Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sheahan’s diary: volunteering with street children

Sheahan with children from the centre for street and vulnerable children
© UNICEF Viet Nam\2012\Nasir
I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, or more commonly known in Vietnam as Saigon, on July 31st to start my month long internship with Thao Dan Child Center. From their website, I found out as much as I could about them before the initial meeting.

Thao Dan Child Center was established in 1992 by a group of volunteers who wanted to protect and take care of street children in Ho Chi Minh City. They have two centers. The one where I was going to work was a day care center where children would be dropped off by their parents when they went to work and picked up again when going back home. The children are taught basic school subjects like math and English, as well life skills such as money management. They were also given information regarding the danger of HIV/AIDS and the threat of child abuse. The second center, called the “Safehouse”, serves as a day care center, and it also provides housing for up to fourteen orphan boys who have nowhere else to go.

The center was about 20 minutes taxi ride away from the airport and I got my first glimpse of the city along the way. It is a very cosmopolitan city. There were international brand name stores and local Vietnamese stores side by side, old ladies riding bicycles in the streets next to a Bentley, very old temples next to tall office buildings, and the likes. I was really excited to be there!

The Thao Dan building is five stories high and located near the city center. When I reached there, the children were taking part in one of their daily activities, arts and crafts. I was briefly introduced to them and they were really happy, lively kids. I was very surprised to see that a lot of them knew enough English to ask me my name (I was in Hanoi before this and no one spoke English there!). There was a lot of noise and you could see that they were having a lot of fun!
The building has many areas, each serving a different purpose. The first floor contains the activities area and a big lunchroom where the children are provided with lunch everyday. The second floor has the office and the floors above it are classrooms. The top floor is a large open area where dance lessons and other activities requiring space are carried out.

Children from the Thao centre centre for street and vulnerable children
© UNICEF Viet Nam\2012\Nasir

I worked there for the next month or so and learnt a lot about the children and the organization. The first thing I learnt was that in Vietnam, street children did not only include children who live on the streets, but also children who worked on the streets with their parents, or on their own. The kids were absolutely adorable. They were just like any other kid and you could not tell that some of them did not even have a home to go back to after they leave the day care center.

Most of them attended a special school for street children. I was there during the summer holidays so the children would spend the entire day at the center. Summer is a fun time for the children at Thao Dan. They get volunteers from a lot of institutions and they provide a lot of activities for the children to participate in such as plays, dancing, sports, etc.

The children came from near and far. I visited one of the slums on the bank of the Saigon River from where some children go to the center. It was an incredible experience. They often live in tiny little one roomed houses. The toilet (a bamboo shack over the river) is shared with other residents in the area. Most families have more than five people living together.

The incredible part is, right on the other side of the river, is the beautiful skyline of Ho Chi Minh City, with multiple skyscrapers glowing brightly in the night sky.

The disparity was unbelievable. Even though I come from Dhaka, Bangladesh, I have never seen such a wide gap in society within a single city.

Despite such harsh conditions, I have never seen the children unhappy in the month that I was at Thao Dan. Thao Dan helps the children not only with education and survival, but also provides a place where they can all come together, make new friends and have a good time!

With the support of UNICEF and other organizations, Thao Dan is doing an amazing job in making sure that these children can enjoy their lives to the fullest. They provide the basic rights that every child deserves to have, someone to play with, someone to laugh with them, someone to provide support when they need it the most. Thao Dan provides them with an opportunity to escape their harsh realities and be children. I was so inspired by their work that I’ve decided to go back next summer to visit them again. 

By Sheahan Nasir

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