Life of a woman with no birth certificate till age 82

By Diep Phan   November 15, 2019 | 10:43 pm PT
Chau Ngoc Nu, 82, of Saigon has never had a birth certificate and thus no health insurance or healthcare.

She gropes in her pocket and comes up with a pill. She has been told by the doctor to take two of them at a time, but says can only afford one.

But things might finally be changing. The 82-year-old from Thanh Loc Ward, District 12 now has the opportunity to buy an insurance card thanks to the new birth certificate issued last April two years after her first ever application. She hopes to have an ID card and insurance soon to be able to take her medication fully. 

She has carefully wrapped it in two layers of plastic and tucked it under layers of clothes in a locked cupboard. She proudly tells people it is the first time she has ever had a piece of paper stamped in red. But she is illiterate and cannot read it.

"Sadly, if I had not run away from an orphanage when I was young, my life would not have been such an ordeal without any identification [papers]."

This week a family in District 12 allowed Nu and her 26-year-old grandson to add their names to their household register since she now has a birth certificate. 

Chau Ngoc Nu, 82. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Chau Ngoc Nu, 82. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Nu was sent to an orphanage at the age of three when her parents died. When she was eight she was persuaded by her sisters to escape from the orphanage, and they lived on the streets.

She did many jobs, initially picking discarded bottles, then buying a tricycle to sell vegetables at markets. Occasionally she sold lottery tickets. At night she and her sisters slept under a bridge or on the sidewalk. 

One night, when she was 35, she gave birth to a daughter on a sidewalk under the porch of a large house. She named her Le Thi Kim Thanh. Thanh grew up without a birth certificate or medical care since her mother did not have ID papers.

They used to sleep on the sidewalk.  

Thanh, 47, says she and her mother used to apply for many jobs -- shopkeeper, babysitter, house cleaner, and others -- but always returned to picking bottles because no one wanted to hire them permanently without IDs and always told them to quit.

When Thanh delivered a baby, the family considered renting a house. But without any form of identification, finding accommodation was difficult, and so for more than 20 years they have only changed their house once. 

A kind person allowed her family to stay for more than nine years in a 10 sq.m house with a corrugated roof for VND1 million ($45) a month. 

Living with Nu and her daughter is her grandson, 26, who works as a water carrier. He has a birth certificate but not an ID card.

Nu now suffers from heart disease and brain ischemia. The doctor prescribed six pills for the brain to be taken daily, but she can only afford three. But with heart medication being relatively cheaper, she can afford to take the full dose.

Five years ago she broke a leg in an accident but did not go to hospital. Her leg pained badly and was clearly crooked, but she could do nothing. 

Now she only can take short steps and walk very slowly, and her eyes are blurry, and so she does not dare go too far to pick empty bottles.

A few years ago Thanh had stomach ulcer and had to stay at home for nearly a month. She was lucky to be helped by his neighbors, who took her to a hospital. Otherwise she would have died then, Nu says. "As usual the hospital asked for insurance and we were so anxious about that."

Nu realized she needed health insurance but required an identity card to obtain. To get an identity card, she needed a birth certificate. So she began the process of obtaining one.

Nu collects bottles and sells them. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Nu collects bottles and sells them. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Nu’s day usually starts at 2 a.m.  She needs to wake up early and pick bottles before 5 a.m. when the garbage truck arrives to collect garbage. After 5 a.m. there won’t be any bottles to pick. The income earned by mother and daughter by picking bottles and the VND4.5 million ($194) her grandson earns are just enough for food.

She does not know how much longer she can live, but still wants an ID card to get health insurance and hopefully help her grandson get married and find a better job.

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