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Déjà Vu

Déjà Vu

Déjà vu. That age-old phenomenon of feeling sure that one has already witnessed or experienced a current situation, despite not remembering the exact circumstance or details. The conjured feeling that blurred a dream with reality, familiarity with mystery. Where the first week was an educational orientation that sought to inform me and the other 13 VIET Fellows about the issues of Agent Orange in Vietnam, the second week took the educational experience outside of the office building to the streets. This second week was spent visiting a variety of different community organizations that support the recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration of the disabled community back into society. While all of the organizations had different missions and different approaches to supporting the disabled community, the emotional déjà vu I felt was a feeling of hope and hopelessness that reemerged every time I finished a site visit. Feeling hopeful that these amazing individuals have dedicated their lives to support an underserved community. At the same time wondering in my head if their efforts truly had the hurricane force to topple the bucket they all dropped into, whether any of this will make a difference in the long run.

Though all of the site visits added to my perspective and understanding of the disabled community in Vietnam, the site in Cần Thơ stood out above the rest. Cần Thơ is often considered the Western capital of Vietnam with a population of over 1.1 million people; it serves as the largest city in the Mekong Delta. The fellows and I visited the Cần Thơ Disability People’s Organization (DPO), which serves as a resource and support center for the disabled community in the Delta region. Listening to Chi Nga, the executive director of DPO recount her experience starting and sustaining the organization since 2005 proved how one person can so deeply impact the lives of others. The growth of the organization over the past 6 years was a testament to the strength of Chi Nga’s mind and spirit, even with her health and body declining due to disability and old age. After a presentation to our group about her organization, Chi Nga proceeded to tell me and another fellow the incredible story of how she met her husband. Her love story unquestionably merits some cinema real estate or at least a few pages of recount and reflection. Perhaps I will get a chance to retell it in the future.

I learned from her story how emotional strength could come not only from yourself, but also the love and understanding of others. I recall, that during the last few days, how difficult it was for me to engage with the kids at the various orphanages and disability support centers. A storm of questions rushed through my mind the moment I stepped through the centers’ doors. How should I interact with these kids? What is the appropriate level of emotional attachment I should show? How will the kids respond when I leave in a few hours, uncertain if I will ever return there? One of the leaders of the Viet Fellows program, Tony Lương, expressed a shared sentiment that these kids really just need emotional tenderness from those that genuinely care for them. While remaining cautious of words and mannerism, spending time with the kids and expressing sincere affection can indeed positively affect their lives. Though I may not be able to spend as much time with the kids that I would want to, I realize that I am doing my part as a volunteer. In this broader search for the ultimate solution to social issues, I must challenge myself to accept that making a child’s day certainly qualifies as making change even if only on a small scale. As I listened intently to Chi Nga’s story, I realized that before me sat a woman that had dedicated her entire life to supporting the needs of the disabled and other disadvantaged communities. While collaborating with other NGOs to contribute to larger social change on the issue of disability, Chi Nga also understood the importance of working directly with the disabled community. In thinking back to the VIET Fellows mission to address Agent Orange and Dioxin, I realize that the Saigon site visits provide me with an insightful perspectives when it comes to impacting policies that affect the lives of the disabled community, especially those affected by Agent Orange. My challenge is thinking about how I can go about engaging the community to take an active role in impacting change on this issue.

After our discussion, Chi Nga and the folks from Cần Thơ DPO took the fellows and me to an amazing Vietnamese Bar and Grill downtown where we got to taste a local fish that is cooked right in front of our eyes. I unabashedly ate 3.5 bowls of soup to cap off the delicious multi-course meal. Again in seizing the opportunity to sit across from Chi Nga, the surrounding fellows and I learned more about Chi Nga’s incredible narrative and background. As the lunch grew boisterous with the sounds of conversation and story telling, the light rain outside grew into a heavy storm that flooded the entrance of the restaurant. The fellows and I realized at that moment that fate had it that we would not get to go on a boat ride on the Mekong Delta. On the bus ride home from Cần Thơ, the fellows and I had a long discussion about our observations and sentiments throughout the week. Through the insights provided by the fellows during the discussion, I was better able to synthesize and draw from the various experiences throughout the week. We shared the emotion of interacting with the kids at the orphanages and disability centers that were in many ways less fortunate than we were. The takeaway still was that we were contributing to this greater movement and together we are part of the solution. The emotional and physical fatigue of a long day, long week begged for rest. I remember that night as one of the deepest and longest slumber I have had in recent weeks. My dream that night was indeed both powerful and memorable. Yet when my internal clock woke me up Saturday morning, I no longer remembered the content. Even though my feet felt cold peaking out from under the cover due to the 22C air conditioning left on from the night before, my mind and heart was warmed by the lingering sensation of an eventful week filled with learning, challenges, and new friendships.

–Dat Phan


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