Odds stacked heavily against Saigon slums' migrant kids

By Hong Phuc   January 2, 2020 | 04:03 am PT
Chau hates Tet. Vietnam's Lunar New Year festival, the happiest time of the year for millions, is not a holiday that Chau, all of 13 years old, looks forward to.

She dislikes the festival because she would not be able to go to school and work. She always wants Tet to end soon so that she can continue studying and working.

She's not had any food for two days. She has rice, but no money to buy any other food. She has to tend to younger siblings, too.

Chau works as a dishwasher at a restanrant in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Thanh.

Chau works as a dishwasher at a restanrant in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Thanh.

Her story

Six years ago, Chau watched a man stab her stepfather to death.

The man had accompanied a moneylender to Chau's house in District 12, Ho Chi Minh City.

"How dare you run away without paying the debt?" the moneylender asked.

Chau's mother pleaded: "We don't have the money now, please give us a little more time."

She begged: "Please, please reduce the interest." (Private moneylenders extort huge amounts of interest – 60 to 120 percent a year – and compound it at will.)

Chau’s stepfather returned home then after a party at work. He was too drunk to provide any intelligible answer, let alone handle the aggression of the moneylender's driver/hired thug. All of a sudden, the driver drew a pocket knife and stabbed Chau's stepfather three times before fleeing.

As her stepfather collapsed, Chau's mother stood stunned for a moment before screaming for help. A few neighbors responded and took them to the hospital. On the hospital bed, the stepfather lay motionless in his blood-stained shirt. He barely regained consciousness after two hours. "Try to live," he said, before taking his last breath.

Chau stands outside of her familys lodging. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Thanh. 

Chau stands outside of her family's lodging. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Thanh. 

Chau was 7 then, and she had two younger half-siblings.

A year earlier, her family had borrowed a little money for food and to pay hospital bills for the two youngest children. The daily interest on the loan piled up. From a few hundred thousand dong ($5-50), the debt stacked up to almost VND30 million ($1,400) in no time. Chau’s parents could find no way to repay the loan, and it kept mounting.

Recalling that fateful evening, Chau still cannot understand how the driver, a man they knew, could stab her beloved stepfather. Later, when the police visited, they claimed that the driver was on drugs and not able to control himself.

When the stepfather’s body was taken back to his hometown in the Ben Tre Province, Chau could not go along as she was not his daughter by blood. However, for her, he was not just a stepfather, he was the only father she'd known, the only person who cared for her when she was sick, the only one who did not abuse her. He was so much better than the inveterate gambler who, despite giving birth to her, had neglected her and the family.

Chau’s family is among many migrant households that eke out a hand to mouth existence in HCMC. While parents go to work and return late or rarely, the children have to manage on their own. Going to school is a fancy dream. With almost no education and parental care, the children face an uncertain, troubled future.

Despite the debt cancelled by default after her stepfather's murder, life did not get better for Chau's family. They could not afford even the meager rent anymore and were forced to move out and settle in an illegal slum on the bank of canals in District 8, HCMC for VND700,000 a month ($30).

In their "house" built with leftover materials, wooden sticks for frame and plastic panels for walls, the children lived together, while their mother worked outside, coming home only every month or two for a few hours to give them some money.

Chau began to work when she was 10. She helped sell kitchen pots and pans at the Kim Thanh market from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. She did not earn much, but got enough for a meal for her siblings, most days. But every once in a while, she would be scolded by customers demanding refunds for low-quality products. That day, she and her younger siblings would go hungry, and wait for Chau’s next workday.

The part she disliked most about her work was delivering things. She would have to walk for several kilometers, starved and dehydrated. There are times she fainted on the way.

After two months, she quit and went around the market working for anyone who needed her. From selling groceries to cleaning dishes. If Chau worked a whole day, she would receive VND100,000 ($4). If the work was hour-based, sometimes she received money, sometimes food.

On a bad day, all three siblings walked around the slum waiting for some kind neighbors to give them some food. Once, they went without food for a week.

Last year, one neighbor asked Chau to join her to work in a printing factory. Working from 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. a day, Chau did not feel tired. She liked working in the factory, as the co-workers usually shared food with her.

A glimmer of hope

One day, Chau met Lan, a girl in a relatively similar situation, whose parents migrated from the countryside and worked as manual laborers, supporting five children. Chau then met Lan's teacher, Ms Hanh with the Binh An charity school. The teacher invited Chau to join the school.

The following week, Chau and Lan attended the school opening ceremony. Each student was given a meal, some textbooks and a school bag, and two white school uniforms. The uniforms were not new, and had name tags of someone else sewed on them. After returning from school, Chau would quickly wash the shirt so that she could wear it the following morning.

Her familys only property is a bare mattress. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Thanh.

Chau's family's only property is a bare mattress. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Thanh.

From then onwards, Chau woke up everyday at 4:30 a.m. to clean up and prepare food. She would wake her two siblings up at 5 a.m. and get them cleaned up before breakfast. At 5:30, she would take them to school, seven km away, on a bicycle. They would return from school at noon. On some days, Chau would leave immediately for work after school. Some days, she gets a little time to rest. When she goes to work, the two siblings play around in the neighborhood, waiting for the big sister to return with food.

