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.”