It started with a love story in a small village in Ha Tinh province on the North Central Coast of Vietnam. Nguyen Thi Ha and Pham Tung were next-door neighbors who grew up together, fell in love and married when Ha was 23 and Tung was 24.
Then, like young people all over Vietnam looking for more opportunities than they could find in their villages, the couple migrated to Ho Chi Minh City to find work. Both succeeded by finding work in a clothing factory that allowed them to dream about having children. They were elated when Ha got pregnant, though it meant that her work eventually became too demanding physically. So, Ha decided to quit her job and go back to their hometown to have their first baby. Tung stayed in Ho Chi Minh City so he could earn as much as he could to support his family.
But this love story turned to tragedy when, shortly after Ha returned to her village, she received news that her husband had died in a traffic accident. Ha’s whole life turned upside down. She was six months pregnant and heartbroken that the daughter she named Phuong Mai would never know her father. Following the birth of her baby, Ha tried her best to find a job in her hometown, but there aren’t many jobs. And whenever she applied for the few factory jobs there were, interviewers would laugh when they saw Ha: “Are you sure a lady weighing 32 kgs (71 pounds) like you can do this job?”
Ha reluctantly decided to leave Mai with her grandparents and move to Hanoi to work as a kitchen attendant in a restaurant. Though the salary was very low (3 million VND (133 USD) per month) she could afford to save a little to send home to her parents who were caring for Mai. But she found it really difficult to be away from Mai, knowing that her baby was growing up without an attentive dad or mom.
Ha decided to try one more time to get a factory job in Da Nang where her brother lives. This time, she was able to get a job in a clothing factory. Ha went back to her village to pick up 4-year-old Mai and take her to Da Nang where she shared a small flat with her brother and his family. Ha and her daughter lived downstairs and her brother and his wife and their son lived on a balcony upstairs.
At first, Mai went to a private nursery while Ha worked. Like most preschoolers, Mai, who loves dancing, jumping up and down and playing outdoors, didn’t like to sit still at her desk. But Mai’s old private nursery class consisted of only one room equipped with a dozen toys for 20 children with no outdoor space for this active little girl to run around.
During her four months at nursery, Mai did not seem comfortable — she was very shy. “I knew Mai could be a very confident girl, but she needed an environment where she could develop her full potential,” says Ha. Then Ha found OneSky’s Early Learning Center (ELC) where the fee was only two thirds of what she had been paying and the quality far superior: “As soon as I visited the Center and saw with my eyes the wonderful facilities and the passion of the teachers, I knew it was the right place for her.”
It’s now clear that Ha’s first instinct was correct! As OneSky’s communications manager in Vietnam, I frequently visit the ELC classes and every time I do, when 5-year-old Mai sees me she calls my name, “Miss Huyen!!!” She is a very sweet and very active and very happy little girl. Mai’s teacher Huong is impressed with her caring personality, “She often asks us what we did over the weekend and loves sharing what she did with her mommy.”
According to her teachers, Mai loves being able to choose activities in the ELC’s creative learning areas that include arts and crafts, music, and (Mai’s favorites), dramatic play and blocks. She also loves playing outdoors where her favorite activities are playing in the sand pit and visiting the animals – the rabbits, chickens, ducks and dog that have been donated to the ELC by parents and are well looked after by children and staff.
One day when I saw Mai at the ELC, she rushed to say hello and told me excitedly: “We’ve just moved to a new house. Would you like to visit my new house?” Mai and Ha’s “new house” is a rented 15 square meter (161 square foot) room with a bedroom, kitchen, toilet, and bathroom. As soon as I arrived at their new living quarters, Mai ran to me and showed me her new toothbrush, “Look Miss! Mommy bought me a new toothbrush.” Then she proudly showed me how she brushes her teeth. Ha smiles: “During the four years I left Mai with her grandparents, they never knew it was important to brush her teeth. That’s why her teeth are decayed. But now she loves brushing her teeth just as she does every day at nursery.”
When Ha and Mai moved, they felt blessed to receive a number of gifts. Their chest of drawers is from a colleague at work, their electric cooker is from a raffle at her factory. “Someone even gave me a pan so I can use my new stove,” says Ha, who jokes, “Other parents at the ELC have told me that Mai is the best dressed girl in the class. That’s because she has received so many old clothes from people who want to help us.”
Ha is full of gratitude, but becomes emotional when she talks about her daughter growing up without a father. “Mai is a very sensitive and loving girl who doesn’t ask me a lot about her father. But one day when she in the shower, she heard her cousin playing with his parents in the other room and asked sadly: ‘Mummy, why can he play with his daddy, but I can’t? I wish my daddy were here like him.’” Ha tells Mai stories about her dad and tries to explain that he died before she was born, but she’s still too young to understand what death means. “She thinks her dad has gone somewhere and will be back to see her.”
Though Ha mourns the fact that Mai’s dad won’t be back, she is also dedicated to making up for the loss: “Without her father, I want to give her double the love and care that I can give.” Ha realizes that as a single mom, “I am the whole world to Mai. She even knows the sound of my scooter. As soon as she hears the scooter coming near, Mai is already by the door waiting for me.” Ha used to take a lot of late shifts to be able to afford childcare, but when she saw Mai waiting at the door for her, “I knew she was longing for more care from me.”
Now that Mai is enrolled at the ELC, its reduced fees mean that Ha can mostly avoid late night shifts. “Compared with two years ago when I was working in a restaurant in Hanoi separated from Mai, this is a completely different life. I am happy I can see my little girl every day. I love the moment when she sees me in the evening and is so excited to tell me all about the fun she has had, what she has learned at the ELC, and stories about her friends and teachers.”
Despite the loss of her husband, despite the struggles of finding work, and despite the extra burden she feels as a single mom, “This is a dream come true. Enrolling Mai at OneSky’s ELC is the luckiest thing that has happened to me—I can’t wish for anything more.”
By Huyen Nguyen
Communications Manager, Vietnam