• Compassion Meets Passion

    The story of Nguyễn thị Minh-Duyên

    Editor's note: From a humble beginning as a Vietnamese immigrant in America's heartland, Minh-duyen grew up with a bipolar passion of exploring the frontier of biological sciences and being in touch with the depth of human misery. She ate the Fruit of Knowledge in Middle School about the plight of Cambodian children and since has carried this burden in her soul.

    Barely at a legal age to travel overseas alone, she flew to Phnom Penh Cambodia to look at the condition that bred child trafficking. After donning her graduation cap at Swarthmore College, a prestigious private college while on full scholarship, she deferred plan for medical school in order to take a deeper look at the plight of human trafficking around the globe. Her path has taken her to Action to End Exploitation School in Phnom Penh, which got her help to save itself from closing and convert to a local charity now called Children for Change Cambodia.

    Minh-duyen does not like to talk about herself. But we persisted and insisted to write about her because most people would find something unusual about her story and even force us to look at our own personal choices. Why would someone who could go to practically any graduate school and who have received more fellowships and grants she could possibly use would choose to be poor and be subjected from months to years of toiling in poor communities at the prime of her life? By the way, she never sought approval from her parents for any of her travel, who invariably looked on with worries.

    We were curious to why she chose the path least traveled. The clues may be that she came from a family on the losing side of the Vietnam War, or from a religious tradition that experienced much persecution in recent history in Vietnam or from a gender that perhaps has been asked to bear more than her fair share of collective suffering. There may never be a simple answer.

    Her past may be unique, but she is joining hands with many in her generation who seek social salvation through intellectual solutions. Minh-duyen is savvy in data and statistics. But given the kind of change Minh-Duyen wants to see in the world, her top-rate education and academic prowess do not spare her from having to walk on the well-worn path of hungry and desperate children seeking safety, opportunity and dignity.

    She is a member of the international board of Children for Change-Cambodia School. You can contact her at md.nguyen@cccambodia.org

    Interview Date: May 2013

    Life path of Minh-Duyen

    When did you come to the U.S. and where?

    After the Vietnam War, my father was placed into a re-education camp. When I was five years old, my family came to the United States under the Humanitarian Operation Program (HOP), which gave refugee and asylum status to former political prisoners of the Vietnam War. He chose Wichita, Kansas because of its tight-knit Catholic community.

    What do you remember about growing up in Vietnam?

    When I visited Cambodia in 2010, I returned to my birthplace in Bảo Lộc, Vietnam. Bảo Lộc is a small town located in South Vietnam's central highlands. My parents made a living by farming coffee and tea plants and processed silk from silkworms. I think my most vivid memory of this time was helping them pick coffee beans and tea leaves.

    Tea workers in the field of Bảo Lộc, Vietnam

    When did you first become interested in the problem of child sex trafficking?

    I first learned about child sex trafficking during a Youth Leadership Conference in middle school. When I returned home from the conference, I helped to hold fundraisers and awareness campaigns at my church for rehabilitation efforts for victims of trafficking. I continued the fundraising work into high school.

    When did you first have an experience caring for someone?

    I think my mom set an example for me very early on. My family had a very modest life in Vietnam but by the time I was born, my parents always guaranteed that I had everything I needed (and maybe a little too much candy—as evidenced by my two rotten front teeth). However, I also remember the people who would come to our front porch asking for rice. I was the baby in the family at the time and couldn’t really help around the house. Instead, my mom still set me to work. She made it my job to watch the door for guests and to run out and give rice to anyone who stopped by.

    You were a stellar student while doing some these intense extra-curricular activities; tell me some of your accomplishments in high school. Don't be shy!

    In high school, I was in the International Baccalaureate program. As for extracurricular activities, I was involved in Debate, served as Student Body President, and held positions in other high school and city groups. Upon graduation, I was incredibly fortunate to receive the Philip Evans, Gates Millennium, and Questbridge Scholarships and an invitation to Swarthmore College.

