Mr. Rinh’s Story
I wrote about Mr Rinh’s Story for my column in Hindustan Times today. You can read it here.
There is still a lot to say about his organization VAVA and The Vietnam Friendship Village.
I spent an entire day with the children living there. The Vietnam Friendship Village houses about a hundred and twenty orphaned victims of Agent Orange. They are aged between five and twenty and have varying degrees of disability.
I was taken around the place by the kind and gentle Mrs. Ha, who has been working at the Friendship Village for a decade now. The soft-spoken lady spent several hours with me, sharing information and introducing me to the staff, volunteers and the residents.
This is a care giving home for the people affected by Agent Orange. They also have a dedicated section to support Vietnamese war veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange and are enduring the consequences in their old age.
The Friendship Village was founded by the late Mr. George Mizo; an American war veteran. You can read more about its history, founders and funders here.
I was a little intimidated about visiting this place. I was also apprehensive about taking out my camera to take pictures of the children. I asked Mrs. Ha repeatedly if it was okay for me to take their pictures. She said yes time and again. But when I finally reached there, I found myself instantly retrieving my camera, so I could hide behind it. It felt safer to view the children and their plight from behind the camera lens. Like it made it permissible to stare and focus on their disability because I had a camera in my hand. For the first five minutes, I felt sick in my stomach. Disgusted that I was clicking pictures like I was in a human zoo.
The children were beautiful. They were also painfully aware that they were different. I decided to put the camera away and first get acquainted with them. They were intrigued by my presence and slowly warmed up to me. Gradually, shy smiles gave way to big toothy grins.
As I sat there bashing myself for not having thought things through before I arrived, I knew that their story should be seen and heard by millions. They shouldn’t remain isolated and invisible because some of us might find it difficult to witness their hardship.
Some of the children didn’t want their picture taken, and I respected their decision. But others were very excited to be photographed, so I complied. One of the little boys came up to me and started posing to have his picture taken! He was ridiculously cute, clumsy and completely uninhibited. So I took his picture and before long, almost everybody wanted one!
I’m going to print the pictures and send them to Mrs. Ha so she can hand them over to their rightful owners. I’m sure they sensed my awkwardness; I found them going out of their way to make me comfortable.
The Friendship Village had quite a few volunteers as well. Well-educated students and professionals from across the world who choose to also use their time and skills outside of their high paying 9-5 jobs. Each told me how they felt enriched by their time here and that they had were convinced they would continue to volunteer, even after leaving The Friendship Village.
One of the volunteers was a young Pakistani-Canadian guy called Salman. He’d recently quit his job and is a ‘Voluntourist’ in Vietnam. He chose to experience the culture of a country by volunteering, working with the locals and by giving something back. Salman and his fried Zach were very popular with the kids. They were affectionate and attentive and quite at ease with their students.
The Friendship Village is a well-equipped facility with a fifteen member trained staff, a physiotherapy room, a clinic and several vocational training classes to make the students economically independent. But they can only house a limited number of residents.
Mr. Rinh and VAVA are currently fundraising to establish several day care centers all across Vietnam for Victims of Agent Orange. They need approximately five million dollars to build and operate the facilities and provide homes for the neediest cases. But, help will only come when people become aware of the condition and number of Vietnamese suffering because of Agent Orange. I hope I’ve done my bit.