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Smile Group in the news

Giving children their due

By To Van Nga, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the August 5th issue of our print edition, Thanh Nien Weekly)




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.

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.”



Grandmothers in the Heroin District

Submitted by Hoa Tu Duong | Monday, June 7, 2010 - 5:58 PM | Region East and Southeast Asia

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – “This is a danger area,” Duoc mentions over his shoulder to me as he carefully guides his motorbike through some narrow and dark back alleys. “This is where the drug users live.” The engine falls quiet, and I hop off the bike, trying not to step in the soapy running water pooling around our feet. A dull yellow halo of light beams down from the street lamp, silhouetting two figures who appear to be young boys sitting in a lawn chair outside. They are smoking in the dark.

A jovial Vietnamese woman in her mid-50s appears, smiling so deeply that her eyes become little quarter moons. Gray tendrils of hair escape her bun, ringing her oval, cherubic face. She exudes warmth and immediately invites us to follow her. I find myself walking through the alleyways into a small room where she keeps her crafts, cooking supplies, and a jumbled assortment of other household goods. Six children materialize, ranging in age from 5 to 12, and each one is introduced as her grandchild. With ten of us in this room, all sitting on the floor, we resemble a tangled pretzel of feet and legs.

I am with Elisabeth and Duoc, who are case managers/social workers at Smile Group, a GFC grantee partner, on their weekly nighttime home visits to members of the peer support group for families affected by HIV/AIDS. I gather from Duoc that all the children in this household have different parents, and at least half of them died of AIDS or were forced to abandon their children for other reasons. The grandmother hosting us is currently caring for all six children and is a consistent and active member of Smile Group.

One bright-faced boy of about 7 years old tells me he wants to be a doctor. Later, Duoc leans over to whisper that the boy has AIDS but that because his CD4 count remains high, it is recommended that he not take antiretroviral drugs at this time. We turn our attention back to the grandmother, who is now handing us the children’s report cards, noting matter-of-factly that many of them are not good students. One boy’s eyes well up with tears, and he hides his face with a comic book. He is the one who will have to repeat grade 5. The rest of the children tell me their daily routines. They all keep different schedules, with a few waking up as early as 4:30 AM. They all help at home, washing dishes and cleaning, and they also help their grandmother earn an income by washing laundry and assisting with her other small business—she cooks and keeps a small curbside restaurant.

Duoc and Elisabeth know these kids. They know all of the kids we visit tonight. They check in each week, they organize events and learning activities for the children, they make sure the children are receiving proper medical care, and they listen to a variety of issues ranging from school to family life—and they show up consistently and they care. The Smile Group team has also set up tutoring for these young people because they are struggling in school. They’ve also organized swimming lessons so that the children can participate in society and experience the joys of recreation and living.

In Vietnam, HIV/AIDS is still highly stigmatizing for children. Many schools and organizations will still not allow children to enroll or participate if they are suspected of having HIV/AIDS. According to UNICEF estimates, approximately 30 percent of the adult population is infected, with the majority intravenous drug users. The stigma drives the problem underground and further marginalizes a very vulnerable population, especially in regard to children.

We visit about six families, ending close to 10:00 PM. It is clear from all of tonight’s conversations that the trust between the Smile Group team and the families has taken a fair amount of time to achieve. That the family members’ faces light up when we arrive and that they enthusiastically invite us into their homes, happy to see people who listen to them and care about the well-being of their children, makes this bond evident. Smile Group is more than a support group or a social service organization; it feels more simply, in these moments, like a family coming together each week.




Ma Tam, “The AIDS Lady”

Submitted by Hoa Tu Duong | Monday, June 7, 2010 - 5:58 PM | Region East and Southeast Asia

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – Baby Hien was born in a Ho Chi Minh City prison in 2002. Her heroin-addicted mother had been arrested on charges of prostitution, and when she was released, she returned to the streets with her baby. After Hien’s mother died of AIDS, street thugs used Hien as a begging tool, parading her through the city streets in tattered clothes, hoping to increase their day’s income. During her first few years of life, Hien became accustomed to being outside in the sun for long hours at a time, surviving on handouts of food and water from strangers, and avoiding the police, especially at night. Ma Tam, a trainer and consultant for GFC’s grantee partner Smile Group, explains this to me, and suddenly she gets up, walks over to one of the walls, and slumps down, with her head and shoulders leaning forward, role-playing how Hien looked when Ma Tam first encountered her on the streets: vacant and depressed, nearly catatonic.

