VNAH’s Direct Assistance to Vietnamese War and Landmine Victims
Contributed by Scott Sargrad
Since the beginning of August, I have been volunteering in VNAH’s Hanoi office, helping with project proposals, project research, and this newsletter, as well as attending meetings with government officials and other international non-governmental organizations. Aside from the motorbikes constantly honking outside my window and the Vietnamese spoken in the office, I could have been working at any NGO in the United States. That is, until the beginning of September, when Ca Van Tran, president of VNAH, invited me to join him on several outreach events in communities around the city of Danang.
My background is in education: I have worked in both public and private schools in the U.S., mainly in special education, and this past spring received my master’s degree in education policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While I do have professional and academic experience in disability issues, it was all within the context of the U.S. system. So when Ca and I, along with a few others, arrived at our first prosthetic delivery and outreach event in rural central Vietnam, I had no idea what to expect.
The event took place at a health clinic in the town of Ha Lam, just south of Danang City. I walked in to see nearly 260 people from the surrounding region filling the main room, almost all amputees who had lost one or more limbs to war or landmine injuries. For many who had coped for decades on their own, it was the first chance to receive a truly appropriate prosthetic, and the energy in the room was palpable. As I tried to conduct interviews in my very limited Vietnamese, they offered to write the information for me. One man took the pen, then another, and another. Soon there was a crowd of people surrounding me, all waiting to tell their stories, grateful to finally be heard, even if it was indirectly and by someone who didn’t even speak their language.
Our weekend continued with another outreach event, this time delivering wheelchairs in the Phu Loc district of Hue city. Again I met many Vietnamese people with disabilities, and again I was struck both by the difficult conditions that they faced as people with disabilities in this poor rural area and by their joy at finally receiving the tools they needed to better live and work in their communities.
The defining moment of the trip came as we drove away from this last event, we passed a man I had met that morning, a double amputee who had been completely dependent on others for his transportation, traveling by himself in his new three-wheeled chair. On his face was a smile of pure happiness, an expression I don’t know I’ve ever seen before. That, I realized, was what all the policy work, all the fund-raising and all the meetings were about; that was why Ca has made VNAH his life’s work and why I decided to come to Vietnam. We are simply and directly helping people who have been ignored for too long, enabling them to live the lives they desire and deserve.
Scott Sargrad, graduated from Harvard University, is a volunteer in VNAH’s Hanoi office. In March 2009, after six months with VNAH, he will begin an appointment as a Presidential Management Fellow at the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research in the U.S. Department of Education.