Friends For Street Children: Protecting the Vulnerable
The Perilous Plight and Lives of Migrant Children in Saigon
If you’ve been here long enough, you may get used to graciously declining the purchase of a lottery ticket or pack of tissues from a seemingly happy child while out with friends at your local bia hoi or partying on Bui Vien. In reality, it doesn’t take very long before the guilt of declining becomes habitual and common as there are over 11,000 street children in Vietnam trying to sell odds and ends to help provide supplemental income for their families. If you take a moment to truly assess your surroundings, things aren’t always as they appear. Why these children are up, far past their bedtime, perusing the streets where children shouldn’t be? Child labour exploitation is a symptom of poverty that extends beyond the “home.” It’s all too simple to blame on poor parenting, it’s a community issue.
The truth is that child labour has had a long history in Vietnam. Many parents and guardians in rural provinces of Vietnam, like the Mekong Delta or central Vietnam, send their kids to Saigon hoping that their opportunities are greater than at home. More often than not, these children only become part of the vicious cycle of poverty. The harsh reality is that a family could end up sharing a small run-down room with several other families or live in a tent along the Saigon River.
With the number of migrant children continuing to rise, Friends for Street Children (FFSC) has been actively tackling these issues with a solutions-oriented focus centered on the children they serve. Founded by Mr. Tran Van Soi, FFSC has provided care and education to these children since the 1980s. FFSC offers support to children living in poverty by alleviating some of the hardships they and their families face daily, knowing that education becomes a proven pathway to successfully break the vicious cycle of poverty.
“Some children work overnight selling lottery tickets or working in night markets that they end up being too tired to go to school in the morning.”
I sat with Sister Le Thi Thao, who has been with the charity for most of her adult life and has been the Directress of the charity since 2005, to discuss the hardships these children and their families face and how FFSC helps restore the dignity and livelihood of the demographic they serve. Identity and our sense of identity affect our access to resources greater than we realize, while education remains a privilege rather than a right. Migrant children often experience discrimination based on their migrant status, lack of documentation such as a birth certificate, or the inability to afford the academic fees to public education.
Children are sent to the city only to be subjected to exploitative and deceptive practices, often by people trusted by the family. The terms and agreements are vague and parents are not given information about their child’s whereabouts within the city. Consequently, many children are victims of homelessness, living in desolate conditions or moving from place to place in the slums of HCMC. FFSC coordinates with social workers to provide accommodation, food, and learning facilities for homeless, displaced or distressed children, while working to reintegrate them with their families and/or society.
Many of these families come from areas where literacy and education levels are low, ultimately leading them to make uninformed decisions. FFSC conducts educational training sessions for children and their families on health issues, life values, and life skills through their professional teachers and volunteers. These training sessions enable parents to make better and more informed decisions for their loved ones.
The Double-Edged Sword
Migrant children are in a vulnerable position, having to choose between studying and helping their family.
“Sometimes, children begin studying at our centers, but they end up stopping their studies to work more and help their family pay rent at the end of the month.”
These children are more likely to risk their lives to financially support their families. Consequently, children’s lives are endangered taking on dangerous, precarious jobs.
FFSC believes in empowering children with access to education as a way to disrupt the poverty lifecycle. Social workers, volunteers, and professional teachers at FFSC all work together to deliver and foster a healthy, happy educational environment previously unattainable for these children. FFSC offers elementary level education and developmental support in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, with the goal of integrating children into public schools. The charity also provides financial support for children who cannot fund their educational fees and expenses at public schools and universities.
In 2006 and 2009 respectively, FFSC expanded its small vocational workshop to a handicraft factory and opened up a Guesthouse at their headquarters in District 1. These expansions have allowed disadvantaged women to earn an income and prevent them from taking on risky, exploitative jobs. FFSC also offers vocational training and courses such as sewing, embroidery, languages, and computer skills allowing children and their families to gain the necessary skills needed to earn a more sustainable income, which helps restore their sense of livelihood.
What started as a small project has grown into seven fully functioning development centers, one handicraft factory, and one social enterprise dedicated to serving disadvantaged children and their families. This year, FFSC celebrates its 35th year of raising awareness and addressing crucial issues that continue to impact the lives of the less fortunate with the belief that children are human beings who should be valued and respected. The charity has been able to serve and support over 1,200 children and their families so far. With support from donors and volunteers, the FFSC hopes to continue impacting the lives of everyone in Saigon while raising awareness in the community.
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Image source: Zody Huynh