We were given permission to share this story by the people involved, but due to its sensitive nature we have changed their names.
As Holt’s senior writer for the past eight years, I’ve met a lot of kids. I’ve heard — and retold — a lot of stories. And I’ve seen some pretty heartbreaking things. I feel it, every time. The hurt, the sadness in the eyes of these children.
But at this point, it’s pretty hard to shake me.
Then I met Linh.
Linh shook me. And I can’t get her out of my mind.
We met Linh on a busy street corner in a city that lies along the picturesque southern coast of Vietnam — a once-quiet fishing village now overrun with Chinese and Russian tourists. Linh is about 5 feet tall, with short, dark, clipped-back hair, tan skin, and cheeks so full that she looks even younger than she already is. She wore a black shirt and skinny jeans, her toes poking out of rubber slip-on sandals. On each sandal, a little bear looked out at the world with vacant black dots for eyes and two downturned lines for a mouth — an expression that mirrored what we saw on Linh’s face most of that first afternoon we spent with her last January.
When she saw us coming, Linh nonchalantly made her way across the street through the constant stream of motorbikes that never really stops anywhere in Vietnam. Her mom — a smiling, youthful woman in her mid-30s — also left the roadside stand where she sells dumplings and sticky rice to come meet us in the small park where our driver dropped us off. In her arms, Linh’s mom held a tiny baby, just a few months old, with shining dark eyes and little gloves over her hands so she wouldn’t scratch her face with her fingernails.
Told we would be meeting a single mom — one of many Holt donors support in Vietnam — Daniel, our videographer, turned to mic Linh’s mom for an interview.
Very casually, Thao, our local staff person, corrected him.
“That’s not the single mom,” she said.
She then motioned to Linh, sitting beside her mom, in teddy bear shoes.
Very quickly, Thao told us the story of how 13-year-old Linh became a mom to the tiny baby that now lay nestled in her own mom’s arms. How a child gave birth to a child.
“A young boy in her neighborhood abused her,” Thao explained. He was 17. Linh was, at the time, 12.
Linh was raped.
Horrified, and having neglected to thoroughly read the case descriptions Thao handed us that morning, I gathered myself and began an interview for which I was not fully prepared.
Linh’s mom answered most of my questions, talking fast and loud over the rushing traffic, rocking the baby as she cried. She told us she is 34 and has seven children. Linh is the oldest, and her youngest is 2. Linh’s baby was born two months ago, a month and a half premature. But she’s healthy now, she said. Because Linh was too young to produce enough milk, they relied for the first several months on formula provided by Holt donors to feed the baby. Holt donors also covered the cost of medicine for the baby and fees for Linh’s hospital stay after she gave birth.
As her mom talked, Linh stared off in the distance with pained eyes.
“How did you feel when you learned you were pregnant?” I asked Thao to ask Linh.
“I felt uneasy,” she said.
“Did you ever consider placing your child in an orphanage?”
“No,” she said, “I’d rather keep the baby.”
Thao told us that a local couple approached Linh, offering to adopt the baby for $2,500 — an amount Linh and her family have likely never seen, and will likely never see, in their lives. Linh declined the offer.
I asked if Linh was in school, and her mom said that she made it to the fifth grade, but she dropped out last year. All five of Linh’s school-age siblings are in school, but now, with a new baby to care for, they can’t afford to send Linh back.
Linh cries when she sees her younger siblings doing their homework, her mom said. She misses school.
“If you were able to go back, would you be able to jump back into school?” Thao asked Linh.
“Yeah,” she said, for the first time making eye contact. “I was the best in my class.”
Ordinarily, when we travel to meet kids and families in our programs, we meet each family just once. We spend maybe one or two days in the same town — each day full of back-to-back interviews with children and families whose lives have changed for the better because of the extraordinary generosity of our donors. We snap photos of kids excited to show us the bike a donor bought them, or a card their sponsor sent them for their birthday. We film families eager to share their message of gratitude with the often-anonymous people who gave them hope, and opportunity, when they had none.
We then hurry home to share these stories with our donors — with you.
But after we met Linh, we wanted to know more. We wanted to see where she lived. Thankfully, we had some time the following afternoon before we flew out the next day. Thao reached out to them, and Linh and her mom graciously agreed to show us where they lived.
