The Night Before Christmas

Whether it was fruit or nappies, it took only a few dollars of my money to make such significant contributions. I wondered if any of my friends in Europe would want to buy oranges for a day for these beautiful children. I know often people want to help those less fortunate than them, but do not know how to and fear any contribution will be lost in an ocean of need. This was a little different, it was personal, I was offering the opportunity to help children and babies they already knew from my photographs, any money would come directly to me, someone they knew and trusted. I thought that if I could raise a hundred or two hundred dollars, I could buy fruit and nappies for the Orphanage for months, this would ease their little lives for a while. So, on Christmas Eve, I sent a Christmas message from balmy Vietnam to snowy Europe, sending photographs of myself and the children, wishing love, health and happiness to everyone for the upcoming year, then adding a little note about my hopes for fundraising…..

Tam Ky Baby Orphanage is home to orphaned, abused and abandoned children, with ages from five weeks to six years old. The children are affectionate and beautiful, their resilience and will to survive is breathtaking. The conditions in the baby orphanage are desperate and the children live in real poverty. Two of the children don’t even have names. They are referred to as “the littlest baby” and “the little boy who cries”.  Most of the children don’t cry, they know they will not be heard. We as volunteers try to listen to the children, and to provide as much love and care as we can, but mostly the children have to take care of each other and themselves. They are sick and malnourished due to the conditions they live in, but are so grateful for a hug, fruit or simple toys. They are a joy to work with and their strength and good natures, in spite of the poverty they live in, are an inspiration to those of us priviledged enough to know them.

For our children, we would like to raise funds for simple nutrition, fruit, milk and basic child care supplies. It costs very little to make a real difference to these children, it costs only 82 uk pence/ 1.20 US dollars/ 0.92 euros/ 1.80 australian dollars to provide fruit every day for a child for a month and to make a real difference. We also desperately need money for nappies, baby food and simple baby medical supplies. Any money you give will be spent directly and locally as you request on your children at the Tam Ky baby orphanage. We ask only for a donation, once or as often as you like! You can follow the progress of your children through blogs and photo journals of the volunteers at the orphanages. If you decide to make a donation, your money will come directly to us and we will ensure it is spent directly on the children on the things they most desperately need. Thank you so much for helping us to help these beautiful children!

Many of the people reading this message knew a little of my experience over the months leading to my time in Vietnam. Many had been taken aback to see photographs of a healthy, happy, although slim girl, with these exotic orphaned children filtering through from the other side of the globe. Many had not been in contact with me for some months, fading out of my life, this was their first news of me in some time. As I watched the donations flood in, I saw Christmas spirit, I saw love and I saw guilt. I had hoped for one, maybe two hundred dollars. The first donation came within seconds, fifty dollars. The second, third fourth within minutes, more fifties, some hundreds. Knowing what this meant for our babies and children, I shouted for the other volunteers to come watch with me. Before midnight, on the night before Christmas, my young friends in snowy lands had sent me almost a thousand dollars. I was touched beyond words. “That’s incredible Lucie, well done” whispered one of the most experienced volunteers. Hands on my face I turned to her and whispered under the laughter and excited shouts of the other volunteers, “Its guilt, I haven’t heard a word from some of these people in months.” She smiled and in her Irish lullaby voice said to me, “Take it, maybe its an apology, maybe its guilt, who cares. We can change worlds with this money”. A half hour before midnight we were ten dollars short of a thousand dollars. I sent another message, saying I was touched and that the kindness extended to these abandoned babies would change their lives, I would make sure of that. I said I was not going to bed till we got to two thousand dollars and was off to find my purse. Before I could, a message came back. “You can go to bed now, Mademoiselle Lucie”. Two hundred dollars accompanied this beautiful Lullaby.

In the days that followed, we received over four thousand dollars. As this money arrived, Sofia wondered if she could do something similar. My project had been simple to implement, just a heartfelt few words and some personal photographs. Sofia had plenty of these, but she wanted a theme. My own had come from a humble place inside myself, of love, empathy and gratitude, translated fruit, nappies and basic suppies. She began to wonder what hers could be, what her deepest feelings could become. Sofia had long, luscious hair that whilst living in France she had styled into dreadlocks, she had planned to shave all this off before leaving Vietnam, this being the only way to restart natural hair growth. I was pretty stunned by the idea and made more than one attempt to dissuade her, but she explained to me that she had always been known, even to strangers, as the girl with the hair. “I am not my hair”, she told me. Indeed this spectacular girl was not. So she came up with the idea of being sponsored to shave her head to raise money for scabies and lice treatments, which reached far from just medication but to hygiene and new blankets, clothes, towels, all the things that were making the infections so difficult to get rid off. She launched her project, declaring she was losing her hair to save theirs, planning to have her hair cut with the children next time the hairdresser visited to crop their pretty soft syles. The money poured in, in it hundreds and thousands, this time from Mexico and France. She raised ten thousand dollars.

