Vietnam: Returning to a Country I Have Loved Since I Was 16 Years Old

Maybe you don't know this about me, but I was against the Vietnam War when I was a teenage girl living in Franklin Square, Long Island.

Political activities in high school were a given for me from the time I entered the 7th grade in 1963, but that political activity was about running for class officer, magazine drives, the prom, dances, plays, and advocacy for the maintenance of the candy stand and making sure that all seniors had a Snoopy, the Class of 1969 mascot. I missed the 1968 presidential election due to my age and didn't vote until 1976. The war was over by then.

A boy I loved who lived across the street from me on Gehrig Avenue went off to Vietnam and ended up in a hospital in Guam and a student who I dated in college was a veteran of the Vietnam War and had PTSD. I was spared the death of any friends or family, but my brother had a very low draft number and ended up teaching and coaching football in the inner city of Memphis, Tennessee to avoid the draft. Many male peers in my community were drafted and some high school acquaintances had deferrals based on psychiatric or medical issues. No one I knew ran away to Canada.

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I watched the war on a small black and white TV in my kitchen nightly in a Levitt house on Long Island and was mesmerized by helicopters and the words "Viet cong". I read a lot about Ho Chi Minh or "Uncle Ho" as he was called and did a 10 page typed (Underwood typewriter) paper about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution for my 11th grade American History class in 1968.

Reading the microfiche of The New York Times in the local library in order to understand more about the war and the culture of Vietnam made me feel like a reporter! I was in love with this country at 16 years old and I must admit that I admired Uncle Ho and at the same time, I loved American GI's for their bravery and patriotism. I was seeing all the sides. I especially liked that Ho Chi Minh lived in Brooklyn in the 1920s because I was born in Brooklyn. No surprise that I found my way to his tomb in Hanoi when I was there on one of my trips in the last decade.

I hitched to the Washington Monument in DC to participate in a "march on Washington" against the war in 1969. I still recall seeing politicians like Paul O'Dwyer (he had very bushy eyebrows) and listening to Peter, Paul and Mary passionately sing "Where have all the Flowers Gone?" I loved playing this mournful tune on my guitar. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobbie Kennedy were dead and hope was low.

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As part of my work as CEO, I have traveled to Vietnam many times over the years. My first trip to Vietnam was in August 2000 when I adopted my then 4 month old son, Benjamin who lived in a small "feeding center" in Cau Giay in Ha Noi. I have returned over the years to meet with our Country Directors and staff to discuss vision, strategy and to perform oversight.

I traveled to Ba Vi a decade ago for sure and fell in love with the babies who were living with HIV. I have their faces indelibly sketched in my mind because they were all sick; they were thin and sad and covered with mosquito bites and had bacterial skin infections. They were untreated for their HIV and were already beginning to show symptoms of the AIDS.

Luckily the timing was right and WWO was able to purchase medication for them and they struggled, but became well and most survived and I have visited them over the years...always proud that they were so lucky and could have a healthy life.

Most recently, I visited Vietnam and participated in the programs of WWO with a group of supporters in January 2016. The programs are found in orphanages in the Mekong delta (Vinh long), in Ho Chi Minh City (Tam Binh) and in Hanoi (Ba Vi ).

The service group came from LA, Singapore, Pleasantville, Orlando, Maplewood, New York City and Chiang Mai. We traveled by mini-bus and got to know one another and the sites in Vietnam. We explored Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and played with young infants and children in their toy libraries. Please don't miss Water Puppets in Hanoi if you ever go there! Thanks to Quynh, our guide, who showed us the beauty and antiquity of Hanoi.

The health and beauty of the children was extraordinary and their caretakers were clearly devoted and as loving as parents. We watched a traditional dance performed by caretakers and then we played with the children in the toy library in Vinh long. I saw that beautiful mural painted by my cousin Lauren Aronson from Manchester, England when she came here as an Orphan Ranger. We spent hours interacting with young pre-school age orphans as they manipulated toys and discovered, played and explored curiously just like any children from homes with families. Watching the orphanage staff play knowledgably with the kids was breathtaking.

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We saw the same appropriate play in the other orphanage Tam Binh which was for disabled children. Then we traveled up north to one of our oldest programs in Ba Vi where there was a prison for women who had been sex workers and had given birth to babies living with HIV.

Those 80 children have grown up healthy and live in group homes and attend school; they performed dances and read poems and letters expressing their appreciation for their safety and health. They made gifts which I have photographed and at the end of their performance we, the guests, danced with the children to an old Justin Bieber song. 