Ma Tam had known Hien’s mother through her HIV/AIDS outreach work during her ten years at the British Council (a nongovernment organization with branches in many countries, including Vietnam), and had put some effort into convincing Hien’s mother to quit drugs for good. Knowing that little Hien was alone after her mother’s death and likely needed medical treatment and protection, Ma Tam began searching for her on the streets. After a tense standoff with gang members, Ma Tam was able to successfully rescue the toddler by using her street credibility and savvy, along with her extensive community networks of people, including rival street gangs and even the police.

Today, Hien is 8 years old and attends Smile Group’s weekly and monthly activities for children and families living with HIV/AIDS. She is a lovely little girl with light in her eyes who comes to say hello when you enter the room. Her laughter fills the space. Hien attends nonformal school because she, like many of the other children who attend Smile Group, lack appropriate identification and registration documents, which can be expensive and time-consuming to acquire.

GFC supports Smile Group’s work with HIV-affected families in and around Ho Chi Minh City. Its office is centrally located so people can attend weekly workshops, classes, and monthly celebrations. Case workers visit family homes in the evenings. Several volunteers tutor children at home in the evenings and on weekends. Smile Group also provides sponsorships to cover monthly school fees and supplies to ensure that every child attends school. Smile Group’s staff members visit homes and work to ensure access to the latest treatments and medical care, including dental care, and they also help with necessary paperwork. They disseminate awareness-raising and health information on HIV/AIDS. They educate families on nutrition and lifestyle to reinforce immune systems and avoid opportunistic disease. They organize classes in English, yoga, computers, and crafts, was well as recreational activities like swimming, to bring joy and laughter into children’s lives.

In addition to her work with Smile Group as a consultant and trainer, Ma Tam consults for various government agencies, international organizations, and even private companies on issues as diverse as child rights, child protection, counseling, and working with people living with HIV/AIDS.

“She is the one who is very effective. If we have a difficult case, we ask Ma Tam to go talk to the child or family. She can get through to them in a way that most cannot,” Duoc, one of Smile Group’s teachers/social workers, explains. “It’s because of her life experience.” I ask Ma Tam about this experience, and the room falls very quiet. She slowly unclips her long hair, smooths it down elegantly, and methodically twists it back up into its clip in a graceful movement before taking a long pull on her cigarette.

Ma Tam was born to an alcoholic father and a negligent mother who put her out of the house to live on the streets as a girl. After repeated sexual and physical abuse, Ma Tam became a sex worker to survive. During the same time, she became addicted to heroin. “Even now I think about it [heroin] sometimes, but only a little. But I don’t do it. I have too much to do, and I have to take care of these children.” She hit rock bottom before she could build herself up again through the help of the British Council, which slowly weaned her off heroin. She did not know her life experience and her training would lead to a life of working with others. She spent the next ten years as a peer counselor for the British Council.

She has become known as “The AIDS Lady” in Ho Chi Minh City for her past experiences and now for her expertise. She is 55 years old, living with AIDS and caring for three children who are also living with AIDS (and taking antiretroviral drugs), and she continues to reach out to other children and young people to train them how to break the cycle of abuse and how to protect themselves. She also teaches volunteers and staff how to establish peer groups.

I ask Ma Tam what motives her to continue. She smiles and answers, “When you die, you can’t take anything with you. At your funeral, people will remove even the buttons on your shirt. You die with nothing. I see myself in these children, and I want them to have a different life than I had. I want them to have a future. I’ll do this until I can’t do it anymore.”

(Source from


Hoa hậu Trúc Diễm cùng Megastar đưa trẻ em có hoàn cảnh khó khăn

đi xem phim "Toy Story 3" và tặng đồ chơi.


(TNO) Hôm 5.7, Hoa hậu Phụ nữ Việt Nam qua ảnh 2005, Hoa hậu thời trang Miss Earth 2007 Trúc Diễm đã xuất hiện thật giản dị tại rạp chiếu phim Megastar Hùng Vương (TP.HCM) để tặng đồ chơi cho các em nhỏ ... và cùng các em thưởng thức bộ phim Toy Story 3.