 

Remember me, special dreams

The Orphanage has two children with special needs, a boy Loc and a girl, Han. Loc is a four year old boy with hydrocephilis, his head is swollen with excess fluid, making it larger than those of the other children. Loc is an absolute hero of a child. A little boy who loves to talk, laugh, play and sing, his antics are hilareous, he will have full and long conversations with volunteers, passionately explaining his views, apausing for emphasis, gesturing, listening carefully and thoughtfully to the response. This little boy is not stopped by the fact that he speaks not a word of English and usually the person he is conversing with speaks very little Vietnamese. He sings and performs Vietnamese folk songs in the style of a drunk Irishman in a bar, stamping his feet, clapping his hands, gesturing around the room, oblivious to the joy and laughter in response. As the children play a game climbing in and out of the bars of the orphanage gates, Loc joins in without fail, his enthusiasm undampened by the inevitable and repeated jamming of his head in the bars. Loc blesses all the volunteers with his warmness, open welcome arms, his friendship and his sense of fun, for me he gave me the gift of knowledge that a child with special needs is the same as any child. Loc is a normal little boy, a very special, very normal little boy.

Han is a little girl with more challenging disabilities. Her feet were not straight and she could not support her own weight, needing a wheelchair to get around. Her hands had not developed like the other children’s, she had to work harder to grasp or hold. If this little girls body was broken, her mind and spirit were absolutely not. Han was a girl with smiles for everyone, a girl who just wanted to play like everyone else. She did not complain about being crammed into awkward positions for balance, so long as she could sit with the other children and play. She was a little bigger than the other children, maybe four or five years old, and her pyjamas were black and white horizontal stripes, like a prisoner. She slept in a bed with metal bars around it, to stop her falling and hurting herself. This little girl smiled, communicated and the other children played with her and chatted with her unaware of any difference. When play moved from inside to outside, a tiny pair of arms from a body too small to see over Han’s chair, would push her outside too. She was adopted by a family of brothers and sisters with special needs waiting for her, they had chosen her to join their family. I knew this spirited and positive little girl would flourish with them and that they would be forever rewarded with her joy.

The day a baby went blue

One day as we gathered our rusty bicycles for the Orphanage, filling our baskets with fruit, milk and books, BJ, always in training for a trialthon ran, grabbed her trainers and ran ahead, to give her strong legs a head start on our wobbly wheels. She took a left and headed for the Baby Orphanage. Five minutes later, we pushed off and took a right, for the Home of Affection.

BJ only realised she had confused the schedule when we did not cycle past her whooping and weaving, and did not catch up with her at the Baby Orphanage. After running for nearly an hour she decided to stay, playing with the toddlers outside, then wandering into the baby rooms. Maes busy elsewhere, the tiniest baby was sucking on his propped up bottle, lying on his back on a double wooden bed frame. BJ sat next to him and chatted to the toddlers as they wandered in to the baby room, to giggle with her and the other babies.

When he started to splutter, she looked down. When he stopped breathing, she jumped up. As he turned blue, she lifted him and screamed for help. She describes the scene as chaos. Maes came running, screaming, crying. Startled pushed aside toddlers looked on silently. As the women crowded round and tapped the baby’s tiny arched back, someone found an aspirator to clear his throat. As he gasped in air and breathed again, there were sobs as he was wrapped up and buddled in a car to hospital. BJ stayed to look after the children who were being cared for the Maes who had left with the baby to hospital, arriving back late, flustered and excited, to tell us what had happened. My hands moved to my face with shock, for the baby that turned blue and for all that I realised had taken place that day.

Miss BJ, in taking a wrong turn, had changed a world. She saved a baby’s life.

When we arrived the next day I went straight to the Baby room, not stopping to put down the children who had jumped into my arms, wrapped their arms around my legs and were now stroking my hair and clothes and chatting excitedly. Our little entourage kicked flipflops of various sizes and colours, tiny shoes flying in all directions. One of our small hands pushed open the door and we entered the Baby room. I saw the empty space in the wooden slats where our newest, quiet little bundle had been, the tiny blue mosquito net and small bundle of blankets more silent than ever.

My eyes then went straight to another empty cot and another unused blue mosquito net. Another baby, this one suffering from dehydration, had joined his tiny roomate in the hospital, whisked away in the night.

