Four Families in Need of Houses
Over two recent weekends we visited four new families in desperate need of improved housing. Their stories are very different, but all very compelling.
Le Van The family
Mom and five of the kids. Some are older and off at work. Dad didn't join the group photo, but is pictured below.
This family has had 10 kids. The first was severely affected by Agent Orange and died in infancy. The second child, a girl (2nd from right above), suffers serious developmental disabilities. She understands little and can't speak.
The family lives in a crumbling 3 room house near the beach (the father is a fisherman). Their house accommodates two beds and several pillows and mats on the floor at night. The house is over 40 years old and is losing some of its structural integrity.
Orangehelpers wants to help this family replace their home with a larger, sturdier house on the same site. They say they will take the current roof down to the beach and live under it while the new house is under construction. I hope to get some pictures of THAT! It's rainy season!
More pictures of their current situation can be seen HERE.
Ngo Van Tuy family
Father Tuy is the Agent Orange victim in this family of four. His legs are withered and useless. He is a devoted father, but has no prospects in this rural area and so goes to Saigon to sell lottery tickets on the street for a month at a time interspersed with 2 week visits home. He is only able to bring home $5 income from the monthly forays!
The second son was at school when we visited. Although they are excused from paying school fees due to a poverty exemption, $25 (5 months of dad's income) are needed for uniforms and supplies.
The Tuy family lives in an old, one-room house with a plastic sheet for a roof. There is a separate small room at the rear that serves as a "closet" and clothes drying area (as long as the roof doesn't blow off). The bedroom also serves as a garage for Tuy's handicap motor trike.
Tuy wants to upgrade his existing house and add a room at the front. Orangehelpers will help him accomplish this, but we also want to help improve the family's situation. We will buy him a calf, which, when he sells it in two years, will allow him to buy another calf and use the remaining proceeds to support his family. This won't help for two years, so we will offer to replace his meager earnings from his time in Saigon with a $5 monthly subsidy until the calf can be sold. We will also award his school age son a scholarship to cover his school expenses.
This is one of the neediest, most deserving families we have met in my three years here and we really want them to succeed. More pictures of their situation can be seen HERE.
Le Van Truong Family
This family of five includes a middle child who has Down's Syndrome that is attributed to Agent Orange.
The father, Truong, served in the Vietnamese army that brought an end to the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. He received no pay for his multi-year service, but still displays his service certificate proudly. Eight years ago the family built an undersized home with a low ceiling which they have just finished paying off. They couldn't afford to finish even this home, which still lacks the stucco covering inside and out that is customary here.
Orangehelpers would like to help this family add a second bedroom and raise their ceiling four feet to give them some relief from the heat. More pictures of their situation can be seen HERE.
Pham Nhu Hon Family
The rest of the Hon family, his wife and their Agent Orange affected son, has fled this situation to visit relatives in Hanoi.
The Hon family moved from Hanoi to a very isolated mountain village last year because their limited income didn't go very far in Hanoi's bustling economy. The family of three lives in a single "room" built of sticks and recycled plastic sacks next to his nephew's home.
Mr. Hon says that when there is a downpour, his family is able to seek some respite on his nephew's front porch. If we can resolve some issues regarding the ownership of the land under his house, Orangehelpers would like to improve this family's situation. More pictures HERE.
Mommy, Why Am I Not Handsome III
In October 2009 I wrote about Tien, the little boy with Lymphangioma who had been accepted for treatment by the Facing the World (FTW) charity in the UK. At that time, I expressed our joy that he would be going to the UK in early 2010. Things did not go as smoothly as we thought. We didn't hear again from FTW for months and many emails went unanswered. His departure time came and went and we were starting to worry a bit. We learned later that the kids who preceded Tien to the UK had had their surgeries delayed for health reasons and FTW was bogged down in rescheduling complex surgeries as well as carrying out a busy fundraising cycle.
We finally heard again in May 2010 that he and his mom, Mai, would be going to London during the following August. Orangehelpers helped them prepare their visa applications and sent them to Hanoi where a friend and supporter helped Mai and Tien through the process at the UK embassy. This involved a round trip by train of nearly 48 hours each way. The visas arrived just in time and they were shortly on their way to Bangkok and then the UK.
Mai and Tien preparing to board their flight for the UK. The mixture of emotions on their faces is incredible and touching.
