When the Poliakoff family travels on Holt’s heritage tour to Vietnam, they meet a family whose quiet heroism in the face of poverty inspires them to help build a safe new home for the family and their children.
The second morning of our Holt Vietnam heritage tour, we set out at 9 a.m. from downtown Hanoi in our tour buses to visit families receiving services through Holt’s family strengthening program. I’m not sure that any of us knew what to expect. What we encountered that steamy July morning changed my understanding of Holt’s role, of families living in poverty, and of ways that our American families could make a real and sustaining difference.
My husband, Michael, and I and our daughter, Jessica, had arrived in Hanoi after the long journey from Washington, D.C. just a couple of days before. The heritage tour was a dream come true, a chance to introduce Jessica — Thuy Duong — to the country of her ancestors and meet a few of the caretakers who had shepherded her during her first 14 months of life. We also looked forward to meeting other families who had adopted from Vietnam, and for Jessica to meet children who’d traveled parallel paths.
But we hadn’t thought much about Holt’s work in the country.
Our bus soon left the highway, turning onto narrower and narrower roads that wound precariously through small villages and fields. After 40 minutes, the bus began stopping along the road, letting us off in small groups to visit with local families. At our stop, Michael, Jessica and I left the bus along with the Naugle family — Greg, Mary and their daughter, Julie. We walked with Holt Vietnam’s Ms. Bui down a hard, dirt-packed street and then turned off on a grass-lined path. The properties were walled off, with shards of glass embedded along the top of the walls. The heat was unremitting.
Families that receive services through Holt’s community-based program in Vietnam don’t have the financial stability to provide their children with basic needs or education. The family that we visited that morning lived in extreme circumstances. We would learn that the mother, Mrs. Nguyen*, worked laying bricks to provide for her family. The father was bedridden, with severe physical and mental disabilities. Their three daughters ranged in age from 14 to 5.
Approaching the house, we passed through a wrought iron gate and stepped inside the narrow doorway. Exchanging greetings, the mother welcomed us with anxious smiles, apologizing to her visitors for the lack of seating. She offered us pale tea in small glass cups on a tray.
As we sat together, Ms. Bui explained the essentials of the family’s life and invited us to ask questions and translated their answers. The home consisted of a 10X10-foot room in which Mrs. Nguyen and her daughters slept, ate and studied. Behind a closed curtain was a second room, where the father stayed.
We asked Mrs. Nguyen whether she was able to work, and she explained that she set bricks at construction sites, leaving her oldest daughter to supervise the younger ones. The oldest daughter, Ms. Bui told us, is an excellent student, working very hard and earning top grades. The girl smiled shyly and said that yes, she likes school and loves studying literature.
“How do the children get to school?” one of us asked, probably reflecting on the rugged streets. “We ride our bicycles,” one of them replied. Every day, the oldest daughter rides with the youngest to school, escorts her inside, and then rides on to her own school, repeating the trip each afternoon.
The conversation warmed as the minutes passed, yet the pain of the story they told could have made a stone weep. The father’s degeneration, the mother’s arduous labor in the brutal heat, the children sleeping on mats on the floor of a home that despite evidence of their efforts to scrub it clean, smelled of decay.
Ms. Bui began to speak of the problems with the house itself. It was beyond repair. Although a small grant from the district government could be secured to rebuild, it was not enough to cover the cost.
It was time to go, and we carefully stepped down the rotten steps to the pathway. Outside, we paused for photos all around.
It was not easy holding back tears as we walked along that narrow path to the road. Their suffering was more than enough reason for tears, but on reflection, I think it was their courage that moved us so much.
What we witnessed was quiet, sustaining heroism. Every morning, Mrs. Nguyen rose up from her sleeping mat to labor in the heat of Hanoi, in the face of grinding poverty, a husband beyond any help, and three vulnerable children in desperate need of food, education and her guidance.
What we witnessed on our visit was the resolution and courage of this little band: polite and well-groomed children attending school and sustaining a vision of a better day. Their poverty was frightening, but the spirit of this mother and her daughters was awe-inspiring.
Somewhere along that walk back to the bus one of us asked how much money was needed to match the grant to build the family a new house. The dollar amount turned out to be far less than we had spent to be part of the Holt heritage tour, and both our families signed on in that moment to contribute enough to see this family in their new house within six months.
The very least we could do was to help Mrs. Nguyen financially to create a secure and healthy home for her children.
And so it was a great thrill in September to receive the photographs from Holt of the new home under construction. Having this opportunity to give was a great blessing for all of us who visited that day. We were privileged and honored to share our good fortune with a family of such courage in the midst of bitter suffering.
Anne & Michael Poliakoff | Tran Mai Anh’s family