Giving children their due

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Leslie Wiener with disadvantaged and HIV positive children from Smile Group

After three decades of working in film and television in two of the most exciting cities in the world, Leslie Wiener came to Vietnam and decided to stay.

What made her change direction and decide to stay in Ho Chi Minh City, where she is now co-director of the Smile Group (Nhom Nu Cuoi) founded in 2004 by the remarkable Nguyen Van Hung?

Armed with a master's degree in communication from Boston University, Wiener worked in television for three years in New York then moved to Paris and spent 28 years there, also working in television.

She had long been interested in Vietnam and became closely involved in the anti-war movement when she was working in New York.

Wiener came to Vietnam for the first time in 1994 to write a travelogue for Lonely Planet.

She could not help but notice the poverty around her, and her growing sense that she had to do something lead to her first encounter with Hung, a former drug addict who had started a program for street children named Thao Dan.

"He'd just got out of prison at the time. He was a deep, authentic human being, and very smart. He was a strong person but very gentle at the same time. He was like a fire, always burning, moving, funny. And I have never seen someone so compassionate and caring as him," Wiener said of "Thay Hung", as he was known ("thay" means "teacher").

Moved by what Hung was doing for street children, Wiener started raising money for Thao Dan. She also made a film about Hung over four years, appropriately titled Teacher, to raise money toward buying a house for the program.

The pair drew very close and married in 2007 after Hung had been diagnosed with liver cancer.

"It wasn't an official administrative marriage. But for us it was real. I just thought I would do anything possible to keep Hung alive and that maybe the love and union between us would bring about a miracle. But the cancer was too strong and he died ten days later," Wiener said.

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A few years earlier, in 2004, Hung had started another charity, Smile Group, to assist families affected by HIV/AIDS, primarily the children.

After his death, Smile Group was in turmoil for a while, but Wiener refunded the group in 2008 along with Minh Phuong and their friend Elisabeth so that Hung's work could continue.

With the assistance of volunteers aplenty, the children get tutored to help them with their school work, and they take lessons in swimming, yoga, dance and music. There are also annual trips to the beach or the mountains, and much besides.

"We help the children stay at school, arrange medical care for them, and try to help them when suffering discrimination," Wiener said, pointing out just a few of the things that Smile does for the kids.

"We want to break the circle of poverty so that the children have a chance in life," Wiener said.

She said there were now 45 children coming regularly to the center for lessons and other assistance. Smile gives VND300,000 per month to 35 of the children toward the cost of their formal schooling.

On my recent visit to Smile Group, I encountered cheerful children playing and studying with foreign volunteers under a large mango tree outside what was once a famous restaurant named Fai Fo. At noon, everybody got together for lunch as though they were one big family.

One of the volunteers I met was Maxime Leroux-Lapierre, a 21-year-old student from the University of Montreal in Canada who was volunteering his assistance for seven weeks.

"I teach the kids a bit of science like chemical reactions, and they have fun at the same time. I am happy to come here and be useful to the children," Lapierre said.

Another 21-year-old volunteer present that day was Tanwa Meftah from the University of Michigan in the US.

"I love the children here and they love me. I teach them dancing and we also play music together. I feel very close to the Vietnamese and one day I hope to start my own center in Vietnam," Meftah said.

Said Wiener: "Everything we do is to promote a positive self-image and to stimulate minds, to incite curiosity and exploration. [This applies to] All of the activities that we offer, learning to swim so you're not afraid of water, learning to express yourself and be comfortable with your body through dance, learning English to be competitive in the world, learning media skills to be aware of how media is used and how to use it, taking trips to explore other landscapes, other peoples."

She tries to emulate Hung, a tough thing to do. In his many years of working with street children and then young adults with HIV/AIDS, he understood their lives because he himself had been through many of their same experiences.

"He was acquainted with the entire social network in Vietnam and was known throughout the country for his work. He spent days and nights in the streets trying to reach everyone that he could possibly help and listen carefully to each person and share with them his thoughts and ideas. Toward the end of his life, he had begun to focus on the welfare and education of children. That is what we have pursued, and our work is primarily with children," Wiener said.

And then came a surprising confession. "I don't even speak enough Vietnamese to have a conversation with the children." It doesn't seem to hinder her.

"We do have many Vietnamese volunteers as well as Minh Phuong, my co-director; they communicate a lot with the kids. But I don't do a lot of field work, or outreach. I'm not acquainted with the political or social structures here."

"On the other hand, I am able to bring some very different qualities to the group. My family was comfortable, I went to good schools, lived in nice homes and never had much contact with drug addiction or HIV/AIDS."

Wiener pointed out that she'd had access to medical and dental care, sports, summer camps, and enjoyed to a life without abuse, and that these were the basic rights of every child, rights that were essential for a child to grow into an independent, productive adult.

"I try very hard to make sure that every child in the group shares these same basic rights that I had. Ultimately, we want to help them overcome all the obstacles that prevent poor children from growing into prosperous adults."

What matters to Wiener is not where she lives but what she is doing; what makes her happy is working with children and their families.

"I don't have ambition to make a lot of money and become famous... ambition is doing something meaningful and contributing to society."

Filmmaker Leslie Wiener explains how she went from making a travel documentary about Ho Chi Minh City to spending six years learning about life, death, and love from a former drug addict who has dedicated his life to the HIV-positive children of Vietnam.

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