by Hang Nguyen
DA NANG (VNS)— Sixty-three-year-old Le Van Dan couldn't hold back the tears when his grandson fed himself with a spoon for the first time at the age of 13.
|Le Van Tam (right) attends class at the day-care centre in the central coastal city of Da Nang's Hoa Vang District. — Photo UNICEF Viet Nam/Thanh Huong
"He used to scream and cause a mess before. Just the simple act of feeding himself made us believe that he was getting better," Dan recalled.
His grandson Le Van Tam is one of four brothers, but he is the only one to have been affected by Agent Orange, a chemical used by the US during the war.
But Tam was born both mentally and physically different from his brothers. Even now at the age of 14, he struggles to speak or walk, and most of his time is spent in a wheelchair.
He and his brothers were born and brought up in Hoa Vang District's Hoa Nhon Commune in the central coastal city of Da Nang – an area that had high exposure to Agent Orange.
Tam's parents moved to another province to work, leaving him in the care of his grandparents who earned about VND2 million (US$96) each month from cultivating rice.
Tam could have been confined to his parents' house for life, had he not been taken in by a local daycare centre in May last year.
"Thankfully we've noticed positive changes in him," Dan said. "He is more obedient and understood how to sit properly in his wheelchair after just a couple of months at the centre. I no longer have to carry him if I want to take him anywhere."
Tam and 60 other local children affected by Agent Orange and children with disabilities in the district have received healthcare services and basic education to learn how to socialise with other people for over a year at the centre.
The centre is supported by international organisat-ions, such as the UNICEF, Ford Foundation and Patricia Lanza Foundation.
The Da Nang City's Association of Victims of Agent Orange provided funding to operate the centre, said Phan Thanh Tien, vice chairman of the association.
"Children at the centre are aged from 7-20, and suffer from mobility, hearing and visual defects, mental disabilities, and malformation," he said. The centre is part of the efforts made by both local authorities and international NGOs to help disadvantaged children, many of whom are victims of the war that ended more than 35 years ago.
Figures released by the Viet Nam Association of Victims of Agent Orange and the General Statistics Office show that the country has about 150,000 child victims of Agent Orange and around 1.3 million children with disabilities.
In Da Nang alone, there are about 1,400 children affected by Agent Orange and 1,600 with disabilities.
More than half of the children with disabilities do not have access to education in Viet Nam, according to Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF Representative in Viet Nam.
"Of the children with disabilities who receive an education, the education system segregates them by placing them in separate schools or classrooms," Sylwander said, referring to the need for an inclusive education system.
The lack of teachers, standard training modules and financial resources have been blamed for the situation, although the Government and local authorities have made a range of efforts, she said.
She recommended the Government should issue more instructions to effectively implement the Law on People with Disabilities, train staff with skills to work and support children with disabilities, and build more daycare centres.
Le Thi Thu Thao, 22,volunteered to care for the children after she graduated from the Da Nang-based College of Technical Medicine 2.
"Each child has different disabilities, and it was difficult for me to connect with them at the start," she said.
"Some cried, screamed and even hit me when I was trying to look after them, and sometimes, I did not know what to do,"
Thao also added that "children with mental disabilities tend to forget things easily, so it takes time to teach them how to remember the alphabet or numbers."
However, when the children got used to her, some even called her at night just to know whether she was asleep.
"For the victims of Agent Orange here, it is a feeling of elation," she said. "For them, to be able to hear, to speak, and even to walk brings enormous joy." — VNS