After Dat’s father caught malaria and died three years ago, his mom was forced to sell their only cow to pay off their debts. In this story, the family’s local caseworker in Vietnam shares what happened when a generous donor replaced the family’s cow — and the family’s hope.
“What are you building?” I ask Dat, the little boy playing on a small sand dune by the entrance to the house. He answers me as he continues to collect sand and pile it onto broken bricks.
“I’m building a sand bridge,” Dat answers in a soft voice without looking at me — his family’s caseworker.
“Is your mom home?” I ask.
Dat continues working on his sand bridge. ‘She’s in the field now,’ he says.
I look further to the large field of yellow paddies, but there’s nowhere to find Dat’s mom. As I step in the house, I’m greeted by a cheerful little girl playing on a Mickey Mouse mat.
“Mom is behind the house. She’s busy with the cow,” the little girl says.
Tran is 12, and has Down syndrome. Because there is no school that accepts children with special needs in the rural community where they live, Tran stays at home while her siblings go to school. She’s a friendly and a talkative girl, and she invites me to sit down and brings me a cup of water.
“Thank you,” I say to Tran.
“Mom, mom!” Tran shouts when she sees her mom walking the cow home from the field behind their house.
Dat’s mom is in her 40s. A small woman with tough tendons in her hands, she sends the cow into the barn before the rains come, looking tired after a long day of work.
“How are you?” I ask her at the doorstep.
“I’m good, all good,” she replies, breathing hard.
Dat stops playing with the sand and comes into the house for a cup of water. He sits next to me.
“Which grade are you in now, Dat?” I ask him.
“I’m in second grade now,” he replies, hesitantly.
Dat is now back in school after three months of summer break. He started his school year on August 25th and proudly shows me his school uniform that his mom bought for him some days ago, as well as his new textbooks.
“Do you like going school?” I ask him.
Dat nods his head and smiles. Schools in Khanh Hoa province are technically free for children under 10 years old. But required fees make school expensive for families like Dat’s. Already, Dat’s mom has spent $75 on his uniforms, textbooks and school fees for the new school year.
When her husband was alive, Dat’s mom stayed home during the day to do housework and take care of Tran. Her husband was a farmer and a daily worker. He was the only breadwinner of the family. He raised a cow in the family yard, using profits from the cow’s dairy products and offspring to meet the basic needs of his family. Life was hard, but happy.
Then, three years ago, Dat’s father suddenly came down with a high fever, which turned out to be malaria. Due to the family’s poverty and inability to afford hospital fees, Dat’s mom kept him at home for three days before sending him to the hospital, which was too late to save his life.
Dat’s father died in the hospital after four days.
“How is your life now?” I ask Dat’s mom, who sweeps her forehead and grasps her hands while answering my questions.
“You know, now after my husband’s death, I’m the only breadwinner in the house. I do many things on my own, which I never thought I could possibly do. I practiced to ride my husband’s motorbike to work on the construction sites. My hands are rough and my head burns on how to earn money and feed my children while taking care of them.”
In Khanh Hoa province, where Dat and his family live, people depend on each other. And after Dat’s father died, people in the neighborhood came and expressed their remorse for the family circumstances. But their neighbors are just as poor as Dat’s family, and could not offer anything more than their condolences.
Before he died, Dat’s father had taken out a low-interest, $1,400 loan through a government program designed to help families living in poverty. With the money, Dat’s family planned to build a toilet — modernizing the sanitation in their home. Although he paid off the interest on the loan, Dat’s father passed away before he could pay off the principle amount — leaving the family in debt, and facing a loan term that was about to expire.
“After my husband died, I sold our family’s cow and everything he had raised to pay off our debts,” Dat’s mom says. “Now, I’m working as a daily worker on construction sites and in the fields when crops come in. On average, I earn $7 per day to feed my children and buy them medicines when needed.”
While her income as a daily laborer helped meet their most basic needs, she hardly earned enough to pay school fees for her children. She struggled to keep Dat in school.
That’s when a Holt donor stepped in to help.
In February 2018, two years after her husband’s death, Dat’s family received a 10-month-old cow as a Gift of Hope to replace the cow that they sold to pay down debts.
Dat’s mom no longer worries about keeping Dat in school.
“You see, now that I have the cow, everything seems as it used to be when my husband was still alive. As long as there’s work, I can do everything to support my children’s basic needs and the cow is saving for my children to go to school,” she says.
The cow is kept in the barn behind the house to protect it from rain and heat. Dat’s eldest sister, Mi, 15, helps take care of it — feeding it with dried straw that she collects from the fields.
Mi passed her final 9th grade exam last May, but her scores were two low for her to enroll in a public high school. Mi didn’t expect it to happen, but examinations are tough in Vietnam. Kids whose families can afford to pay extra fees for extra tutoring have a stark advantage. But with the hardships they’ve faced, Mi’s mom couldn’t afford the additional money to provide after-school tutoring for Mi.
To make the situation harder for Mi, there’s no private high school in her area — the alternative for students who aren’t accepted into public school. Even if there were a private school nearby, it would be difficult to afford. In Vietnam, private schools are less prestigious, but more expensive.
“Thanks to the generous donor, I can now materialize my hope for a brighter life for my children. Thank you so much.”
“Does she like going to school?” I ask Dat’s mother.
“Yes, she does. You know, there’s no private high school here. We have to think,” she responds.
I suggest sending her to a vocational school in Nha Trang, a nearby city. After two years, she’ll be able to work in the tourism sector, which is in many ways a better option for Mi than staying in Khanh Hoa and working a low-paid, no-benefits daily labor job like her mom.
“Never give up,” I tell her. “You’ll find ways to send her to school, won’t you?”
Dat’s mom hopes that the cow will give birth soon so that she can sell the calf, which would give her the funds she needs to send Mi to vocational school — and also make some much-needed repairs on her home.
“I’ll do everything I can to support her education because nothing is better than going to school,” she say, adding, “My family is getting back to normal. I can go to work and have the cow to save some money for my children to go to school. Thanks to the generous donor, I can now materialize my hope for a brighter life for my children. Thank you so much.”
As the rain stops, a rainbow shines far on the horizon.
Thao Nguyen | Regional Coordinator, Vietnam Programs