World AIDS Day 2018: Putting ignorance to death and turning death into life

Vietnamese translation available here

Barely twenty seconds into our conversation at the Shopee Vietnam office, the momentary fuse of formality and anticipation had already begun melting away. The true nature of Quynh, Nicolette and Tai’s friendship quickly revealed itself, pointing to a familiar melody of bickering and friendly jabs.

Yet, candid as the trio may be, the sit-down with them was where laughter and heartache commingled. As we thread in the aftermath of World AIDS Day (1 December), their experience working with children in HIV/AIDS shelters as Project SUGAR volunteers is given new life. Read more for the most heart-wrenching story I’ve heard and written to date as Shopee’s internal journalist.

A peek into the Mai Hoa HIV/AIDS Center and Project SUGAR

Children at Mai Hoa HIV/AIDS Center benefit from externally-planned activities, such as this drawing contest held during the 2015 Big Summer Trip. The 2015 Big Summer Trip was jointly organised by Project SUGAR and a group of students from Singapore’s NUS High School

Hearing how I’ve never been in contact with a HIV/AIDS-positive person (at least not knowingly), Quynh starts off with an elementary description that very precisely captures the weight of social truth, “They’re like you and I – except less healthy, less accepted by mainstream society.”

“They would give anything to walk amongst others without being treated like lower-classmen. Sadly, that’s not something the Vietnamese society is ready for now.”

Enter Mai Hoa HIV/AIDS Center. This shelter, which has been housing terminally-ill HIV-infected adults since 2001, has a children’s wing specially catered to the offspring of their adult patients. The shelter often works with volunteer organisations like Project SUGAR, which Quynh, Nicolette and Tai are a part of, to host programs related to the children’s overall well-being.

Seeing Mai Hoa Center in a different light: It’s home to the children, and it’s where get opportunities to interact with domestic and foreign volunteers alike

“Mai Hoa Shelter is a piece of heaven for the children. They suffer from common AIDS symptoms such as extreme bouts of diarrhea, intense fatigue and stunted growth; many of them were rejected by their closest relatives, and had doors shut in their faces.”

“Yet, we’ve seen that in the shelter, those physical and emotional wounds don’t seem as devastating because the kids are wholly accepted by the shelter’s caretakers and one another. The Project SUGAR volunteers love them with our time and physical touch too – that’s how they know our hearts and become willing to open theirs up. With us around, they belong somewhere, even if they don’t belong to anyone.”

In the absence of education, fear takes over

To properly equip and train volunteers, practicing doctors like Dr. Phan Vu Anh Minh often conduct a public HIV/AIDS awareness training, addressing myths and educating based on rational science

Surprised that Quynh brought up physical touch and unable to see the connection, I ventured further. Turns out, many shun HIV/AIDS-carriers because the disease “can be passed through skin contact” – or at least, that’s what they believe to be true.

Tai shuts this misconception down right away, and raises the poignant need for better HIV education, “In every generation, the young are shaped by the social narrative – that’s how values, beliefs and ideologies are passed down year after year. Unfortunately, not every part of the social voice is factually accurate.”

“HIV/AIDS cannot be contracted through skin contact that doesn’t involve sexual intercourse or open wounds. You can actually hug, hold hands with and share a spoon with an HIV-positive person and still be completely healthy. In the event of an accident involving both HIV-positive and -negative people, the latter even has medical options within the first 24 hours to prevent the transfusion of HIV cells,”

Beacon of light: With sound education, volunteers are empowered to reach out to HIV/AIDS-carriers. To which the innocent-hearted children respond with much joy!

“As a species, we generally reject the unfamiliar and ostracise those who are different from us. We gladly accept praises and attribute that which is good to ourselves, but are so quick to label minority traits as abnormalities and even dehumanise those who embody them.”

“I don’t encourage behaving irresponsibly and putting ourselves at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS; however, I’m all for accepting the carriers for who they are and the hand they’ve been dealt with – simply because they’re humans too,” remarks Tai.

Truly, those with HIV/AIDS are people too. They have ambitions, imaginations, feelings and desires for intimacy – the same way all humans are built.  So when we shut them out, we shut down the brightest corners of their hearts too. Could it be time to help them shine brighter instead?

“Sida”: When words take hope away and turn life into death

It’s easy for us to form negative perceptions based on stereotypes and what the media informs. But when you look into the children’s desires, can you still remain indifferent to the fact that they’re very much like you and I?

With ignorance comes discrimination, and that’s the brunt the children of the Mai Hoa Center have to bear. More than anything, the children desire acceptance, belonging and a sense of normalcy. Yet, such simple dreams are repeatedly snatched from them and trodden on the dust-caked grounds of irregularly-tiled pavements.

“I once witnessed a member of the public yank her child away from our shelter kid. All our kid did was to offer hers a toy he was quietly playing with. Well, the mother aggressively pulled her child away and told her to “never play with dirt like that”. I watched our kid make his way back into the shelter, shoulders drooping and head hanging.”

“If it was so painful for me to watch, I really can’t imagine how painful it was for him to feel,” Nicolette recalls. Thoughtful, I look over her shoulders and out into the streets of Vietnam. I turn back to Nicolette, just in time to catch the faint echo of a heavy-hearted sigh.

Though a safe haven, the shelter remains behind closed gates. When will barriers be brought down, and hence, causing gates to no longer have a purpose?

“Have you heard of the word ‘sida’?” Nicolette asks with injustice dancing in her gaze. Pensively, I shake my head.

Taking the cue to elaborate, she presses on with several synonyms, “It means garbage, second-hand, unwanted. It’s actually the French word for AIDS, but Vietnamese people have since adopted it to describe HIV/AIDS-carriers, insinuating that they’re “unwanted”.”

“It’s not uncommon to find anti-social words like these on the streets, at homes, even in the media. Our shelter kids didn’t choose to be born with HIV – why can’t we give them a break?”  

Inspiring love in the darkest places

Over time, the children and volunteers have become pen-pals, often conversing by letters. Here, a child addresses a letter to Nicolette, thanking her for visiting and for hosting game sessions for them. She also asks the volunteers to swing by again, which they did

At this point, I wonder aloud if the children’s spirits are all as broken as their bodies are, and if the experience of being close to the epicentre of such a depressing social narrative has changed the trio’s outlook on life.

“As much as the children find themselves being in the centre of constant ridicule, bullying and destructive words, their innocence remains undeniable,” quips Quynh.

“When Project SUGAR volunteers taught them to read and write in English, the kids quickly picked it up and started writing love letters to us to express their affection. They’re capable of giving so much love, and all our society knows is to take love from them. This does break our hearts at a very fundamental level.”

Love letter from one of the children, addressed to Quynh. The author asks Quynh to return for a visit soon. It was a request Quynh happily fulfilled

“All the more, we must remain hopeful that our society will one day become a better place to live in for everyone – the rich, poor, healthy, sick.”

“Yesterday’s pioneers must be willing to relinquish their control on today’s narrative, and tomorrow’s forerunners must fight for education, acceptance and a conversation.”

“Hate the disease, but spare the people who carry them – love the children not based on what their parents have done, but for who they can become. We can get there, and we can start somewhere right now.”

I believe every word Quynh says. Let’s begin our conversation today.

Mai Hoa HIV/AIDS Center is managed by The Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. For reasons related to education, providence and voluntary work, the Center can be contacted at (848) 8926135.

Project SUGAR is run by a group of volunteers. To participate in their activities or be part of their volunteer community, the group can be accessed through their Facebook page.

Find colleagues with similar interests at Shopee. We have vacancies open – come join us and be part of volunteers who are committed to various causes!

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