Jean Jacques Bihour, a retired French engineer, teaches children from poor and HIV/AIDS-affected families drawing at the non-profit Smile Group - Friends of Thay Hung in Ho Chi Minh City. Bihour started the class more than two years ago. / PHOTO: TUAN ANH
When Nguyen Van Hung, a famous philanthropist, died of liver cancer in 2007, the Nu Cuoi (smile) group that he founded in 2004 to help people with HIV/AIDS and their children began to frown.
A change in its leadership led to differences in the way the group was run, and insiders described "a state of turmoil." Many beneficiary families complained to the press then about the leaders' bewildering decisions to halt support for them.
Many people then thought that the efforts and achievements of the man, who was usually described as a "legendary figure" in the field of philanthropy, would be ruined.
However, three women two French and one Vietnamese who were inspired by his work decided to continue what he had started. These are his fiancée Leslie Wiener, Elisabeth Nguyen, who worked with him in 2005 when she came to Vietnam for internship as a social worker, and Nguyen Thi Minh Phuong, a volunteer who had worked with him for many years.
The Smile Group Friends of Thay Hung (thay means teacher in Vietnamese) was founded on his first death anniversary in October 2008. It continued the work of helping poor and orphan children from HIV/AIDS-affected families in Ho Chi Minh City.
Speaking of how she was motivated to establish the group, Nguyen, a French woman adopting the Vietnamese last name from her ex-husband, said when she met Hung and saw how he worked for needy families, she knew that she wanted to do something similar.
When Hung passed away, she took it as a sign to come to Vietnam to continue doing what he had started.
Although it was sad that she returned to Vietnam because he died, his death made her come here faster, otherwise she might have delayed the trip further, Nguyen said.
The French woman, who also works as a yoga teacher, said she came to HCMC in 2005 to intern as a social worker. She said she had fallen in love with the country during her first visit four years earlier with her ex-husband.
She worked with disabled children at the Tu Du Hospital for two months before meeting Hung, who took her to visit HIV/AIDS affected families.
"Even without having anyone to translate, I could understand a lot [about what he was doing]."
Nguyen said she could see that people who looked very sad and were even crying began smiling after talking with Hung.
"He was giving a lot of advice. He was listening to them a lot," she said, adding that it made her realize that to have someone listen to was "already a lot" for the needy people, helping relieve their pain and suffering.
Phuong, who is also a university lecturer, said although she had worked closely with Hung for a long time, she had never thought that one day she would be the one managing the Smile Group.
When he passed away, she and others looked for someone else to take over his group, but in response to affected families' calls, she, along with Wiener and Nguyen, decided to create a new group and do it on their own, she said.
What they are doing with the group is what they learned from Hung, Phuong said. They were focusing on creating a playground for the children, who, due to financial problems and their family backgrounds, do not have chances to attend extra classes or outdoor activities.
Every week, on Saturday and Sunday, the kids gather at the group's office, a rented house in District 1.
They play soccer, swim and visit museums in the company of volunteers. The children are also taught drawing, baking and yoga; and they receive tutoring in mathematics, literature and English to help them catch up with their classmates.
Such weekend gatherings are necessary for the kids to get a break from their usual living places that are mostly in "crowded" and "complicated" areas with the presence of drug addicts and gamblers, Phuong said.
At the Smile Group, the kids are "taught to play and to love," and meeting with others who are in similar situations makes them feel sympathetic with each other, she said.
On the other hand, their families are given VND300,000 a month to improve the quality of meals for the kids, and supported in keeping them at school.
Initially, the group supported ten children, but now there are 35 kids aged between five and 18. One-fourth of these have contracted HIV from their mothers, while the rest come from families where parents or other family members are AIDS patients or HIV positive.
After being with the group for years, Wiener, who is also a film director and now based in France, has withdrawn from the group to start another project that also targets disadvantaged people in Vietnam.
But, she is always willing to help the group when needed, Phuong said.
Both Phuong and Nguyen said that they faced some difficulties when Wiener left because she had been in charge of raising funds for the group.
Nguyen said it is not easy to find big sponsors, because their group is not well known. Moreover, most of sponsors want to help organizations with thousands of beneficiaries, while the Smile Group wants to stay small so they can keep everything under control, she said.
Nguyen said since she came to Vietnam in 2008, she has returned to France just once.
It is not only because her income from teaching yoga at different centers in the city is not high enough to afford airfares, but also because "for me, my country now is Vietnam.
"I don't feel like I have something special to do there [in France]. But I have something to do here," she said.
Nguyen said even though she meets with the children mainly at weekend, she tries to be with them on weekdays whenever possible, and teaches them whatever she can: yoga, English and baking.
When she does not teach them, she assists them in other classes like drawing, which have been taught by her friend, Jean Jacques Bihour, for more than two years. She also plays games that do not require her to use much Vietnamese, as she is not proficient in the language.
"They [the kids] are so happy to have people to come to them, to do something with them, so they always welcome you," she said.
"You just can't be connected with them, when they come beside you and try to do something with you. It's just like they were your kids."
Bihour, a retired engineer from France, also said the kids were "smiley and welcoming," when he first met them more than two years ago.
Nguyen Van Hung was born in 1956, and got addicted to drugs when he was 16. He spent time in and out of rehabilitation centers until he turned to philanthropy, starting with a charity program for street children called Thao Dan (named after two public parks where he met the kids) in 1992.
When he saw that HIV/AIDS inflicted people were suffering strong discrimination in Vietnam because people were ignorant about the problem, Hung extended his help to the patients and founded the Smile Group in 2004. When he was passed away in October 2007 of liver cancer, the group was supporting 30 children by paying their tuition, medical care fees and organizing recreational activities.
Bihour said that in the beginning, he just wanted to share with the Smile Group's kids something that he loves - drawing.
However, with regular visits and interactions, he has grown closer to them, and feels that they treat him like someone from their families.
So, like Nguyen, Bihour also spends as much time as he can with the children. He accompanies them to the swimming pool and on other trips, like the one they took recently to Mui Ne, a famous resort area in central Vietnam.
Both Nguyen and Bihour said they do not find the language barrier a real problem in their interaction with the kids.
When the children cannot understand what is being said, they try to understand it in their own ways, and it is a chance for them to discover and express themselves, Bihour said.
Le Quynh Phuong Vy, who immigrated to the US in 2006 and works as a volunteer at the Smile Group for the summer, said although she was worried initially about her inexperience in working with children, she quickly felt comfortable with them.
The 21-year-old woman, who plans to write her graduation thesis on HIV/AIDS in Vietnam, said: "Within one week, I felt everyone was part of one family, treating each other with honesty."
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