Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Room to Read, and Friends of Danang, helping in Vietnam.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reprinted a New York Times column on John Wood and his philanthropic mission to build libraries and schools around the world, specifically in Vietnam. An excerpt, reprinted elsewhere:
ONE of the legendary triumphs of philanthropy was Andrew Carnegie’s construction of more than 2,500 libraries around the world. It’s renowned as a stimulus to learning that can never be matched — except that, numerically, it has already been surpassed several times over by an American man you’ve probably never heard of.

I came here to Vietnam to see John Wood hand out his 10 millionth book, at a library that his team founded in this village in the Mekong Delta — as hundreds of local children cheered and embraced the books he brought as if they were the rarest of treasures. Wood’s charity, Room to Read, has opened 12,000 of these libraries around the world, along with 1,500 schools.
. . .
“There are no books for kids in some languages, so we had to become a self-publisher,” Wood explains. “We’re trying to find the Dr. Seuss of Cambodia.” Room to Read has, so far, published 591 titles in languages including Khmer, Nepalese, Zulu, Lao, Xhosa, Chhattisgarhi, Tharu, Tsonga, Garhwali and Bundeli.

It also supports 13,500 impoverished girls who might otherwise drop out of school. In a remote nook of the Mekong Delta, reachable only by boat, I met one of these girls, a 10th grader named Le Thi My Duyen. Her family, displaced by flooding, lives in a shabby tent on a dike.

When Duyen was in seventh grade, she dropped out of school to help her family out. “I thought education was not so necessary for girls,” Duyen recalled.

Room to Read’s outreach workers trekked to her home and cajoled the family to send her back to class. They paid her school fees, bought her school uniforms and offered to put her up in a dormitory so that she wouldn’t have to commute two hours each way to school by boat and bicycle.

Now Duyen is back, a star in her class — and aiming for the moon.
It reminded me of a Pittsburgh-based group I saw profiled on WQED some time ago, Friends of Danang. The group's goals, as published on their website, are:
* Raising funds to support humanitarian projects in and around the seaport city of Danang, Vietnam.
* Nurturing a better understanding between the people of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Danang, Vietnam.
* Presenting an opportunity for anyone who has been touched by the war in Vietnam to contribute to acts of human healing.
It's encouraging to see this charitable work continue decades after the war ended. So much of the American interpretation of the war focuses on its own suffering: the loss of lives, the tumultuous protests, and the upheaval of a generation. The inscription on the Vietnam Veterans Monument in Pittsburgh, for instance, reads:
Welcome home to proud men and women

We begin now to fulfill promises
To remember the past
To look to the future

We begin now to complete the final process
Not to make political statements
Not to offer explanations
Not to debate realities

Monuments are erected so that the future
might remember the past

Warriors die and live and die

Let the Historians answer the political questions

Those who served -- served
Those who gave all -- live in our hearts
Those who are left -- continue to give

As long as we remember --

There is still some love left.

- T.J. McGarvey
No doubt a moving tribute to those who served, but trying "not to make political statements" and "not [debating]realities" ignores the scale of destruction half a world away. We don't often enough acknowledge the enormous devastation wrought on Vietnam and its neighbors, the losses suffered by American allies acting on its behalf, and the conflict their presence wrought on Pan-Asian relationships. A major part of the American response to this war in particular needs to be atonement, not simply an accounting of its own losses, and projects like Room to Read and Friends of Danang are important parts of this.