Support an Agent Orange Caregiver in Vietnam

A microproject by The Advocacy Project
Support an Agent Orange Caregiver in Vietnam
Support an Agent Orange Caregiver in Vietnam
Support an Agent Orange Caregiver in Vietnam
Support an Agent Orange Caregiver in Vietnam
Support an Agent Orange Caregiver in Vietnam
Support an Agent Orange Caregiver in Vietnam
Support an Agent Orange Caregiver in Vietnam
Support an Agent Orange Caregiver in Vietnam
Support an Agent Orange Caregiver in Vietnam
Support an Agent Orange Caregiver in Vietnam
Support an Agent Orange Caregiver in Vietnam
Support an Agent Orange Caregiver in Vietnam
Toa takes delivery of his cow
Toa takes delivery of his cow

This report is being sent to 133 friends who have donated to our GlobalGiving appeals on behalf of Vietnamese families stricken by Agent Orange. It folllows a recent news bulletin which went out to our network of subscribers.

Several donors have given to several appeals and we apologize if you receive this report more than once.

Over the past six years we have raised over $16,000 for thirteen families in the province of Quang Binh, with your help. All but one are struggling with severe disability caused by Agent Orange, the defoliant that was sprayed over Vietnam by US forces during the Vietnam War.

We launched our most recent appeal last September on behalf of Toa, a war veteran seen in the photo above, and raised $1,626. Part of this was used to purchase a cow for the Toa family by our partner in Vietnam, the Association for the Empowerment of Persons with Disability (AEPD). AEPD also used $300 to leverage funds for a second cow for Co, a widowed amputee who has struggled to raise two children. Co is seen with her daughter Nhi in the photo below.

In all, we have posted eight appeals for Agent Orange families since 2016 and raised $9,114 through your donations. We then leveraged another $7,000 through other donations and matching grants. This has allowed us to support 12 Agent Orange families and Co. Eleven of the families are profiled on our website.

This report will focus on the Toa family and Agent Orange, which has been the focus of our work in Vietnam since 2012. Agent Orange has tormented an entire generation of young Vietnamese and we believe that it poses a unique ethical and humanitarian challenge. We hope to support more families in 2022.

*

Between 1960 and 1972, US forces sprayed 11.4 million gallons of Agent orange over then South Vietnam, in an effort to deny forest cover to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers.

The herbicide contained dioxin, a poisonous chemical which leached into the soil and water and entered the food chain, affecting American and Vietnamese troops alike. Vietnamese veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange returned to their homes after the war and unwittingly infected their families. By 2015 Quang Binh had registered over 19,000 victims even though the province was barely sprayed during the war.

Vietnamese authorities have estimated that over three million Vietnamese have been affected throughout the country. The fact that Agent Orange has proved most devastating to children who were not yet born during the actual conflict makes it unique among weapons or remnants of war.

The beneficiary of your most recent donations, Toa, was exposed to Agent Orange when he was stationed close to the Ho Chi Minh trail, which was sprayed relentlessly. His wife Luan was exposed while burying the bodies of slain soldiers. The couple then returned to their home in Quang Binh, and passed the poison to their three sons at conception. By their early teens, Toan and Tien were biting each other so savagely that they had to be placed in tents outside the house.

Adding to the family’s woes, Luan underwent a spinal fusion. Before receiving their cow, Luan and and her husband were so financially strapped that they were only able to cover the family’s food needs for 8 months in the year. Medical bills also ate into the family’s income. Multiply this story many times over and one gets a sense of the immensity of the Agent Orange tragedy.

*

We decided to provide practical support to Agent Orange caregivers in 2015, at the suggestion of the AEPD. Many caregivers are now well into their seventies and widowed. Caring for children who are immobilized or uncontrollable takes an enormous emotional and physical toll.

In developing a project, AEPD identifies the family with advice from the local communal authorities. Once the money is raised, an AEPD outreach worker visits the family to develop a business plan. All but two families have chosen cows because the animals provide a sustained source of income through milk and calves. Cows can also be rented out for farm work.

Community engagement is an essential feature of these projects. There is huge sympathy and support for Agent Orange families in Vietnam, partly because so many have been affected and partly because veterans of the war are venerated throughout the country. This has been evident in the community's support for the Toa family. AEPD used part of our funds to leverage more money from the commune of Yen Hoa, where the family lives. Toa also contributed from his savings, and AEPD covered all additional costs.

