Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Julia’s field diary: children with disabilities in Da Nang

UNICEF intern Julia Hartelius at a day-care centre for children with disabilities
© UNICEF Viet Nam/2012/Hartelius
Julia Hartelius is a Swedish student who has been interning at UNICEF Viet Nam’s Child Protection section in Ha Noi since 6 August 2012. In this field diary, she shares her impressions and reflections during a trip to visit UNICEF’s work in support of children with disabilities in Viet Nam’s coastal city: Da Nang. Da Nang is one of the three hot spots of Agent Orange in Viet Nam; the dioxin contamination of its airport is one of the vestiges of the toxic chemicals stored and sprayed by the US military during the war in Viet Nam.

Da Nang, Vietnam, 25 September 2012
What an amazing day! Like the beautiful roses given to me by equally beautiful children, I am now slightly wilted; overwhelmed and grateful for the day’s experiences. After arriving in Da Nang the evening before, I set off in the morning towards the Respite Day Care Centre for Children with Disabilities in Da Nang, one of three centres currently operated by Da Nang’s Association for Victims of Agent Orange (DAVA). The centres provide basic care, education, vocational training and rehabilitation services to children with disabilities, including Agent Orange victims. The responsibility of funding lies with DAVA; 70 % of the resources that are given are from organisations and individuals within Da Nang, 30 % is from different international NGOs and development partners, including UNICEF. Thanks to the support from UNICEF and other organizations, they have secured the resources to offer an improved environment for these children, given them and their families support for a better life. The ultimate goal is to provide the children with a place to develop to the best of their ability with their peers and friends; a relief is given to the family, enabling care givers who would otherwise need to dedicate all their time to their child, to engage in income-generating activities and help the economic situation of the family.

Everyone should start their day like this! The rumbling train passing by the centre, could not overpower the amazing welcome we were given, stepping into the class room at the centre in Lien Chien disctrict. Shouts, laughter and smiles greeted me, and I have never felt so welcomed.  The centre opened in 2006 and currently provides for 56 children, most of them with severe disabilities. The centre opens at 7.30 a.m. when the care-takers of the children drop them off, and closes with the children getting picked up between 4.30 and 5 pm, a healthy lunch is also provided for. The facilities are clean and colourful, there is one classroom, one vocational training room and a dining area in the court yard, a peaceful oasis off the busy streets that surround the centre. Included in the dining area is a stage – and did they ever use that stage!  After I arrived, the show started. Traditional dance performances were soon replaced by a free-for-all dancing spree, of which I gladly joined in. As a Swede in a warm country, dancing with the most energetic dancers I have ever encountered, I was soon less than fresh, but was still embraced in a hug after being given a necklace from Doung, one of the students at the centre. I then sat and talked to Ho Minh Hai on the swing bench, who was also a little tired from all the dancing. Ho Minh Hai is seventeen and has been attending the centre for seven years, since it was established. He smiled when I asked him if he liked the centre, and said that he did, very much so. Ho Minh Hai is the oldest of four children, his father is a fisherman and his mother sells fish at the market. A little shy but very sweet he let me film the two of us together. Shortly thereafter I had to leave, it was sad to go but I was so grateful to have met these amazing children, who strive for their fullest potential, help each other, greet a stranger like a friend, laugh, dance like no others, and hold someone with a warm hand.

Julia Hartelius posing with seveteen year-old Ho Minh Hoai (right).
© UNICEF Viet Nam/2012/Hartelius
After lunch we drove to Centre 3, about 25 km from the city. Still fascinated by the steep mountains around the country, I looked through the window of the car, going from a city,- quieter than Ha Noi -  but still a bustling town, to a quiet area. This centre is newly established and has been running since 2011; the facilities are new and the white paint on the outside is still bright, made even more so by the magnificent sunshine that had been beaming on us from early morning. Another amazing welcome! First being taken by the hand by lovely and friendly children who smiled at me. More dancing! Two of the children sang a song, cheered on by their peers; then a fashion show, a dance by children with hearing disabilities, a dragon dance and again, a free for all dance! My UNICEF colleague Duyen became overwhelmed during the performances, seeing how little things done here can make these children so happy, they are grateful for all that is given them. I met a beautiful girl (xinh qua!) who was sitting on the school bench behind me. Her name is Diem and she has only been attending the centre for two months, before that she did not go to school. After finishing 5th grade she could no longer go the long distance from her house to the school, and therefore had to leave. Her mother now drops her off everyday, as they live close by. Diem likes the activities at the centre; especially the sewing and knitting taught during the vocational training, she hopes to be a tailor when she grows up. Diem is fourteen years old; also the oldest child of three, her father is a fisherman and her mother makes fishing baskets.