Some of the children were in their late teens and early twenties and worked in the orphanage. A student in her twenties living with HIV who used to live at Ba Vi, returned to visit because she knew we were all coming. She is living with a family member in Hanoi and thinking of work and study in Thailand. She is meeting one of our guests, Jeanne-ming Hayes in Chiang Mai, Thailand next week. How amazing is her story! What is very special about her and the rest of the kids in Ba Vi is that they are comfortable with disclosure of their status. This was a key part of WWO's psychosocial support for kids living with HIV in Vietnam, Ethiopia and Haiti.

One woman who is 40 yo and lives with HIV was the master of ceremonies for the events of the day and is permanently part of the staff at Ba Vi. The tree that I planted there 3 years ago towered over me and shaded me as I stood under it.

We all smiled and cried during the performances and then we rested with the tiny infants who were awakening from their naps in the baby house. They looked like angels in a storybook and we were transformed by their sweetness, peaceful expressions and gentle smelling heads. Dressed in soft little outfits with their clothes arranged in drawers in their bedrooms made them appear the same as babies living with their families. When we were too frisky or handled the infants without holding them just right, the nannies who were very fashionable looking young women, disapproved of us and we knew that we had been disciplined.

It was hard to leave this setting because we were falling in love with the children and wanted more time to hold them and touch them and look at their innocent beauty. That they were living with HIV was forgotten and when the visitors were reminded of this, they were baffled and confused. They had not experienced a child living with HIV ever before and found it almost impossible to believe.

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We did artwork decorating conical hats and played games at the Center of Excellence back at the office in Saigon for WWO Vietnam. Volunteers from the local community assisted the children and their families who are part of our program to provide social services to families living with HIV and/or affected by HIV.

Some of these families live in shacks on the Saigon River and are essentially homeless, but they take their medication and bring themselves and their children to enjoy recreation and do schoolwork with tutors at the "center". I had visited one family the day before and the next day at the "center", I saw the mother and her daughter taking part in all the activities and enjoying themselves. No one would have known that they lived homelessly. They were dressed neatly and were actively engaged with all the other families and feeling accepted. 

When we had lunch on the trip to Vinh long, we spent time eating traditional Vietnamese food which included a white fish caught fresh from the Mekong River. Mr. Chi who runs Vinh long helped serve the fish to each of the guests. His emotion and devotion to his work with the kids at the orphanage was visible. His pride in the staff and children was so intense that he wiped his tears away with a tissue at a moment during our outdoor lunch. We were all touched by his love for the children. 

At the end of our time at Vinh long, suddenly someone mentioned that there were babies in the nursery. The guests though weary from the day, were eager to hold them so they all swiftly walked to the nursery and before you knew it, everyone had a baby in their arms. Such fun and the best way to end a day.

The extraordinary dedication of WWO Vietnam in country staff is hard to even explain. The team's pride in their daily effort to help improve the lives of very poor children and the remnants of families can be felt when you enter the WWO office. We were initially greeted by them on our first day with our names on placards and lively chatter and smiles. Their joy was contagious and we communicated with them even though none of us spoke a word of Vietnamese. Their English was definitely better than our Vietnamese!

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We can't thank Thuy, Country Director and her staff, enough for the fantastic trip to Vietnam. WWO thanks the guests for sharing their hearts with WWO staff and the children we serve. At night I look at the photos on my iphone and wonder about those sweet children. I miss them and long to return to see them once again. I also wonder what the visitors are thinking and know that they have been forever changed by their experience in Vietnam. There is so much that happens on a trip like this and often even with the bus rides and breakfasts/dinners, there is never enough time for reflection. That happens at home long after the trip is over.

My love affair with Vietnam continues and even though this country matures and becomes more modern daily, there is a true spirit of traditional life and the impoverished people of this nation continue to strive and search for their place in a fast moving society. We are there for them always....and as Thuy says emphatically, unconditionally.

I am writing this blog post on February 17, 2016 and I returned to the US on January 21. It took me all these weeks to recover from jet lag and get caught up with my work and finally to allow myself the time to feel my feelings about the time abroad....and there will be more thoughts as the days grow longer as we near our Spring.
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Special thanks to Service Rangers: Mara Cohen, Allison Frohmann-Balonovich, Serene Gallegos (Director of Development WWO), Melissa Goldstein, Jeanne-ming Hayes, Grace Knobler, Mary Knobler, and Brittany Levinson.
Dr. Jane Aronson/Huffingtonpost