Abandoned by parents, H'Mong siblings struggle to stay in school

By Quynh Nguyen   March 30, 2024 | 03:00 pm PT
After picking up her brother from school one Friday afternoon, Lau Thi Ca made a dash for home only to realize that there was no one waiting.

Ca, 10, is the first daughter to a H'Mong family in Xa Dung A Village, Xa Dung Commune, Dien Bien Dong District in the northern mountainous Dien Bien Province. Her brother, Lau A Linh, has turned 9.

The siblings used to live with their parents. The family relied on a few acres of cropland and cassava grown on the mountain to live by. Ca said home-cooked rice might not have tasted as good as that at school since it was often mixed with vegetables to fill the stomach, but she enjoyed having meals in her parent's company. On Monday morning, her parents drove her to school, then picked her up on Friday. Since Linh went to kindergarten near the village, he returned home every afternoon.

Ca's name (meaning "fish") carries her parent’s wish to have "oceans of" meat in their everyday’s meal, and for her to escape the "small pond" and travel the world.

Chị em Làu Thị Cá và Làu A Lính đứng trước ngôi nhà cũ của gia đình tại bản Xa Dung A, xã Xa Dung, nay đã bỏ không sau khi bố bị bắt, mẹ bỏ đi, chiều 23/2. Ảnh: Đức Anh

Lau Thi Ca (L) and younger brother Lau A Linh in front of the family's old home in Xa Dung A Village, Xa Dung Commune, now abandoned after their father’s arrest, Feb. 23, 2024. Photo by Duc Anh

But those days were distant. In 2018, Lau A Thai, the children's father, was arrested for drug trafficking and sentenced to four years in prison. A few months later, their mother left. "Mom said she was going away, but she didn't say when she would come back. Since I don’t have her phone number, there’s no way of knowing where she went," Ca said.

The then 6-year-old girl kept craving her mother's warmth. She pined for the scent of kitchen’s smoke on her clothes each night they went to bed. Ca’s eyes always saddened at the mention of her parents. However, she only dared to cry at night to avoid being seen by her younger brother.

Their grandmother Sung Thi Khua took them in. "Linh was still young and yet aware of the situation. Ca, on the other hand, had become taciturn ever since she learnt the news. Occasionally I saw her eyes turn red. I knew she missed her parents but there wasn’t anything I could do about it," Khua said.

At the age of 61, the woman was determined to work various odd jobs just so she could support her granddaughter's wish of continuing her education. Khua herself did not want the children to wind up illiterate like her nor did she want them to be tricked into committing crimes like their father.

Cô bé Cá giúp bà chăm sóc ba con bò của gia đình tại bản Xa Dung A, xã Xa Dung, chiều 23/3. Ảnh: Quỳnh Nguyễn

Lau Thi Ca helps her grandmother feed the family's three cows, March 23, 2024. Photo by Quynh Nguyen

Despite her young age, Ca already learnt to manage housework and look after her brother. She had been taking care of Linh's every meal and sleep ever since he entered first grade. Every recess, Ca would visit the boy at his class, helping him adjust to the new environment. At lunch and dinner, Ca always asked the teacher to join her brother. At home, the girl took on the responsibility of taking care of the cows, house-cleaning and cooking for the whole family.

"I am totally capable. Plus, this would lift the burden off my grandma, uncle and aunt’s shoulders," Ca said.

At the end of 2023, Ca's father Thai was released from prison. Upon reunion, he took his children to the market to buy new clothes, came home to cook for them and promised to take care of them like the old days. Yet, only a month later, the man was once again arrested for drug trafficking.

Once again, Ca and Linh returned to live with their grandmother.

Having matured considerably after years of living with her grandmother, Ca still longed for her parents every day. Sometimes, when sitting by the fire, she would ask: "When will my brother and I be able to go home?". The grandmother could only answer her with a tight embrace.

Despite all adversity, Khua encouraged her granddaughter to do her best in school so that one day she could further pursue education outside the remote mountainous district. Only when leaving the village could she escape poverty, know right from wrong and not follow in her parent's footsteps.

Bà Sùng Thị Khua cùng hai cháu Làu Thị Cá và Làu A Lính ngồi trước cửa nhà tại bản Xa Dung A, xã Xa Dung, chiều 23/2. Ảnh: Quỳnh Nguyễn

Sung Thi Khua and her two grandchildren in front of their house in Dien Bien Province, Feb. 23, 2024. Photo by Quynh Nguyen

Lo Van Du, a teacher at Quang Trung Primary Ethnic Boarding School, deemed Lau Thi Ca and Lau A Linh’s family situation particularly difficult.

"Despite being a poor household, the family still tried in earnest to sustain the children’s education. The school and its teachers have also made efforts to provide them with the most favorable condition possible," Du commented.

To improve educational opportunities for students in the highlands, Hope Foundation continues to accept donations for the Schools of Sunshine program. Each contribution from the community means another ray of light sent to future generations of the country. Click here for further information on the program.

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