November 4:The streets of cities in Vietnam teem with young boys who, despite their sad eyes, have dazzling smiles on their faces, and speak halting, broken English, that sounds charming to the ears. They sell postcards, shine shoes and hassle tourists with remarkably impressive sob-stories about needing money for sick parents, school fees and English lessons. It’s a combination that never fails to move the tourist for whose benefit of course, the entire performance is staged.
One of them, Jimmy Pham, was so moved by the stories of the boys that he decided to stay on in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, and open a restaurant which employs only former street children.
Jimmy Pham’s family had left Vietnam for Australia in 1974, when Jimmy was a toddler. In 1997 Jimmy, now an Australian citizen, arrived in Vietnam with the intention of helping a few street kids out with new clothes and food. Within a few days of his charitable work, he found himself surrounded by a horde of such children. “The children flocked to me,” recalls Pham in a Los Angeles Times report that appeared in The Deccan Herald. “You would too, if you’d been hungry. Who could blame them?”
Jimmy’s family was fortunate at getting the chance to leave Vietnam and settle down in a rich country. For in 1974, tiny Vietnam was in the middle of a war with the most powerful country in the world, the United States of America. It was a protracted war that Vietnam won the next year, but at great cost to itself. Millions were killed, millions lost their homes, and countless were wounded. Children were among those to be severely affected by the war, many of them losing their childhood in the war. Twenty-five years later, the effects are still being felt.
But soon he realised that the children needed much more, most notably an opportunity to make their future a little better. So Pham used his savings and loans from his five brothers and sisters to convert a run-down two-story structure into a bright, spanking restaurant that he named Koto ( an acronym for Know One Teach One ) and to pay salaries of $ 32 a month for the 18 kids he recruited as cooks and waiters. The restaurant caters to expatriates and tourists. It serves local specialities like green papaw salad with prawns besides espresso.
An estimated 20,000 children live-off the streets in Vietnam. Most of them have left their poor villages voluntarily to support their families, and send their earnings back home. They live 10 to 12 in a room, spend a very little amount on food, and bathe once a week near open sewage drains. Life is hard and the future appears bleak for most of them.
“I couldn’t say to the kids,‘I have to wait for funding from some foundation,’ explains Pham about his reasons to start the restaurant immediately after receiving the money from his family. “These are kids who in the street learn to trust no one. This is a confidence-building project as much as anything. It’s a chance to make them believe they can make something of themselves, that it’s okay to have big dreams in a country of limited opportunity.”
Pham is quite a disciplinarian. He teaches his charges the importance of maintaining a neat appearance, teamwork, discipline, people skills as well as how to bake a cake, flip a pancake and a serve a meal. But most of all, he’s given them the break that would lead them to a brighter future. So when a 16-year old waiter at Pham’s restaurant, An Van Hai, says he wants to become a businessman, it is Pham who should be thanked for enabling the boy to have the ambition.
As for Pham’s own ambitions, he plans to expand Koto to other popular tourist destinations in Vietnam like Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, Hoai, An and Sapa. And give the street children of these cities breaks too.