By Dylan Foley
After Luong’s mother abandoned him in the center of Ho Chi Minh City, the nine year-old washed cars to survive. Though he was exploited by his boss and paid virtually nothing, he was glad he had a safe place to sleep.
As Vietnam undergoes rapid economic growth and much social upheaval, the number of children fleeing the desperate poverty of the countryside for the relative opportunity of the city has skyrocketed. According to several non-governmental organizations, there are 30,000 street children between six and eighteen years old in Ho Chi Minh City alone.
Though many of the street children come to Ho Chi Minh City to try to escape poverty, some run away from abusive home situations. The children work shining shoes, selling lottery tickets and newspapers. Some kids sell postcards and gum to foreigners. Others make a living as sex workers and petty thieves.
“There are three categories of street children,” said Huy Nguyen, a staff member at Save the Children UK, the British aid organization. “There are children who have no family and live and work on the street, there are children who live and work on the street with their families and there are children who spend most of their time on the streets, but do return home.”
The streets of Ho Chi Minh City can be a brutal place for the children that live on them, noted Huy Nguyen. Many of the children are routinely exploited, some beaten and others sexually abused. “There have been cases of children being kidnapped and murdered,” he said.
Several private aid groups have programs that work with street children. The Thao Dan Street Children Project was founded five years ago to help children protect themselves against economic and sexual exploitation. The group is run by a staff of 12 and has a shoestring budget of $11,000 a year from Save the Children.
The project also has 30 to 40 street children volunteer outreach workers. The outreach workers are recruited by the Street Children Project to teach their peers how to protect themselves from sexual molestation and other violence.
Last winter, Save the Children held a convention of street children from cities around Vietnam. Held in Ho Chi Minh City, the goal of the convention was to train them how to educate other kids about how to avoid HIV and AIDS. At the conference, the kids role-played on how to protect themselves from sexual abuse from both adult Vietnamese and foreigners. They were educated on the “ten golden rules” of how to avoid such abuse, including screaming to attract help and running away from trouble.
The peril is not only from adults. Recently, a 13-year-old girl who worked on the street selling lottery tickets was almost sold to a pimp by a 17-year-old hustler. Tam Truong, a former prostitute and an AIDS educator who works with Save the Children, heard about the dangers facing the girl. Truong sought her out, gained her confidence and returned the girl to her grandmother.
Harassment from the police is also commonplace. “Occasionally, the police round up street children for security reasons during big tourist events,” said a Vietnamese-American aid worker familiar with street children projects in Vietnam. “Official organizations like the Women’s Union and the Youth Union work with street children, but it is necessary to get to the root of the problem — the poverty that brings the children from the villages.” She notes that a family working in a small village may earn $150 a year, while a family in the Ho Chi Minh City may earn $900 a year.
In an effort to provide skills for the street children, the Street Children Project holds Vietnamese literacy classes and English lessons, literally on the street corner or in the public parks.
“We try to convince the children we work with to take more stable employment like factory work,” said Huy Nguyen. He explained that more lucrative jobs like shoeshine work are unsteady and can involve dangerous contact with adults.
Hong Nguyen, who is not related to Huy Nguyen, is the founder of the Thao Dan Street Children Project. An intense man in his early forties, Nguyen says that he became interested in working with street children after a rough life of his own. “I was a drug user for 23 years,” he says. “When people ask why I am good at helping children, I tell them it is because I have tasted the bitterness of life. I know that everyone has their own personal value.
“Society is quick to condemn,” he said. “For example, people say that prostitution is evil and that women who are prostitutes have choices. For the women, the choice is often between being a prostitute and not being a prostitute and starving.”
Hong Nguyen has set up two houses for 20 homeless boys, most who have been abused by older men. The first is called Safe House, which is for boys under sixteen, and the second is called Brother House, for boys sixteen to eighteen. “We encourage them to go back to their families, if possible.”
The small apartment that makes up Safe House is spartan, but the mood is lively, with the 10 boys playing a variety of games after a day of work. The children run their own newsstand and have other jobs. Luong, the nine-year-old car washer, lives at the house now. He looks three years younger than his age, but a sharp wit radiates from the boy when he is playing with his boisterous roomates.
For the long term, Hong Nguyen plans to develop a 24-hour drop-in center for street children, where they can take a shower and have a meal, and possibly even have access to basic health care.
“At Thao Dan, we also hold recreational activities and large cultural festivals for the children,” says Hong Nguyen. “We want to bring them some happiness, for their lives are so hard.”