Tien was scheduled for as many as three surgeries over a 6 month period(at an FTW- funded $75000). When not in hospital, they stayed in an FTW apartment under the care of a Vietnamese nun and Tien attended a preschool class at the hospital. What an adventure for a mom and little boy whose only prior travel had been on Orangehelper funded trips to Ho Chi Minh City (3 times for medical reasons), DaNang (for evaluation by FTW), and Hanoi (for a visa).
Tien's first surgery was scheduled for mid September. In some kind of kharmic (good word?) retribution, he had a fever the day of the surgery and had to get in the queue again for a new surgery date. That date came in late October when Tien underwent several hours of surgery at the hands of a full team of cranio-facial surgeons. He was then kept in an induced coma for two days to initiate healing. The doctors said that the surgery was possibly the most complicated he had ever participated in, in part because of scar tissue from 3 previous unsuccessful surgeries in close proximity to facial nerves.
Tien upon his release from the hospital. Mai looks to have gained a few pounds (probably not on English cooking). The Vietnamese nun who they lived with is kneeling.,
We got word this morning that the doctors feel that no further surgery is required and that Tien and Mai will be arriving back in Vietnam next Tuesday, Dec 14. He still has swelling in his face, now as a result of the surgery, which is expected to come down over the next 3 months. He also has numbness and lack of movement of his left side facial muscles, but no more than before, and the doctors think this will be reversed when the swelling around his facial nerves subsides.
In addition to the surgery, FTW took care of numerous dental problems that were causing Tien a lot of pain. Dental care in Vietnam is minimal and the lack of fluoridation of the water supply just makes things worse. FTW reports that Tien, who was previously quite shy and introverted, is now a really happy, chatty little guy.
We will wait with great anticipation Tien's development in the coming months. We will send him to DaNang in May for a follow up visit with an FTW team, but hope that by then, his early question to his mom "Mommy, why am I not handsome?" is a distant echo.
Mai, who has worked as a beautician's assistant, has undergone training to open her own shop to support her family. Orangehelpers has a $500 grant to help her accomplish this. If any of you would wish to help her or know of someone in the beauty industry who might be interested in her situation, please let us know.
[Note: Mai's mother passed away from cancer a month after Mai and Tien left for the UK. They understood the probability that this would happen when they departed, but the grandmother pleaded with her daughter to go for the sake of Tien's future. This was very courageous for all involved because paying proper respect for the deceased is very important in Vietnamese culture.]
The Nguyen That Family's New House
We first encountered the Nguyen That family in October,2008. We had asked the local Agent Orange organization to help us meet some families in the rural area near Salem's family home. They prefer events where families are gathered at the commune government offices with speeches and presentations, while we prefer to visit families at home where we can assess their situation. So a compromise was forged; we would meet the families at the public hall and then visit the homes. After the group meeting we mounted our motorbikes and headed for Nguyen That's home. The (then) seventy-two year old just beat us there, having run the 1/2 mile plus from the hall to his home pushing his son's rickety wheel cha ir along the bicycle lane of busy Route 1, reversing the trip he had made less than an hour earlier to get to the meeting.
Nguyen That lives with his son, Rit, who is 100% physically disabled by severe palsy, and an adult daughter who works intermittently at a local factory for the family's only cash income. The father does some small scale farming and sells coconuts from the many trees on their land. His wife died 23 years ago, when Rit was 8 years old. While we noted the condition of their 65 year old house at the time of our first meeting, we decided then to donate a cow which we hoped would improve their economic situation. That cow was subsequently sold with some of the proceeds used to buy a second cow pictured below.
The old house has a lot of "character" but also requires a lot of maintenance which That is increasingly unable to keep up with. When these old style houses start to deteriorate, they can go very quickly because they really aren't much more than mud on a framework of sticks. When we revisited the family in the Fall of 2009, we decided the time was right to build a new one. The work was completed just before Christmas, with the new house standing right next to the old one. Their sparse furniture hadn't been moved yet when we visited. We intend to go back soon because we have some health concerns for Rit, who appears to have some skin problems, and possibly bed sores.
A New House and a Dilemma
The same day Orange Helpers dedicated the Tran family house, we also dedicated a house for Le Thi Dao, a mentally challenged 42 year old woman in La Hai, Dong Xuan district. Her father was exposed to Agent Orange in the war and died of cancer years ago. He left her only a dilapidated room attached to an old house occupied by her sister’s family.
