by Thu Hien
HA NOI — Pursing his lips, sixteen-year-old Nguyen Huu Manh is focusing his attention on his sewing machine as he makes a wedding dress. Beside him, his teacher, 75-year-old Tran Duyen Hai, bends his back to observe and guide him to adjust the needle work.
|Teacher Tran Duyen Hai guides a junior tailor, a homeless child to adjust his sewing work. For nearly 40 years, he has nurtured and taught more than 1,200 homeless children and orphans to do tailoring at his home. — VNS Photo Thu Hien
Looking at Manh now, no one can imagine that six months ago he was a thief who almost lost his life after being stabbed during a fight.
It was the elderly teacher Hai who found Manh and took him to a hospital, carrying the teenager on his back.
Manh says Hai was the only person to offer him assistance in his hour of need.
"No one came to my aid because they did not want to associate with a gangster like me, except for Hai," he says. "Hai sat awake for several nights looking after me at the hospital. I thought he must have been crazy or wanted to use me by getting me to do illegal things.
"But he was so gentle and asked nothing from me. I felt warm and confident."
However, after recovering, Manh left and turned back to a life of crime.
"I was then caught by police and Hai came and took me back to his home where dozens of other youngsters were working with their sewing machines. Putting his hands on my shoulders, he looked straight at me and said ‘this is your home'."
Since then Manh has found a new way to support himself.
"I live in a big family now with teacher Hai and another 75 sisters and brothers," says Manh. "I work as a junior tailor during the day which earns me VND3 million (US$142) per month. I save all of this. At night, I go to class."
Manh is one more than 1,500 homeless children and orphans that Hai has nurtured and helped to gain employment at his home in the city's Dong Da District during the past 40 years.
Now, sitting in a small room that is his only private space in five-storey house, Hai looks relaxed and at peace, despite the fact that he is taking care of nearly 100 children.
He smiles and says: "The most difficult period is behind us."
He says that decades ago when he began helping these children, things were a lot more difficult.
In 1975, Hai, as a 38-year-old worker at the city's Textile and Garment Company on his way home saw three injured children lying on a bench. He bought medicine and food for them and found out that they were homeless and had been beaten after being caught stealing.
"No one wishes to lead their lives as a thief," says Hai. "These children just need some honest work."
He decided to take the three homeless children to a rental room on Hang Dao Street, bought three second-hand sewing machines and taught them tailoring skills.
"At that time, everybody thought I was crazy and refused to help me. I did not tell my wife about it as it was already hard enough to feed our five-member family."
But Hai didn't stop offering his help, taking in homeless children from mountainous provinces of Phu Tho, Thai Binh, Lao Cai, Son La and Lai Chau.
Every weekend, Hai cycled to neighbouring provinces to work as a part-time trainer to earn money to support the destitute children. After five months, the children became skilled at sewing clothes and could earn money by themselves.
He still paid for all their expenses so they could save some of their earnings, but after another year the children found jobs as tailors at local enterprises. They said good-bye to Hai and led their own independent lives.
Eight years later, in 1983, with 42 children under his wing, Hai needed a larger space to live and work, but everybody refused to rent out accommodation as many of the children were still stigmatised as criminals.
This was a difficult time for Hai, who struggled alone to help disadvantaged children while facing increasing opposition from his wife, who had found out about his charitable activities.
Hai's wife, Nguyen Thanh Ha, says she was shocked when she first found out that her husband was supporting so many destitute children.
"I asked him to choose our family or those children," says Ha.
"He did not say anything to convince me otherwise, but my heart softened when I saw the poor children at that time who were with him struggling to look for accommodation. I also did not understand how he could deal with all these difficulties with all these strange children for such a long time."
It was his wife that suggested spending all their savings on buying a 200sq.m lot of land in Dong Da District to build a house for the children.
He quit his job to run a service to offer free service for all young people looking for work, which he could do by charging employers who recruited qualified labourers introduced by his service.
"This service worked well as no one was doing that at the time so I had a lot of customers," he says. "This meant I had a permanent source of income for my children."
Thirty-seven year old Dang Hung Nha, who lived in Hai's home 20 years ago says the group was like one big family.
"We lived in a completely safe and warm environment," says Nha. "However, as stubborn children, we usually caused lots of trouble: fighting each other, annoying the neighbours or being lazy. Hai earned money to pay our daily expenses, taught us to make clothes and suffered with us.
"After one year under his guidance, we became skilful tailors who were offered jobs by textile and garment companies. Some of us refused and stayed with him for several more years as we felt like living there with Hai was our home."
More importantly, Nha says Hai's efforts steered the children onto the right path in life.
"All his deeds made us rethink our actions and way of life," she says.
Nha is now director of a workshop with more than 100 disabled workers.
At the age of 75, Hai is looking for a person who can replace him to manage the operation of his centre for disadvantaged children.
"I want to reach more faraway provinces to help as many homeless children as possible," he says.
"Helping homeless children is just like climbing a mountain. When you reach the peak, you will see another mountain. It's just my fate to conquer mountains." — VNS