Viet Nam: Armed with little more than goodwill, a former prostitute helps others avoid lives of crime.

Last Updated: Saturday, July 4, 2009 09:37:47 Vietnam (GMT+07)

Truong Thi Hong Tam doesn’t try to hide the 10 years of her life she spent as a thief, drug-addict and prostitute.

On the contrary, she now uses her life experience to help others going through the same problems she once did.

Tam, 53, said she spent the 1980s in and out of drug rehabilitation centers and prostitution rehab centers where sex workers receive vocational training.

But it was not easy for her to turn over a new leaf.

“It’s easy to talk [about becoming a better person], but the reality is harsh. I also want to live a decent life, but where can I start without money?” Tam once wrote in her diary.

“I have no house and no personal documents. How can I have a decent life? I don’t want to be bad person or to be put into rehab centers all the time…”

Tam, whose name literally means “heart,” said that she and her brothers and sisters were orphaned when they were young. She said she kept the family alive by stealing rice from their neighbors in what was then part of Thu Duc District, now Ho Chi Minh City’s District 2. But in her late teens she drifted further into a world of more serious crime, eventually becoming a prostitute, thief and drug addict.

Things only began to change when she met a group of volunteers working under the Ho Chi Minh City AIDS Prevention Committee to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS in 1990. She was at first hesitant to join the group. But the group didn’t give up and eventually persuaded her to give it a shot.

She began working with the volunteers by going to the areas where she used to work to talk with her ex-colleagues about HIV/AIDS.

Not all went smoothly in the beginning.

“My old friends were not happy to see me talking about the disease,” said Tam. “They said I was just doing it because my glory days were gone.

“Some even looked down on me, saying they could earn VND100,000 (US$5.62) a night as a prostitute, while I had to talk a lot just to live off a VND300,000 ($16.85) stipend each month.”

But she said that some did express the desire to change their lives. Tam then offered them not just words of support, but practical help finding other jobs through the group.

In March, 1995 Thanh Nien published an article about Tam, after which readers sent Tam a total of VND2 million ($112.35).

“With the money problems I had, I thought about lots of things to buy, including a bicycle to help me get around while I work. But then I thought I should spend it in a more meaningful way because it was a gift.”

She invested the money in her own pet project to help seven prostitutes change their lives. She rented a house for them, provided daily meals and sent them to work at District 1’s Cau Muoi Market.

Tam dropped by every day with other members of the group to encourage the young women. Gradually they made enough money to live independently.

Tam said five of them now lead stable lives. Unfortunately one has died while another has gone back to a life of prostitution. But 5 out of 7 is not a bad success rate and Tam has since gone on to head several other projects for the AIDS Prevention Committee, where she works to take care of terminally ill patients abandoned by their families.

Now in charge of a group doing community work with an NGO, Alliance Anti Traffic project, Tam still meets with prostitutes regularly to give training and advice on the best ways to leave the shackles of sex work behind.

With all her heart

But despite her success, Tam still faces difficulties when she works to spread awareness on the streets.

The police have taken her into the office several times while she was distributing condoms and talking to prostitutes because she still doesn’t have an ID card or any official personal documents.

Although she’s shown them her license to practice and explained that she was a social worker, officers often don’t believe her. She said she’s been waiting for authorities in Go Vap District, where she now lives, to grant her an ID card for a year.

But these obstacles haven’t slowed her down.

In 2004 Tam had saved enough from her stipends and doing odd jobs (she also operates her own laundry service) that she opened a center to care for children with HIV and other fatal diseases. She said dozens of kids have left the center to move on to independent and stable lives. Tam now has five children between six and 12 years old living at the center and going to school.

Tam said her sad childhood has made her sympathetic to other orphans. She said the feeling became particularly strong when she began working with a project to help street children with HIV/AIDS in present-day Tan Phu District nearly eight years ago.

“It was fate that I met those kids. We all led miserable lives, so now we depend on each other to live,” she said. “I feel happy with them by my side, and vice versa.”

Tam has recently been diagnosed with a fatal disease. She said she did not want to disclose the type of affliction, but she remains strong.

“I don’t fear death …. I just worry that my children will become orphans again if I go away too abruptly.”

Since hearing of Tam’s diagnosis, several charity organizations have leapt at the opportunity to help her again. She’s received nearly VND5 million ($280.89) in donations and gifts, including the book “Loving and Dying” by Buddhist philosopher the venerable Visuddhacara.

Tam said the book has helped raise her spirit, helping her welcome death with a smile because she has lived with all her heart.

Reported by Nhu Lich

Original at Thanh Nien News

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