The new house was built on a small plot of land donated by the commune near her old residence and a young nephew will live with her to help her cope. At the dedication, Dao was a little bewildered and unable to speak, but her sister gave a tearful word of gratitude.
Later that day we visited Nguyen Thi Thu, a 35 year old whose story is almost a direct parallel with Dao’s. Her father was also a participant in the war who died many years ago of Agent Orange related cancer. Thu is severely mentally challenged and occupies her day drawing water from a well and pouring it into a big filter jar. She too was unable to converse with us. Her home is one of the worst I have seen here. The mud walls are riddled with cracks and collapsing at the corners of the building. The thatched roof has large missing areas and is at all effective only because of plastic sheeting draped over it. The floor is dirt and the inside is dark but for the light streaming in through the holes in the roof and walls.
We inquired about building a new house for Thu but were told that the land her house stands on has been set aside by the state for future road widening. There are no plans to do this at this time, but new construction or even repairs of the existing house, are forbidden at this location. Further, Thu depends on the kindness and watchfulness of her immediate neighbors for her day to day survival. In order to have a new house, she would have to move away from her lifeline. This is not the first time that we have been stymied in trying to find a way to assist an AO family, but we will be keeping an eye on Thu’s situation as we pass by frequently.
Moving Day for the Tran Family
Yesterday we went over to Song Cau to dedicate the new house for the Tran Family (see previous blog below). The home site is on the mother's family's hilltop property about 1 kilometer from the road. Several tons of materials for the construction had to be hand-carried along the winding, uphill, dirt path.
The upside is that the site provides a lovely view of the surrounding rice paddies and mountains in the distance.
In contrast to the one room, dirt floor shack they previously occupied (see previous blog), the new house has 3 rooms, a sturdy roof, and a dry cement floor. The family chose cement over tile for the floor to allow for some other design features they wanted. There are a living room and two bedrooms, each with good lighting and ventilation, with all rooms connected by an indoor hallway.
As usual for these dedications, there was a brief ceremony with dreadful speeches being read verbatim from papers (typical for ALL speeches in Vietnam), a banner thanking Orangehelpers, a plaque on the house, the giving of housewarming gifts (cash and a case of dry noodle soup), and lots of photos.
We learned that in addition to the maladies described in the previous blog, the little boy also suffers from total blindness, but as in the case of a lot of the kids we meet has the sunny personality of a giggly 9 month old baby.
It was wonderful to see the change of accommodations for the family and the joy on their faces as they came into their new first home - just ahead of the rainy season. Thanks to everyone who helped make it happen.
A House for the Tran Family
Tran Minh Tuan has cerebral palsy, a deformed rib cage and withered limbs because his grandfather was exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. His uncle is also affected, but not his father. Such is the randomness of this affliction.
Tuan and his two healthy siblings live with their mom and dad in a shack made of bamboo and palm thatch with a dirt floor that gets muddy when it rains. Last rainy season, the shack they were living in collapsed around them. Their only furniture is a bed, a hammock, and a little plastic stool that holds their small electric fan. Tuan lives in this space 24/7 while his dad is out seeking work as a day laborer on construction sites (when available) at about $3 a day. As you can see, Tuan smiles a lot when company calls and his dad surrounds him with love and patience and dignity in spite of the meager surroundings and life.
Orangehelpers is building a new house for the family and will try to provide some simple furntiure. If the dad will build an enclosure, we will also get some chickens to boost the nutrition in the family.
Mommy, why am I not handsome? Updated
We met Tien and his mom, Mai, a year ago.
He is the little boy with Agent Orange-related Lymphangioma whose face is distorted by malformations in his lymph system and who looked in the mirror and asked his mom "Mommy, why am I not handsome?" (see earlier blog below) For months we have worked with Mai looking for a effective treatment for Tien. We have taken him to Ho Chi Minh City, first for CT scans, then, when those were inadequate, back for MRIs of his head. We started with wonderful NGOs like Operation Smile. Although they did not deal with problems like Tiens, they were very cooperative in directing us to other groups and individuals who might get involved. After dozens of leads in 5 countries and hundreds of emails, I have to admit I was starting to doubt whether we were really getting anywhere or just going through the motions and making OURSELVES feel better. Then about a month ago, Facing the World, a UK-based NGO working with kids in several countries on cranio-facial problems of all kinds told me they would be bringing a medical mission to Vietnam in August, and although they couldnt deal with Tiens problem there, they would be willing to have their team examine Tien if we could get him to DaNang. We bought Tien and Mai train tickets and sent them on their way.