We met Linh and her mom on the same heavily trafficked street where we met them the day before. Linh’s mom had arranged for a friend to work her food stall while she was away, and when we arrived, Linh and her mom climbed into the backseat of the car with Daniel and I — Linh’s baby in her mom’s arms — while Thao rode ahead of us on a motorbike. We drove through the busy streets until we reached an alleyway near the bottom of a steep hill. As the car could go no further, we hopped out and began walking behind Linh and her mom — following them through narrow, winding alleys until we reached the hill, where we began to hike up stone steps.
We passed nice stone and brick houses painted in bright blues and pale greens. We walked along chain-link fences lined with potted plants, passed dogs that eyed us suspiciously from porches. As we neared the top of the hill, the stone steps began to crumble into dirt, and heaps of trash started to appear out of the jungle-like overgrowth along the path. At the top of the hill, we saw a one-room shack lined with strips of corrugated tin rusted out along the sides — looking out over piles of other people’s trash, and beyond that, a city that had grown rich from tourism.
This was Lyn’s home.
A home she shares with her parents, her six siblings and her newborn baby.
When we stepped inside, her mom sat down on the only bed to change Linh’s baby, making joyful clicks of her tongue and cooing at the baby girl as she unfolded her diaper.
After she finished, Linh slipped off her teddy bear shoes and plopped down beside her mom. She laid belly-down with her feet kicked up against the wall and her elbows propped on a pillow covered in red-and-white polka dots and a picture of a maniacally happy Micky and Minnie Mouse. The bottoms of her feet were covered in dirt.
“Linh is still a child,” Thao said, watching us watch them. “Her mom has to care for both her and her baby.”
Looking around the room, we saw lots of evidence of the many children who lived here. A little red dress and a child’s faux fur coat hung on wire hangers against the tin siding. Behind a curtain, children’s clothes spilled out of a plastic dresser. And on a makeshift shelf, two plastic containers held a green-and-black speckled turtle — a pet named Ba Ba — and a Beta fish that Linh’s brother bought for one cent.
None of Linh’s siblings were there, though. All of them, except Linh, were in school.
It’s pretty remarkable that Linh’s parents can afford to send five of their children to school on what they earn, even with help from Holt donors. Linh’s father works a fisherman and he’s rarely ever home with his family. His income is not stable, and the family relies heavily on what Linh’s mom earns from cooking and selling food at their roadside stand. When Linh became pregnant, her mom reached out to Holt’s staff in Vietnam for help. In addition to food and resources to meet the immediate needs of Linh’s new baby, Holt donors made it possible to give her a $250 microgrant to expand her business. Now, she cooks and sells banana cakes — a popular item that has brought in enough extra income to cover the cost of formula and other critical needs.
No longer in school, Linh now helps her mom sell food at their roadside stand.
“If she went back to school, she would finish college,” her mom said, as Linh sat on the bed, reading one of her younger sister’s schoolbooks — a book, Thao said, about family and how family should care for each other.
Linh told us that she is a strong reader and understands well what she reads. She wants to read more, she said, but her younger sister is quite selfish with her books. Unusual to be home during the day without her siblings, Linh took advantage of this rare opportunity to read one of her sister’s books, undisturbed.
Naturally, Linh seemed more relaxed in this setting than when we met her yesterday on the busy street. And for the first time, she started to open up — even to smile a little.
“I want to be teacher,” Linh said as she flipped through the pages of the book. “Teachers are good because they can teach people for free.”
Linh’s mom wishes her oldest daughter could go back to school, but with a newborn at home, she and her husband can’t afford the steep cost of uniforms, supplies and fees required for her to attend. On average, it costs about $155 per child per year to attend public school in this province of Vietnam.
As one person we interviewed earlier in the trip — a nun at a Catholic orphanage we partner with — said of education in Vietnam, “School is for people with money.”
Families living in poverty often have no choice but to send just one or two of their children to school while the others stay home to work. And traditionally, they will put their hopes and dreams in their youngest child.
“In Vietnam, the oldest children take the burden of helping the family,” Thao explained later, after we met another single mom — a young woman from a rural area whose family saved up to send just her, their youngest, to college, and then wanted nothing to do with her after she became pregnant. “The [oldest] drop out of school early while their youngest goes on to finish school.”