During our tour of the Centre, Mr. Phan Thanh Tien, the Vice-President of DAVA, tells me that the rehabilitation rooms, currently empty, will soon be filled with rehabilitation equipment funded by UNICEF, which will give the children an opportunity to physically strengthen themselves.  Mr. Tien has during the day been wonderful guide, making us feel welcomed and gladly telling us about the different centres and their services. He has clearly emphasised the need for constant fundraising in order to keep the centres running. UNCIEF’s support and other partners cannot fund all the services provided at the centre and there is a constant struggle to sustain the centre.

Da Nang, 26 September 2012, Social Work Service Centre
Early morning started at 7.30 am with my lovely colleague Duyen bringing some Vietnamese coffee – it really grows on you! We arrived at the Social Work Service Centre, which was established in 2010, but has recently been further improved and was finished as late as yesterday evening. The staff must have been working hard because the facilities look lovely and homey already, with colourful pictures, a brand new playroom, rehabilitation facilities, offices and a conference room, where we would spend the first part of the day. I was a bit nervous to say the least, I was now going to deliver a presentation of the rights of children with disabilities in Viet Nam; as stated both in international treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as national law: the Law on Child Protection, Care and Education (2004) and the Law on Persons with Disabilities (2010). This workshop was both a pre-test to see if the material developed was relevant and understandable to persons working with children with disabilities. A focus group discussion was to provide us with feedback and comments on the material. Some of the material I had drafted! The crowd was a bit tough to win over but I delivered my presentation to the best of my ability. And the exercises I had composed were done in two groups, with many voices and energy - a good sign - even though I had no idea what they were actually saying, since in Vietnamese. The summary translations given in a whisper to me by Duyen sounded like comments that would be very productive in the revision of the information booklet. Ah, my part was done! We then set out for lunch. With four Vietnamese women and myself I felt tall and a little out of place, but they were most considerate of me and took me for my first ever Banh Xeo, delicious pancake/crepe/omelette-like dish with pork, lettuce, and the most yummy sauce that one would dip all the deliciousness in. More Vietnamese coffee for me, juice for the ladies. The people I have met at the centre have all been lovely, and it is clear that their work is something that they love to do.

Children attending a non-formal education class at the day-care centre
© UNICEF Viet Nam/2012/Hartelius
This centre was established in March 2010 by the People’s Committee of Da Nang, and is operating under the management of the provincial Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (DOLISA). It organises communication and education workshops, counselling services and life skills training for vulnerable groups. It has professional experts and further relies on a network of volunteers and collaborators all over Da Nang. The funds from the People’s Committee of Da Nang are limited and only provide for salary of four staff members – the rest is raised by the centre from NGOs and individuals as well as international organisations. In the future the Centre is looking to build capacity in communication to improve public awareness and knowledge; to strengthen their network; to conduct training for staff of the centre, collaborators and volunteers in social work and child protection, to mobilize resources together with concerned departments to provide comprehensive needs assessment, case management and services for people and children with disabilities in two districts.

The improvement of the implementation of the rights of children with disabilities in Da Nang is a result of international NGOs, and UNICEF, providing technical and financial support to the local authorities in Da Nang. These include DOLISA, the Department of Education and Training (DOET), the Department of Health (DOH), the Department of Foreign Affairs (DOFA) and Da Nang’s Association for Victims of Agent Orange (DAVA). The work done on a multi-sectoral level has for instance resulted in a provincial framework of policies, implementation and support, for example the provincial plan of action to support for 2011-2015. 

On Wednesday evening we went to pick up the rest of our delegation for the Da Nang visit; Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF’s Representative in Viet Nam, and Dan Toole, regional director for UNICEF in East Asia and the Pacific. After a lovely dinner, we all went to get an early night’s sleep.

