RISP director George Ellis says deportation traumatizes people. They are ripped away from society, families and friends. They have no clue what they are about to face.
In a closed-door meeting on Tuesday with officials of the United States Agency for
International Development (USAID), the US Embassy and more than 30 Cambodian deportees
from the US, the staff of the Returnee Integration Support Program (RISP) presented
the newly appointed program's policies, services and mission.
"I think it was a positive meeting," said RISP director Dr George Ellis.
"I felt that people were open to the new guidelines, and we were able to dispel
some myths and misunderstandings about the program."
On September 26, Veterans International Cambodia, the Cambodian office of Vietnam
Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), was awarded a three-year, $800,000 grant agreement
from USAID to launch RISP. The program was to assume management of the three-year-old
Returnee Assistance Project (RAP) and expand its existing programs. According to
Ellis, RISP is the only US-funded program in the world established to assist foreign
citizens deported from the US.
"For VVAF this project is in line with our mission to address the causes, conduct
and consequences of war," Larrie Warren, director of VVAF's Post Conflict Rehabilitation
program, said in September. "These returnees are a consequence of the 20 years
of civil war that destroyed the social structure of Cambodia."
Those in attendance on November 29 were given a 20-page document detailing the services
and responsibilities of returnees who choose to participate in the program. The pamphlet
explained the integration services now available, such as pre-arrival orientation,
financial and medical assistance and Khmer language classes.
"I think the guys responded real well to the new situation," said a returnee
who goes by the name "Sonic" and is employed by RISP. "They get to
understand more now because everything is on paper. We haven't had any complaints
Ellis said the new policies and mission statement were developed after weeks of strategic
planning with new staff, program members and former RAP director Bill Herod. Herod,
who founded RAP, has been retained by RISP as a paid adviser.
"Although I have heard allusions that we are part of INS [Immigration and Naturalization
Services], or Homeland Security, or the FBI, the reality is that we are none of these
things," Ellis said.
"We are a non-profit NGO with a grant from USAID to provide services to returnees
transitioning into a foreign country. This program is voluntary and completely independent.
These guys can use us as they see fit or walk away tomorrow. We can also choose not
to serve people who refuse to adhere to our guidelines."
Ellis, a 51-year-old clinical psychologist from Minnesota, said the biggest challenge
he has faced so far is understanding the complexity of the program and the various
challenges returnees face.
"The issue is 'How do we help people that have been deported against their will
to develop a sense of citizenship in Cambodia?'" he said.
"Deportation traumatizes people. They are ripped away from their society, their
nationalism, their communities, families and friends. Their hearts and souls remain
in America. This produces anger, disbelief and a deep sense of being wronged. They
have no clue what they are about to face and most of them have no recollection of
The RISP program now operates two facilities. The first is an existing "special
needs" home which has been restructured to assist the living of any returnee
with a physical or mental handicap The second is transitional housing provided to
new arrivals or those in special circumstances.
RISP has also hired two full-time case managers and one part-time chemical and prevention
services manager. Two assistant site managers have also been retained.
"Now that the structure is developed, one of the things that will come next
is meeting people and listening to their struggles," Ellis said. "This
will involve me going out and talking to people one on one or in small groups."
According to those who attended the meeting, many questions were raised about the
allocation of the RISP funding.
"One of the myths is that the US government gives each returnee $650 through
the RISP project and that RISP owes them this money. It isn't true," Ellis said.
"Our books are open. USAID watches every penny. Grant money is obligated money
- there is no room to play."
A 30-year-old returnee who attended the meeting but refused to be named explained
that the 139-member returnee community has adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
"It was informative, but it was really long and boring," he said. "In
my opinion it's a more organized plan. I'm not quite sure how it's going to work,
but it seems good on paper."
The Returnee Integration Support Program of Veterans International is a non-governmental
humanitarian organization facilitating the integration into Cambodian society of
people who were admitted to the United States as refugees and are deported to Cambodia.
Through our services we provide orientation, assistance with employment and housing,
drug, alcohol and HIV education, Khmer literacy classes, counseling and referral
services, in order to support returnees who seek assistance in becoming independent
and productive members of society.
-RISP Services and Policies