Pleiku City, Vietnam — After their father died and mother remarried, A Nam and his two sisters were sent to a home for orphans, where they were given food, accommodation, health care and education.
Now Nam, a father of one, teaches at an elementary school in his home province of Kon Tum, central Vietnam.
"As an orphan, I am very happy to have a happy family and good job, that many people fail to have," Nam said, admitting that he is luckier than many ethnic villagers who live in poverty and are illiterate.
Thanks to the home, which offered him opportunities to learn other ethnic languages, traditions and cultures, he now has many friends from several ethnic minority groups in the province, the 38-year-old man said. His wife is an ethnic Ba Na and also a teacher.
Nam is among thousands of ethnic minority people who have been brought up in six homes run by the Filles de la Médaille Miraculeuse (Daughters of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal) nuns since 1947 when the first home was founded.
Sr. Imelda Y Biut, a Rongao ethnic woman who served orphans for years, said the homes at first aimed to save and bring up orphans from ethnic villages who were severely mistreated.
One of the practices, called "dor tom ami," involves burying infants alive with their dead mothers. Now this tragic custom is being abandoned, thanks to the nuns' efforts, Biut said.
Besides taking in orphans, the sisters also admit children from poor or large families or who have physical disabilities.
More than 700 children from various ethnic groups live in the six homes based in the province. They range in age from a few months old to 20 years old.
Sr. Francoise Y Hnet, who serves at Vincent Home 1, which houses 200 children, said they are given free accommodations, health care, education, and are taught living skills, catechism and moral values. Many study at colleges, universities and vocational centers throughout the country.
"We also teach them ethnic cultures, traditions, music and dances," said Hnet, an ethnic Sedang.
Older children help the nuns look after younger ones, do housework, work on farms, and raise cattle and poultry. The nuns cultivate crops to support them, and outside benefactors donate basic supplies.
"The most important thing is that, although different from ethnic groups, children live in harmony, respect and support one another, and behave well," Hnet, 74, said. They exchange their cultures and traditions with one another.
The nuns advise older children to pursue future jobs suitable for their abilities and to look for marriage partners. Hnet said they become much sought-after by prospective spouses because of their new life skills and values.
A Trach, a Rongao ethnic man, married Y Lep, a Gie ethnic orphan who was brought up in Vincent Home 2.
"She is a good wife. She knows how to organize work in the family and look after our children. It took me a long time to win her heart. I am proud of her," Trach said with a smile.
The father of three said orphan women from the homes are sought-after as wives by men from the villages.
A Wuih, a Ba Na ethnic orphan from Plei Kech village, said he was sent to the home after his father died and the nuns treated his paralyzed left leg and arm.
"I am lucky to finish secondary school, thanks to the nuns' support. My wife, also an orphan, is illiterate because she was not sent to the home," the father of one said.
Sr. Angela Y Li Lan, a Sedang ethnic woman who serves at Vincent Home 5, said many women inspired by the nuns' loving care have joined the congregation, while others work in various sectors in the province and bring prestige and fame to the homes.
Y Loi is a doctor working at a local hospital. She spends Sundays visiting and giving medical treatment to children in the homes.
Kaly Tran, 30, is a famous artist who composes traditional music, makes bamboo instruments, and leads orchestras to perform at festivals across the country. Tran, an ethnic Ba Na, used to live in Vincent Home 1 after his mother died and his father remarried. The nuns taught him to play ethnic music instruments. Now, Tran, a father of three, said he plans to teach ethnic music and instruments to younger generations to spread their music.
Nam, the father and teacher in Kon Tum, is trying to pay the sisters back for their caring. "I try to inspire students to study well at school as a way to express my deep gratitude to the nuns who brought up me and gave me opportunities to develop my abilities," Nam said.
Kon Tum diocese covers two provinces of Kon Tum and Gia Lai that are home to eight indigenous ethnic groups that include 212,000 Catholics. In recent decades, the diocese has attracted migrants from other places, totaling some 40 ethnic groups in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.