This pattern can be seen even in middle class families like Thao’s. Thao is also the youngest in her family. Her oldest siblings dropped out of school early while she went on to graduate from college.
Given both their immense poverty and traditional attitudes toward education, it’s even more remarkable — and a sign of tremendous progress — that Linh’s family would so willingly give everything they have to send as many of their children to school as possible. Neither of Linh’s parents can read, and her mom said she has no time to learn. But she wants all of her children to go far in school, including her oldest daughter.
“I’m working hard to try my best so my children can continue their education as long as possible,” she told us on that first afternoon, in the park across from her roadside stand.
Until she became pregnant and had to drop out, even Linh — the child traditionally expected to carry the burden for her family — attended school right alongside her siblings.
“In the past, families in rural areas didn’t value education because they needed kids to work in the fields,” Thao explained. “Now, it’s different. They want to send their kids to school, but they’re unable to because they have so many kids in their family.”
Linh’s family lives in a city now. But they migrated from a rural area and built their home on land unpermitted by the city — land from which they could be evicted at any time. They don’t have running water, and every day, Linh carries two large jugs of water up the hill, balanced on a long pole that spans across her shoulders. Their neighbor lets them share her electricity, and with that, they can cook food on the porch, light their home and run an electric fan to cool the hot and crowded metal box where they live.
Just two months ago, in November, a typhoon blew the roof off their house and they had to run through strong winds and rain to seek shelter in their neighbor’s home — a shack slightly more stable than their own. Although they now have a new tin roof, large open spaces between the roof and the walls let in rain and bugs, and light shines through holes in the wall like a constellation of stars. It was a cool and windy day when we visited, and the house shook with every gust of wind. I wondered how they kept warm and dry when it rained. I wondered how they all slept at night, ten of them on one flimsy mattress and one foldaway cot.
Mostly, though, I wondered how Linh’s family maintained their privacy, and stayed safe, when they were so exposed. When they had to bathe out in the open, late at night. When they had no lock on their door, and most of the time, no adult male at home.
And then I realized, they weren’t safe. Clearly, Linh hadn’t been safe. None of them were safe.
When Linh found out she was pregnant, and told her parents what happened, they immediately reported it to the police. They knew the boy. He lived in the neighborhood. The police gave Linh’s baby a DNA test to confirm paternity and they started to investigate. At the time we visited in January, they were waiting for the test results.
The boy denied the accusations. For a long time, Linh had to see him around. Then, her mom said, he just “wandered off.”
Six months have passed and the investigation has gone nowhere. The boy is nowhere to be found, and Linh’s parents have neither the time nor the resources to follow up with the police.
Because Linh is so young, she can’t even register with the province as her baby’s mother. “You have to be 18,” Thao said, “so she can’t declare that this baby is her own.”
Right here, I would typically give you statistics on the number of sexual assaults that occur every year in Vietnam. I would the highlight the fact that they occur more frequently in impoverished communities like the unregistered area where Linh and her family live in a one-room shack on a hillside overlooking the city. I would point out that girls are more vulnerable when they’re not in school, which is true just about everywhere. But this story isn’t really about rape, or the number of girls who are victimized every year. While we often support single mothers and their children, and some of these stories involve domestic and/or sexual violence, thankfully this story is not a common one we hear about the children we serve in Vietnam or the other countries where we work.
But that’s also why this story is so devastating, and why it shook me so deeply.
This heartbreaking story is about one girl. One girl who needs help to go back to school and reclaim the life she had before she was assaulted and left to raise a child when she is just a child herself.
This story is about Linh.
As we left Linh’s home, Linh and her mom led us down the hill and back through the alleyways to the main street. At the bottom of the hill, we noticed a school was just letting out for the day. The students wore long navy pants, white collared shirts and red scarves tied around their necks — a standard uniform for school kids in Vietnam. They stood in groups, laughing and flashing peace signs when they saw us. They looked about Linh’s age.
Across the street, Linh stood with her mom, watching them, stoically.
“Is this the school Linh would go to?” I asked.
“Yes,” Thao said. “If she got a scholarship, she would go to this school.”
We at Holt stand committed to Linh and her family, and will do whatever it takes to help meet their most urgent needs. Right now, you can help Linh by giving to our Where Most Needed fund.