Tất cả các món đồ chơi được trao tặng lần này đều do chính Trúc Diễm và các cộng sự phát động quyên góp từ giữa tháng 6.2010 đến nay.

Ý tưởng của cuộc vận động quyên góp này bắt nguồn từ hiệu ứng của câu chuyện trong bộ phim Toy Story 3 vừa được công chiếu tại Việt Nam.

(NNT) – Đó chính là hình ảnh mà người ta thấy vào sáng ngày 5/7 tại rạp chiếu phim của Megastar. Trúc Diễm đã có một buổi xem phim thật ý nghĩa cùng các bé.

Sau khi phim kết thúc, Hoa hậu Trúc Diễm chia sẻ: “Buổi hôm nay thật là ý nghĩa và mình cảm thấy thật vui. Vui vì các em nhỏ thiếu may mắn được xem một phim đầy ý nghĩa và nhân đạo như Toy Story. Vui hơn nữa khi mình thấy mình có thể là cầu nối giúp các em có thể biết đến những niềm vui như thế này. Mình rất hi vọng những buổi từ thiện như thế này sẽ tiếp tục được tổ chức và đem niềm vui đến cho nhiều bé hơn nữa”. Cô hoa hậu xinh đẹp còn nhấn mạnh, cô nhất định sẽ tham gia những chương trình như thế này nếu có cơ hội.

Khi được hỏi về cảm nghĩ khi xem xong phim “Câu chuyện đồ chơi 3”, một em thiếu nhi đã phấn khích nhận xét: “Đây là lần đầu tiên em đi xem phim ở rạp và em rất rất vui sướng. Em cũng chưa bao giờ được xem phim nào hay như cái này”. Một bé gái khác thì reo lên hồn nhiên rằng: “Chị Trúc Diễm thật là đẹp, em muốn lớn lên được giống chị”, đủ cho thấy các em nhỏ đã vui thế nào.

Hãy cùng NNT ngắm loạt ảnh Trúc Diễm vui đùa cùng các em nhỏ.


Sinh hoạt vòng tròn cùng trẻ em nhóm Nụ Cười

Truc Diem



Trò chơi "Chào hỏi"


Các bé và chị Trúc Diễm đứng giữa vòng tròn vì làm sai động tác


Trò chơi "Con thỏ ... mùa World Cup 2010"








Trúc Diễm giản dị và hòa đồng với các em nhỏ




Trúc Diễm phát quà cho các bé và cùng xem phim

Truc Diem (1)

Chụp hình lưu niệm



Update from Smile Group - AsiaLIFE Blog

April 14, 2010

Our friends over at Smile Group, who we’ve worked with on a few of stories dealing with poverty and HIV in Vietnam, sent us another update on what they’ve been up to. In addition to moving two HIV-affected families into better homes in the past two weeks, they’ve also had time for education, awareness and some good old fun.

The first Sunday of each month, Smile Group meets in the park. Above, Tran takes her anti-retroviral medicine with considerably less complaining than usual–so she can get it over with and on to the games.

“We’re getting much more sophisticated with our sports teams. Colored jerseys for each team.” — Leslie Wiener.

Back to the office for lunch and a workshop on healthy food and taking medications correctly with pediatrician and AIDS specialist Dr. Thinh. Dr. Thinh also does a few on-the-spot consultations.

English class for the younger kids taught by Kim, Smile Group’s intern from the United States.

This past Smile Sunday, Smile Group also welcomed a new face: Thanh. Thanh was born with AIDS and is living in a very unhealthy, unstable environment. Before his first day with Smile Group, Thanh had never held a pen or pencil in his hand. Here, it looks like he’s got lots of helping hands.

If you’re interested in getting involved with Smile Group or making a donation, check out their website.

Contributed by Tom DiChristopher

Smile Group Update

February 2, 2010

Just yesterday, Leslie Wiener from Smile Group, the organization that connected us to the families we profiled in November’s “Living Positive” cover story, sent us an update on what the organization has been up to. Smile Group provides assistance to families affected by HIV/AIDS in Ho Chi Minh City, and from the looks of these photos, they’re living up to their name and putting a lot smiles on kids’ faces.

