As a social worker, Truong Thi Hong Tam has rescued hundreds of young girls from prostitution, helped countless streetwalkers to amend their lives and offered shelter to street-children who have contracted HIV. An ex-drug addict and prostitute herself, Tam has just published her first book entitled Tam Sida – Vuot Len Cai Chet (Tam AIDS – Overcoming Death), an auto-iographical best-seller about her gloomy past.
Inner Sanctum: As an ex-drug user and ex-prostitute, how did you turn your life around in order to become an HIV campaigner?
When I was 36, I met two HIV/AIDS campaigners, Le Ngoc Thanh and Tran Cong Binh. At that time I was unable to find customers, I was deep in debt and suffering from constant raids by the police. Feeling angry and disappointed, I drove Thanh and Binh away, refusing their help. However, they kept visiting me, patiently listening to my story and eventually they invited me to work with them. At first, I accepted just for fun. Unexpectedly, the more I have worked as a campaigner, the more I realised how meaningful my work was.
At first I participated in campaigning against HIV/AIDS to try and help street girls and children. I felt very happy about helping so many people. Eventually I became a professional campaigner myself, and a consultant against HIV/AIDS, helping street children to get rid of addiction and managing the "House of Hope" where many children having HIV are being taken care of.
My life has changed thanks to the help from society.
Inner Sanctum: You experienced a lot of tragedy during your youth, at a high cost. Have you found satisfaction and happiness in your present life?
I'm very satisfied with my present life, especially in the happiness I used to lack. In the old days when I was still a drug addict, I had no confidence in the police at all. However, at present, I have put all my trust in them, because they have been so kind to my family. They have always cared about and encouraged me spiritually. For example, even though I don't have an ID card, they still allow my family to stay in the area and act as guarantors for my children so that they can attend schools. I owe a debt of gratitude to policeman Lam Thanh Tam of Go Vap District, as well as the officials of the local people's committee, who have created favourable conditions for me to finish my work well. I enjoy what I am doing, and as long as I have health, I will continue my job.
Inner Sanctum: How do you persuade drug addicts to seek rehabilitation, or encourage prostitutes to prevent themselves from contracting HIV?
I used to be an addict and a sex worker myself, so I understand them really well. On approaching them, I tell them my life story. Nothing can convince a person as firmly as a true story, right? I expect them to see that despite not being rich I still lead a sufficient life and receive much support from society. As long as they are ready to turn themselves around, society is always willing to accept and protect them.
I'm also willing to help them find jobs so that they can support themselves financially and stay away from social evils.
Inner Sanctum: Working as an HIV campaigner means constant exposure to danger. Why do you still want to be in that environment after successful rehabilitation?
I don't want to see more and more people follow my guilty steps, falling into addiction and HIV. But the main reason is that I don't want to betray the trust of society. Society has taken great care of me and offered me convenient conditions so that I can live and work well.
Inner Sanctum: How have you and your children dealt with the countless difficulties you have all been faced with, particularly the discrimination against them?
D.T. Ly is possibly the most difficult child I'm rearing. She was abandoned at birth and infected by HIV when she was still in her mother's womb. Both of her parents died soon after her birth and her grandparents could not afford to raise her. The difficulties I have faced in bringing up a sick and malnourished child are included in my book. In Pham Ngoc Thach Hospital, nearly everyone knows her name, because she used to stay in the hospital much longer than at home.
There were times when she was discharged from hospital, with doctors unable to do anything else for her, and I would buy her bear bile and cook nutritious dishes for her. It was so pitiful. She didn't understand why she had to keep taking medicine and why she was always in pain. I only know that to HIV/AIDS children, the most important factors are spirituality, proper nutrition and finally, medicine. Ly is 15 now, she's pretty and studying very well. She also takes great care of me, for example, she brings me tea when I get home. Who has more happiness than me?
Now "my children" have grown up and know how to take care of each other. Not wanting my children to live in a cramped house, I have gritted my teeth and am renting a house for VND 3.5 million per month ($175) (even though the salary of an HIV campaigner is just VND 2.5 million ($125). If I have free time, I work as a home-helper, besides receiving financial support from priests, friends and benefactors. But when there are families in need of rehabilitation or need help with taking care of sick patients, I am always willing to help without asking for any money back. I think that life has protected me and helped me overcome difficulties, so that is the way I repay life.
Inner Sanctum: What methods have you applied in educating your children?
I often talk to them like close friends. Each time the older children wash the dishes, I usually tell them small anecdotes through which I teach them about sex, puberty and how to behave properly in each situation. In order to do that, I have to consult lots of books and talk to other mums.
Inner Sanctum: What concerns you most at present?
I am worried about whom my children will lean on when I pass away. I'm concerned about who will take care of their meals, or advise them against life traps, especially my daughters. How will they be if they have no house and no shelter?
My biggest torment now is that I am still unable to afford a stable house for my children, because I don't have a residential registration book or ID card. Throughout my entire life I have not had any documental that prove I'm a member of society. I was promised an ID card, but nothing could be done because I didn't have a fixed address. However, I have always felt grateful for what I have been given by society. — VNS