Category Archives: Thank You

Kim Anh Nguyen Thi feeling the love at the Friendship Village.

Supporter Spotlight: Kim Anh Nguyen Thi

Kim Anh Nguyen Thi was being oriented to the Vietnam Friendship Village four years ago by four outgoing young residents.  While being lead around the peace garden and the playground they came upon an argument.  Two residents were arguing over a favorite toy, and one of the children was crying.  This wasn’t Kim’s first visit to the village, but it was the moment she saw and understood what the friendship village is really about.  The six children were able to quickly address and solve the argument verbally, and soon were all laughing and playing again.

“That moment, I understood that they are real human beings no matter what kind of disabilities they have. They live in a family with their siblings, they also argue, tease, play, cry, and laugh together as we do, but upon all of those things, they do know how to care and love others. I want to be a part of their love, too”

Kim’s position with Vietnam International Volunteer Placement Service (VIVPS) kept her visiting each week, translating for foreign volunteers, visiting with the children, and enjoying the love of the friendship village and its residents.  She now works with the international NGO, Plan International, where she works with some of the most marginalized and vulnerable children in Vietnam on projects ranging from early childhood care and education to disaster relief.

Although Kim’s visits to the Friendship Village in her native Hanoi only come once a year now she is still touched by the energy of reconciliation present there and still wants to support the residents how she can.

“I found the residents of the VFV have been well looked after and they do live in a healthy environment. What I concern about is besides getting material supports at Vietnam Friendship Village how the VFV’s residents will be supported further after graduating or leaving VFV to live on their own.”

To that end, Kim has made a generous holiday donation to the George Mizo Fund!  This special scholarship fund has been established by the international committees to support older residents in goal setting for their personal independence and to have the means to start the journey.  Funds have already been raised to help one resident pursue a tailoring internship outside of the Friendship Village!

Donating is easy, just visit our donation page and designate your donation to the George Mizo Fund.  VFVP-USA depends on volunteers to help with our fundraising efforts.  We hope Kim’s  story will inspire other Friendship Village supporters to consider what they can do in the life of a resident this holiday season.

Peter Abatiell,  Specialist 4 with the 1st Calvary Division.

Veterans Day Donation

On this Veterans Day I would like to thank all Veterans for their service, and especially my father Peter Abatiell, Specialist 4 with the US Army’s 1st Calvary Division, 1970-1972.

In June of 1969 President Richard Nixon, as part of his “Vietnamization” policy, ordered a stand-down of troops in Vietnam for withdrawal.  The reduction of American troop strength in Vietnam began the following fall.

Troops began leaving the 1st Calvary Division’s Bien Hoa Army base, and with them, the state of the art punch card computers used to track the division’s personnel logistics.  This draw down of men and machinery led to my father’s military occupational specialty change from infantry to clerk typist, where he spent the remainder of his time in Vietnam manually keeping logistics by hand.

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In 1971 the move to take computers out of the office of military personnel management in Bien Hoa created an opportunity for my father to work in the rear offices, away from the front lines.  Today, In our hyper connected, technological work spaces the computer is a necessary tool for creating opportunity.

On this Veterans Day, we at Vietnam Friendship Village Project-USA would like to express our gratitude and thanks to our friends at NatureBridge for the donation of laptop computers to support our mission at VFVP-USA.  This donation will help VFVP-USA support our friends in Vietnam, while helping them create their own opportunities.

NatureBridge Yosemite Director, Kristina Rylands, presents VFVP-USA board member Stephen Abatiell with a generous donation.

About NatureBridge:

NatureBridge provides hands-on environmental science programs for children and teens.  Our multi-day programs take place outdoors in the magnificence of nature’s classroom, where students are immersed in the wonder and science of our national parks in Yosemite, Golden Gate, Olympic, Santa Monica Mountains, Channel Islands, and Prince William Forest.

Founded as Yosemite Institute in 1971, today NatureBridge welcomes more than 700 schools and 30,000 students and teachers each year to our six campuses.  After more than 40 years of teaching and inspiring students, NatureBridge has provided life-changing experiences for more than 1 million participants and is a national leader in the field of environmental education. 

