Being chosen for a one-year internship to Japan helped CCF student Kan Sattaya overcome the trauma of his family losing their home in a fire but the COVID crisis is now bringing them new challenges
Standing in the charred remains of his family home destroyed in a fire, the shock at the devastating loss is only just starting to hit Kan Sattaya.
Wearing the only clothes he had left - the rest had been burnt by the flames that engulfed the house - Sattaya had been picking his way through the blackened shell of the house looking for anything that might be salvageable from the ruins.
Outside, his father was almost in tears as he looked through the few possessions they had saved, laid out on the street.
Among the charred remains was a framed certificate.
CCF student Sattaya, then 22 and at university, and his family lost almost everything in the blaze that swept through CCF’s Sambok Chab community in March 2019, leaving 52 families homeless.
Their business, a small shop on the ground floor of the wooden house, also went up in flames that day.
It was the second time Sattaya’s family had been forced to start again from nothing.
They had only moved to the Steung Meanchey area, where CCF works, for a fresh start after their home in rural Cambodia was broken into and all the money they had - just $100 - was stolen.
Now, they were facing having to begin all over again.
2019 was a very bad year for us, we lost almost everything
One year later, the family was putting the despair behind them and rebuilding - their home and lives.
To cap it all, Sattaya won a prized one-year engineering internship in Japan, an incredible opportunity for the university student who had limited schooling before joining CCF as a boy.
At one point, the global COVID-19 pandemic almost ended his dream before it had begun. But the internship went ahead and Sattaya has recently returned to Cambodia after being overseas for most of 2020 and the start of 2021 as the virus swept around the world.
“2019 was a very bad year for us, we lost almost everything,” says Sattaya. “So to get this internship after that was very special.”
However, Sattaya’s return to Cambodia has coincided with a coronavirus surge in the country, which has so far claimed more than 81 lives and seen more than 11,000 infections
His home city, Phnom Penh, is in lockdown and the family is confined to the new home built to replace the one lost in the fire.
We’ve closed down [the shop] almost a month now. My parents have no income at all.
On the ground floor of the new house - rising from the ashes of the old one in the same spot as before - the familys’ shop had begun trading again, bringing in much needed income after months of lost business
But just as the Kans were getting back on their feet, life has cruelly knocked them again.
Their shop has been forced to close again after this part of Steung Meanchey was declared a Red Zone, one of the area’s considered at highest risk of COVID-19 infections by authorities, and placed into the severest lockdown in Cambodia.
The family’s home is right in the middle of one of the virus hotspots.
Residents are forbidden from leaving their homes - even to buy food - and are reliant on aid packages from CCF and the Cambodian government to survive.
All shops and markets have been ordered to close.
“Due to COVID-19 we cannot sell a lot, just very little, before but now nothing,” says Sattaya.
“We’ve closed down [the shop] almost a month now. My parents have no income at all.
“My sister and I are both working and we are helping the family with what we can, and my parents are using the money that they save for the emergency time.”
Some people in my village, this area, are not earning at all
The family has the burden of monthly repayments for a bank loan taken out to build a new house.
With Sattaya’s wages working for a Phnom Penh based Japanese building design firm and his sister Sovandara’s income for her office job, the family is meeting their commitments. But it’s challenging times for them and everyone in the neighbourhood, one of the poorest parts of Cambodia.
“It’s a very bad situation. Some people in my village, this area, are not earning at all, they are earning zero dollar, but they still have to pay their rent and bank loans. They are struggling right now,” says Sattaya.
“When they talk about the situation, I can see a tear in their eye, which expresses how it is maybe the hardest time in their life right now.
“We are also very worried that we will get infected as there were cases [of COVID-19) very close to my home.”
Against this backdrop, Sattaya’s youngest sister, aged 20, a CCF student, is trying to continue her university studies online.
The Kans, however, have bounced back before from life’s ups and downs, and will undoubtedly do again. Sattaya is remaining upbeat, positive about overcoming this latest setback and moving forward.
He is speaking from the new family home, built with reinforced concrete to prevent it ever being consumed by fire like the previous wooden structure, which he shares with his parents and two sisters.
Having the chance to live and word abroad was a dream come true.
“Japan is so developed and the lifestyle is very good,” says Sattaya.
“It was an amazing experience, I was very lucky.”
He talks excitedly about the things he experienced during his time in Japan -
the work, the food, the ultra modern buildings, and his first time seeing snow (he loved it but found it too cold).
