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Vietnamese Group Aids Homeland Social work...


Vietnamese Group Aids Homeland

Social work: Initial criticism turns to encouragement for program helping needy.


GARDEN GROVE — In the beginning, there was the criticism.

Irate Vietnamese last summer called the Social Assistance Program for Vietnam naive in trying to collect humanitarian aid for the Southeast Asian country. Easing poverty in the Communist land would just help the government stay in power, they said in numerous phone calls to the nonprofit group.

The harshest blow came in September in an editorial in Tieng Chuong (Sound of a Bell), a Vietnamese-language weekly newspaper in Westminster.

"All actions (helping the enemy) must be put on trial, even if these actions are labeled cultural or social work," wrote publisher Chuyen Nguyen.

But this winter, reaction began to change.

Phone calls of encouragement came to the group's headquarters here from as far away as Australia, checks arrived from Germany, and a visitor drove from Arizona to offer help after reading about the organization in a Vietnamese daily newspaper, said program director Bang Cong Nguyen. (None of the people named Nguyen in this story are related.)

The Social Assistance Program for Vietnam is the first nonprofit organization in the county formed by Vietnamese-Americans to help people in their native land. Though it has raised just $8,000 since it opened its doors in July, the group has been able to create several projects and hopes to raise more money and add others.

Already begun are a scholarship program and a book exchange for students in Ho Chi Minh City. Money is being raised for medical clinics and for groups in Vietnam that help orphans, the disabled and the homeless.

"That program really is one of the most encouraging things (going on in Orange County) right now," said Yen Do, editor of Nguoi Viet Daily News in Westminster. "They really withstood the test in the last six months. They patiently weathered the criticisms and continued their work."

The appeal here of the scholarship fund for students at the University of Ho Chi Minh City was far broader than anticipated.

After submitting applications to their teachers, Bang Cong Nguyen interviewed 20 students looking for candidates who met requirements for scholastic excellence, financial need and community service.

He brought back their names, allowing donors to choose students to sponsor at $60 each for six months, he said.

"I told applicants I could only promise that 10 students would be sponsored," Nguyen recounted. "But I found 10 sponsors in the first week . . . and many others wanted to give scholarships. So we're going to be able to help the remaining 10 too. It was beyond our imagination."

The scholarships were awarded in February by program member Dieu Cao of San Diego, who traveled to Vietnam for the ceremony.

"Of course we appreciate any aid for the students," University President Nguyen Ngoc Giao said in a phone interview from Ho Chi Minh City. "The more the better."

The group hopes to offer scholarships every six months and will expand the project to the University of Teachers, also in Ho Chi Minh City.

"A teacher only makes the equivalent of $10 U.S. a month in Saigon," said Bang Cong Nguyen. "So those still willing to go into that profession must be encouraged for the good of the future of Vietnam."

The group also collects books on science, medicine or technology for the University of Ho Chi Minh City.

The book collection has become so popular that students have even torn out pages needed for their research. To deal with that problem, the Social Assistance Program for Vietnam hopes to provide the school with a copying machine in the future, Nguyen said.

Aside from the Vietnamese Scholarship Project, program donors can earmark donations for the Health Care Project, which helps medical clinics staffed by volunteer physicians in Vietnam, or Humanitarian Aid, which funds homes there for the disabled, orphans or the homeless.

Cao, who has not yet returned from Vietnam, also is delivering donations to those agencies, Nguyen said, but the group is careful to steer money directly to the needy.

"Those homes are still run by the government, so we don't give money directly," he explained. "We use donated money to buy food or toys to give to the people living in these camps. We also encourage Vietnamese people from here going to Vietnam to do the same thing."

But organizers know that to be successful with the local Vietnamese community--the biggest enclave of Vietnamese outside their homeland--they must solve the problem of mistrust of the Communist government that still exists.

One way the Social Assistance Program for Vietnam has devised to break down that barrier is to require people in Vietnam who receive aid to write to their beneficiaries in America. Donors who happen to be traveling to Southeast Asia are also encouraged to visit the people or agencies they've helped.

Finally, the 30 active members of the group take turns traveling to Vietnam every few months to monitor how donations are used. Expenses for the trips come out of the travelers' pockets and not from the general operating fund, Bang Cong Nguyen said.

"The needs in Vietnam are so many that we don't want to take away any of the money donated for those needs," he said. "And also we don't want to give anyone reasons to suspect us of wrongdoing."