Filling education gaps, sisters help Khmer children in Vietnam

Mary Tran Thi Muong, center, teaches students to sing a song during class. (Joachim Pham)

Soc Trang City, Vietnam — Every morning, Cam Nhung, 14, and her two younger siblings, 12 and 10, walk to their second-grade class at a Catholic convent to study Vietnamese and math. After class, they sell lottery tickets to people on the streets with their mother to supplement the income from their father's work at a construction site. The family of five lives in a rundown rented leaf house.

However, the children are luckier than others from their community who don't have the chance to get even this basic education. They are from Khmer minority communities in the Mekong Delta's Soc Trang Province, one of largest Khmer-populated provinces in southern Vietnam.

Many Khmer people are unable to read or write Vietnamese, and some are completely illiterate. Most do not own land and live in extreme poverty, making irregular incomes of 80,000 dong ($3.50) per day selling lottery tickets or 150,000 ($6.60) per day working construction sites.

Over two decades ago, Sisters of Lovers of the Holy Cross of Can Tho volunteered to educate illiterate Khmer adults at their convent in Soc Trang City to introduce the mostly Buddhist population to Catholicism and help them live better lives.

Sr. Anna Nguyen Thi Huyen, one of the nuns who initiated the program, said at the time, the government had no courses to teach Khmer people to read.

"Some people found our course helpful to their daily life and asked us to teach their children," Huyen said.

"We also visited poor families and tried to encourage them to allow their children to attend our classes," she said, adding that under the circumstances Khmer people prefer their children to work and help support their families.

Cam said the nuns' classes are the only chance she and her siblings get to study.

"We try to learn well here to improve our life because we have no money to study at schools," she said.

Khmer ethnic people account for over 30 percent of the Soc Trang Province's population of 1.3 million, and most of them embrace Theravada, a branch of Buddhism. They are served by 1,728 monks and 1,567 religious dignitaries at 92 pagodas in the province, including Kh'leang Pagoda, which was built in the style of Khmer architecture and dates back to 1533.

Fr. Francis Xavier Phan Van Triem of Soc Trang Parish, the oldest parish in the province dating back to 1888, said the parish serves 6,700 Catholics, but only 100 of them are Khmer people. Most of the Khmer people have deep roots in Buddhism, and "it is hard to introduce Christianity to them," he said: Even Khmer people who have converted to Catholicism still worship Buddhist statues at pagodas.

Huyen said some 40 children from economically disadvantaged families attend the free daily classes at the convent. Most of the students, who are between 5 and 15 years old, are Khmer, and the rest are Vietnamese. Few have government-issued birth certificates, which are required to enter public schools and get health insurance.

From first to third grade, the sisters teach the students, who are between the ages of 9 and 16, manners, Vietnamese, and math. They are offered books, pens, notebooks, clothes and food, which the nuns pay for through donations and their funds for people who live in poverty.

Huyen said some of the children are ashamed that they are illiterate at their ages, when most students are in fourth through ninth grade, and do not want to attend classes.

After class, they go to work — at small restaurants at markets, selling lottery tickets, or begging for money from tourists at pagodas.

Lieu Phuoc and his two daughters pose for a photo in his house. (Joachim Pham)

Lieu Phuoc, a father of four, said all his children are able to read and write thanks to the sisters' classes. Now two of his daughters, ages 9 and 12, are in second grade. Two older children were in the course earlier but now work to support the family.

"We are too poor to send our children to schools," said the man, who himself has not finished second grade.

He said he irregularly earns 150,000 dong ($6.60) a day as a bricklayer, and his wife sells lottery tickets. They live in a 20-square-meter house built by the government at a cemetery.

Huyen said in the past, the nuns had government authorities grant students birth certificates and helped good students enter public schools. As a result, some finished high school and college. But in the past five years, she said, local public schools have stopped admitting the sisters' students because the sisters do not issue official report cards.

"We are persuading government authorities to work with school officials to create conditions for good students to study further," she said. The nuns also help former students find opportunities to study vocational skills so they can get jobs that are more stable than selling lottery tickets or working construction sites.

She said thanks to the financial support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which also funds Global Sisters Report, the nuns plan to build a new house for children to attend the course, as the old house is in bad condition.

"It is important that education courses are ways of building bridges between the nuns and Khmer people to learn one another's cultures and traditions and find effective ways to help improve their material and spiritual life," Huyen said.

She said when students' parents come to collect them from the convent, they learn and understand the nuns' life and learn more about Catholicism.

Mary Tran Thi Muong, right, and Sister Anna Nguyen Thi Huyen visit a student whose arm was broken by an accident. (Joachim Pham)

"We have chances to establish close relationships with them," she said.

She said some Khmer monks invite nuns to attend their ceremonies and festivals, while nuns invite them to attend nuns' vow ceremonies and Christian feasts.

"We visit and have meals with one another," she said.

Huyen said the nuns also hired Mary Tran Thi Muong, a Khmer ethnic teacher, because the nuns do not understand Khmer culture well.

Muong, 60, has taught students in the nuns' classes for 18 years and now teaches her own classes to Khmer children after teaching at the convent in the mornings.

"Inspired by the nuns, I have gathered 30 children from poor families around and teach them basic education at my home in the afternoon," Muong said.

Muong, a former public school teacher, said she annually builds Nativity scenes at her house, attracting many Khmer neighbors. She also offers food and clothes to her students on Christmas.

She and her two other siblings converted to Catholicism and are active Catholics. They join in choirs and doing other pastoral work and charitable activities.

"We try our best to give basic education to poor children so that they can escape from illiteracy and improve their live in the future," Muong said. "That is what we can do for our people."

Kh'leang Pagoda, which dates back to 1533, is pictured in March 2013. (Wikimedia Commons / Bùi Thụy Đào Nguyên)

[Joachim Pham is a correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Vietnam.]