Vietnamese-Americans Hold First NGO Conference
By Jackie Bong-Wright
An Inspirational Account
From a wheelchair, Huynh Phuoc Duong told his story. “In 1968, I was shot by a stray bullet from an American military base in Hoi An, central Vietnam. I was 11 and still in first grade, my education had been interrupted for many years after I was taken from my parents’ farm to a refugee camp in Cam Chau commune. After going from hospital to hospital, I was fortunate enough to be put in the care of Father Robert Crawford, an American priest who ran a house for handicapped children in GiaDinh, near Saigon. He brought me and other handicapped children to the U.S. in 1975.
Duong continued. “After undergoing major surgeries over two years to heal my severed spine, I started 5th grade at the age of 19 in Long Beach, California, and then went on to College at California State University, ending up with a Master of Science and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry in1992. I took my post-doctoral training at the Neuro-Genetics laboratory at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at UCLA in Los Angeles, studying how neurons in the brains of Parkinson and Alzheimer patients die. I am currently Assistant Professor at the UCLA Davis Geffen School of Medicine.”
Right after his graduation, Duong had gone to Vietnam to visit his family. “I was amazed to meet many children and adults who never left their house because they felt ashamed at being handicapped, as I used to be. According to the Ministry of Health, there are about 5 million Vietnamese who suffer some type of disability.”
Back home in California, Duong joined, in 1993, the Social Assistance Program for Vietnam, SAP-VN, whose sole mission is to provide free medical and educational services to needy and handicapped people in Vietnam. The organization has been operating in 12 provinces in Vietnam, and has delivered so far 226 wheelchairs and tricycles. Their largest program is in orthopedic corrective surgery, handling about 600 children a year. Their Mobile Healthcare Unit consists of Vietnamese doctors, dentists, pharmacists and volunteers who annually go to Vietnam to provide their services free. They contribute funds to health centers in villages and build schools in rural areas.
“We raise around $130,000 a year with 90% of the contributions coming from Vietnamese individuals, and the remainder through United Way and matching funds from various companies. Our only goal is to help our own compatriots become independent and happy. The fact that we go to Vietnam to help doesn’t mean that we are sympathizers of the Communist regime or that we are Communists. We are human beings who want to make a difference by giving a ray of hope and a smile to some of our own people,” Duong concluded at the three-day conference. His talk was on “Personal Commitment from Personal Experience.”
First Conference Gathering over 30 NGOs
The conference was organized by the Vietnamese-American non-governmental organizations (VA-NGOs) with a specific theme, “Building Communities, Building Capacity.” Sponsors included the Asia Foundation, Ford Foundation, East Meets West Foundation, Fund for the Encouragement of Self-Reliance, Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, Pacific Links Foundation, Social Assistance Program for Vietnam, the Tran Family and the Vuong Family Foundation. It was held at Asilomar, a resort at Pacific Grove in California, from May 7-9, and attended by 120 people, including representatives of 32 organizations that currently have projects in Vietnam.
Professor Le Xuan Khoa, President Emeritus of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), headquartered in Washington, D.C. and visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), has served on the Advisory Board of Pacific Links Foundation since 2001. As advisor to the conference, he described the importance of foreign remittances to Vietnam. “The overseas Vietnamese community has been an informal yet important source of aid to Vietnam. Total remittances to Vietnam in the year 2003 through official channels reached 2.7 billion dollars. If taking into account the amount transferred through unofficial channels and cash spent by over 300,000 overseas Vietnamese during their visits back home, the total amount would exceed 4 billion dollars.”
Khoa went on, “Apart from cash and gifts, overseas Vietnamese also contribute their “grey matter” through consultancy, training, technical assistance, and humanitarian programs. So it is time that good-will organizations and individuals should become official instead of informal and ad hoc, with projects of scale to effectively meet the demands of in-country people. Through coordination and collaboration between these groups, aid programs can avoid overlaps in terms of recipient locations, thereby saving human resources, time and money.”
At the conference, panel discussions designed to help organizations focus on the needs of their programs and projects, as well as to highlight successes and accomplishments, held concurrent sessions. Topics included education, medical and community health, self-reliance and income development, and networking and social activities. After identifying and prioritizing common needs and seeking common solutions, participants regrouped to outline a plan of action and develop a list of possible activities.
