The little boy was sitting patiently at home, waiting for his older sister to visit them so that she could cook them some tea. He had had some lunch at his uncle’s house earlier but that seemed like a long time ago now. He looked at his father, lying on a bed on the far side of the dark room. His father wore a thick winter jacket and a woolen hat pulled down over his eyes, even though it was 40 degrees outside. All of the windows and doors of the house were shut tight, a strange thing in Vietnam. And when his sister returned, his father would not touch any of the food she cooked, would not even really want her in the house. His father believed he was possessed by a bad spirit. He would not see a doctor. He had agreed to see the local exorcist, but that had not worked. He told his children that nothing could be done for him.
The life of this little family had been hard for a long time. The mum had died not long after the little boy had been born. And when the boy could not manage study at a regular school and everyone said he was strange, the father had to stay at home to look after him. There was no money coming into the household. Fortunately for them, a local NGO, Children’s Education Foundation, stepped in to support the daughter through school. They also referred the boy to the Kianh Foundation special school and helped the father to get him there each day. The daughter has graduated school and has her first job and the little boy is making wonderful progress in his development. But several years onward, CEF and KF have had to step in to help the family again. Because there are no local social workers who operate in the way this complicated family case requires.
This is not to knock Vietnam. Vietnam’s infrastructure is coming on in leaps and bounds. When I came here 20 years ago, there were barely any options for a child with disability other than spending their life at home or being institutionalised. Now there are schools (albeit a majority of them are still too expensive for many people to access), a growing speech pathology service, and physiotherapy is becoming more advanced. But despite Vietnam’s development, and despite its economic growth, it is still not ready to be left unsupported, as many foreign aid programmes and former benefactors believe. There are still some big cracks for people to fall between. The casualty in this particular story, is the little boy, whose father can no longer look after him. There seem to currently be no other options for him than to go to live at the local orphanage. But we and CEF will not allow that to be the end of his story. Between us, we will advocate for him to still be allowed to attend our school and we will find a way to make sure he does.
I am all for the self-empowerment of local people and seeing them manage their own society. With the level the Vietnamese staff at KF are now operating at, I would be happy to see them run the school and its programmes themselves. Their understanding of what is needed and their ability to deliver it is now excellent. But that still needs money. Without CEF, the daughter of this family would never have graduated school, without KF the boy would never have started and progressed along his road to development. We are still needed by this family now. Even if all the foreigners left the NGOs they manage, money would still be required to maintain the safety net that the Vietnamese staff of these organisations provide. Even though special education programmes are expanding over Vietnam, there are not many that would still allow this little boy to come even though his family cannot make any contribution. There are not many businesses that would follow up with the wellbeing of this family, as CEF have done, even though the daughter has officially left their programme. To the donors, businesses and corporations out there, I would say: don’t give up on funding Vietnam just yet. Vietnam is growing but we still have a little way to go.
Jackie Wrafter M.B.E