Although these projects would not have been possible without the support of the local communities, relations between Agent Orange families and their neighbors can be tense. As we noted in our bulletin one of the first caregivers supported by the program, Loi, was forced to restrain her oldest son in chains after he burned a neighbor’s house. Many Agent Orange families keep to themselves.

AEPD is able to bridge the gap through outreach workers who have themselves overcome devastating injuries and are deeply respected by villagers and Agent Orange survivors alike. Hoc, the AEPD worker who assists the Toa family, was exposed to Agent Orange while serving in the Vietnamese army and seriously wounded in 1984 while deployed to Laos. Hoc went through several major surgeries, but has an optimistic outlook on life which further endears him to colleagues and villagers. Undaunted by a frightening surge in COVID cases, he helped Co and Toa develop strong business plans for use of their cows.

*

The success of the program also owes much to 12 graduate students who volunteered as AP Peace Fellows at AEPD between 2008 and 2019.

Simon was the first Fellow to bring our attention to Agent Orange in 2010 through an inspiring profile of Hue, a survivor who longed to be an opera singer. Other Fellows were to share his interest. Jesse (2012, Columbia University) produced an excellent video on the entrepreneurial Phan siblings, all remarkabel entrepreneurs. Kelly, a doctoral student (2013), produced a policy paper on Agent Orange which her successor Seth (Brandeis 2014) used to design the outlines of our program.

No Fellow has made more of a contribution than Ai (2016, Columbia University). One of Ai's uncles died in the war and another spent years in a re-education camp. This prompted Ai's parents to leave Vietnam for the US where they built a new life but never gave up on the country they had left. At Ai's suggestion, her father purchased cows for several Agent Orange families and visited the AEPD in person. Ai raised funds herself, and viewed her own fellowship as a way to help Vietnam heal the wounds of war. Marcela, a Brazilian national at the University of Maryland who worked at AEPD as a Fellow in 2017, raised money for two families.

As the number of beneficiary families grew, we asked new Fellows at AEPD to visit past beneficiaries and update their profiles. These visits have confirmed the value of cows. Mia, (2019, Maryland), the last Fellow to work in Vietnam before the pandemic, found that all of the cows had produced a sustained income. The latest Fellow to work with AEPD was Ryan, whose family also left Vietnam. Ryan worked remotely with AEPD last year to launch our latest appeal.

Fellows who have worked directly with afflicted families have been deeply affected by the experience. Jacob (2017, Fletcher School, Tufts University) raised $1,500 for An, whose second son was losing his eyesight and whose daughter had been born with Down Syndrome. As Jacob wrote in his last blog, this helped him put his own struggle with depression into perspective: “As unoriginal as this sentiment might be, I truly have found these families’ responses—their perseverance and willingness to keep hoping and dreaming—tremendously inspiring.”

*

Looking ahead, one might ask whether this focus on a problem that affects one country and a war that ended almost 50 years ago makes any sense when so many other humanitarian crises are crowding in. Some have also argued that our preoccupation with Agent Orange discriminates against other forms of disability.

We feel that the same could be said about other single-issue campaigns, such as the fight to ban landmines or eradicate fistula. Every cause needs champions, and the moral and humanitarian arguments for keeping the spotlight on Agent Orange seem to us to be powerful. Over $600 from our recent appeal has still to be spent and will be used by AP and AEPD to support another family in early 2022. We hope others will benefit along the way, as Co did from this latest appeal.

We would be grateful for your thoughts or suggestions. Please email us at iain@advocacynet.org.

With our best wishes for the new year and our deepest thanks, again.

The AP team.

The gift of a cow eases the pressure on Co
The gift of a cow eases the pressure on Co
Luan with her son Tien, victim of Agent Orange
Luan with her son Tien, victim of Agent Orange
Peace Fellow Jacob purchased a cow for An's family
Peace Fellow Jacob purchased a cow for An's family
Hoc from AEPD is much respected in the villages
Hoc from AEPD is much respected in the villages
Ai, 2016 Fellow, has funded several families
Ai, 2016 Fellow, has funded several families
Hong is chairperson of the AEPD
Hong is chairperson of the AEPD
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2017 Peace Fellow Jacob raised money for Mrs An
2017 Peace Fellow Jacob raised money for Mrs An

This report is being sent to friends who have donated through our appeals for families affected by Agent Orange in Vietnam. Over the past four years The Advocacy Project (AP) has raised almost $14,000 for eleven caregivers including Mrs An, seen in the photo above. Of the funds, $7,614 came through GlobalGiving from 112 generous donors like yourself. The remainder was raised privately by the family of Ai, who served as Peace Fellow in Vietnam in 2016.