Guest speaker Debbie McGlauflin of Insights in Action, lead consultant to the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Global Development Alliance initiative, invited the Vietnamese-American community to explore opportunities to develop partnerships and alliances with private foundations and public entities to address humanitarian and development assistance needs in Vietnam.
Another presenter, John Anner, Executive Director of the East Meets West Foundation (EMW), covered the basics of foundation fundraising and the benefits of grant money versus other kinds of donations. Currently EMW, with a budget of over ten million a year, is the largest humanitarian Vietnamese-American-NGO in Vietnam.
Hang Le Bourque, Development Director for the Pacific Links Foundation, facilitated a workshop on the importance of strategic fundraising plans and of cultivating donors. At another session, Caroline Ticarro-Parker, Catalyst Foundation, and Lien Huong Fiedler from the Library and Education Assistance Foundation for Vietnam (LEAF-VN) shared their experience and knowledge on how to build on organizational strengths and develop an active board of directors.
Dedication to Alleviating Suffering in Vietnam
Three exceptional participants inspired the audience with their personal accounts.
Quynh Kieu, MD, Board Certified in Pediatrics and a lifelong advocate on children’s issues, is founder-Coordinator for Project Vietnam started in 1996. She has been leading international medical teams to Vietnam to provide training for the Vietnam Pediatric Association and promote healthcare assistance to poor communities in Vietnam. Since 1998, she has hosted a weekly talk show on Vietnam California Radio, discussing family issues and parenting. She has received numerous awards for exceptional service, and was recently honored as “Woman of the Year 2004” by the California Legislature, and given the “Pride for the Profession” award by the American Medical Association for “promoting the art and science of medicine and the betterment of public health.”
Dr. Phung Lien Doan and his wife established the Vietnamese American Scholarships Fund (VASF) in 1989 and the Fund for the Encouragement of Self-Reliance (FESR) in 1997. They exemplify the spirit of mutual assistance by not only working directly in Vietnam but also through other VA-NGOs.
VASF has given awards to excellent teachers and students in Vietnam and in the United States, and has supported SAP-VN and the Nom Preservation Foundation. FESR, a sponsor of this conference, has supported many self-reliance efforts in Vietnam, including a vibrant micro-loan program in the Hue-ThuaThien province that is currently helping nearly 4,500 families.
The Doan husband-wife team is looking forward to establishing a “think tank” called VN 21 to help Vietnam to be a prosperous and peaceful country in the 21st country. Doan is also supporting an ad-hoc program to assist victims of human trafficking and to provide awareness of its dangers to young people and their parents.
Professor Vo Tong Xuan, Ph.D, president of An Giang University and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation (New York), is a world-renowned agronomist and expert on rice cultivation. He uses the internet for widespread education and economic development, and is known as “Mr. Rice.” He has written nine books, nearly 100 scientific reports, and many agricultural articles. He is a very popular television and radio personality with regular educational programs for farmers and growers in the Mekong Delta. He has received numerous national and international awards, from countries including Vietnam, Japan, France, and Canada.
After sharing his experience with conference attendees in how to improve farmers’ wealth with new methods of cultivating rice and diversifying crops, Prof. Xuan concluded on an optimistic note. “Since people and governments are recalcitrant to adopt new approaches, the best way is for us to push ahead and produce good results. We lead by committing ourselves and living by our example.”
This is what young organizers such as Tran Kim Anh, Diep Ngoc Vuong, Huynh Phuoc Duong, Nguyen Hai Bang, Sonny Le Minh Son, and the leaders of these organizations, all in their early forties, appear to be doing. They have devoted their energy and time to alleviating the lot of their needy compatriots and engaging themselves in work in Vietnam.
Conference co-chair Diep Vuong, in her closing remarks, said that participating organizations have identified four areas of collaboration among VA-NGOs. First is to improve communication among them, second is to seek more funding for their projects, third is to do more public education and advocacy for their role in the humanitarian work in Vietnam, and last is to get more technical assistance.
Huynh Phuoc Duong, conference co-chair, had the last word, “Under both the Republic of Vietnam and the Communist governments, 80 percent of the people are very poor. Thousands of adults and children with disabilities need help, so we care for them and dedicate our love to these needy people. The only ideology we follow is humanitarian. If we don’t do it now, when?”