We heard nothing for a couple weeks and then this morning I got an email announcing that Facing the World would like to bring Tien and his mom to the UK early next year, where he will be treated by a team of specialists in various fields relating to his problem. Facing the World will cover transportation costs, medical costs, an apartment for the family, attendance at a school at the hospital, etc. We just have to get them ready for the trip.
Our joy and relief is indescribable. For the last year we have put Tien and his mom through so much; building hope thorugh 3 or 4 long train trips to Saigon, countless requests to come over to our house so we could take more pictures to send out, etc., all the time worried that their patience and trust in Orangehelpers might lead nowhere. And we have suffered through our own frustration, wanting so much to change this little boys life but lacking the knowledge and resources to do it on our own. So today we made a lot of noise along with all the other people who were involved along the way.
We are so grateful to Facing the World (FTW) and Children of Vietnam (an NGO that partners with FTW in addition to other wonderful work in Vietnam). Its nice to know there are such caring and effective people in the world and humbling to be able to work with them.
"My Right Foot" - May 29, 2009
Toward the end of the month we spent on the Orange Walk 2009, we spent a day visiting with 5 agent orange affected families in Ha Giang, the northernmost province. We were told that we are the first foreigners to come to the border provinces to visit agent orange victims, and we were received with some surprise and much gratitude.
The first two families we visited were an interesting contrast. At the first, there was an older boy lying alone in a back room of the house. He lay on the hard floor with only a straw mat for comfort. This is common when incontinence is a problem, but frequently results in bad bed sores. We were advised that only a few of us should enter the room at a time because he might get loud or upset with a large group. We were told that he used to be taken out in a wheelchair, but for the last 9 years was kept in this bare room. He was able to express himself a bit, but lacked any significant mobility. I don’t doubt his family cares about him, but we left with a feeling that they had given up trying.
At the second visit, we met a girl lying in a wooden platform. But she was in a room with the family and received constant attention and encouragement. Our first reaction to her was “here we go again”, but then it became clear that something very different was going on here. I don’t want to imply that her disabilities are identical to the boy’s. She clearly suffers from severe cerebral palsy. One of the women in our group told her “You’re very pretty.” We were able to make out her response “So are you.” Then a most remarkable thing happened.
First, her parents took her from the bed and tied her to a chair. We weren’t sure what was happening, but they asked for our phone numbers and put a phone at her feet. She proceeded with no help, but a lot of encouragement, to dial each of our numbers with one toe on her right foot, correcting her mistakes with the delete button as she went. Her dedication to the task and joy at her success were incredible. I share the whole series below.
Again, without claiming that these two kids start with the same disabilities, they are still a good illustration of the reason behind our goal of working with families of agent orange victims living at home. The kids who are in the formal care centers receive a lot of care and stimulation and encouragement to achieve what they are capable of. The kids living at home, unless they are lucky enough to live near one of the few day care centers (in DaNang, for example), have much less even results, due to poverty, parental exhaustion, or lack of knowledge. We encourage the development of day care centers, but in the many places where that’s not possible, we strive to bring resources to the families to improve care on site.
Two Little Sisters - May 15, 2009
As the Orange Walk passed through our province, we visit the Nguyen Thach family. Quyen and Van, lay seemingly unaware on a straw mat on the floor. Occasionally you feel like you have made a connection and are seeing and being seen by someone behind those eyes, but normally their eyes are half rolled up into their heads and quivering uncontrollably. They are tiny and warm to hold, like sleepy, droopy babies, but they are 6 and 4 years old. Their withered limbs attest to their lack of mobility and their necks are bent backward like unsupported infants. The girls have trouble sleeping at night. Each parent holds one, the dad in the bed and the mom in a hammock, keeping them warm and physically trying to close their eyelids with their hands.
There is a picture of Quyen, the older girl, at age one month, seemingly a normal, healthy infant, but there are no pictures of Van. The parents explained that when Quyen’s health declined, friends and relatives told them it was because they had taken photographs of the infant too early. So out of fear of damaging their second child, they avoided taking any pictures. Their learning that they had not caused Quyen’s problems was, to say the least, hollow comfort when Van showed signs of the same problems.
