Women’s Worldwide Web welcomes guest blogger Kim Ha, a French-born citizen of Vietnamese descent, who talks about her recent trip to Vietnam as a volunteer with Enfants d’Asie-Children of Asia, a field partner of Women’s Worldwide Web. Through education sponsorship programs, Enfants d’Asie-Children of Asia is helping thousands of vulnerable youngsters in South-East Asia (the majority being girls and young women) to break the cycle of poverty and build prosperous lives for themselves, their families and their communities.
For some, “being Vietnamese” means being born in a country that they left over 35 years ago—a country that they only vaguely remember, or have perhaps entirely forgotten, or that they only visit very briefly during vacation.
For me, as for many young Vietnamese who are born in France, Vietnam is first and foremost the land of my ancestors. Indeed, many young people of the Vietnamese community in France do not speak the language. They struggle to embrace this part of their identity and to familiarize themselves with their Vietnamese heritage. Meeting together is a way to maintain some sense of connection with this part of their identity.
It was for this reason that, since the summer of 2010, the idea of organizing a trip to Vietnam with a group of Vietnamese youngsters from France became deeper and deeper engrained within me. I wanted to offer them the chance to discover and truly experience their Vietnamese culture and heritage by taking them back to their roots in Vietnam.
I was already familiar with Enfants d’Asie-Children of Asia’s remarkable work in the field, so it seemed natural for me to get in touch with the association for help in planning the trip. I didn’t want the trip to be simply touristic—I wanted to fully immerse the children in their culture of origin, to offer them an exceptional and unique experience.
I spent a year developing the project as a mission to support Enfants d’Asie-Children of Asia’s work in Vietnam (where the association provides comprehensive care for hundreds of children in distress). Our group of youngsters would not only visit the country of their ancestors but would also be able to help the local communities by bringing useful supplies for the local children, such as textbooks, school supplies, hygiene products, toys, etc. as well as by participating in activities with the local communities.
However, as soon as we arrived in Vietnam, I realized that we had not brought nearly enough supplies to meet the needs of the local children whose school bags were torn and threadbare. The children we met in Vietnam, who spend their days laughing, who exhibit such a thirst for learning and who consistently give the best of themselves, live in extreme poverty and squalor. During my visits to their homes I always found myself wondering: “But how can they survive?”
To give an idea of the penurious living conditions of these children and their families, here is an example of one household’s monthly expenses:
(100,000 VND = approximately 3 Euros)
School fees: 700,000 VND
Rent: between 400,000 and 800,000 VND (excluding the costs of food, water, electricity and other utilities)
Salary: approximately 1,200,000 VND
For parents, these costs require them to start their workday extremely early. They go to the market at 4:30am each day to sell fruits and vegetables and then spend the rest of the day street-vending. They continue working into the evening, picking and preparing the produce that they will endeavor to sell the next day. They don’t go to sleep before midnight.
How can they survive?
Many of the young people I was chaperoning were unable to hold back their tears as they observed the living conditions and lifestyle of the families and children from the poor communities in Vietnam.
For five weeks (from July 15th to August 17th), we offered local children introductory courses in French and English as well as workshops in drawing, singing, dancing and origami. We helped out in nurseries and daycares, prepared and distributed food in hospitals and mental health institutions, and assisted autistic children.
Our 5 week journey was unforgettable.
Beholding such destitution and hardship on a daily basis leaves the deepest of impressions. The young people with whom I left France for Vietnam have returned as more mature individuals, enriched by their experience. I had wanted these youngsters to open their eyes; the trip encouraged them to open their hearts and souls. Today, if I were to ask them what “being Vietnamese” means to them, they would tell me that being Vietnamese is to love their country and to strive to help others—to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live in dignity.
As we stood witness to the hardship of the local community, I could not provide answers to all my trip companions’ pressing questions. But it is through journeys like this one that we can find answers to at least some of those questions. Participating in such charitable, humanitarian work will, hopefully, better equip the youngsters to find their place in society. It increases their self-awareness and awareness of the world, their awareness of what human dignity means and encourages them to contribute to the welfare of others.
We will always remember the songs, the drawings and smiles of all the children we met, and the words of everyone who crossed our path along the way. The warm welcome, resilience and generosity of the local people we met, despite their difficult circumstances, affirmed clearly my conviction that the project had to come to fruition: we, Vietnamese people born and living in France, came to help fellow Vietnamese in Vietnam. We returned to France incredibly enriched by our experience…
Translated By Brittany Tanasa
We invite you to find out more about Enfants d’Asie-Children of Asia’s education sponsorship programs in Vietnam and to contribute to their inspiring work.
© Women’s Worldwide Web 2011