 

Thanks for Spreading the Word

Just a quick post to say how much we appreciate all the volunteers, visitors, poets and filmmakers, journalists and photographers who help spread the word about the Van Canh Friendship Village, and about the larger issue of the long-term effects of Agent Orange/dioxin in Viet Nam.

Click to read Kimberly's article at mainichi.jp

Click to read Kimberly’s article at mainichi.jp

Often we receive email messages from supporters sharing links to online articles or blog posts we wouldn’t otherwise know about. Sometimes we hear from authors directly, or secondhand through one of our partner committee members in Germany, Japan, France, Canada or Viet Nam. We have begun listing links to people’s online blogs and articles on our sidebar.

Yesterday, I received snail mail from Kimberly Hughes, staff writer with the Mainichi newspaper in Japan. She enclosed this note (see pic) with a printout of the article she wrote about the Friendship Village, published on March 1, 2014. The piece, Vietnam Friendship Village offers healing, hope to those impacted by war’s ongoing legacy, is a very well written introduction to our project.

Thank you, Kimberly!

VFP Hòa Bình Chapter 160: We appreciate you!

Vietnam Friendship Village has always found strong support within the ranks of Veterans For Peace, a global organization of military veterans and allies working to build a culture of peace, expose the true causes and enormous costs of wars, and heal the wounds of war while working to end all wars.

Several years ago, a number of US veteran ex-pats living and working in Viet Nam got together and formed a Veterans For Peace chapter in Viet Nam. It’s known as Chapter 160, the Hòa Bình Chapter (Hòa Bình means peace in Vietnamese). VFVP-USA Board Member Don Blackburn was one of the founding members, along with Suel Jones and Michael Cull, who were both involved with the Friendship Village early on. (Suel now splits his time between Danang and Albuquerque, New Mexico, while Michael and Don both live in Nha Trang.) Other recognized leaders within the chapter are “the two Chucks”—Chuck Palazzo and Chuck Searcy. Palazzo’s home base is Danang, and Searcy’s is Hanoi, although Searcy also spends a lot of time in Quang Tri Province supporting the work of Project RENEW.

Among other things, VFP Chapter 160 members provide assistance to Vietnamese people still affected by remnants of the American War in Viet Nam, such as the landmines and unexploded ordnance that continue to cause injury and death, and the dioxin that remains in certain “hot spots” in the environment as well as in the gene pool of those originally exposed.

To raise awareness about these issues as well as some money to help victims and their families (funds are often distributed through VAVA, Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin), VFP Chapter 160 began conducting an annual springtime tour of Viet Nam, geared toward peace-oriented veterans and associates. Now in its third year, their tour has been a big success. A stop at the Vietnam Friendship Village is on the Hanoi itinerary, and it is one of the projects benefiting from the tour, as participants help decide how to direct tour monies among many deserving charities at the end of their trip.

One of this year’s tour participants happened to mention the Hòa Bình Chapter’s good work to filmmaker Michael Moore, and Moore subsequently named Chapter 160 as one of two recipients of memorial donations for his father, specifically to help victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam. This news—not of Mr. Moore’s passing (may he rest in peace), but that both the issue Agent Orange and VFP Chapter 160 had been highlighted in this simple way—caused a ripple of gratitude among those of us in the peace community who have been working on this issue for a long time. Hopefully, as a result, our circle will grow just a little bit wider.

2014 Viet Nam Tour group members led by VFP Chapter 160 poses in front of Ushi's, a world famous restaurant (and personality) located in Hue, Viet Nam.

Members of VFP Chapter 160 pose with 2014 tour group members and friends in front of Ushi’s, a world famous restaurant (and personality) located in Hue, Viet Nam.

Supporter Spotlight: Carol Konyha

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Sgt. Tony Konyha in Vietnam—in uniform on one of the bases he served at (left), and during a moment of relaxation (right).