The kids go for tutoring at the office on Sundays, where the older kids are proud to help the younger ones. Smile Group also arranges for tutoring at their homes during the week.

There’s also some time for yoga classes on Sunday, thanks to the contribution of Aussie expat volunteer Lex.

Our friend Vy looks like she takes the meditation component very seriously…

Two French interns also helped out throughout the month of January. Not only did they take the kids swimming every Saturday and Sunday, they also did fundraising, cooked crepes and staged a riveting (and sparkly) interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”!

Smile Group volunteer Ginette also returned to continue caligraphy lessons. And…

More time for music with singing classes.

And finally, this past Sunday, Duoc began an ongoing children’s rights workshop aimed at empowering the kids. Groups were given a description of an incident that violates children’s rights, which they read out loud and discussed. They then worked in small groups to create presentations.

Next up, Smile Group will be heading to the sea with the families. If you’d like to know more about Smile Group, volunteer or make a donation, visit

Contributed by Tom DiChristopher

AsiaLIFE Blog


Fabric scraps help women pick up the pieces

(Source: ThanhNienOnline)

Furoshiki 09

Akiyo (R) from Japan teaches people to make Furoshiki, a Japanese traditional bag, in Ho Chi Minh City’

A small Japanese group provides training to the wives of HIV-infected men in Ho Chi Minh City.

Ti no longer earns a living as a xe om driver to bring prostitutes to work.

She and dozens of other HIV-infected men’s wives have been hired by a group of three Japanese women to sew wrapping cloth.

The mother of three in Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City, said she now has a safe job, earning around VND1 million (US$56) a month and still has time to do housework and take care of her children.

Every Friday, the seamstresses deliver their work to Japanese girls at a house on Hai Ba Trung Street, and take home fabric scraps to join them into colorful wrapping cloth.

Mai, a mother of four children whose husband died several years ago of HIV/AIDS, said she had been struggling to find jobs before she was introduced to the Furoshiki project, started last autumn and named after the Japanese word for “wrapping cloth.”

Maiko 09

Maiko, initiator of the Furoshiki project in Vietnam

“Firms nearby won’t receive me as they know that I’m infected. And it’s inconvenient for me to travel far away. I’m not strong enough.”

Mai has earned around VND1 million a month from the project since March.

“That actually cannot cover all the expenditures but we feel more secure,” she said.

The project also provides income for old women like Tu, who has to wear two pairs of glasses to work.

Tu said people at Furoshiki are not sticklers for age and by working at home, she can lie down for a rest any time she feels tired.

The 59-year-old added she doesn’t have to wait a month to get paid, instead she receives the money upon delivery of the cloth.

Akiyo and Aki of Japan, who are running the project, find themselves busy every day collecting fabric scraps and old clothes.

“These are the materials for Furoshiki,” said Akiyo, who has been living in Vietnam for six years, has married a Vietnamese and speaks the language fluently, as do her colleagues Aki and Maiko.

Akiyo deals with finance issues while Aki is in charge of designing the cloth and instructing the needlewomen.

Maiko, initiator of the project, told Thanh Nien in an email from Japan that the idea occurred to her when she visited women and child victims of HIV/AIDS in makeshift rooms in HCMC.

She said she didn’t have money to give them or open a company to take them out of street life, so she started to collect cloth leftovers from garment companies and residents for the project.

The project aims to provide the infected women a way to earn a living just by staying in their rented rooms, Maiko said.

Yet the three Japanese women are rather strict about the cloth quality and they won’t accept cloth that contains sewing errors.

“The seamstresses only need thread and needles and their job is to join fabric scraps into bigger cloth to produce pieces of art that can be used for different purposes other than wrapping.”

Maiko said that the project managers also wished to make people use more cloth bags and less plastic bags.

Although Furoshiki is a Japanese traditional bag, Akiyo said the bags would not be strange in Vietnam, where people in the old times used a similar cloth bag called tay nai (knapsack).

“That is the Furoshiki of Vietnam.”

The made-in-Vietnam Furoshiki has been consumed mostly in Japan as Maiko knocks on many doors in Japan including stores, cafés, exhibitions, and yoga centers to promote the product.

