Compassion Works in Vietnam

By Therese Fitzgerald Now is a delicate time for the formation of a new Vietnam emerging from a devastated, war-torn country. There is the danger, on the one hand, that Vietnam, in opening its doors to investors worldwide, will "sell its soul" and become an industrial colony of companies driven by greed. But there is also the possibility that the Vietnamese people will use their energy to recover from all the destruction of the past, rather than succumbing to so-called "development." In fact, there seems to be a resurgence of the School of Youth for Social Service, the organization begun by Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Cao Ngoc Phuong in 1964, for the development of medical care, education, and agriculture in Vietnam. Today, there is easier access for international social workers to go to Vietnam and work with various local humanitarian groups.

The work of our committee in Berkeley, California, known until now as "Sponsoring Hungry Families," has expanded under the direction of Sister Phuong and others in Plum Village, France, to embrace not only the most needy families, individuals, and temples struggling to have enough food to stay alive, but many other aspects of social work as well. During the past two months, for example, in addition to more than $9,000 of aid sent to help the hungry in Vietnam, we were also able to send $7,000 to support medical students who will work in South Vietnamese villages, a clinical facility for lepers in North Vietnam, daycare centers in Hue and Ho Chi Minh City, trade training centers for teenagers in urban areas and remote villages, and teachers, monks, nuns, and social workers throughout Vietnam.

Each week, we receive many letters like the following ones, informing us about life in Vietnam:

July 20,1991 from a social worker in Ho Chi Minh City: In Hue, I organized ten preschool day-care centers for the poor children from the mountainous region and the "New Economic Zones." The parents agree that it is best to give their children education rather than money. Each class has at least thirty children.

October 14,1991 from a mother in Hue:

I am a widow with four children. The eldest son is recovering after almost drowning recently. The other children go to school half a day. Then they go to the forest to collect firewood in exchange for rice. I kept all the medicine you sent me, because we need it so badly. Two of the four children are dangerously ill. We recently lost our house and everything in the big storm.

Profiles of medical students describe young men and women who are wanting to train as doctors and nurses to assist their village. One twenty-year-old woman is studying at the National University of Herbal Medicine in Ho Chi Minh City. She plans to serve the lepers of Binh Minh and Thanh Binh camps with her mother. Her father is dead. Several of the students' parents are lepers, and the young people want to serve at the camp where their parents live. Here is a sampling of the medical students' photographs:

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As the nature of our work is changing and growing, so is our name. We solicited advice from our supporters through a mailing in October, and many of those who responded favored the name "Compassion in Action." Other names proposed include Compassion Works in Vietnam, Caring Works in Vietnam, Right Action in Vietnam, and Worthy Works. We are still waiting for the right name to surface. For now, please continue to send your assistance to the Community of Mindful Living, earmarking your donations for the specific project you wish to support.

Thank you for hearing the cries of those who are suffering. Helping us attend to the needs of people struggling to get back on their feet after so many years of war and oppression is such a wonderful endeavor. As Thay says in his opening essay, the "emptiness of giving" helps us realize the oneness of gift, giver, and recipient.

Your tax-deductible donations can be made to the Community of Mindful Living.

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