Earlier this week, 42-year-old Mom Rin sat beneath a community pavilion in Trapiang Anchang village on the northern outskirts of Phnom Penh with a crochet hook and a partially completed red mouse made of yarn. Like others living in some 60 households at the site, she was forced from her home near Phnom Penh’s railroad tracks in the capital’s Russey Keo district in March 2012 to make way for the restoration of Cambodia’s derelict railway system.
While Rin said her new home at Trapiang Anchang in Por Sen Chey district was more spacious than her old surroundings, the distance from the city centre meant she had to quit her old job at the Caltex petrol station at the corner of Sihanouk and Monivong boulevards. Since moving to the relocation site, she has subsisted by peddling basic consumer goods around the village.
“There’s a lot of space, but it is hard to find work,” Rin said, adding that it costs around $7.50 for a roundtrip motodop fare to the city centre.
Now, however, she and 24 fellow evictees have found a new vocation. Last Sunday, she graduated from a month-long crash-course in knitting and crocheting organised by the NGO Cambodia Knits. She can now produce small woollen figurines, from elephants to aliens, which she will soon export abroad via Cambodia Knits’ distribution network. Each item earns her be-tween 1,500 and 7,000 riel, depending on the size.
When asked whether she enjoyed the work, Rin said: “I have to keep myself busy. If I don’t crochet, I will not make any money.”
Monica Nowaczyk, founder of Cambodia Knits, said she was approached earlier this year by the Asian Development Bank and AusAID, who funded the railway project and relocation site, to expand the NGO’s work to the Traipang Anchang community. Previously, Cambodia Knits trained knitters in Tuol Sambo, the relocation site of families from Borei Keila, evicted since 2009 to make way for high-rise apartments.
“We teach people to knit and crochet to a high enough standard so that we can sell the products locally and overseas as a form of income generation,” Nowaczyk said.
She continued: “It is a product that has a positive story behind it, unlike many that come out of this region.”
The training was spon-sored by the ADB and AusAID, while Cambodia Knits provides the knitting supplies. Seed money for the project came from a Kickstarter campaign, which has raised almost $500 more than its nearly $3,000 goal since it began in mid-October. Nowaczyk said pre-orders have already been accepted from Australian retailers; other international retail partners are located in Canada, the Netherlands, Japan and the UK.
Cambodia Knits’ Trapiang Anchang project is the latest attempt to provide financial security to the Trapiang Anchang evictees. Previous attempts to help the villagers by the ADB and AusAID have included mushroom farming, livestock introduction and mechanical training. All of them, said Eang Vuthy, founder of the NGO Equity Cambodia, have failed to create a viable economy at Trapiang Anchang due to the residents’ dependency on the urban economy.
“There are no markets there, and the cost for petrol to get to markets is very expensive, so they will not get any benefits,” Vuthy, whose NGO interviewed Trapiang Anchang residents about their livelihoods, said. The evictees were not allotted enough space to raise livestock or grow mushrooms, he said.
Nora Lindstrom, program manager of the urban housing NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which published a report on the relocations in June, said that the problem is made worse by the evictees’ accumulating loans that have been taken out against the value of their new properties. According to the June report, 97 per cent of surveyed households at Trapiang Anchang say they are in debt.
“They used the land as collateral, and because they have been unable to repay those loans, informal moneylenders have in the past threatened the households with taking their land,” Lindstrom said, adding that around half of the original evictees have since found new primary residences closer to their old homes.
For Moeun Pea, a 22-year-old knitting student at Trapiang Anchang, the focus now is on the future.
“They kicked me out and I can’t do anything about it, so there’s no point in getting mad,” Pea said.
Learning to knit was difficult, she said, but this week, in just two days, she was able to crochet 15 pigs that she says will fetch 2,000 riel apiece.
“It’s a little bit hard, but now it is easy. You just follow the crocheting rules.”