Their mother, Pham Thi Suong (34), works mornings in the market, buying produce from neighbors and selling it at whatever small profit she can achieve. The father, Thach (37), stays home all day with the two girls. The family lives on the 60 cents to $1 dollar a day that the mom brings home from the market and a stipend of $13.50 per month from the government. Both grandfathers were in the war (on the ARVN or Southern side, not that it matters). Whether the Agent Orange entered the family through that route or through direct exposure to residual dioxin from the many sprayings in the province cannot be known. In spite of the significant importance of an heir in Vietnamese culture, Thach and Suong are afraid to have another child for obvious reasons.
Their house is adequate and clean, but could use a coat of paint to brighten it up. They have draped a colorful cloth across the ceiling, whether for the benefit of the girls who stare up at all day long or for general aesthetic considerations. It is located right on route 1A, the national highway, directly across from a beautiful bay. There is no running water because of solid rock beneath the property, a problem shared with all of the neighbors on the west side of the highway. The family pays about $3.50 twice a month to have a big pot filled with water. They conserve it carefully to make it last two weeks. In the rainy season they collect water from the roof and from a stream coming off the nearby mountain.
The mom and dad, although they seem to take excellent care of the girls, appear depressed and beaten down, especially the dad, who has no job or gainful outside life. We didn’t have enough time for an adequate screening, but Orangehelpers plans to visit this family again soon, to evaluate how we might assist them in a sustainable way to improve the lot of the entire family. Preliminary thoughts include:
· Seeing if there is a way to improve the mom’s existing income from the market. Before she was married, the mom had a job in a family business in the next town. It is a rice milling business and she would buy rice and resell it to various businesses and households. Their dream, if they had a few hundred dollars, would be for her to invest in that enterprise and take on that job again. It would have the potential to increase their daily income several fold.
· We thought about helping the dad find some gainful employment, but it was explained that he is really attuned to the girls and their needs and the mom is much more effective outside the home.
· Finding a solution to the water problem. This might be no small matter, but might also help a number of neighboring families, too.
We would welcome any ideas or contributions to assist this family. If you are interested please contact us or visit our website www.orangehelpers.org.
More pictures at http://www.flickr.com/photos/orangehelpers/sets/72157617778975950/
Baby Pictures - April 27, 2009
Baby pictures are normally a source of joyous nostalgia. As we sat in the front room of the Ly Van Hay family, we watched their 12 year old son Thanh as he flailed around on the blanket where he spends his days. In spite of his age, he appears to have the cognitive and motor skills of an infant.
During the conversation, I noticed the picture of a happy, healthy infant on the wall and inquired who it was. “Oh, that’s Thanh”, the mom answered. “When he was four months old he was a perfect baby in every way. But soon after that I noticed some problems in his development. And now you see him today.” Thanh is not the only Agent Orange (AO) kid we have met who appeared normal in his early months but then somehow got derailed by this terrible poison.
Seven year old Vo Tran Quoc Sinh (below) giggles and waves his balled fists whenever we pay attention to him, but he never progressed to the crawling stage. His mom is incredibly tender and loving; feeding him, cuddling him, entertaining him with all the energy of the mother of a six month old. But her efforts will not yield the cognitive development a parent hopes for from such attention. He is permanently stalled as a sweet six month old. As with Thanh above, there is a picture on the wall that commemorates an early celebration when Sinh was apparently normal. Ironically the balloons are imprinted with “Happy Birthday” and “Get Well”.
I wonder what the mother thinks when she looks at his baby brother who looks hauntingly like the older brother at the same age (below).
Orangehelpers can’t help make these kids develop normally. What we are able to do is try to make the families more self sufficient and better able to stand the stresses and strains that confront an AO family. In the case of the second family, when we first interviewed them 6 months ago, they didn’t have a plan that would allow us to assist them with an economic grant. Six months later they brought us a business plan for a duck and duck egg hatchery that they wanted to start with an in-law in their common home. Our small grant has helped this family partner in the business and increase their daily income.
If you want to help bring justice to these families, please share Orangehelpers stories, to increase the awareness of people around the world about the plight of these unfortunate kids and families.