Business as usual: home visits to scholarship recipients

Written by: 

Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, translated by Lillian Forsyth

 

January 19, 2012

 

As we do every year, today we organized a team of staff members to visit the homes of the students in the ADAPT scholarship program. This time the whole office went, a total of seven people, three of whom are volunteers, including one volunteer who was a recipient of our program a few years ago and has now come back to lend a hand.

 

 

 We boarded An Hoa Ferry on four motorbikes, headed in the direction of Dong Thap province. This time, our team was planning to visit Phu Thanh A Middle School, Phu Ninh Middle School, Tam Nong High School and Hong Ngu High School.

 

We were greeted at Phu Thanh A middle school by Teacher P. and the students in our scholarship program from this school. We split into groups so that we could follow the students back to their homes to meet their families and document their conditions – as we do every year. Everyone was hustling and smiling, calling to each other, borrowing motorbike helmets, and suggesting which students would return home first and which students would stay behind to wait for the next group. It was with this fervor and excitement that we hopped onto our bikes and hit the road, splitting off into various directions.

 

I was in the group that went with Teacher P.,  who has been assigned to help our program on behalf of the school for the past seven years. It is rare to find a teacher who is as enthusiastic as him, and who has such deep knowledge about the students’ circumstances as he does. Many of these  students have dropped out of school early because of extremely difficult family situations. It has been tricky, but Teacher P. has worked with our ADAPT scholarship program to encourage and support the girls to return to school. Today, when I was looking for the homes of the high school students in our program, who are no longer attending this teacher’s school anymore, he was still happy to show me the roads to each of their homes.

 

 

When I rode with Teacher P., I was able to learn a lot of information about the students before I got to their homes to talk to their families. Sadly, I also learned that this year, in Phu Thanh district, many families would not be celebrating the Lunar New Year because this area was one of the districts that were hit hardest by  the unusually severe 2011 flood season. Many homes had sunk into the ground or had collapsed because the foundational columns sat in standing water for so long and had rotted. For people who worked the farms and fields, all of their crops had been ruined. Everything they’d planted had died and been washed away by floodwaters. Those who made a living from catching fish or picking vegetables had been tied to their homes because of the high flood waters, and those who were day laborers waited for calls from employers that never came. On the road, I could see evidence of the things Teacher P. was telling me. There were many stretches of the road, deep in the fields, that had been eroded. In many places the sinkage was extremely deep and the traces of the floodwater’s trails were still visible in the sand.

 

When we reached the home of L., an eighth grade student who has lost both parents, her paternal grandmother said worriedly “The floods lasted so long that the foundational columns of the house turned to pulp. When will the house collapse? The debts have piled up because the water took so long to retreat”.

 

T., who is in the tenth grade, is also an orphan. At her home, I learned that her grandmother used to work as a hired day laborer, planting and cutting rice stalks and picking water spinach from the fields. She told me that she has been taking care of her two granddaughters since they were little girls. Her primary income comes from cleaning up the fields after harvest, gathering the left over rice stalks, and selling them. Now that the rice fields are almost completely harvested by machines, her labor is unnecessary. In addition the machines collect the seedling rice stalks more efficiently, so there are no left over rice seedling for her to gather, and the woman has lost this important source of income. But T’s grandmother is someone who takes initiative, and so she found a new trade in traditional medicine and acupressure. The woman told me that the work was somewhat like volunteerism: anyone with a headache, a runny nose, or sore muscles would call her and she would come to perform acupressure, steam inhalation, and other such traditional remedies for them. Those with money would give her 5,000 – 7,000 VND ($0.25 – $0.30), and for those without money, she would perform the services simply to help them.

 

 

In the middle of the day, I visited the homes of two girls who had dropped out of school.

 

When I arrived at the home of N., a tenth grader who has lost her father and had been an excellent student for many years before she dropped out one month ago, I stopped in surprise before the door of a house that lay in shambles. It was completely different than the warm and rosy picture I had seen on the previous visits. I walked through the narrow doorway lined with weeds into a room speckled with patches of sunlight that were shining through the holes in the walls. The rays of sunlight danced on the small table that had been N’s study table, where there were still piles of neatly stacked schoolbooks and notebooks with N’s handwriting. The table looked lonely today, so different from the lively picture I’d seen on previous visits, because today I wasn’t greeted by N’s gentle smile. On a bamboo bed across from me, N’s maternal grandmother lay staring blankly at the floor. She has some form of severe eczema, and her entire body was covered in peeling patches of white and red skin. N’s little sister was sitting at the head of the bed, staring at me. It was noon, but the kitchen was cold and the two women, one young and one old, sat silently like stones. N’s grandmother said that her grandfather had been in the hospital constantly, and the family was in extreme hardship. As the only wage earner, N’s mother couldn’t make ends meet, and had decided to take N. out of school so that she could become an apprentice at a beautician’s shop in town, to help take care of the grandparents and her little sister. I demanded many times, an angry tone in my voice, “Why did our scholarship program help N. so much, only to have you take her out of school so easily? What happened to the commitment you had to keep your daughter in school through the twelfth grade?”

