|Nguyen Thao Van (first, right), 27, speaks with her staff at the Will-to-Live Centre, a job training centre for people with disabilities in Ha Noi. – Photo courtesy of the Will-to-Live Centre
by Hang Nguyen
HA NOI (VNS) — Nguyen Thao Van, 27, sits in her wheelchair, busily answering her business contacts via cell phone. Standing next to her, an assistant also holds a 3G-connected iPad for her to keep in touch with her social networks.
Despite suffering from physical atrophy since she was a child and only weighing about 20 kilos, Van is a busy lady. She runs an air-ticket agency and is the head of The Will-to-Live Centre.
The centre provides free training courses for disabled people, helping them to get jobs related to information technology, including photo editing and computer graphics
She never loses a chance to make money for the centre, which was set up by her disabled brother in 2003 in central Nghe An Province.
In 2006, her brother shifted the office to Ha Noi. His sister had gone there three years earlier looking for work.
"When he was still alive, my older brother, devoted himself to the centre," Van said.
Van moved to Ha Noi when she was 16 "to find who she was" and what she could do to achieve success. She saved money before leaving, telling her parents she was going to the capital for further study.
But she was actually trying to find how she could fit into regular life, "I didn't want to be same as other disabled people begging for money," she said. "I wanted to become a success, like a Thai man with disabilities who gave a battery-run wheelchair to my brother in 2000", she said.
"The man, whom we met at the five-star Horizon Hotel in Ha Noi, was totally different from all other people with disabilities I'd met," she said. "He dressed well and looked elegant. He had many assistants to take care of things him as he moved around in his wheelchair," she added.
"I thought that nothing could stop me from becoming as content as him," she added. This was one of the reasons why Van later took her own wheelchair to the bus station in 2003 and set off to find what she wanted in Ha Noi.
"I had another big reason, my beloved mother. I saw her working hard for years, from early morning until midnight," she said.
"Mum told me she did that to get enough money to pass onto me when she died," Van said.
"While I was grateful, I did not want my mother to worry so much about me. I wanted to earn money myself, a lot of money ..... as much as possible," she said.
"When I reached Ha Noi in 2003, I lived in a rented room next to prostitutes and drug addicts," she said. There was only space for a bed, her wheelchair and a toilet.
"When I lived at home, my parents prepared and served me with food and drink - and even helped me maintain my personal hygiene," she said. "But in Ha Noi, Ihad to do everything by myself.
"My daily meals consisted of dried tofu, roasted peanuts and water spinach. It cost only VND6,000 (US$30 cents)," Van said.
A woman lived next to her helped her if she could not easily manage a task by herself. "I was once got diarrhoea for two weeks but having no money to go to hospital, she made sure I was okay," she said.
"I always told myself that I would rather die than live like the disabled people whom I saw begging at church when I was a little girl. I am not afraid of death so I have nothing to worry about," Van said.
Van said she lived like that for nearly two years until she finished a seven-month internship at the HeartLink Joint Stock Company – a company specialising in printing and design.
She then won a job as a photo-editor with a Danish company for the princely sum of VND7 million a month ($350). "I gained confidence the moment I received the first money from my job," she said.
Van left the job to support her brother running the Will-to-Live Centre in 2006. In 2012, her brother died and funding from international and domestic organisations started to decline.
When her brother was alive, he was considered a "Knight of Information Technology." Donations had poured in.
Her job was to find out ways of funding the organisation and persuading staff to stay on for just VND2 million ($100) a month. "Everyone needs money to live," she said.
Van thought of closing the centre, but did not want to deny the students who had put their faith in her. "My desire to change the lives of other disabled people, to help them earn money by themselves and live confidently, kept me going," she said.
"The image of my brother, who put his heart into the centre and tirelessly helped other disabled people, encouraged me to continue," she said. "My parents told me ‘The centre is your brother's soul,' on the day my brother died."
To date the centre has found jobs for 500 disabled people. They receive an average of about VND6-7 million ($300-350) a month, which is quite good for Viet Nam," she said.
People with disabilities often learn of the centre through social networks. Just one click via Google, with key words "nghi luc song" (the will to live), will call up the centre's website.
Van had to open the air-ticket office and do part-time work to keep the centre going. The money from the ticket office was just enough to cover overheads, but she still needs more financial support.
The Centre for Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP), a Vietnamese non-governmental organisation, is one of the biggest donors to Van's centre.
Pham Kieu Oanh, director of CSIP said she was connecting the centre with international NGOs to seek sponsorships.
"We have contributed money because we have seen how Van's centre has helped the disabled community, training them and finding jobs for them," Oanh said.
Nguyen Van Hoi, Head of the Department for Social Protection, said the centre had been offered reduced land tax because it was a social enterprise.
"The State encourages operations of centres like this because of their contribution to the community, he added.
Viet Nam now has nearly seven million people with disabilities. Each year, about 5,000 receive training, but only 30 per cent of them manage to find jobs.
Nguyen Thi Xuan, 25, said that after finishing her training at the centre. she had worked for Esoftlow Co Ltd, a company providing computer graphics and information technology.
"I left school when I was 15 and never imagined I could get a job and earn money," Xuan said. "Van taught me to believe in myself," she said. — VNS