Vietnam is one of the most enchanting countries in the world. It has beautiful landscapes set in a backdrop of ancient culture and traditions, and some of the friendliest, welcoming people to be found anywhere. Areas of the country are very poor, where people can only grow enough food to feed their immediate family. In Ho Chi Mihn City, the average wage earned with a full time job is the equivalent of $150 US dollars per month. But in big cities or desolate rice fields the priority is working hard to provide for loved ones.
One might expect to see sad faces in very poor areas, but the opposite is true. Visitors are greeted with big smiles and hands outstretched in the most welcoming way. These are very prayerful people who honor their faith and those who have come before them. Roughly 20% of the citizens are Roman Catholics, thanks in part to the Franciscan missionaries who first came in the 16th century.
There are many reasons for the great number of physically disabled people in Vietnam. Many villages and rural areas are so poor, there would be no reason for a doctor to live there, unless they wanted to provide their services free of charge. Infections easily cured by modern medicine often turn into lost limbs or death. Landmines, unexploded ordnance and the chemical remnants of war cause many deaths, disabilities and birth defects.
In early 2011 Knights of Columbus from California and British Columbia sponsored a container of 280 brand new wheelchairs to be delivered throughout Vietnam. Working with Fr. Tien Tran and his “Medical Aid for Vietnam” team of Canadian doctors, dentists, ophthalmologists, nurses and other medical professionals, the Knights visited small villages in the Northern half of the country, bringing wheelchairs to people in dire need of mobility. Fr. Tran has been coordinating these medical missions for the past 16 years and says, “We have seen many people over the years who needed wheelchairs, but we never had any to give them.I am glad we can help them now.” Also from British Columbia was State Deputy Michael Yeo who works closely with Fr. Tran. “For what little these people have, they are so happy. We can really learn something about faith in God from these people.”
The very first woman who received a wheelchair had stepped on a landmine 45 years ago when she was seven years old. She had never owned a wheelchair and walked with the handle of a shovel as a cane most of her life. Her trip to church took over an hour and she would sometimes get very tired, but she always went.Now with her new wheelchair, she can go much faster and more often. The next recipient was a woman who was injured during a firefight in her village in 1972. She was shot three times in the head, back and leg, which had to be amputated. Once she got into her wheelchair, she “burned rubber” and took off really fast with a big smile on her face. It was her first wheelchair, but she had always dreamed of racing in one down the road. Now she can.
The wheelchair team traveled from the far North to Ho Chi Mihn City in the South to work with a Franciscan ministry for the physically disabled, the Red Cross, a parish in Dong Nai with Medical Aid for Vietnam, and then to the private chapel of the Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City to distribute wheelchairs with Caritas of Saigon. (Many organizations and businesses still use the name Saigon)
After mass with the Bishop, 50 needy recipients either crawled or were carried by family and friends to get their new wheelchairs. Fr. Vincent Au, pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Church in Corona, CA hosted a “Wheelchair Sunday” parish drive at his church that helped sponsor the delivery of these wheelchairs. Fr. Vincent lifted the recipients into their wheelchairs and said, “These people felt God’s love. Normally they feel abandoned, but now they are getting the love they desperately need, and they are very happy.”
It is estimated that more than five million people in Vietnam are in need of a wheelchair but cannot afford one. During our visit, dozens of people told us the cause of the disability in their family is because of “Agent Orange,” a chemical defoliant used throughout the country during wartime. Unsuspecting citizens still find landmines and unexploded ordnance deep in the jungles on a regular basis, and many people are either killed or seriously injured as a result.
When people from North America visit Vietnam they experience many feelings and emotions on a daily basis.One team member commented, “Their smiles and handshakes are so sincere, you would swear these people think we are long lost family.” That is probably the best description of the way the Vietnamese people make visitors feel, even in the poorest villages of the country. Their prayerful nature and dedication to family and friends really is impressive to see, and yet it is so effortless for them. That makes the mission of delivering wheelchairs even more rewarding when you know the impact of our gift will be so much appreciated.
In a small fishing village north of Dong Hoi, the wheelchair team was walking along the shore looking for a vantage point to shoot some video. “We were approached by uniformed harbor police in hats very tall upon their heads,” said Chris Lewis, president of the American Wheelchair Mission. “They motioned for us to come inside the small dirt floored café next to their office and have some coffee with them. The plastic chairs were the size one would find in a kindergarten classroom, but we managed to sit all the same. Coffee was served, and one very young officer who spoke a few words of English told us we were very welcome.After about 20 minutes of smiling, laughing and unfruitful attempts at conversation we thanked them for the really good coffee and then went on our way. But while shaking hands to say goodbye, I could see a crucifix around the neck of the officer who invited us in, and something became very obvious to me — we are always among family when doing God’s work on earth.”