Fear? What fear? Hanoi teacher embraces HIV students as her own

By Thuy Quynh   April 4, 2019 | 11:20 pm PT
Fear? What fear? Hanoi teacher embraces HIV students as her own
Phung Thi Thanh Ha, 42, has taught HIV-infected students for thirteen years. Photo acquired by VnExpress
While stigma against the disease is still strong, one woman teaches children from a shelter and treats them like her own.

"Aren’t you scared of death?"

This is a question that Phung Thi Thuy Ha, 42, teacher of HIV students in suburban Hanoi, usually gets when people know about her job.

With the fear of the incurable disease ingrained in people’s mind, many also fear and stigmatize children with HIV.

The infected children live in a shelter. They got the HIV virus from their parents, but are unfortunately the subject of gossip and prejudice. Most of the students were abandoned or live away from their parents.

But Ha, who has taught in Yen Bai B primary school for 13 years, thinks of them as her own children.

"I am not scared of anything since the kids are normal students like every other student and come to school every day to listen to lessons."

Yen Bai B primary school has three campuses, with a separate one for HIV-positive students. Currently there are 18 studying in grades one to five.

When Ha started working in 2006, basic conditions were lacking.

"In 2006 we did not have our own classroom," she recalls. So she had to go to the rehab center where her students lived to teach. 

Their classroom was in a storehouse or sometimes a reception room. 

Only a few years ago was the school rebuilt, and Ha was allocated a separate place to teach her students.

The classroom where Ha taught her students. Photo acquired by VnExpress

The classroom where Ha currently teaches her students. Photo acquired by VnExpress

Ingrained stigma

Since her first day at the job, Ha had to deal with hurtful insults and prejudices from other people.

When she and her students finally settled down in a separate room in the primary school, they faced fierce objection from the parents of other students. 

One time some of them even brought whips and sticks to chase Ha and her students into a corner just they were a flock of ducks.

The parents asked her: "Who allowed you to teach them?" "Aren’t you afraid it will spread to our kids?"

Ha also receives suspicious looks from her neighbors whenever she invites her students home.

One neighbour told her: "Seeing those children have food in your house and play with your kids is scary."

Ha’s children are also objects of hateful comments due to her job and she struggles to hold back her tears when she talks about it.

"Sometimes I feel very sad for my own kids, since they are also judged because of my job."

Her daughter is sometimes nicknamed with the epithet "HIV" and bullied by classmates.

Ha does face a slight risk of contracting HIV from her students. One time she washed an open wound in the class water bucket and only later found out it had just been used by a student with nosebleed.

"I was actually scared since my wound was open, but I could not tell anyone. I secretly had a check-up at a hospital to make sure and told myself from then on to be more careful."

Warmth of the family

The students wrote wishes for Ha on her birthday. Photo acquired by VnExpress

Ha’s students made this birthday greeting for her, which says, "Thank you for teaching us to become good people." Photo acquired by VnExpress

But despite all the risks and insults, Ha feels the urge to support and compensate for her students’ lack of love and compassion.

Everyday in class she is like a friend and mother to her students. She is willing to listen to their concerns and tries to understand their worries.

Ha has won the trust of all her students that after class they come to her to tell their secrets or share about the changes in their body, something every child is naturally curious about.

She has gradually understood the children’s deepest desire: to have a family and love from their mother and father.

Thus, she makes an effort to get her students feel the warmth of a family: hers. She often lets them visit her house and cook meals. Some help her wash the vegetables, some help with the cooking.

"Sometimes they unconsciously call me: ‘Mom, should we do this?’"

Ha smiles at the memory.

"And they would giggle with each other and blush."

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