Agent Orange was sprayed over former south Vietnam by American planes in the early years of the Vietnam war. The defoliant contained dioxin, which leached into the food chain with devastating consequences for American and Vietnamese service members.

Many Vietnamese soldiers who were exposed to Agent Orange served in the south and – by a process that is still not fully understood – passed the poison down to their wives and children. The symptoms began to appear in the mid-teens and have resulted in a range of crippling conditions. Quang Binh province alone has registered over 19,000 cases.

In 2014 we joined with our partner in Quang Binh, the Association for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (AEPD), to survey the needs of 500 affected families. Based on the results, we decided to seek at least $1,000 for ten families that had been especially damaged. All but two families have used your donations to purchase a cow (photos).

We return every year to check up on beneficiaries and have recorded some remarkable stories of suffering and resistance, which can be found on these pages. One of our first beneficiaries, Loi, was forced to chain up three sons who were all suffering from dioxin poisoning to prevent them harming themselves and their neighbors. Duc built a successful business from fish sauce to support his three paralyzed daughters before a Korean factory polluted the sea and killed off the fish. Dung and his wife Miet had 13 children and all but one died in childbirth from Agent Orange. One of the saddest cases, for AP, was the death last year of Tuan, 23, a favorite of our Peace Fellows and staff.

But we also remember the friendships and wry humor. Mrs Loi named her cow “Opportunity,” which seemed appropriate. But Mrs Do was stumped when it came to naming her cow and appealed to onlookers. They came up with a safe compromise - “Friendly Working Relations.”

Our fundraising has been led by Peace Fellows. The lion’s share of the money was raised by Ai, who left Vietnam as a child and returned to help as a Peace Fellow in 2016. Ai and her family have supported six Agent Orange families – a remarkable act of generosity. Jacob (2017) and Marcela (2018) also turned out to be excellent fundraisers and wrote profound blogs about a war that ended long before they were born.

In spite of these achievements, our focus on Agent Orange is not without controversy. We have been told that focusing on one condition risks discriminating against other forms of disability. Our reply has always been that other victims of serious medical conditions have their own champions – why not Agent Orange? Indeed, the US Congress has acknowledged the nature of Agent Orange by earmarking significant funds to clean up “hotspots” polluted by Agent Orange in Vietnam and paid millions to American service members who reported having been exposed during the war. Perhaps the most compelling response is that Agent Orange is uniquely awful in the way that it has targeted children who were not born at the time.

We at AP have a special reason for working with caregivers instead of the victims. The future of these families rests with the parents, particularly mothers, who are fighting a losing battle against their own old age and the relentless assault on their children. Quite simply, they dread the future.

But they have also made excellent use of your donations and turned their livestock into a sustained source of income. This will come as no surprise to those familiar with the work of the Grameen Bank or Kiva, but it has cheered us to see that Agent Orange families are not completely disempowered and dependent on handouts. Put succinctly, they have become credit-worthy.

This points to how AEPD can expand the program. Working from the assumption that caregivers will make good use of money, AEPD and AP hope to establish a revolving fund of around $5,000 that can make small loans to other affected families. Many questions will have to be answered: How large should the loans be? Will repayment put too much of a burden on mothers? How could other family-members (who have not been affected by Agent Orange) and neighbors help? Will beneficiaries form smaller groups and share the risk?

We are asking this year’s Peace Fellow – Mia from the University of Maryland – to answer some of these questions by visiting the beneficiaries and collecting data. We will then work with AEPD and microfinance experts to design an appropriate mechanism and seek the initial capital. If the idea of a revolving fund succeeds, your donations will have helped to build a new and hopeful approach to a tragedy that is associated with death, disability and suffering. That would be something to be proud of.

Thank you from us all at AP!