Some of the bags have been sold to visitors from France.


Furoshiki is a type of traditional Japanese wrapping cloth that is used frequently to transport clothes, gifts, or other goods.

According to some documents, the word once had the meaning “bath spread” as it derives from the Edo period practice of using cloth (shiki) to bundle clothes while at public baths (furo).

The usage of furoshiki has been extended lately to serve as a means for merchants to transport their wares or to protect and decorate a gift. Furoshiki has also become part of a green campaign in Japan and other countries, where people want to limit the use of plastic bags to protect the environment.

Furoshiki 09 - packaged

Reported by Nhu Lich


Chị Tâm “si-đa”

(Nguồn ThanhNienOnline) 02/07/2009 15:14

Chi Tam SIDA

Chị Trương Thị Hồng Tâm

Đó là biệt danh chị tâm đắc, do chính những người nhiễm HIV/AIDS mà chị tiếp cận, chăm sóc đặt cho. Trở thành một nhân viên công tác xã hội trong tình cảnh hết sức éo le, để rồi chị “máu lửa” dành cả phần đời còn lại cho công việc này. Tin chị nghi nhiễm căn bệnh hiểm nghèo khiến nhiều người lo lắng. Nhưng chị tỉnh rụi: “Sinh nghề, tử nghiệp mà!”.

Làm lại cuộc đời

Tên đầy đủ của chị là Trương Thị Hồng Tâm.Chị chưa bao giờ giấu giếm quá khứ làm gái mại dâm, nghiện ma túy, trộm cắp… của mình. Suốt 10 năm sau giải phóng, chị thường xuyên trốn ra, rồi lại được đưa vào trường trại cai nghiện, phục hồi nhân phẩm. Trải qua quãng đời sáng - tối đan xen đó, chị thấu hiểu sự vật vã đấu tranh với bản thân và với “cơm áo gạo tiền” của những người lầm lỡ muốn hoàn lương. Và đây là những dòng hồi ký đang viết dở dang của chị: “Ai cũng có thể nói tốt được hết nhưng khi đụng thực tế thì rất khó. Tôi cũng muốn sống tốt, nhưng vốn liếng lấy đâu ra? Nhà cửa thì không có, giấy tờ cũng không, làm sao sống tốt cho được? Tôi đâu muốn mình làm người xấu, cũng đâu muốn bị bắt vào trường cải tạo hoài…”. Khoảng năm 1990, chị  được một nhóm tuyên truyền phòng chống HIV/AIDS trên địa bàn Q.1, TP.HCM kiên trì đeo bám, thuyết phục chị tham gia nhóm. Lại đắn đo. Giằng xé. Rồi cuộc đời cũng được lật hẳn sang trang mới. Chị Tâm nhớ lại: “Mỗi buổi tối, tôi thường đi tiếp cận tại khu vực mà trước đây tôi từng kiếm cơm. Nhóm bạn mại dâm hễ thấy tôi đi tuyên truyền về si-đa là họ xầm xì bàn tán. Họ bảo, tôi hết thời làm đĩ mới đi làm si-đa. Có người so sánh làm gái kiếm cả trăm ngàn một đêm, trong khi nghề của tôi bấy giờ cả tháng nói khô cổ họng mới được 300 ngàn đồng...”. Tuy nhiên, cũng có một số người khác bày tỏ ước muốn được như chị. Họ muốn có cơ hội làm lại cuộc đời nhưng sao khó quá! Chị Tâm không chỉ dùng lời động viên mà còn tìm mọi cách giúp họ mưu sinh bằng nghề lương thiện.

