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Floating community grounded by poverty

Update: September, 17/2013 - 09:13
The four-square metre hut built by Ai and Tranh for their family on a river bank in Phu Mau Commune, Phu Vang District of Thua Thien Hue Province. — VNS Photo Phuoc Buu
by Phuoc Buu

THUA THIEN HUE (VNS)— Boat people have been a part of life in many South-east Asian countries for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Their distrust of land dwellers is often a shared emotion, especially when it comes to being rehoused or educated in land-based homes and schools.

One such group living on the edge of society in Thua Thien Hue Province is the Vo family. Last month, eight-year-old Ngoc Anh started her first class in a primary school in the province - two years late compared to other students in her class, who began their primary education at the normal age of six.

Ngoc Anh is not alone. Her two older brothers are in a similar, if not worse situation - Hung aged 11 and Tuong aged 13. The children started going to school late because they had no birth certificates - and because of their parents' floating life. But the biggest fear is that their studies may end sooner than later because of a lack of funds.

Tuong, Hung and Ngoc Anh only received their birth certificates in July 15 this year. The documents carry the surname of their mother, Vo Thi Tranh, because their father, Le Van Ai, has no ID card.

Ai knows he is from a boat family living on water in Hue City's Vy Da Ward. In 1985, a strong storm hit the boat and everyone except himself and his mother. However, there is nothing recorded in the ward residents' book. Ai was 12 at the time. His father's illiteracy prevented him from filing a birth certificate.

Ai restarted his floating life on a small boat donated by other boat residents on the Perfume River. In 1998, Ai decided to live with Tranh, another boat resident, as husband and wife, without marriage procedures or even a humble wedding. They continued their floating life in poverty and with little hope for the future.

In Hue, there were once many floating communities living on the river and its tributaries. Most lived in bad conditions and many were illiterate. Marriages were often matters of convenience because land people generally did not wish to associate with them.

Recently the city carried out programmes to resettle the families and educate their children. Authorities have now banned floating communities within the city boundaries to improve the city's image and to provide better security.

However, the resettlement excluded Ai, his wife and family as Ai officially does not exist. This pushed them even further down the social and poverty ladder and meant no education for the children.

Ai sailed his boat household about 4km to the lower reaches of the Perfume River and asked to join an existing floating community. The area is out of the city and is administered by Phu Mau Commune in Phu Vang District.

However, the resettlement policies of the commune once again excluded Ai and Tranh family. The couple and their growing family of four children are still floating around with little hope for the future. "I did not think of sending the kids to school because we could only afford one meal a day," said Tranh. "Why on earth go to school anyway?".

Every day, Ai catches fish in the river while Tranh and the children collect waste bottles to sell. The boat is too small for six to sleep on regularly, so Ai has built a hut from scrap material on the river bank in Phu Mau for all to sleep in. "If there's no rain, the children sleep on the boat. When it does rain, we all share the cottage, but we often get totally wet," said Tranh.

From 2009 to 2012, many freelance photographers in Hue took pictures of the family and their lifestyle. Last year, one of the photographers, Vo Thi Huong Lan, a Hue local, formed the Hue Helping Hands group and collected donations from her friends to give to the family. The family received some second-hand clothing, an engine for their boat and a small amount of money for emergencies.

But the family was till locked into its life of poverty and illiteracy because of the lack of ID cards. Ai found that his fish catches were not enough to feed a family of six. "We have only one meal a day," he said, gulping down pieces of donated mooncake.

However, there is a light at the end of the dismal tunnel. The Helping Hands group is collecting money to build a small house for the family. Tranh said she planned to sell goods if and when the dwelling eventuates, given that local authorities will not provide any land for it.

Thanks to the financial and material support from the group, Tranh has filed for birth certificates for her children in Kim Long Ward, where Tranh was born. The money has also been sufficient to send Tuong, Hung and Ngoc Anh to school. A brighter future potentially awaits them, particularly Ngoc Anh, the smartest of the three. "Going to school is really fun. I have many new friends," she said.

But there is no guarantee that the group's budget will be sufficient to cover all academic expenses - even for the next academic year, according to Lan. The educational bridge could collapse, leaving the children stranded in their world of poverty. — VNS

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