 

I stopped by the market, following the tip that N. was studying to be a beautician at “Tien” hair salon. I paced back and forth in the tiny countryside market that had only four or five salons before I discovered a tiny shop at the back of the market with a big “Kim Tuyen” sign. When I got a little closer, it was easy to recognize N. behind the store, shampooing a customer next to another girl. She stood out among the other girls with their thick makeup and red-dyed hair because of her beautiful simplicity. I noticed the strands of her long black hair tied back in a ponytail, and I noticed her two cheeks flushed from working in the afternoon sun. It was so different than the pale expression I’d seen before when Ms. Kieu Nhi, a former ADAPT Program Director, helped her go to Ho Chi Minh City for a heart operation. I went into the store and asked for a shampoo, pointing to N. and saying that she was the one I wanted to wash my hair.

 

After that N’s story became clearer. I found out that she had cried many times in order to arrive at this decision. Her grandparents were sick all the time. Because her home was so far from school, she had to ask a friend to take her by motorbike, but had been unable to come up with the gas money. Her mother had worked at a garment factory 7 kilometers from their home for the past five months, but hadn’t yet received a penny of salary. She told me she had to go to work in order to help keep her younger sister in school!

 

 

Although it’s been seven years since I started working with Pacific Links Foundation, it seems like it was just yesterday. I see these students several times each year, but I’m always surprised at how much they have changed and grown. One day they are little girls in elementary and middle school, but when I turn my eyes away for just a second, I turn back to see that they have become teenagers. From my perspective the time has flown by, but I wonder whether the time has flown for these girls, who are doing their best to take care of their parents, their grandparents, and their younger siblings, going without basic needs and striving to survive hand to mouth. How many times have they had to come face to face with the natural uncertainties of life? They are just young girls. What secret dreams do they have that they could never dare to utter aloud? Do they feel angry or depressed because their parents aren’t able to take care of them, or thirst for the little things that girls their age in the city have in abundance?

This is a memory I am making

Written by: 

Nhu Tien Lu

 

September 16, 2011

 

There is a Pacific Links’ reintegration shelter at the northern border of Vietnam for trafficking survivors. A twenty-minute walk from the shelter will lead to a path where one can see, across the river, to China. Here, on this side of the border, the shelter girls were children, they worked in the fields with their parents, they believed the trusted family friend who said they would be paid to be dish washers and restaurant workers and cinnamon dryers. There, on the other side of the border, they were still children when they were instead sold to be wives and prostitutes.

 

This is a memory I am making.

 

After lunch one day, one of the Pacific Links staff members passes out the homemade yogurt she had made the night before. For most of the girls, it is the first or second time they have ever eaten yogurt. I sit squeezed between five other girls on the couch, each of us balancing our glasses on our knees. After I finish off my yogurt, I glance over to see the girl next to me dipping her spoon straight up and down into the silky yogurt. I ask her, laughing, why she’s eating in such an odd fashion, and she replies wistfully, “Because I don’t want it to be gone so quickly.” After everyone has finished up and washed their glasses, she is still licking a few drops of yogurt at a time from her spoon, relishing the sweetness.

 

This is a memory I am.

 

I spend much of my last few days at the shelter beading with the girls. We sprawl around the large conference table, loose beads scattered across the table- aqua blue and chive green and pearly white and cotton candy pink- and squint, with pursed lips, trying to stab the end of a plastic string through the tiny holes. This requires much patience, this slipping of one bead after another. We sit in a circle, and sometimes the girls sing, in Hmong or Vietnamese, their voices high and slightly off-key and haunting. Sometimes I ask them questions about their family or their villages, and they tell me about how they would play make-believe when they were younger, imagining whole meals out of mud and leaves and rocks. Sometimes, we just sit in silence, and if I look up across the table and catch a girl’s eye, smiling, she smiles widely back, and then we go back to our own beading. And in the midst of that quiet, that gentle slowing of time, there is nothing more than that moment, nothing remaining except to listen to young girls sing of love and loss, their hearts breaking in their mouths, and to bead these pearls one at a time onto a string I will carry with me always.

 

This is a memory.

 

Sitting around a circle, we share affirmations of our strengths. One of the girls remains in silence for several minutes when it comes to her turn; she can’t come up with anything positive to say about herself. Last year, she had been sold so far across the border of China that, after she escaped, she had to be flown back to Vietnam. She told me that, as she was running away from her captors, in the middle of the night, she would run close to the cliffs of the surrounding waterfalls, so that, if they found her, she could kill herself by jumping off the edge. She whispers her one positive trait to a nearby girl, but we ask her to say it aloud using her own voice. When she finally does, a barely audible, “Sometimes I try to help people,” her voice breaks, under the strain, the newness of what it means to believe that there is good in her.

 

This is.

 

A girl asks me, “Do you remember the last time you visited, one day there was a double rainbow?”

