by Bich Huong
HA NOI — "Come and see me write," a 9-year-old boy said while leading me to his seat in a class for child victims of Agent Orange in the Viet Nam Friendship Village.
|A class for disabled children at the Ha Noi-based Viet Nam Friendship Village. Ten teachers are working in the village with monthly salaries of only about VND2million ($96) each. — VNA/VNS Photo Trong Duc
He kept asking my name and talking about his "new" task to write the word "ve" (balm-cricket) until he opened his notebook, holding his pen confidently, and started to write.
Letter followed letter, some out of line and others uneven.
The boy's teacher, Nguyen Thi Huyen said that he had practised writing the word for a few days already and that it contained too many curves, which posed him some difficulty.
Huyen is kept constantly busy in her small class of 14 children who, aged seven to 20 years old, still struggle with the pre-school and first grade programmes.
The teacher said that all her students were victims of AO/Dioxide and suffered from mental disorders of various levels.
"It usually takes me months to teach them something others may find very simple," she said.
"Half of my students are learning how to hold their pencils and colour images while only six have learned how to count and calculate with single digit numbers. At least one kid has come to terms with addition using two-digit figures," she noted.
When I visited Huyen's class during break time, she seemed busier than usual due to a small student with a nosebleed.
"This boy's suffered from nosebleeds for the past few days. I have informed his care giver already, maybe a check-up is needed," she said while pinching his nose with tissue.
Some students sitting nearby screamed at seeing the blood while others looked on unperturbed, noisily continuing their games.
"Slow down, boys," Huyen told some boys running outside the class.
"It's tough teaching a class of differing levels, especially with so many bearing the consequences of AO/Dioxin use," she said.
"However, it's part of my job and the joys can be beyond description when my students remember their lessons," she said.
Working with the kids three hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, the teacher also acts as a caregiver.
"It's not unusual to see a student leaving the class without the teacher's permission or someone losing concentration," she said, adding that it often took ten minutes to get students back into class after break.
Huyen, 30, from northern Hoa Binh Province, has worked at the village for six years after graduating from the Ha Noi University of Education's Special Education Faculty.
She said that when she started work, her monthly salary was over VND1 million (US$48) and that she currently earned nearly VND2 million ($96).
"Three-fourths of my income is spent on rent, water and electricity and the rest on my 8-month-old baby."
Colonel Dang Vu Dung, director of the Friendship Village, said there were nine classes for over 100 AO/Dioxin-affected children, including five for special education and four focused on job training.
Operating as a non-governmental charity organisation, the village offers therapeutic help to mentally and physically disabled people including war veterans and Dioxin-affected youth.
Upon arrival, the incapacitated children are taught personal hygiene including washing their faces, combing their hair and then, to distinguish colours, to count as well as to read and write. Veterans and children all qualify for Government support while most of the village's operational budget comes from donations, Dung explained.
At present, 10 teachers are working in the village with monthly salaries of about VND2million ($96) each.
He said that the salary fund was part of donations given to the village.
Thus, Dung said, the teachers working in the village did not receive any State allowances while, according to the Prime Minister's decision, teachers at schools for the disabled are eligible for allowances worth 70 per cent of their salaries.
Dung, as a veteran, added that people come to the village in sympathy, concerned about how to improve the incomes of those working there.
Ministry of Education and Training's Legal Department Director Chu Hong Thanh said that teachers such as Huyen should be given allowances not only for teaching at special educational institutions, but also for taking care of AO/Dioxin victims.
Article 63 in the Education and Training Law regulates that the State encourages organisations and individuals to establish schools for disabled people while it appoints teachers and funds for State-run institutions and offer incentives for non-State initiatives.
Thanh suggested that the International Committee of the Viet Nam Friendship Villages co-ordinate with relevant ministries and agencies to ensure teacher benefits.
The Friendship Village was initiated by former US soldier George Mizo in 1988, together with people who shared a desire for peace and reconciliation.
Construction of the village kicked off in 1993 in Van Canh Commune, Hoai Duc District. It started operation in 1998 and so far, taken in 300 veterans and 600 children. — VNS