Tháng 3.1995, chị “mừng đến phát run” khi nhận được số tiền 2 triệu đồng do bạn đọc một tờ báo giúp đỡ. Chị kể: “Nhận tiền xong, tôi… đau đầu lắm! Cuộc sống thiếu trước hụt sau, tính mua cái này, sắm cái kia cho “đã đời”. Cũng định mua chiếc xe đạp tốt tốt một chút để đi công tác đỡ mệt... Nhưng lại nghĩ, tiền người ta cho mình, mình phải làm điều gì đó cho có ý nghĩa”. Bỗng nhiên, chị nhớ đến những cô gái mại dâm sống vạ vật ngoài đường. Chị nhớ khao khát cháy bỏng của họ là mong có được cuộc sống bình thường, có được chốn đi về. Không ngần ngại, chị  quyết định dành trọn số tiền ấy để thực hiện dự án “Ngôi nhà giúp tự giúp” để cho 7 cô gái trẻ chuyển sang nghề cắt củ kiệu ở chợ Cầu Muối. Sau giờ tiếp cận, chị Tâm rủ bạn bè ghé vựa kiệu, vừa phụ cắt vừa kể chuyện vui cho các cô quên mệt mỏi. Dần dà, các cô thạo việc và bắt đầu sống tự lập. Trừ 1 người chết và 1 người “quay về đường cũ”, 5 cô gái ngày trước hiện đã có cuộc sống tương đối ổn. Nhắc đến họ, chị Tâm luôn cười rạng ngời, tự hào cho cái “sự liều” của mình.

Chi Tam SIDA - congtac

Chị Trương Thị Hồng Tâm (áo xanh, giữa) trong một lần tiếp cận

Hiện tại, chị Tâm vẫn là nhóm trưởng nhóm Tiếp cận cộng đồng của một tổ chức phòng chống buôn bán phụ nữ và trẻ em. Trước đó, chị là cộng tác viên của Ủy ban Phòng chống AIDS TP.HCM. Chị thường chăm sóc những bệnh nhân AIDS giai đoạn cuối bị người thân ghẻ lạnh… Khi được hỏi về số gái mại dâm, trẻ lang thang đường phố, người nhiễm HIV/AIDS mà chị đã tiếp cận trong thời gian qua, chị Tâm nói: “Không nhớ nổi đâu. Hàng ngàn ca thì không dám nói, nhưng hàng trăm ca thì có dư. Phần thưởng họ dành cho tôi chính là biệt danh không đụng hàng: Tâm si-đa!”.

Hơn nửa cuộc đời, chưa có chứng minh thư

Nếu ai hỏi tuổi, chị Tâm nói ngay mình sinh năm 1956. Nhưng khi “dấn” tiếp, đề cập đến lai lịch quê quán, sẽ thấy chị thoáng nét ưu tư: “Mình sanh ở làng Bình Trưng, Q.Thủ Đức, tỉnh Gia Định; nay chuyển thành Q.2, TP.HCM. Sau đó, lưu lạc tứ phương, chẳng biết đâu là quê hương…”. Có lẽ, chỉ những người hơn nửa cuộc đời (hoặc cả đời!) không có giấy tờ tùy thân như chị mới thấm thía nỗi khó nhọc khi thốt ra vài dòng có vẻ giản đơn ấy. Đã không ít lần, chị được công an đến “hỏi thăm” chứng minh thư  trong lúc chị đang tỉ tê trò chuyện, phát bao cao su cho gái mại dâm. Chị đưa thẻ hành nghề và cố sức giải thích mình là nhân viên công tác xã hội. Ai tin chị, nhất là lần đầu gặp mặt? Thế là chị được “mời” về trụ sở công an phường làm giải trình, rồi nhờ người bảo lãnh… Cũng vì thiếu giấy tờ tùy thân mà chị còn gặp muôn vàn khó khăn lúc đi xin việc hoặc khi thuê nhà, xin cho con nhập học…

Giữa năm 2008, chị Tâm trở lại Q.2 để nhờ trích lục giấy khai sinh cho chị. Một nhân viên hỏi cắc cớ: “Chị có chứng minh nhân dân, có sổ hộ khẩu không? Nếu không có, không tìm được đâu!”. May thay, câu chuyện một nhân viên công tác xã hội không có giấy tờ tùy thân như chị đã đến tai ông Phó chủ tịch UBND TP.HCM Nguyễn Thành Tài. Khi chị đưa ra công văn của ông Tài, nhân viên nói trên mới tích cực lục tìm. Có được giấy khai sinh, chị sung sướng tưởng mình gần chạm đến tấm giấy chứng minh nhân dân bao tháng ngày “hành” chị. Nhưng đã 1 năm trôi qua, cán bộ phường nơi chị đang tạm trú (thuộc Q.Gò Vấp) chỉ hứa và... hứa xem xét.