Carol Konyha’s father, Toby Konyha, was stationed in Vietnam for a year between August 1967 and August 1968, serving as a mess sergeant at both An Khe and Pleiku military bases east of the Cambodian-Vietnam highlands. This was a heavily forested region. Even in the lower coastal areas, in the tropical climate, dense vegetation provided ample cover for the North Vietnamese Army, who were staging attacks from neighboring Cambodia at the time. US military commanders’ institution of “Operation Ranch Hand,” the infamous aerial spraying of Agent Orange and other defoliants in Vietnam, helped eliminate enemy cover and thereby reduce the threat to its combatant forces. [To see an interactive map of spraying missions, visit: Chicago Tribune Watchdog.]

The widespread chemical warfare had devastating side effects, not only for Vietnam’s environment, but for many of the humans caught in the drift. Dioxin, a highly toxic byproduct of the Agent Orange formula, caused permanent health problems, even death, to both military and civilian personnel on both sides of the conflict, including genetic mutations that resulted in children being born with severe birth defects such as spinal bifida and other neurological disorders. Sgt. Toby Konyha was one of those whose exposure to the herbicidal “agent” eventually took a heavy toll on his health and on his family.

In 1973, just five years after his stint in Vietnam, and the same year American troops pulled out of the country, Sgt. Toby Konyha died after being diagnosed with leukemia. At the time of his death, he and his wife Mary had seven children: Dorothy, age 22; Jim, 20; Suzanne, 17; Carol, 8; Ed, 6, Christine, 4; and Dan, 2. In addition to his own illness, Toby’s exposure to Agent Orange led to his youngest daughter Christine being born with a malformed spine and water on the brain, as well as an abnormality that required her to undergo open-heart surgery when she was only 2 years old. The first child to be born after he returned from Vietnam, Christine was conceived in Hawaii, when Mary joined him there for a mid-tour R&R break (rest and relaxation).

Despite her physical difficulties, Christine, nicknamed “Ina,” matured into adulthood and managed to live a relatively full life. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Windsor and had a dream of helping children with disabilities and their parents. She suffered a setback, though, in 1997, when she lost her eyesight, a loss directly caused by her birth defects. A shunt implanted as a baby to drain fluid from her brain had deteriorated over time, causing permanent damage to her optic nerves and ultimately, blindness. Ina was just getting her life back on track when she suffered a serious fall, a tragic accident from which she never recovered; she was on life support for nine months before dying at the age of 34.

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Left: Christine “Ina” Konyha in her first communion dress, with her grandmother, Ida. Right: Ina as an adult.

Brother Ed Konyha describes the ripple effect on their family. “The Agent Orange not only killed Dad, it killed Ina too. Mom was devastated after Dad died and she was never the same again. She suffered terrible and persistent depression after being left a widow and having to raise four young children as a single mother in her forties and fifties…it aged her prematurely.”

Toby and Mary’s middle child, Carol Konyha, lived near her younger brothers in Vancouver, British Columbia in the 1990s, but during the final months of Ina’s life, she relocated to Phoenix, Arizona to help care for her sister. In 2003, Ed called to tell her about a documentary titled The Friendship Village he’d happened to see on Canadian television. Produced by Canadian filmmaker Michelle Mason, it tells the story of George Mizo, the American veteran who played a major role in the founding of the Vietnam Friendship Village, and documents the ongoing tragic legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Mizo himself had suffered serious health consequences from his wartime exposure to dioxin, and passed away in 2002. When she watched The Friendship Village, Carol felt an immediate connection with the Vietnamese families interviewed in the film. The health issues they described were much the same as her own family’s experiences. She subsequently became a regular supporter of the Friendship Village, through VFVP-USA, always dedicating her donations “In memory of Sgt. Toby Konyha and Christine Konyha.”

Three years ago, Carol decided to step up her support for the Friendship Village. She asked herself, “What can someone like me do that would be even halfway meaningful?” She figured she could raise some money within her own circle of friends and family, but felt that everyone was probably already inundated by donation requests. She wanted to do the fundraising in a way that would be fun and appealing. A freelance baker known for her chocolate cake and cupcakes, she finally hit upon the idea of holding a month-long bake sale.

