woods, it seems silly, but the truth is that when you have been two hours, you are sweating buckets.”

The budget is not big, so everything must be reused if possible. Nails, rusted from the woods is one of the material reused by the team.

“We started to build the part of the floor that remains as the other, we put pillars, cut them, put logs, cut them and nail the shelves on top.”

The team put pillars, cut them, put logs, cut them and nail the shelves on top.

“We pick the five-meter pillars that we have bought in the morning and, with the help of an ax, we begin to nail it to the ground. If the pillar is not spiked enough it is necessary to jump on top in a steam hammer mode. ”

The pillars must be spiked enough before going one.

HOLES

“You are incapable of understanding anything until you see their houses, until you see how they live.” said Jacky, another monitor,” it’s terrible to see that and, at the same time, it’s exciting the affection and gratitude they give us. ”

At the end of the week, the house will be finished. It will be a previous’ one replica, but a renewed structure and new woods —up to where the budget has enabled to arrive— and with a roof without holes.