Mrs An and her daughter Thuy (right)
Mrs An and her daughter Thuy (right)
AEPD outreach worker Hoai with Mrs An's son Huong
AEPD outreach worker Hoai with Mrs An's son Huong
Mrs An's husband Hung died in 1981
Mrs An's husband Hung died in 1981
Mrs An's cow helps to pay for medical bills
Mrs An's cow helps to pay for medical bills

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Mrs. An and her buffalo and calf
Mrs. An and her buffalo and calf

Dear Donors,

Thanks to your efforts, we’ve purchased Mrs. An a mature female buffalo and a buffalo calf she can raise. (I'd previously reported inaccurately that we were only looking to buy one animal, due to a misunderstanding, so being able to buy a calf as well was a pleasant surprise.) I visited Mrs. An yesterday when the animals were delivered and the paperwork was signed, and I can confirm that both animals look healthy and strong. I just finished writing a detailed account of my visit and my conversation with Mrs. An, which I encourage you to read—it can be found here: http://www.advocacynet.org/a-buffalo-a-calf-and-an-opportunity/.

Mrs. An hopes to raise the calf and sell it, which will bring in money for food and medical expenses; her adult buffalo will hopefully give birth to new calves she can raise. She said that I should sincerely thank you on her behalf for your support of her family—your generosity clearly meant a lot to her, and it means a lot to everyone at AEPD as well. Her family seemed optimistic compared to my last visit, and having these new animals will clearly make a big difference for them.

I will ask AEPD to keep me posted on how Mrs. An’s family is doing, and they will hopefully be able to update you on their progress in the future. For now, we’re all very excited that Mrs. An and her children, Hoang and Hoa, have this opportunity to start a new business and invest in their futures. We’ve seen livestock make a major impact on other Agent Orange families, and we’re confident the same will happen here as well.

Once again, on behalf of Mrs. An, her children, and everyone at AEPD, I want to express my gratitude for all of your support. This campaign has been far more successful than any of us expected, and none of it would have been possible without each of you.

All the best,

Jacob Cohn

With Mrs. An and the new animals
With Mrs. An and the new animals
The sale contract is read to Mrs. An
The sale contract is read to Mrs. An
Mrs. An and her family
Mrs. An and her family

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Dear Donors,

I am thrilled to be able to announce that thanks to your generosity, our campaign for Mrs. An’s family has been fully funded just two weeks after it began. This campaign has been far more successful than anyone here at AEPD expected, and we’re all excited and humbled that so many of you have been moved to contribute.

The task for us now is to use your contributions to buy the family a buffalo. AEPD has gotten government approval for the business plan we developed in consultation with Mrs. An, and we’re working with the Advocacy Project, the organization running this campaign, to get your donations to AEPD as soon as possible. Once that happens, an AEPD outreach worker will work with Mrs. An to find a healthy buffalo for sale in her area at a good price. I’m also hoping to visit the family and deliver the good news in person; if I’m able to do that I will let you know. Either way, my hope is to get Mrs. An her buffalo within the next few months, and even if I’m not personally able to see it (as my fellowship at AEPD ends in three weeks), I’ll make sure someone from AEPD takes plenty of photos so that you can see the impact of your donations.

Once again, thank you so much for your support of Mrs. An and AEPD. I haven’t had the opportunity to speak with Mrs. An yet, but I know that she and her children are grateful for your donations and that having this buffalo will make a big difference in their lives.

All the best,

Jacob Cohn

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Dear Donors,

As the Advocacy Project’s summer fellow at AEPD here in Vietnam, I’ve been in charge of putting together our campaign for Mrs. An’s family and fundraising on their behalf. I’m delighted to report that thanks to your generosity, we’ve already managed to raise most of the money needed to buy a buffalo for this family. As of this writing, we’ve raised $1,075 of our $1,500 target in six days—I’d anticipated that it would take several weeks to reach this point, and I’m incredibly grateful to all of you who have stepped up to help. AEPD’s director, Nguyen Thi Thanh Hong, also tells me that she appreciates everyone’s support, and I’m sure that Mrs. An and her family do as well.

We will keep you informed on the progress of the campaign. Given the extent to which we’ve blown past our initial target, I’m daring to hope that I’ll be able to send an update soon letting you know that we’ve raised all the money we need for Mrs. An. (On that note, be sure to tell your friends about this campaign if you haven’t already!) Since we need to secure government approval for our business plan I don’t know how long it will be until AEPD can actually buy her that buffalo, but we’ll do what we can to make sure it happens soon—I know that having the buffalo this year would help the family a lot.

Once again, on behalf of everyone here, thank you so much again for your donations. AEPD is a small local organization, and your support means a lot to them and to me personally.

All the best,

Jacob Cohn

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The Advocacy Project

Location: Washington, DC - USA
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Project Leader:
Iain Guest
Washington, DC United States

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