Off the street, into the kitchen: Vietnamese kids find path out of poverty

By Thuy Vi   December 26, 2016 | 11:00 am PT
Off the street, into the kitchen: Vietnamese kids find path out of poverty
A Streets trainee with a foreign customer in Hoi An. Photo courtesy of Streets International
A Hoi An social enterprise expands its hospitality training to Ho Chi Minh City as donations tighten.

A Hoi An-based restaurant and tourism company that claims to have equipped over 200 Vietnamese kids for the hospitality industry is expanding operations to Ho Chi Minh City.

“Street kid restaurants have so much potential," said Neal Bermas, a New York businessman and hospitality consultant who founded Streets in 2007. "Tourism creates jobs and opportunities that are often unmet because it brings five-star restaurants to a population that is untrained to take those jobs.”

Over the years, Bermas said only two students have dropped out of Streets' 18-month training program "for personal reasons," two others were asked to leave for violating rules on fighting and smoking.

The rest of its graduates all found work within 60 days of leaving the program. Some have gone on to jobs at five-star hotels, resorts and restaurants where they can earn salaries of up to $1,000 a month.

Streets’ team of 35 Vietnamese nationals welcomes a new class of 25 trainees to its facility in the central town of Hoi An every nine months.

Many of the trainees grew up in orphanages; others fell victim to trafficking.

Each student must be at least 17 years old so they can legally start work after completing the program, which offers training in English, hospitality and culinary skills.

The organization houses its trainees in a supervised dormitory that sits on the same campus as its restaurant and tourism facility which offers cooking-classes and market tours in one of Vietnam's most-visited tourist towns.

Trainees all apprentice for 18 months with the full-time professional staff at the restaurant that helps generate funds for the project.

A little bit business, a little bit charity

Bermas reported spending 60 hours per week on the project, which he prefers to call a social enterprise as opposed to a charity.

While he takes no salary, some of his travel expenses are paid for by the charity. In 2014, STREETS reported an estimated $36,000 in compensation for expenses, but Bermas says his actual expenses were less than half that amount

He calls Streets “a little bit of NGO, a little bit of business" and says the Hoi An restaurant now generates enough money to pay its own bills.

"We want to educate and support the children to be self-sufficient, so we should have that same philosophy; we have to be sufficient.”

Now that the operation in Hoi An has welcomed its tenth class, Streets has already started with the first Ho Chi Minh City class, as well.

Bermas, who visited the country for the first time 18 years ago, can recall bands of children begging for milk in front of the Rex Hotel. He returned every year afterward, a habit he attributes to having “grown up deeply touched” by opposition to the Vietnam War.

Bermas hopes to provide a model for other street kid sponsorship organizations in Vietnam and the surrounding countries.

He's particularly concerned about providing new opportunities to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) children in Ho Chi Minh City, where he just opened a base in early December.

“Nobody in Hoi An is yet talking about LGBT kids, but we do here and we should," he said. "That presents some new challenges, but it will make us better.”

The organization has recruited several openly transgender teens into his first class and has been warned that the idea is “too ambitious” given the team’s lack of expertise in the area.

“But we shouldn’t be scared about not doing this because we’ll make mistakes,” he said, arguing that the whole world is only just beginning to seriously address the rights of transgender people.

“If we’re concerned about dignity and choice, we should be inclusive. There may be uncomfortable moments, but how do we ever learn?”

Bermas said that many of the ethnic minority teens didn't know how to use an indoor shower when they arrived at Streets; now they make more money than their parents could have ever imagined, expressing confidence that his LGBT students will work out just fine.

Evaluating hospitality training

Pham Kieu Oanh, founder and CEO of the Hanoi-based Center for Social Initiatives Promotion, said hospitality training provides suitable support for the children who lack academic skills, but demonstrate the agility and flexibility required by the tourism industry.

Oanh said decent programs don't just teach candidates how to cook or serve in a restaurant, but to develop practical and communication skills that real life demands.

“They’ve had these huge changes in their thinking, their behaviors and they’ve learned to adjust themselves to fit in the community," she said. "That makes them more confident and protects them from discrimination.”


A Streets trainee during a bartending class. Photo courtesy of Streets International

Vo Quoc, a Ho Chi Minh City chef who has offered restaurant training to street kids for eight years, also said that hospitality training is the most efficient way to help those on the streets.

“I don’t need a lot of money to help them because I can use my own expertise,” Quoc said. "They can quickly generate an income."

Many who graduate from his training course go on to open restaurants in other provinces. Around 20 have migrated overseas to open Vietnamese restaurants.

Quoc, who offers cooking classes in his spare time, said after a couple months’ training, he can tell who is fit for restaurant work. For those who are not, Quoc tries to find other opportunities through his wide network of friends and associates.

But what if there is no network?

Pamela Cox, a professor of sociology at the University of Essex, said that any support programs for street children need effective partnerships with local employers to really work well.

“Putting some kids through hospitality training is a worthwhile pursuit — all the time that there are no alternatives to them,” she wrote in an email.

Cox worked in Vietnam as a youth justice consultant between 2006 and 2009 and found that the country remanded relatively few children to reform schools compared to the U.S. or the U.K.

Ultimately, she thought it would be easier for the country to close down the few schools it had and start over again than it would to improve existing ones.

She expressed even further concern about teens funneled into the country's adult prison system.

“Vietnam faces huge law reform and welfare challenges — and, sadly, youth justice issues aren’t high within those agenda,” she said.

The welfare war

Money is a big problem for street children organizations outside the government system.

Bermas says funding presents his biggest challenge. “It’s very difficult,” he said.

Several of Vietnam’s NGOs share a similar mission.

KOTO, which is likely Streets' biggest competitor, has operated in Ho Chi Minh City since 2010, while Blue Dragon, a Hanoi-based group with a bigger focus on rescuing trafficking victims, also enjoys broader recognition.

Streets received about $1.2 million worth of donations between 2010 and 2014, according to US tax filings. Two years ago, they raised $342,000 while the restaurant reported a net income of about $53,000, after all costs were paid.

This year, Bermas says the Hoi An restaurant did over half a million dollars in business. "We're paying our own bills," he said.

Still, the team said it has been frustrating raising funds to start the business in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the most expensive places in Vietnam, where rent and salaries are four to five times higher than in Hoi An.

Streets initially received a lot of support from Australia, Europe and the US, but “very little came from Vietnam,” Bermas said, suggesting that many people here prefer to keep wealth within the family.

Bermas said the business community in Ho Chi Minh City quickly offered support of their new venture, but individual donors are harder to come by.

“There are some quite wealthy people, but they have not learned to share outside of the immediate family,” Bermas said, noting a rise in conspicuous consumption that threatens the country’s social welfare system.

The government recently reported that at least a million Vietnamese remain undernourished and roughly ten percent of the population remains below Vietnam's poverty line, an average annual income of less than $374 per year.

“Vietnam has to be very careful to make sure that when it develops wealth, it does not develop poverty at the same time,” Bermas said.

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> Heartbreaking dropout letter of Vietnamese student points to perils of poverty

> World Bank: inequality threatens fight against extreme poverty

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