I was trying to get into the house but everyone was holding me back
The internship could not have come at a better time for Sattaya as the family recovered from the loss of their home and belongings.
He vividly remembers the day of the fire, 17 March 2019.
In his second year of an electrical engineering degree, Sattaya was at his part-time job when he heard a blaze had broken out in his community and dashed home to find flames had engulfed his family’s house.
“I heard that my sister was in the house and I was so worried. I was trying to get into the house but everyone was holding me back,” he recalls.
“Luckily my sister had already left the house. So no one was injured but we lost almost everything: our clothes, money, possessions. I only had one pair of clothes left.
“We didn’t have house insurance. CCF helped us after the fire; providing food, we got clothes, and they supported us a lot.”
Their wooden house was reduced to ashes, the ceiling and walls gone, burnt away along with years of memories.
With other families, the Kans lived in a tent on ground nearby while a new community took shape opposite, thanks to generous donations from CCF supporters in Cambodia and around the world.
Sattaya and his family set about constructing a new family home on the same site as their old one, built with a bank loan and support from relatives, CCF and another organization.
“We are very happy with our new home,” says Sattaya.
“When I was younger, we were living in the province and someone broke into the house and stole everything. We didn’t have much but whatever we had, they took it.
“After that, we moved to Steung Meanchey to start a new life. Then in 2019, the house burned down and we lost everything again. So, it has been very hard for my family.”
Hearing that Sattaya had won a fully-funded scholarship to Japan was just the good news that the family needed.
The opportunity arose through the Institute of Technology of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, where Sattaya is studying with CCF’s support, and he beat many students who applied for the internship.
As COVID-19 began to emerge in Japan, the internship program was put on hold but another Japanese design company offered to take Sattaya to Japan to intern at their office in Toyama Prefecture, about 250km from Tokyo.
It was an adjustment at first, thousands of kilometers away from the familiarity of home, and staying alone in accommodation provided next to the office.
The whole year in Japan, he only met one other Cambodian, in Tokyo, and had to rely on his limited Japanese language - now much improved - to get by.
I kept telling myself that this a good chance to learn new things, experience new things, and teach myself to live independently
While he had travelled before - to the U.S. as a CCF high school student for the Tony Robbins Global Young Leaders Program and a study trip to and Hong Kong - it was his first long stay away from Cambodia, a big test for any 23-year-old.
“The first few months, I felt homesick, missing friends, missing family but I kept telling myself that this a good chance to learn new things, experience new things, and teach myself to live independently, and after that, I felt better,” says Sattaya, who turns 24 in May.
The internship saw him helping design plans for commercial buildings in Japan, including a new building for students in Osaka.
“It was very interesting but very hard work,” says Sattaya.
“The designing job is very hard, with a lot of new things to learn, so I keep learning every day.”
He’s very grateful for the opportunity and the path that CCF has allowed him to follow.
Sattaya was very young when he joined CCF, 16 years ago back in 2005 and the early days of CCF.
“At the time, my parents had a small business selling some food and sometimes they went to the dumpsite to look for things to sell. They earned very little, around $2.50 to $5 a day,” recalls Sattaya.
“My parents had very little education, they can read a little. At a young age, the same as me, there was Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and they cannot attend a school, only try to survive.”
With CCF’s help, all 3 children from the family got into university, an incredible academic feat considering their start in life.
Below Sattaya with his eldest sister, Sovandara, at her CCF university graduation ceremony, and their parents.
I cannot imagine what my life would be like without CCF
“I cannot thank CCF enough for giving me the chance to learn,” says Sattaya.
“I cannot imagine what my life would be like without CCF. My age, in Cambodia, I would have a family, maybe right now I would be working on the dumpsite.
I just don't want to think about how the situation would be without CCF. CCF is the place that provided me with everything.”
All the difficulties and challenges in the present and past are only spurring on Sattaya, a remarkable young man and role model for other CCF students, unfailingly optimistic whatever life throws at him, to achieve more in the future.
Plans include finishing his thesis - on how to cut down electricity consumption in Cambodia and switch to renewable energy - and applying for a Master’s scholarship overseas, possibly in Japan.
The future, as he sees it, is bright.
“I am very grateful to my parents for everything they did for me and I really thank CCF for providing me with a good life,” he says.
“I am working hard to make my parents and CCF proud, so I repay the faith in me that everyone has shown.”