Da Nang, 27 September 2012,
Up again early! This time for the official visit of Ms. Sylwander and Mr. Toole to Da Nang’s People’s Committee and its Vice-Chair Mr. Xuan Anh. Here the support by UNICEF for the last three years was greatly acknowledged and appreciated. Mr Toole shared his impression of social welfare being of equal importance to economic issues in Da Nang, which he found to be greatly progressive. Mr. Toole continued to state that he saw Da Nang as an example of how a supportive and caring environment for children with disabilities is possible, and asked Da Nang to share the knowledge and resources with representatives from other provinces. We were then off to Centre three and I would have the opportunity to see those lovely kids again.

While the others received a tour of the centre, I went directly to the children. The rehabilitation room had been filled with equipment, funded by UNICEF. It was here I met Mai.

Children attending a non-formal education class at the day-care centre
© UNICEF Viet Nam/2012/Hartelius
Mai has severe disabilities and will not be able to learn a profession. She has been here since the centre opened, Le Thi Hoa tells me, who is part of the staff and in charge of the rehabilitation activities of the centre. Mai is 22 years old but has the mental capacities of a young child. Mai is one of the children and young people who get picked up by the bus, provided by UNICEF, that goes around in the rural area so s to ensure that all children within the area can access the centre. Mai comes from a family of farmers and had not been able to really go outside her home before the centre opened. Mai seems to be very content at the centre; if not given notice the day before, she will insist on being taken to the centre on Saturday as well. The centre is open between 7.30 am and 5 pm on weekdays and is closed on weekends. Hoa tells me that there have been efforts made to teach Mai some basic  skills such as sweeping, to give her ability to help out at home, but she most often disregards these exercises to play instead. She quite insistently invited me to join her on the seesaw, which of course I did. Being a lot heavier than she, she skyrocketed, and laughed exhilarated. She had the most wonderful contagious laugh!

Back in the classroom another wonderful performance was taking place. I was again overwhelmed with the warmest welcome - they seemed as glad to see me again as I was to see them! When the show was over, that consisted of a dragon dance and other great performances, it was, sadly, time to leave.

Our next stop was the Resource Centre for Inclusive Education. In Da Nang, with the high level commitment from Da Nang DOET and with support from UNICEF, the Resource Centre for Inclusive Education was officially established on 18 April 2011. UNICEF has provided support to enhance capacities of the centre’s teachers in early identification of disabilities and intervention including speech therapy, sensory therapy, and behaviour therapy. for children with disabilities, especially children with autism and developmental delay. 

Resource Centre for Inclusive Education is located inside the compound of the Nguyen Dinh Chieu school - a specialised school for children with disabilities. The school is a gated area with several two-story buildings, upon our arrival several children with peeking out of different classrooms, curious about the visitors. We were taken to the conference room, where, after a short introduction, we were treated to a music concert. Three children, playing tam thap luc, dan bau and dan tranh- traditional Vietnamese instruments - gave a wonderful performance. On our tour of the school I saw several classrooms where a teacher gave children one-on-one lessons, these were the children with severe autism, and it was amazing to see the dedication to the individual child.

As we were leaving the building we went to a classroom, and were surprised by several children greeting us. These beautiful children: some with serious, and some with happy faces. One boy looked straight into my eyes and I was moved by his intense stare.

Last stop was the Social Work Service Centre – my old neighbourhood! A more formal introduction of the centres activities was given, the results that have been achieved on account of the support given by UNICEF, and the future plans of the centre. Mr Toole gave his impressed sentiments on the work done in Da Nang in general and in the different centres, and reiterated his support in expanding the field of social work. Ms Sylwander gave an insightful reflection that support for social work services had outgrown the individual projects, such as in Da Nang and had become a nation-wide priority. UNICEF’s resources should now be given to support the advancement of the legal framework for social work.

After giving my new friends at the social work service centre a hug good bye I set off to Hoi An; to give this week’s intense experiences time to settle. I had initially been a bit worried about being unsettled by the living conditions of these children with disabilities, but there was no need. The centres that I visited were filled with children that are cared for, taught, and nurtured, and the children seem genuinely happy. They can continue to live with their families, while during the day spend time at the centre where they have their friends; their teachers; opportunities to learn, excel, and dance!

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