“Tài sản mình không có, đến mảnh giấy chứng minh mình là một công dân cũng không có nốt! Đôi khi nghĩ thấy tủi thân lắm…” - giọng chị Tâm chùng xuống.

Mẹ của hàng chục đứa trẻ

“Ba má tôi chia tay trong lúc đứa nhỏ nhất còn nằm trên võng, chưa biết ăn. Ba bỏ nhà đi theo dì ghẻ. Má tôi ghen quá hóa bệnh… Tự nhiên chị em tôi thành bơ vơ! Ngày ngày tôi đi ăn cắp cơm hàng xóm, riêng thằng em út khát sữa, khóc đến lả người...”. Những hồi ức buồn của tuổi thơ không - hơi - ấm - mẹ - cha khiến chị dành tình thương đặc biệt cho những đứa trẻ mồ côi. Thời chị cùng phụ trách nhà Hy vọng (thuộc chương trình Trẻ em Thảo Đàn, TP.HCM) cách đây hơn 10 năm, chị đã xem hàng chục đứa trẻ đường phố nhiễm HIV như con ruột của mình. Các con đi chơi đêm, chị đi ra đi vào càm ràm. Con về, chị trách móc, la mắng đủ điều. Có những người không hiểu, nói chị đối xử khắt khe quá. Từ năm 2004, chị Tâm thuê nhà riêng để tiện chăm sóc những trẻ nhiễm HIV, trẻ mắc căn bệnh hiểm nghèo. Trong đó, có một số trẻ đã trưởng thành, sống tự lập. Hiện chị nuôi 5 đứa trẻ tuổi từ 6-12, học lớp 1 và lớp 2. Ai cũng khen chị khéo dạy con, đứa nào cũng ngoan hiền...  Câu chuyện giữa chị và chúng tôi cuối cùng lại quay về căn bệnh chị có nguy cơ mắc phải. Chị nhắn nhủ: “Cho phép tôi không nêu cụ thể loại bệnh gì. Chỉ nói là bệnh hiểm nghèo”.

Gần đây chị mới nghi ngờ mình nhiễm căn bệnh này ạ?

Chị Tâm: Vừa rồi thấy người bết bát quá, tôi đi xét nghiệm thì kết quả dương tính! Bác sĩ phỏng đoán tôi đã mắc bệnh này ba năm nay. Nhưng tôi vẫn hy vọng - dẫu rất mong manh- vào lần xét nghiệm tháng 8 tới để biết chắc chắn kết quả …

Trăn trở, kinh nghiệm của chị trong việc tiếp cận, hỗ trợ trẻ đường phố và gái mại dâm?

Cá nhân tôi cho rằng, không nên nhúng tay quá sâu vào cuộc đời các em. Chỉ nên giáo dục hoặc cai nghiện xong là đưa về hồi gia, trừ một số trường hợp đặc biệt mới cưu mang. Đối với chị em từng làm gái mại dâm, tôi mong họ được học những loại nghề xã hội cần. Thử hỏi, ở những thành phố lớn mà dạy đan lát, dệt chiếu... thì làm sao kiếm được việc làm?  Mặt khác, nếu địa phương không tạo điều kiện cho họ thì những công đoạn trước dễ thành “trớt qướt”. Đói thì đầu gối phải bò.

Chị có buồn vì không có con ruột, chỉ toàn con nuôi?

Cuộc đời tôi “xấu hoắc”, có cha có mẹ cũng như không; rồi làm gái, nghiện ma túy… Tôi không có nhà cửa; đẻ con ra sợ chúng nó khổ. Đến khi mình nằm xuống, lại để gánh nặng cho xã hội.

Tôi sanh đẻ lần nào đâu mà có ranh giới con ruột, con nuôi? Tôi và những đứa con này gặp nhau như duyên nợ, toàn những cuộc đời đau khổ, nương tựa nhau mà sống. Có mình tụi nó vui, có tụi nó mình vui!

Chị có quá lo sợ nếu kết quả xét nghiệm lần nữa không như mong muốn?