Carol’s first bake sale, held in 2012, brought in close to $400. The next year, she raised $578. In 2014, in addition to a bake sale, she decided to throw a “Christmas in February” party—a celebration she had hosted when she lived in Vancouver, just for fun. Carol said party guests were happy to contribute to “her charity”—Vietnam Friendship Village—and most generously gave more than the $10 suggested. On her invitation, she also provided the option to donate online, and some friends did so. By combining a fun social event with her bake sale, Carol tripled her return, raising $1,487 this year!

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Left: Carol’s chocolate cupcakes are always a big hit. Right: Carol offers up a tray of Danish sandwiches at her 2014 “Christmas in February” party. From left: David Smith, Carol Konyha, Carolyn Christy, Patrick Murphy and Joseph Ho.

VFVP-USA depends on volunteers to help with our fundraising efforts, and to have someone like Carol, who knows firsthand what it means to be a “victim of Agent Orange” is all the more meaningful. We hope her family’s story, and her “fun and appealing” fundraising model will inspire other Friendship Village supporters to consider what they can do.

“The devastation caused by Agent Orange on our family is massive. It goes beyond Dad’s death. It left young children without a father, killed our sister and caused her extreme physical and psychological pain throughout her life, prematurely aged and devastated our mother, and left grandchildren without grandparents. The horror of war and chemical warfare came home with Dad. This is why we relate to those children in Vietnam so well—they are Ina’s mirror image. Their families are our mirror image. We are them and they are us… That recognition is the one silver lining that can be salvaged from all of this: By supporting them, however we can, we heal our own wounds.”

—Ed Konyha

Come Sit at Our Table

US Committee table at Friendship Village

VFVP-USA members Paul Wicker, Becky Luening and Don Blackburn enjoy a meal at the Friendship Village.

As we get ready to turn the calendar page from 2012 to 2013, I want to thank all of our friends in the USA and elsewhere who have helped support the Viet Nam Friendship Village with a donation this year—whether $10 or $1,000 or more. Inflation continues to drive up the cost of food and other basic supplies around the world, including Viet Nam, so every dollar is appreciated.

If you have not yet given, I invite you to do so. Become part of our international community…come sit at our table. Make a donation to the Friendship Village today.

Whether it is time, labor or funds we donate to this project, we are all volunteers, but once in a while our contribution to the Friendship Village is rewarded. I felt like the recipient of a gift when I picked up this email message on Christmas Eve from our friend Long, who works in the computer classroom at VFV [edited slightly for readability]:

Dear Becky,

The kids and I  like to thank the international committee for your assistance and the pleasure you have brought to our lives. For us who were unlucky enough to be born with a disability, it helps to know there are people out there who understand and care about us. The gift you give us is not just a meal, but the great gift of the spirit, of sharing.

You are like the Santa Claus of the Vietnam Friendship Village.

I hope you will convey to your heartfelt charity my cordial words and wishes for good health as you continue your work in the new year.

Happy MerryChristMas from Long in computer classroom at the VietNam Friendship Village

Group photo in computer classroom

Members of the International Committee pose for a picture with computer class instructors and students. (Long is first person on left in front row.)

Peace on Earth…

The recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut has many of us in the United States meditating, as we grieve, on how to grapple with the epidemic of gun violence in our country. In listening to public discussions of the problem, I’ve heard more than one person draw parallels to the many, many children victims of wars, past and present, worldwide.

Drafting Peace AppealFollowing the ceremonial signing of the 2013-14 Memorandum of Understanding by the heads of the five national representatives present at this year’s International Meeting, one more document was passed around for the signature of everyone in the room. It was an “Appeal for Peace” initiated by our French partner, Georges Doussin. In the photo you can see Georges engaged in the process of drafting the appeal with Rosemarie Mizo and a French translator. Here is the text of the document we signed:

An Appeal for Peace
from the International Committee
of the Viet Nam Friendship Village
— 25 October 2012 —

Wars driven by financial greed have caused the loss of many lives and plunged millions of people into poverty and hunger. The International Committee for the Viet Nam Friendship Village appeals to all people to join hands to replace this inhumane exploitation with a dedication to peace and solidarity; and to replace hatred with friendship. Together we oppose all war.

Here at Van Canh, we have built a Friendship Village for war victims. It is the fulfillment of a dream and desire of veterans to fight for peace. Today, in love and solidarity, we dream about a world at peace. Today we envision the world as a village. For the happiness of every child, let us join together to save that village!