Mae Ba came rushing towards me, her hands held to her face, quiet tears running down her sculpted cheeks. “Oh Mae Ba”, I said, softly putting the children down from my arms and taking her into them instead. She wiped the tears from her face and head half bowed, with a look of penetrating sadness that seemed to radiate from her core, explained to me in Vietnamese what had happened. The tiny baby choking, the next baby so sick he was rushed to hospital in the dead of night.

As I listen to this tale again, unsure of the fate of either child, with quiet little arms wrapped around my legs and quiet heads leaning against my calves and thighs, I was touched and relieved to see how much she cared about these babies. She was all they really had and if she did not love them, no one would.

I took off my necklace, the one so coveted by the Maes, and placed it round her neck. Grasping her hands, I spoke in English, asking our Translator Mr Tuan to translate, the first of only two times I would ask him to do this, in all my time to come in this remarkable country and heart wrenching, heart warming place.

Through our translator, with all my words, I told Mae Ba that we loved her because we saw and knew how much she loved and cared for the babies, that the babies in hospital would be well and back with us soon and that she should have the necklace that they all thought so beautiful because she was the most kind and beautiful Mae there.

Tears continued to run down her cheeks as she smiled, nodded, touched her hands to her heart, then went back to caring for her babies.

Kindness

As the days and weeks passed, I witnessed beautiful acts of quiet kindness amongst these children. The children, the toddlers, the babies even, did not typically cry. Tears were not a meaningful method of communication, the children knew they would not be heard.

When I did see tears, they would be silent, running like streams down a small face of a tiny body crouching in an empty room, where the child was hiding till the upset past, till their little lion heart took over again and stopped the tears, then they would wipe their face with a scruffy sleeve pulled over their hand, before composing themselves and reemerging. It was quite heartbreaking to watch, a four year old already alone and responsible for handling their own battered emotions.

Amongst this heartbreak, I also witnessed moments of pure empathy and kindness. When Han arrived back from a trip to a physiotherapist, inexplicably returning confused and bald, Loc went immediately to her, as she was lifted from the back of a motorbike, he wrapped his arms around her, talking reassuringly into her ear, telling her he would look after her and she would be alright.

When Lan Chi had a scarf pulled from her head in a scuffle, the small loss and injustice reminded her small body of the loss and injustice she endured as her very being, I found her curled in a ball in a side room, crying rivers of tears. Chi meanwhile had crawled amongst energetic arms and legs, retrieved the scarf and had wrapped in round Lan Chi like a blanket and was stroking her arm and singing her a quiet lullaby.

When Thuy, newly left at the orphanage by a distant family member, realised she was not going home and clung to a motorbike for hours, stroking the leather seat, sobbing quiety, it was Loc that went to her, told her he had been scared and lonely when he first arrived too, but now he has lots of friends here and she’ll feel better soon.

When the Maes were busy and the babies screamed with hunger, it was Nhu who stood on her tiptoes to reach over the edge of the cots, to stroke their burning cheeks and comfort them.

When I was forgotten, unwanted, deemed worthless, these tiny people welcomed me, took me as their own and loved me, when my own would not, with a kindness, understanding and empathy that my own could not. Not a single one of them was over five years old.

In this Baby Orphanage, amongst these tiny souls, I saw love, I saw humanity and I felt more of both than I ever knew possible.

Gone Baby, Gone

Many children are adopted from Vietnam’s orphanages and children’s homes. At Tam Ky Baby Orphanage, a few of the smaller children were to be adopted by overseas parents, but not many. Five of the children were unknowingly waiting for their new families to collect them. It was lovely to hold these children and talk to them of the spectacular change that was journeying towards them.

I wondered if we would meet the adoptive parents of the babies and I learned this was down to chance, if we were there when the parents arrived then so be it. We were interested to meet the parents of course and share in this little moment, but more than anything I wanted to tell them how much we loved their baby. The days the parents were expected to arrive were jumbled and changed, so after a while our thoughts drifted from the specifics and we learned a little of the patience that the parents had no doubt been living and breathing.

One day, we arrived to find two babies gone. One of the volunteers managed to find out that they had been collected by their parents the evening before. We had no idea this was imminent and giggled with pleasure and surprise. We had not said goodbye, not seen the ecstatic faces of their new lives, not shared stories of these beautiful babies before they left for their new homes. Looking into the baby rooms we found their cots had gone too, as if they had never been there. A baby girl and a baby boy had disappeared in the night.

I found myself not sad that I had not said goodbye and waved them off. Instead I thought, Thank God. I hoped everyday from that day on to to come to the orphanage and find another little soul gone, to loving arms, without trace.

To any baby, any child, any teenager, any adult, that has left an orphanage with their parents, I will share the words I did not have the opportunity to say to the little souls I loved about the promises I had whispered to them as they were in my arms, in a strange language, in this bare place.

“Didn’t I tell you they were coming for you?”.