Tôi không sợ chết. Có điều, căn bệnh đến với mình bất ngờ quá nên bị suy sụp. Không ai bên cạnh để an ủi ngoài mấy đứa nhỏ nên tôi càng bấn loạn. Bây giờ, tinh thần tôi đã khá hơn. Tôi chỉ lo sợ nếu mình ra đi đột ngột, các con tôi phải mồ côi thêm một lần nữa.

Những ngày này, một số blog, trang web quyên góp giúp mẹ con chị Tâm. Những bà mẹ trang web tretho, nhóm tình nguyện HHF... hỗ trợ hơn 8 triệu đồng và một số vật dụng. Trong đó, có một món quà quý - quyển sách Yêu và chết (Loving and Dying) của tỳ kheo Visuddhàcàra. Chị Tâm cho hay, quyển sách nâng đỡ tâm hồn, giúp chị có thể mỉm cười đón nhận cái chết nếu nó đến sớm. Đơn giản, vì chị đã sống hết lòng trong cuộc đời này!

Bài & ảnh: Như Lịch


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Smiling hearts and helping hands

by Rick Perera, CARE Press Officer

On a beautiful day in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's largest metropolis, about 40 people are gathered in a city park. In a celebratory mood, men and women in their 20s and early 30s, sit cross-legged on the ground, joining in games and songs designed to cement their bond of friendship. "Chiu choi, chiu choi, chiu choi," goes one refrain; the words translate as, "If you play, you feel happy." Presents and cake mark the second anniversary of this circle of friends.




These games are serious business, however, because this club offers mutual support for people living with HIV/AIDS. "Happiness and one's mental state are more important than medication in order to survive," says Nguyen Van Hung, who founded the club, which calls itself the Smiling Group. Most of the members are desperately poor; many are sick and weak, he adds. But somehow they find the money and strength to attend these weekly gatherings. Most of them have little family support and have faced stigma and discrimination because of their status; as Hung says, the sympathetic ear they offer each other is their best medicine.


In a country with few services for people affected by HIV/AIDS, Smiling Group members turn to each other for a helping hand. They accompany each other to clinics, look after each other's children, chip in for tuition fees. For six months, CARE has been working with the group, and five others like it, to help them implement their own HIV/AIDS programs, adding more professional services to the emotional support members give each other.


Heart-wrenching stories abound. Nguyen Hoang Yen, age 12, joined the group two months ago, after her mother died; she had already lost her father, two years previously. "We didn't have the money to bury my mother, but Hung got all the members to contribute for her funeral," she says, struggling to keep up the cheerful mood the games have brought out in her. They also scraped together money to pay for her school fees, she says.


CARE continues to build partnerships with HIV/AIDS support groups in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Vietnam's capital. As groups become stronger, CARE offers grants to help them implement projects on prevention, palliative care, antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, and support for orphans and vulnerable children like Yen.


For the parents in the group, the future holds painful questions: what will happen to their children once they are gone? "My life has not been lucky, so I am only living for my children," says Nguyen Thi Ngoc Lien, 27, the mother of two boys. She had to give up the older son to a home because she couldn't afford to feed him after her husband died. Adds Nguyen Thi Ngoc Linh (no relation), 26, "I don't have the money to pay for school fees, but if I ask for help I'll have to admit that I am HIV-positive, and the other kids will ostracize my children."


Tran Thi Ngoc Bich was left homeless after her husband, learning she had tested positive, kicked herout. Since then, she has taken shelter with her 6-month-old son, Le Huy Hoang, in the market stall where her parents sell lottery tickets. The Smiling Group gave her some capital -- about $15 -- to buy cakes she can sell for a little money. But it's not enough to support her 5-year-old and 4-year-old: she has given them up to foster care. Tears come to her eyes when she thinks about them. "I might die tomorrow; I just hope someone will help my children so they can study, and have a better future than I did." Just last week, she had another blow: little Hoang tested positive for HIV.


Group leader Hung brightens the mood with a quiz game designed to test how well members know each other. Who here is the longest-standing member? Who has the most children? Who can dance like a butterfly? There is laughter and applause for those who jump up to claim their prizes. Friends help one young woman, too weak to stand on her own, step forward for her gift.


But even in this light-hearted moment there is a bittersweet edge. "How many members of the club died last year?" asks Hung.


"Thirteen," calls out 12-year-old Yen. She gets a prize.