This simple, straightforward expression of a collective dream for world peace is true to the spirit of the founding of the Friendship Village. Doussin was one of the handful of international war veterans originally assembled to carry out the vision that grew out of American veteran George Mizo’s original desire to reconcile with his former enemies.

A visceral understanding of the nature of institutionalized violence often fuels a strong yearning among veterans for a world without war. The absence of war, of course, doesn’t mean an end to conflict, but those of us engaged in “peace work” strongly believe that most, if not all, conflict can be resolved nonviolently. For peace to be possible, humans must be willing to act from a place of compassion rather than competition. We must nurture the basic human urges of empathy, caring and sharing. This goes for nation-states as well as individuals.

One of the unique aspects of the Viet Nam Friendship Village is that it is partially supported by a community of people of different nationalities. This collaboration necessarily requires that we work at fostering cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect at the same time that we work together to provide good nutrition, effective treatments and education for Friendship Village residents. While not always easy, it is a very good practice to be engaged in.

VFVP-USA’s Winter 2012 Newsletter was mailed yesterday to just over 1,000 U.S. supporters. If you are not on our snail mail list, or if you want to share the newsletter with others, you may download the PDF via our newsletter page.

As we get ready to turn the page to 2013, on behalf of our board of directors, I extend heartfelt gratitude, once again, to Vietnam Friendship Village friends and donors in the USA for all your great support. Let us continue to strive together, in all different ways, toward our common goal of a world at peace.

Peace Pole

ABOVE: Dang Vu Dung and Ahara “Shige” Sigemitu pose next to the Vietnamese and Japanese language versions of the message “May Peace Prevail on Earth”  visible on two sides of a Peace Pole discovered at Tam Dao National Park north of Hanoi.


Village Updates – Spring 2012

Eighteen children returned to their families in early 2012 after receiving medical and/or physical therapy, plus education, at the Friendship Village. As of mid-April, eight new children had been admitted; most of them third-generation Agent Orange victims.

Heart surgery recipient, Giang

One success story features Nguyen Thi Giang, a 17-year-old from Bac Giang Province, a current resident of the Friendship Village who was born with a severe intellectual disability. On a recent weekend visit home, over the course of one day her skin suddenly turned dark purple and her parents rushed her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with both a blood infection and congenital heart disease. The Friendship Village’s doctor arranged for Giang to be treated at Army Hospital 103. A month later, after the blood infection was cured, the hospital’s doctors performed heart surgery for Giang, and she is now doing very well. (Treatment costs were donated by the hospital.)

Visitor Tally: Between January and March 2012, the  Friendship Village attracted 172 visitors, plus 22 groups of volunteers  from 13 different nations. Volunteers provide assistance in special education classes, the physical rehab room, and the garden.

Friendship Village Performers

Congratulations! A troupe of Friendship Village children won Second Prize among 22 groups in a singing and dancing competition organized for disadvantaged children living in Hanoi. These performances bring much joy to those lucky enough to watch them, and the creative activity is a healing force in the children’s lives.

Facility Upgrades: Three of the new residential houses built to replace those damaged in 2008 flooding feature solar-powered hot water systems. Surrounding courtyard and roads have been raised to prevent flooding during heavy rains. A new wastewater system directs water away from the residences and dining hall to a pond outside village walls.

Road construction underway at Village

In Gratitude: VFVP-USA wired a contribution of $8,000 to our Vietnamese partners on March 28, 2012, designated for general operating expenses. We thank each and every one of our supporters, whose donations, large and small, make our ongoing support of the Friendship Village possible!

2011 Holiday Greetings

Today is Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, marking the return of the light as days begin lengthening again. I hope this message finds its readers relaxing in a comfortable shelter, with access to yummy and nutritious food, in good spirits, possibly also being nourished by the love of friends and family.

Sewing student sweeps floorOur U.S. Committee (VFVP-USA) just sent our quarterly contribution ($5,000 this time) to the Vietnam Friendship Village for operating expenses. We thank our supporters for making this possible. We are glad to know our dollars will help provide additional comfort, nutritious meals, and whatever special services may be needed to enhance the future for the individuals who come to the Friendship Village for assistance, whether it is medicine, corrective surgery, physical therapy or vocational training.

