The Sok family lost everything in a fire in March 2019 that destroyed an area where Cambodian Children’s Fund works, leaving 52 families homeless. Now, they’re getting ready to move into their new home funded by donations
Srey Meas was studying for her Grade 12 examination on a Sunday afternoon in the one-room wooden shack that the family called home when the fire broke out.
She first heard a commotion outside a little after 3pm and looked outside to see people running back and forth, but was reluctant to leave her books.
“At first, I thought it might be robbery or something, so I carried on studying,” says Srey Meas.
“Then I could hear more people outside so I looked again and saw a house on fire.”
The quick-thinking CCF student fled down to alert her father who was asleep in the enclosed downstairs, unaware of the drama unfolding outside, and scooped up her youngest sister, then aged two years and three months, and carried her out.
“When I first saw the fire, it was two houses away from our house,” says Srey Meas. “By the time I ran out, the fire was starting to burn the house next door to ours.
“I was so shocked and scared. I didn’t know what to do and it was too late to get anything out of the house.”
Two younger sisters, aged 11 and nine, had luckily been out of the house at the time playing with friends nearby, and ran to safety when they saw plumes of black smoke from the fire rising into the air.
Meanwhile, the girls’ mother Hoeur, 46, a cleaner at a local hospital, was at work when the fire broke out. As news spread at work, she dashed home, not knowing whether her family was safe. Usually, her children would be at school – the youngest Somaly in CCF’s nursery – but as it was a weekend, she could not be sure where they would be.
“The house was on fire when I got there,” she recalls. “Srey Meas was nearby crying, carrying her little sister. They could not take anything out from the house.
“We lost everything. The only thing we saved was a bicycle, which I am now using to get to work. If we had lost that bicycle, we would have had nothing.”
The fire swept through the area at speed. Within half an hour, an entire community had been burnt to the ground. Miraculously, everyone escaped safely and without serious injury. It is still not known what caused the fire.
52 families were left homeless and without possessions after the blaze on the 17th March. All were poor families who had very little.
The Sok family had been living in the same house for almost 13 years, since moving from Siem Reap. The house had been built for them by another NGO and they leased the plot of land from the owner. Four of the children in the family attend CCF schools.
Immediately after the fire, they stayed in one of the CCF community schools, which had been turned into a makeshift shelter for some of the fire families to sleep, before moving to an available CCF World Housing home.
While they are grateful for the temporary shelter, it is not the same as having their own home.
Now, more than eight months after the fire, the family is finally getting their own place again, having been allocated one of the new houses in the new community built from scratch on the same land where the fire took hold.
From the ashes, a new community has risen, a safe and clean space for families to begin again.
This was made possible through generous donations, which came in from Cambodia and around the world.
Buying their own home is out of reach of the Soky family. They rely on mother Hoeur’s monthly earnings of $150 to survive – she became the sole breadwinner after her husband, a construction worker, was injured in a motor bike accident 13 years ago and left unable to work – and it’s a struggle.
In total, nine members of the Sok family will move into the new home; mum and dad and seven children (six girls and one boy), including Srey Meas who had to live away from her family and stay with a relative in the area because the temporary house was too small for the large family.
“When we lost our home, I was unhappy. I lost everything I had, even my clothes,” says Srey Meas.
“After the fire, I was traumatised but now, I don’t think about it because it is in the past. I am happy we have a new home and will be safe.”
Because the family lost all their formal documents in the fire, including birth certificates, Srey Meas was unable to register for her crucial Grade 12 exam – which gives access to university.
Luckily, she managed to sit them later and passed. With a scholarship from CCF Srey Meas is now studying tourism at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, taking classes in the evening while working full-time in a photography shop to contribute to the family finances.
For Srey Meas and the rest of the family, their new home is a chance to start again.
“We have been to see our new home and I am very happy to have a safe shelter for my younger daughters,” said Srey Meas’ mum. “There is nothing better than having your own home.
“Thank you to the kind donors for helping us.”
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