Saigon shelter helps sexually abused children deal with trauma

By Uyen Trinh   November 5, 2019 | 10:45 pm PT
Saigon shelter helps sexually abused children deal with trauma
Children at the "Ngoi Nha Nhip Cau Hanh Phuc" shelter are playing outside. Photo courtesy of Yen Thao.
For 10 years now, a house in Saigon's District 9 has been a haven for sexually abused children.

"Ngoi Nha Nhip Cau Hanh Phuc" (The Bridge to Happiness Shelter) is a campus that hosts children who were abused or at high risk of becoming victims of sexual abuse.

It is housed in a spacious house with more than 10 rooms, protected by a high and sturdy gate, located in an alley in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 9.

Nguyen Yen Thao, 38, general manager of the center, is typically greeted by a dozen girls between the age of five to six years old in school uniforms when she arrives for work. They show off the work they have done and the marks they have received for it.

At first glance, it is hard to believe that such innocent girls have to be kept away from the outside world.

"No child wants to live far away from their family. But since they were being abused by their own loved ones, we cannot let a child continue to live in such an environment," Thao said.

Once they get information from the press or local authorities, Thao and her colleagues visit the victim’s house and discuss moving them to the shelter.

One of the girls in the shelter is in the fifth grade with a body so scrawny that she looks more like a second grade student. She used to live far away from her parents with her grandparents. She was abused by her own grandfather.

Upon discovering the abuse, her shocked grandmother struggled to find a place for the girl to stay. On the recommendation of local authorities, she sent her granddaughter to the District 9 campus. The grandmother was heartbroken and in tears the day she took the little one to the campus, but her own home was no longer a safe place.

Quynh Ngoc, a care giver at the center, said the children are usually taciturn and stiff when they first arrive, traumatized by the abuse they have suffered. Some wake up in the middle of the night screaming and crying.

"We had a girl who ran to the river to commit suicide, but we saw her in time and brought her back.

Nguyen Yen Thao (L) and rescued children at the Ngoi Nha Nhip Cau Hanh Phuc in District 9, Saigon. Photo by VnExpress/Yen Thao.

Nguyen Yen Thao (L) and some of the rescued children at the "Ngoi Nha Nhip Cau Hanh Phuc" shelter. Photo courtesy of Yen Thao.

Yet another girl, who had been rescued after being trafficked to Singapore, was so traumatized that she screamed often, had nightmares and ran aimlessly back and forth around the house for a very long time. It took years of treatment before the knowledge that she was loved healed her.

She is back with her family now, and happy.


To avoid any disruption in the lives of the children that could trigger some damage, the shelters has restrictions on outside visitors.

Organizations and individuals wishing to visit must sign a written commitment on information security and to the shelter’s child protection policy. They cannot take photos or videos, disclose information, ask children questions on sensitive issues, and not prompt them to recall previous experiences.

Here they can head to public school, where the school and the home room teacher already talked previously to Thao about each student cases, and learn about life skills at the center.

Twice a week, a psychologist spends some time with the children. In cases where the children have been severely traumatized, the expert will monitor the treatment process far more closely.

"Psychological treatment for children is a difficult process. It can’t be done in a day or two. We would do anything within our ability to support and give them a healthy living environment," Thao said.

Once they turn 18, the girls at the shelter undergo vocational training, or attend colleges and universities depending on their ability, and learn to step outside and make more friends.

The children are allowed to go home on holidays. If any child wants to go home, or the family requests it, the center and the family will discuss the visit based on latest information and take a decision.

The shelter was established in 2009 by an international non-governmental organization (INGO) run by overseas Vietnamese in the U.S. called One Body Village. The facility operates under the management of the Vietnam Association of Psychology and Education (VAPE).

Ly Le Hang, chief of office of VAPE for the southern region, said the facility has provided medical treatment, meals and learning opportunities for children for many years now. The center also provides financial support to needy families from out of town.

"Many families wouldn’t know where to take children if a place like this did not exist. I have attended the wedding of one of the girls who grew up here. Other children often return to visit the shelter and help other children in their same situation."

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