ONE EXAMPLE IN PHOTO ABOVE: A malformed rib cage, curved spine and poly-arthritis make walking difficult but 21-year-old Bui Thi Hoa perseveres. Her dream is to become an excellent tailor.

A few weeks from now, children will be preparing to go home to their loved ones to celebrate Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year), which falls on January 23rd in 2012. By then we will have received many returns from our 2011 Appeal Letter, and will be well on our way to raising our next bundle of support for the village. Your participation is welcome! (Choose “Be a Financial Supporter” under “Get Involved” at right.)

—Becky Luening

Journalists shine new light on Viet Nam

While in Los Angeles last weekend helping my mother with unpacking and organizing after a big move, I got a call from my father-in-law, Earl, who lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C. He had tracked me down to tell me about a great article by Kristin Henderson that was published in the Sunday, March 27, 2011 issue of the Washington Post Magazine. Earl was excited because the article, titled Spring travel: Old war wounds give way to a new Vietnam, includes a passage relating the author’s visit to the Friendship Village, with the account serving as a vehicle for educating readers about the continuing effects of Agent Orange in Viet Nam. Earl read to me over the phone:

In Vietnam, Friendship Village is one of the few places where Agent Orange sufferers can access rehabilitation, education and vocational training. It was created by American, Vietnamese and French combat veterans, former enemies healing each other. A visit to Friendship Village felt like the right thing to do, a guilty American obligation. And we’d been told that, with a little advance arrangement, visitors were welcome to join in the daily life there, just as we were welcome to join the exercisers who rise at dawn to circle Hoan Kiem Lake in old Hanoi. But sitting beside my husband as we drove through the gate, I worried that a facility full of the collateral damage of an old war might not be the most uplifting place for a man who had recently been up to his neck in the damage of a new one.

Sure enough, one of the first volunteers we met told us about children who’d been brought here with “box syndrome” — arms and legs they couldn’t extend because they’d been born with so many disabilities that their families, not knowing what else to do, had kept them in a box. Another volunteer’s handwritten notes described whole families afflicted with disabilities.

It should have been a depressing place. And yet, in a sewing studio, as a young woman with stumps instead of hands deftly laid out fabric and marked it with a pattern, her quiet satisfaction was infectious. She’d learned how to do that here, and with skills like that, she could live her own life.

In the clinic, Vietnamese army doctors and nurses were running a one-day checkup. One of the doctors was making a ticklish child with twisted limbs laugh. Children come here for a year or more. Vietnamese veterans of the war come here for treatment, too, a few months at a time. A wiry vet with a lined face smiled at us as he shuffled past clutching his medical paperwork.

In a colorful classroom, the children were excited about my husband’s camera. A volunteer from Switzerland helped a smiling, birdlike girl named Lien form her fingers into that universal “V” that signifies both victory and peace as the camera clicked. Outside, the rain slowed to a drizzle.

Friendship Village is always in need of donations of money and time. The Swiss volunteer was here for the summer. An American family from Chicago was here for a week, the teenage daughter working with Lien in the classroom, the son outside with a group of Vietnamese children who laughed as they swept up debris from the storm and flung water at each other.

As one of the most prominent Agent Orange-related facilities in Viet Nam, our Friendship Village in Van Canh, near Hanoi, has for years been on the “go to” list for tourists with a conscience, and has received plenty of news coverage, especially around those dates that mark various anniversaries of the end of the American war. Lately, additional attention is being showered on the village thanks to the Make Agent Orange History campaign and the journalism fellowship program called the Vietnam Reporting Project. The latter was the impetus for Connie Schultz’s excellent series of articles published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in January. I don’t know if Kristin Henderson is connected to either of these networks, but I am grateful to all the journalists who find their way to Viet Nam and to the Friendship Village, and then write personal accounts of their experiences. I am grateful to all those who, in their writing, recognize Viet Nam as a beautiful country, not a war, and call attention to the lingering effects of Agent Orange on its environment and its people. Together we can make a difference.