We just finished 2 amazing weeks working with Children of Peace International (COPI) in Vietnam. Before I describe our experience, I want to share some history from www.childrenofpeace.org.
COPI was founded by Binh Rybacki who left Vietnam with her family at the age of eighteen. The American government evacuated her family in the last days before the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to the Communist troops. Binh continued her education in the States in engineering and worked for Hewlett-Packard for 25 years. In 1993, Binh returned to Vietnam to locate the rest of her family and to make peace with her home country. She found children working as street peddlers, beggars, and prostitutes.Unable to leave things as she found them, Binh and her husband, Jack, began Children of Peace International in 1993 to help improve the lives of these kids. Over the years, Binh’s commitment and organization grew. Children of Peace International was incorporated in and gained non-profit status in 1996.
Over the last 20 years, with Binh’s guidance and tireless effort, COPI has supported orphanages, schools for the deaf and disabled, schools for marginalized ethnic groups such as the Hmong, a Leper colony, shelters for street kids (who were either abandoned, abused, or sold into slavery or prostitution), and old-age homes. In addition, COPI sponsors twice yearly medical trips. Throughout our trip we continued to hear stories of Binh’s heroic acts of kindness- such as the time she found and rescued over 100 exploited girls hidden in a barn and secreted them away to a convent- she then supported them at the convent until they could safely leave and find places to live and work safely. Another time she “re-bought” a busload of women and children who had been sold into slavery and who were about to cross over a bridge to China. She was put in jail for doing this because the authorities considered her meddlesome. In 2002, Kiwanis International awarded Binh the World Service Medal Award for her work in Vietnam. Past winners were Mother Teresa, Katherine Hepburn, and Mrs. Rosaline Carter. Binh used her award money to operate the Pediatric HIV Center in Saigon for a year. Unfortunately, Binh was unable to join us for our trip- the first time in 23 years that she was unable to go- because of a health issue in a family member.
So now about our trip: Our group of 41 consisted of 22 Vietnamese members and 19 Americans. The Vietnamese members included 3 dentists (the trips MVPs), nurses, translators, cooks, support personnel, and our Vietnamese group leaders. All of the Vietnamese members were volunteers – which was a huge sacrifice because there is no such thing as a paid vacation in Vietnam. The American contingent included 5 doctors- Bac si (doctor) Scott-a family practitioner from Maine, Bac si David- a family practitioner from Wisconsin, Bac si Kate- a pediatrics resident form St. Louis, Gail and me, 2 physician assistants, nurses, volunteers, and group leaders. One of the PAs was Tara Ford, with whom I share space in my medical practice in New York. We met our group at the Hanoi airport and drove two hours to Viet Tri – a small, poor city. We spent the next day organizing the 30+ large bins of medical supplies, clothes and toys that had been donated by American charities/churches and had come with the American group. After a busy day we walked next door to a “beer garden” and before we had even a chance to sit down (or order) beers were placed on the table in front of us- of course this included beers for Lena, Mimi, and even Julia! Luckily the adults were thirsty enough that those beers didn’t go to waste.
The next night day we had our first clinic in a school for disabled and deaf children. The kids were gentle, kind, and well cared for. Ten years ago, Bac si David adopted a son from this school (which also houses abandoned newborns). After the end of our first clinic we headed north- first through lowlands flooded with rice paddies, and then into the mountains- until we reached SaPa – a beautiful town nestled the mountains along the Chinese border. Surrounding SaPa are villages surrounded by rice terraces inhabited by Black H’mong and Red Dao minority villagers. As in Thailand and Burma, these tribal minorities are the poorest in Vietnam. They are victims of discrimination and don’t have the same rights as the ethic Vietnamese. The next two days we spent working in schools for H’mong children. These were very busy but extremely rewarding days as the children were just extraordinarily warm, happy and playful. (Lena will post more about the kids later.) The kids were overall pretty healthy but had horrific dentition. (I thought that fluoride in the water was supposed to be a communist plot- if so, they need even more communism here!) The next day we spent the morning hiking in the villages around SaPa and shopping for North Fake jackets and then we started on a 7-hour drive basck to Hanoi. We left Hanoi to fly to Da Nang and then drove to Hoi An- a magical port city, a UNESCO world heritage site, and our home-base for the next 4 days. Hoi An is lit by thousands of colorful lanterns at night and the narrow streets are filled with antique teahouses, tailors willing and able to make silk dresses or custom suits in a day, and cooking schools.
The next day we had a clinic at a home for the elderly, disabled, and the permanently injured (caused be bombs from the war). This home was run by Catholic nuns and the patients were exceptionally well cared for. The second clinic we had in Da Nang was at a school for the deaf. Again the children here were, in general, healthy and many had cochlear implants. However, we found at least 5 children with congenital heart defects and there were other congenital abnormalities. It was suggested to us that the high rate of congenital abnormalities might be due to residual affects of Agent Orange, which was widely used in the areas around Da Nang. In addition to the running of clinic that day, COPI also donated 20 bicycles and a video projector to the school. We then flew to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for our final two clinics, one of which was at a shelter for kids who have been rescued from a horrifying existence on the streets. Over the years COPI has donated over $25,000 to this shelter!
The mission ended with a moving goodbye party where we were sad to part ways with our new Vietnamese and American friends. We were proud to be a part of this team, and we encourage any interested volunteers to consider this organization – it is well run and very rewarding. Check out the video that a talented student, Erica Tran, made about our journey. You might even see Gail checking kids for lice.