Yesterday we visited two more orphanages in the Cu Chi district. The first orphanage, called Thiên Phuóc, was especially for children with severe brain damage and physical deformities. It was definitely what you think of when you imagine a developing country’s institutions. Two floors of children and very few staff. Many children were tied to the beds or wrapped in sacks to keep them from getting out of the cribs and hurting themselves or others. Assembly line-like feeding, cleaning, dressing etc. It was very evident most of the children were also failure to thrive and had even more severe developmental disabilities due to lack of the nurturing interactions and attachments needed for development. The workers were very caring and appeared to be doing everything they could to meet all of the children’s physical needs, but don’t have time to meet any needs beyond that. We were able to smile with the children, make them laugh, soothe their emotional needs as you would an infant ( rubbing their backs, talking to them, soothing them). We left the children each with a stuffed animal, the ones who were able to have one. They appeared very excited to have something to look at and hold other than staring at the ceiling.
Next, we walked right across the street to another orphanage run by a nun. Yes, ‘a’ as in one, single, spectacular woman who started and runs the entire place. This orphanage is for children diagnosed with HIV. It houses 21 children currently and also houses about 30 adults who are in the more progressive stages of the disease. The adults are given medical treatment while they are there and this a safe haven from the community that has shunned them. It was explained to us that the residents who begin to respond to the medical treatment are trained and they help caring for and provide treatment for other residents. We didn’t have anything to offer the adults because we did not know until we arrived they would be there. We did give them each a bag of candy and they were so excited about this and excited to just have visitors. I would have loved to bring some board games to spend more time engaging with them.
The children in this orphanage do not attend school due to the community (especially schools) shunning children with HIV. Some of the children are sent to a boarding school hours away where their medical history is able to be a secret. The others spend all of their time in the orphanage and sometimes teachers are paid to come in and teach them there. But it is even difficult to find a teacher who will do this due to the extreme stigma associated with HIV. I was able to do the same lesson plan with these children (read a book about making positive self statements and believing in yourself, talked about and validated feelings, and allowed the children to create their own activity page on what they like about themselves and their own strengths). As if children who are orphaned don’t already have enough self esteem issues with the abandonment and lack of attachments children in families thrive from, these children also have a diagnosis they know has shunned them from school, from any possibility of life outside the orphanage walls. These children were especially involved in the self esteem activity. When encouraged to share her activity page, one girl identified wanting to be a doctor one day. It was a heartbreaking moment when the five year old stood up and pointed to a sad face she drew and explained she was sad she could not go to school like other children could. She said she was sad people outside of here did not want to be her friend.
I had told them all they were special and that they mattered. I wanted them to know I was glad I met them. I’m not sure if it fell on deaf ears but what do you expect in a world that has been so deaf to their suffering, to the suffering of millions of children like this girl worldwide. As we were leaving, we noticed another building that was a part of the organization. The nun told us it was their funeral home.
It can feel pretty depressing when you feel like there is not much you can really do. But what I can do is promise to not stop telling this story. The story of a little girl in Vietnam who wants to be a doctor, who wants to have friends. I won’t stop telling her story. Not until the world listens.