I say, “I do.”

“It was so pretty, wasn’t it?”

I agree that it was indeed. We both look out at the cloudless blue sky, her hair lit up by sun. There are no rainbows in sight, but it is still a sight to behold.

 

For a bag of coffee

Written by: 

Nhu Tien Lu

 

August 25, 2011

 

In the United States, a bag of name brand coffee will cost about $12. In Ho Chi Minh City, it costs 35,000 dong ($1.75 USD) to order a Vietnamese iced coffee in an air-conditioned upscale café, or 10,000 dong (50 cents) to have your coffee in a disposable cup instead from a vendor in the park.

 

Here, in this urban chaos of business and motorbikes, you will sometimes meet someone, either a foreigner or Vietnamese, and he will ask you what you do. In response to your saying that you work on anti-trafficking along the borders of Vietnam, he will say knowingly, “Yes, I hear so many of these poor parents sell their own children for a few dollars, or a bag of coffee or something.”

 

You will respond with, “Actually, from our experiences with trafficking returnees, the girls are most often tricked by acquaintances of the family, or perhaps even a relative, usually because the girls were looking for a job. The parents often don’t have enough money to send their children to school, so their children will often quit school early and try to find work to help out, which leaves them vulnerable to being tricked and sold.”

 

Usually, this person will nod absent-mindedly, look away, and then change the topic.

 

What you don’t get to say is, “What kind of parent do you think being poor makes you?”

 

 

It costs 150,000 dong ($7.50) one-way for a seat in an 18-person van that will end up crowding in 24 people for a 9-hour bumpy ride from Ho Chi Minh to Kien Giang. On that ride, the window won’t be able to close, the door will jam and no longer open, the man perched on the child’s plastic chair next to you will keep falling asleep on your shoulder, so that you have to push him off at the same time that you are slapping the mosquitoes from your feet,  and someone behind you will become carsick several times during the trip. But once you step out of the van, the landscape stretches out around you in bright shocks of green rice paddies, trees of ripening papaya, tangled dragon fruit branches, and everywhere, the presence of water, in the brown rivers of the Mekong and the still, clear pools of farmed shrimp.

In this borderland province, for a family of 4, where the mother and father are hired hands, renting themselves out for work in other people’s fields and attempting the risky business of raising shrimp (risky, because a shrimp virus can wipe out an entire season’s earnings, as well as poison the pond for several successive seasons), they will take home about 150,000 dong ($7.50) a month, or 5000 dong (25 cents) a day, after their land rent is deducted. Whatever they can plant and forage for around their house, built from dirt and water-palm leaves, is what they will eat. They will occasionally splurge to buy ice.

For their two daughters to attend school, they must consider how to pay for the school fees, facility expenses (such as building maintenance), uniforms, textbooks, and school supplies on 25 cents a day. They also must factor in the loss of income if they allow their children to continue their education instead of having them sell lottery tickets or help in the fields. They must weigh their daughters’ tearful pleadings to attend school, and their quiet, desperate love for their children, desperate beyond the short-term logic of their finances. They must balance what school means as an investment in their children’s future, decades in the distance, when they are sometimes uncertain what the next few months will look like from the shallow bottom of a rice bowl.

 

You ask her, “If our program runs out of money, and we can no longer provide a scholarship for you to attend school, do you think your parents will try to help you finish 12th grade?” She is in 8th grade and wants to be a doctor. She cries when she says this. She shares a bicycle with her 11-year old sister, biking to school for her morning session classes, and then coming home at noon so that her sister can take the bicycle to attend her afternoon session. Between the two of them, they also share 22 certificates of achievements that they can’t hang up on their walls, for fear that the rains that pour through the gaps in the water-palm leaves will ruin the papers. She answers, “Yes, if my parents are able to.”

“And what if they’re not able to?”

She looks at you, wanting to answer, wanting to please you, but nothing comes out, and tears well up in her eyes. She puts her head down and whispers, “I don’t know.”

 

There is a child’s love that can sound like honor and duty, that can look like quitting school and working with fingertips black from picking peppers for several cents a kilogram, that can feel like a letting go of dreams that can’t be dreamed, that can taste like a tender, bittersweet pain.

There is a parent’s love that can sound like sacrifice and responsibility, that can look like bent-over field work from before sunrise to after sunset, skin dark and calloused, this caring for one’s children that can feel like a burden of lightness, a deep, unspoken longing for them to have a life that is better, gentler than your own, this painful sorrow so sharp it can taste like hope.

 

Along the roads back from Kien Giang, passing next to rows of farmed shrimp pools, you can see, reflected in the still waters, the deepening blue of the sky. Above and below you, there is nothing but sky.

 

Pacific Links Foundation scholarships cost $200 for one student’s educational expenses for a year. We currently provide scholarships for 384 at-risk girls annually, with the goal of providing scholarships to 1000 girls annually by 2014. You can help by sponsoring one or multiple scholarships to enable at-risk girls to continue attending school.

 

 

 

 

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