Psychologist Takes Helm of Returnee Project

On his first day of work as director of the Returnee Integration Sup­­port Program, Dr George Ellis ex­pressed excitement and optimism Monday for the newly instituted three-year, $800,000 project—but admitted that the first person who will require help assimilating in­to Cam­­bo­dian society will be him.

“I’m a new guy on the block. The emphasis now is just getting to know the country and the people involved—the staff, consultants and RISP participants,” said Ellis, who arrived in Cambodia on Sat­ur­day.

“I want people to look at the new pro­gram with open eyes. It’s here to meet a need.”

Ellis, a 51-year-old clinical psy­cho­logist from the US, was hired as project director on Sept 26, the same day the US Agency for In­ter­na­tional Development announced a grant agreement with Veterans In­ternational Cambodia to launch RISP and assume management of the three-year-old Returnee As­sis­tance Program, which had assisted Cam­bodians deported from the US.

The agreement with VIC, the Cam­bodian branch of Vietnam Ve­terans of America Foundation, end­ed months of uncertainty surrounding the management and di­rec­tion of RAP.

“For VVAF this project is in line with our mission to address the caus­es, conduct and consequen­ces of war. These returnees are a con­sequence of the 20 years of ci­v­il war that destroyed the social struc­ture of Cambodia,” Larrie War­ren, di­rector of VVAF’s Post-Con­flict Re­habilitation program, wrote in an e-mail Monday, adding that El­lis was the best person for the job.

Until June 30, Ellis worked on a UN project in the war-torn nation of Serbia-Montenegro aimed at es­tab­lishing support services for the Ko­sovo police.

Prior to this he spent five years working for the Catholic Church in Guatemala exhuming the clan­des­tine graves of victims of the 1960 to 1996 civil war.

“He’ll work out well here,” said Bill Herod, the founder and former director of RAP who will be re­tained by RISP as a paid consultant. “To have someone with his pro­fes­sional skills is wonderful. Now we have the tools we need to work with. It’s what we’ve worked for for years,” he said.

After meetings Monday with He­rod, RAP and VIC staff members and several groups of re­tur­nees, El­lis discussed several po­ten­tial chan­g­es, but stressed an initial de­sire to im­plement change slow­ly.

“We hope to create a structure here that will enhance what [re­tur­n­ees] can learn from Cambodian so­ciety and what they can give Cam­bodian society. To my knowledge this is the only program like this in the world.”

Ellis said he plans to start an ex­ten­sive orientation program that would begin in the US and to es­tab­lish an advisory board comprised of returnees, NGO officials, lo­cal po­lice and representatives from the min­istries of health and fi­­nance.

Several of the 139 returnees now living in Cambodia ex­pressed sur­prise at the transition from He­rod’s RAP program to the RISP.

“When you first get here you really need someone to help you un­­derstand what is going on. I’d like to see something more organized in place,” said a 28-year-old re­turnee identifying himself as Chea. “But we’ll have to wait and see.”

 

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