At the Binh An Charity School, it is taken for granted that all the students lack almost everything, from quantifiable needs like money, legal documents and adequate nutrition, to unquantifiable ones like the care of a loving family. Chau, like many other students there, had not even realized the extent of her neediness. For example, her need for personal hygiene was almost non-existent. She did not seem remotely bothered with a head whitened from lice.

After their ‘house’ collapsed in last year’s heavy rains, Chau’s mother was forced to find new lodging, which was, unfortunately, more expensive, forcing her to work extra shifts till midnight every day. The situation has further deprived Chau and her siblings of their mother’s attention. The mother does not know that Chau works, and that she recently burned her hands badly at work.

"Nobody cares for me anymore," said Chau, crying. "Nothing is fun anymore, except practising how to write," she said. "I usually sleep to forget that I’m sad."

Precarious existence

Unfortunately, Chau’s story is not an exception in Saigon. Just within District 8, the teachers of Binh An school have already met with hundreds of children with no parental care, no home, and no dream.

Children like Chau put away their school uniform and put on their work uniform each day. As laborers, they do any work, from farming to collecting garbage, to support themselves. The fact that they even go to class is already a miracle. Their circumstances ensure that there is no normal age group in a grade.

Another student nicknamed "Nam Do" used to sell snacks at pubs every night. If he went home without selling everything, his mother hit him. One day, he just quit school and focused on work. He had just completed his first grade. It was only after he turned 14 that he returned to school.  

Second grader Tran Ngoc Diem, 11 years old, also sell snacks at pubs near the area.

Nguyen Thi My Hanh, 10 years old, a 4th grader, helps parents collect plastic bags near the Binh Dien market. The day Hanh attended her first time, her whole family insisted on going along to make sure that the school was not a scam.

Third grader Vo Van Minh, 13 years old, 3rd grader, is a farmer in Binh Chanh District. Every morning, he cycles half an hour to class from his family’s rental lodging near Nguyen Van Linh Highway. After school, he farms a plot outside his ‘house’, feeds ducks and harvests some crops for selling. He loves going to school because he has friends there.

Minh’s family used to live on a small boat before a storm sank it in 1997. The family moved around, collecting trash in Dong Thanh Commune, Hoc Mon District, gardening in Binh Phuoc Province which is three hours away, and collecting plastic bags in Binh Dien Market, before farming in Binh Chanh. With all the changes happening, Minh still managed to study at Binh An school for five years and got to the 3rd grade.

"I will let him study," Minh’s father promises. He is afraid that his son would be illiterate like him and many other parents whose children go to the Binh An school.

Hanh, the teacher, regularly goes to many shops to convince children working there to go to school. Getting them to school is hard enough, but making them stay is even harder. The students are prone to fighting in the class. If they are not fighting, they are prone to dozing off, because they are tired, working hard as they do, on their own or helping their parents. There have been several instances of malnourished students fainting.

A class at the Binh An School. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Thanh. 

A class at the Binh An Charity School in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Thanh. 

Tough gets tougher

Some female students, after finishing their fifth grade and graduating from the primary school, have got pregnant at 16, Hanh said.

Teachers at this school have to do much more than teach their classes. Every student dropping out saddens them. They repeatedly try to convince parents to send their children to school. They find donated bicycles to enable students attend school. They have even helped parents by a scooter or motorbike so that they can take their children to school. And on some occasions, the teachers have even hired drivers to pick children up. They seek help from the public to help feed the children and go out of their way to help their wards get birth certificates, where possible.

The Binh An school has been open for nine years now, and the teachers are still struggling to help their students. The struggle gets harder at Tet time. After the holiday break, about 10 percent of students drop out. The hardest fact to bear is that parents are often the people preventing their children from attending school, denying the latter an opportunity to better their lives and their future.

Children of slums are unlikely to get any education if such schools don’t exist. And without basic education and the experience of being in a school with friends, children are more easily drawn to drug abuse and other harmful actions, further compromising their future.

To keep their students, Binh An school hosts frequent events to entertain them. On November 20, the National Teachers’ Day, for instance, the organize a ceremony for the students, instead of the other way around. The teachers don’t need any ceremony for themselves, "as long as they keep going to school," Hanh said.

"We only have one dream, that the get to go to school, get to be loved, so that when they grow up, no matter how poor, they will remain humane and decent to other people."

For her part, Chau intends to stop going to school after the 4th grade.

"I need to work. I need money to fix the bicycle, (given by her teacher)," she said. Chau is more worried about her youngest sibling, who she has to leave at home if she goes to work regularly.

"My little sister is shy. If she cannot go to school, she would become a dull person. I feel very sad for her."

*While you are here, we would like to request you to donate to an initiative undertaken by VnExpress’s Hope Foundation. We are running a campaign to deliver 1,200 gift packages to poor students and disadvantaged people across Vietnam this Lunar New Year, which peaks on January 25. For donation information, please click here.

go to top