Special Classes of Disadvantaged Children in Sai Gon
(VOH) – It is hard to imagine that in the middle of Saigon the following still exist: Students who study and look after their little siblings in class. A student who gets up early to row a boat from an island to the road in order to get to school. A student who is severely handicapped is carried on his Dad’s back to school. All of this effort is from the stong desire to be “literate”.
The same difficulty between immigrant students in Saigon and students in upland areas
Despite being hidden away in an alley on Pham The Hien street (District 8, HCM city), Binh An development center is extremely busy because hundreds of immigrant children and children in difficult circumstances come here every day to learn.
Binh An development center was established in 2011 and is operated by the Friends For Street Children organization (FFSC) which focuses on children who cannot attend regular primary schools for reasons such as lack of birth certificate, no residency papers (neither permanent, nor temporary), and for some it is just that they are older than school age, or have to work to support their families.
A class at Binh An development center
Due to an increase in number of students, grade 1 children have to learn in a corridor. This is considered by some a “VIP” class because of the slight breeze and therefore being closest to nature at the center.
The children who join the class have different circumstances such as parents’ separation, living with grandparents, big families, no money for school fees, disability, etc, but the most common reason for them being there is that their families are so poor.
Like children in remote areas, children here at Binh An are encouraged to go to school by nuns. They are given bicycles, rice, and donated money to cover the cost of taking the bus and are generally helped in providing conditions to be able to attend school. Unfortunately, however, some students only stay for a couple of days before quitting in order to care for younger brothers and sisters, or working to help support their families. The nuns then, once again, have to visit households to mobilize and motivate parents, including in some cases having to “beg” for the children to be allowed to continue their schooling.
“Heartbreak” is the feeling that sometimes nun Dang Thi Thu Hanh (center manager) and teachers feel when any students are absent. It is “heartbreaking” when parents ignore their children’s education (even when there is no fee). And “heartbreaking” when children are given bicycles with which to go to school, but parents have also sold them to get money…
“Although it frustrates and disappoints us, we still love the children and know that it is because their parents are so poor that they do not think about anything except making a living to bring up their kids” Sister Hanh says.
Students’ tents on melon fields
In order to visit the families and encourage parents to allow their kids to join the classes, the sisters and staff follow the trails to the tents where they live in the melon fields in district 8. The kids are so happy when they see the nun from a distance, calling her name and running to her.
Children like going to school but it is also hard because their parents are mostly immigrants from poorer parts of Vietnam. The entire family has to live in low sheds in the middle of the field, or in tents, or temporary shelters on the river bank which is permanently wet, flooded year round due to the tides. Parents have to work hard boiling medium-sized edible snails, picking water mimosa, pulling out grass or as bricklayers, and despite their young age, children support their parents by working or taking care of younger siblings at home.
Some students say that they do not go to school because they have to be at home to help parents boil and process edible snails for which they will be paid just 3000 VND (~10cent)/ per kg.
If children who live such a life, day by day as they grow up, lacking electricity, water, basic needs and even words, have almost no chance to change and improve their lives. The nuns and teachers at the center therefore support and encourage the children to go to school.
Nun Hanh said that more than 200 students from kindergarten to grade 5 have been studying in the center this last year. In addition to the normal subjects taught in public schools, the children are taught English by volunteers and learn life skills such as respect and communication to help them integrate when they (hopefully) continue to study at high school. For children who have the necessary papers to be able study at public schools and universities but cannot afford the cost, the center and FFSC also support them with funding for tuition and basic activities.
Miserably hard way to school
The students’ way to school is not bumpy and rocky as in upland areas, but it is tough psychologically, and under such difficult circumstances that are hard to imagine exist in the middle of HCM city.
Swapping their dirty clothes for hand-me-down uniforms, the children seem to thrive on the opportunity to change. It is a change in the way they think and to the way they understand, and above all it gives them a chance to dream what they will do in their own future.
Nguyen Van Phuc (9 years old and disabled, born in Rach Gia, now living in district 8) is studying grade 1 at the center. He lives with his grandparents and is taken to school by his uncle. His weak hand makes writing hard, but he still tries to come to the class. Phuc tries to write because he wants to be literate and dreams of being a doctor.
Le Minh Tu (14 years old) is “famous” at the center for looking after his little brothers while he is studying. Tu has 3 brothers and was previously unable to go to school because of this, when his parents were out working as bricklayers. The nuns had to work very hard to persuade his parents to let him attend school, which they finally did on the condition that he continues to take care of his brothers. Tu therefore now has his 2 brothers with him at school (one at grade 1 and one of pre-school age) who are forever mischievously running into his classroom.
Tu’s little brother runs mischievously into class
Le Minh Nghiep (9 years old with paralysis of both legs), he is very happy not only to go to school, but also to play with his friends even though he is so handicapped.
Nghiep wishes to study, so his parents drive and take turns to carry him on their backs. He is smart, studies hard and is speaks good English.
Besides that, there are students whose 4, or 5 siblings learn at the center simultaneously. Others have to take a bus as early as 5 a.m. from district 9 to the center to get to school in time, and some who live on a little island who must row a boat to main road and have somebody take to school.
Thoa lives with his parents on an island. He paddles a boat to the main road to go to school everyday
A temporary house on the riverside that has nothing, not even a table for studying, so the floor is his desk at home
Instead of playing and attending school like others, it is a tough, arduous life the children have helping their parents make a living. However, with the warm welcome they receive at the centers like Binh An promote center, they have a chance to learn to become good citizens in the society, and moreover, they get the opportunity to change their own lives. To them, simply the opportunity to go to school is as important as that!
VOH Reporter: Ha Lan