|The show goes on: Children from the Lotus School taking part in a concert. Before they found the school, most lived at home on their own during the day - often locked in for their own safety.
|Slow but steady: Handicapped children get huge pleasure out of drawing but they often have no schools to go to because of prejudice. — VNS Photos
A Buddhist monk in Ho Chi Minh City stepped in to fill the void caused by prejudice against mentally and physically handicapped children. He set up a special school for them in rough and tough District Four. Tran Nguyen Anh
The sounds of laughter and chatter floating from behind closed doors in an old home in this bustling city are relaxing on a hot summer's day. It seems like just another schoolroom, but when the doors open, one realises that the joyful atmosphere is being created by mentally challenged children.
In 1989, Thich Tu Giang, the Abbot at Linh Quang Tinh Xa Theravada Buddhist pagoda in HCM City's District 4, established a small school for handicapped youngsters in an abandoned house. At present 60 children, either mentally retarded, deaf or mute, attend classes. It is the only school of its kind in the whole district.
The head teacher and manager of the centre, Truong Thi Loi, says District 4, the smallest district in the city, is a fairly "rough" area. Surrounded by a harbour, ditches and canals, it is home to thousands of workers, and many notorious criminal gangs.
In the old days, children suffering from Down's Syndrome in the area were generally kept indoors and rarely attended school. The lack of exposure to sunlight left their skins ghostly white. There were no special schools.
When Abbot Giang realised their plight, he decided to set up the school in an abandoned house. In 21 years, it has become like a little flower garden among the river slums. All the classes have the name "lotus" before them, indicating the beauty and knowledge rising out of sorrow and despair.
Nguyen Thi Diep is in charge of a lotus class of 12 children of different ages. She says, smiling: "One class, three different levels – kindergarten, nursery, and grade one. Children are classified according to capacity instead of age. A 12-year-old child might attend kindergarten classes.
"In kindergarten, children are taught the basic human skills, such as toilet-training, or understanding what adults mean by their gestures. The best student is already 17-years-old."
I watched Minh Huy, who looks bright and agile, sitting with his eyes fixed for long periods on pictures and drawings lying on the floor. Many of the drawings were his own, quite an achievement for a boy who had spent years sitting in a room with nothing to do.
Huy's father left home when Huy was a toddler. His mother had to rent a room. When Huy was admitted to the lotus classes, he was like a vegetable. Now he can not only put down images from his imagination on paper, but he can also impress his teachers by completing maths exercises.
"There are few schools for the mentally challenged," says Loi, the manager. "Most who arrive have never attended class before. Several who found a place in normal schools learnt little, even after several years, so they were sent to us".
The story reminds me of a mother who had a child with Down's Syndrome. Although Vietnamese herself, she felt that her own people had a strong prejudice towards the mentally retarded and decided to send the child to Singapore for education.
"I feel sorry for these children when they are sent to schools or exposed to the outside world," the mother said. "It's hard for them to be accepted in Vietnamese schools and fit in. Mentally retarded children are much more welcome in developed countries."
Teacher Bui Tan Hieu is also a therapist. He says: "Many mentally retarded children have been used to lying on beds or sitting motionless in their tightly closed homes. The first lessons they are taught at the centre are how to sit properly, move around, and massage their bodies.
Singing and dancing are easy practices for normal children to learn, but it took Minh Thu, who is 22, many years. It has taken many years for other retarded children to learn how to brush their teeth.
Several 25-year-old students in the lotus classes have spent up to 10 or more years just to reach grade two. The spark of intelligence can only blossom in these feeble children when they live with affection and patience. Their teachers know that learning is not only for the accumulation of knowledge, but also for finding childhood happiness. Education levels are not the most important thing.
Twenty-eight-year-old student Tuan Khanh has been patiently reciting Buddhist scriptures and studying for years, but is still at grade-one level. However he still remains optimistic and happy. Another student, Bao Thi, also 28, can even type documents on computers. She is very happy with her achievement.
Not all make such progress though. Cong Hau, 22, is seriously retarded. After years at the school, he has only learned where to place his sandals when he comes in.
As Loi says, unlike other schools, "as long as Hau and his friends feel happy with learning, they still have a place in the lotus class with younger students". He says the doors of the centre always remain open wide. "Initially, we only accepted students under 15, but now some of them have aged, but they are still welcome."
More capable students help spoon-feed Hau at lunch time. Afterwards, he will be lulled to sleep by his classmates.
Each year, VND15 million (US$750) is allocated to the centre from the district budget. This has now gone up to VND20 million ($1,000). However, as Loi says, bills amount to about VND40 million ($2,000) a month.
The 15 staff at the centre receive a bare VND1,500,000 VND ($75) a month. Few businesses offer help. However, Buddhists at the pagoda and at markets supply vegetables. The centre receives VND37 million a month ($1,850) from all sources. Each family contributes VND50,000 ($2,50) a month to the funds – if they can afford it. When the centre runs out of money, the monks make up the difference from their collections.
Amid the swirling torrents of the rives and the lives of these children, Giang's school is an Ark that saves these kids from drowning under the weight of their burden. — VNS