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Well settled American academic quits job to help Vietnamese street children whose images haunted him

Neal Bermas with two of the children he has "˜adopted' at the STREETS Restaurant Café Hoi An

When he visited Vietnam for the first time more than a decade ago, Neal Bermas was frequently approached by children who begged for money to buy something to eat and drink in Ho Chi Minh City.

Fully aware that Vietnam was in the process of rebuilding itself after decades of war, the last of them being the Vietnam War against the Americans, the plight of the children haunted him.

"They planted an image in my mind that I could not escape from," he said.

The PhD holder who had worked for years as an independent management consultant and was teaching at New York University in Manhattan, kept returning every year to Vietnam. Each trip seemed to strengthen his resolve to do something to help the street children he met.

Over five years ago, he quit his job with the university and moved to Vietnam, settling down in Hoi An Town. He founded a non-profit enterprise, STREETS International, headquartered in New York and located in Hoi An, to educate street children and help them find work in the hospitality sector.

Bermas was clear giving children money was not the answer. He wanted to help them create new lives, help them get jobs that would enable them to stand on their own feet.

In the US, Bermas was on the faculty at New York University in both business and hospitality studies. Even as an independent management consultant, his career had focused mainly on the hospitality and tourism industries.

He had advised organizations around the world. His clientele included the Walt Disney Company, Meridian Hotels and Vietnam's state-owned Vietcombank, apart from many individual-owned restaurants and hotels. He had also owned and operated his own restaurants in the US.

"All of this provided a rich background to start STREETS," he said.

With support from his friend, Sondra Stewart, who had also left behind a well-paid job in mergers and acquisitions, STREETS International became operational in 2009.

Bermas found that there were many charity organizations helping street children in big cities like HCMC and Hanoi, so he decided to start his work in a smaller city.

And as a UNESCO world heritage site which attracts a large number of tourists every year, the city fit Bermas's purpose perfectly. 

Bermas and Stewart opened classes to teach street children English as well as different
skills needed in the hospitality industry.

They recruited youth who are in really difficult situations like impoverished orphans or those forced to earn money selling stuff on streets. But STREETS International's assistance went beyond free classes, covering food and accommodation as well.

Bermas hires large houses for them to live in, separate ones for boys and girls, hires staff or house parents that supervise them and teaches them to go to the market and cook for themselves in a healthy way, treats them like they are his own kids and calls them con nuôi (his adopted children).

To give his kids the chance to practice what they learn in their classes, he opened the STREETS Restaurant Café on 17 Le Loi Street in Hoi An Town. Revenue from the restaurant goes back to the program, which makes the organization mostly self-sustaining.

"My background and expertise is in hospitality. In traveling, I came across others who were doing so-called street kid restaurants, but I thought although they were doing a good thing, it could be done better.

"Others did not have my professional background as an educator or hospitality professional. I imagined that with my background, one could dramatically change the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged youth, not just preparing them for jobs at local restaurants, but educating them for careers in five-star hotels and international tourism," he said.

The 18-month program offered by STREETS International starts with a six-week orientation and basic skills training component before going into more complex areas of culinary arts and hospitality services.

Students have the opportunity to work as apprentices in the restaurant's kitchen and dining room, gaining direct working experience under the careful guidance of Bermas, their "father," teacher and mentor.

All young men and women who once lived in orphanages and terribly poor villages and were living on the streets in cities are now working at five-star hotels throughout Vietnam.

"Just recently we took two of our graduates to the US to give culinary classes in Vietnamese food at one of America's top culinary schools. These kids traveled to New York City to teach others about Vietnamese food, but most importantly, about the possibilities of the human spirit!" Bermas said proudly.

Tran Thi Chau Phuong, a trainee with the first STREETS class told the Ho Chi Minh City-based Cong An newspaper in 2011 on graduation that she had received much more than she expected from the program.

"My family is very poor and I have suffered a lot of illness. Mr. Neal and Ms. Sondra have supported me and helped me. I remember, at the beginning, all the trainees were like fish out of water, but we got a lot of encouragement and support from Mr. Neal and Ms. Sondra. We have received recognition for accomplishing our job. And our sincerity and dedication has made customers happy when visiting our restaurant. We have been provided all the knowledge needed to start a new life."

Asked if he has faced any difficulties living in Vietnam, Bermas, in his fifties now, said: "Of course, it is difficult some days, getting accustomed to new places and new cultures, but it is also exciting and special to now call this place "˜home'."

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