    Swarthmore College

    Why did you choose Swarthmore College, and what degree did you pursue?

    It is a small liberal arts school situated outside of Philadelphia. I chose the school for its small size (about 1,400 students), its ethic of social and civic service, and the stellar academics it offers. I will graduate with a Baccalaureate degree in Political Science and Biology.

    Minh-duyen, tell us about your first trip to Cambodia to volunteer for Action to End Exploitation School (now CCC)

    I traveled to Cambodia in the summer of 2010. I was 18-year-old and just finished freshman year at Swarthmore College. The Philip Evans Foundation funded my trip to Phnom Penh. My family and friends felt it was unsafe for me to go to Cambodia alone. However, I decided to go because without being there, I could not understand the complex social environment that leads to sex trafficking.

    An injured young sex worker and where many of them came from.

    What was your experience on that trip?

    My primary job was to teach English to the students. I felt my time there was too short to be satisfying and besides working with the students, I felt a bit helpless to truly improve the lot of the students. Conversely, the students were a great help to me because they would always point things out to me, teach me Khmer, and were always willing to help me with different tasks (like cleaning!) at the center. I’ll never forget the time when I asked the older kids to help me clean the upstairs lunch/playroom. We were midway through mopping the room and decided to take a short break downstairs. When I came back upstairs, one of the students in the younger class had taken over for us. He was struggling to push this gigantic mop, that was three or four times his height, around the room. When I thanked him, he gave me the biggest smile. It’s hard to forget small things like that.

    In a way, I sometimes felt like the students were actually taking care of me. Despite having little themselves, I’ve never met a group of kids so open and willing to share. They were always telling me to “nham bai” (eat rice), offering me whatever they had in hand (even fried grasshoppers!), and pulling me out of the way of rampant motos.

    There were many times in Cambodia where I was faced with a situation where I would have given anything to have the medical skills to help people. While there, I began to reconsider medicine as my chosen form of service. I began to see medicine is a universal language that I could use wherever I went.

    What problem did you find in Cambodia?

    The students at the center faced many social problems. For example, the government had a policy of pushing the poor out of their homes to make room for development. Evicted families rarely received compensation for their loss. Many were too intimidated to resist eviction and those that protested were often placed in jail. This policy affected many of my students who had no choice but to relocate to shacks in the red-light district. Unfortunately, conflict over land-use is not restricted to Cambodia but is rather common in the developing world, including Vietnam and China.

    Of course, many of these problems are hidden from the sight of foreign visitors who often, understandably, congregate in the nicer, developed areas of Phnom Penh. The area around the center, where most of the students live, sits in small side streets that are hidden away from Phnom Penh’s developed centers. You could pass right by it and never know that these ramshackle communities exist.

    Riding my bike from one side of the city to the other often left me with the feeling that the families around CCC’s center have been forgotten by Cambodia’s quest for development.

    You saw a lot of hardship and injustice happening to people, how do you deal with all of that?

    In the Vietnamese-American community, there is a strong anti-communist sentiment. As an academic, I’ve tried to develop an objective attitude when dealing with sensitive political issues. However, I have to admit that this is very difficult. It is hard, if not impossible, to disconnect myself from my emotions completely.

    Happy time with siblings in Wichita, eldest brother not in picture. MinhDuyen is second from the left.

    You are graduating from college. What are your options and what are doing next?

    I have been accepted into a Master’s program at Cambridge University in England, a public health program in Chiang Mai, Thailand and a few other international opportunities. I am delaying medical school to gain more international experience. My plan is to work in Chiang Mai, Thailand this summer and then to continue traveling for a year on the Watson Fellowship to document the lives of sex workers in different parts of the world.

    Do you have a social life?

    I don't even have time to sleep. I sometimes feel like I’ve missed out on a normal college life, like spending time with my friends.

    There is something pushing you to set high goals. What drives you to work so hard?

    My mom drives me to work hard. She is the most selfless person I know. When she was a child, her family was very poor. Despite working all night to earn money for her family, she still managed to, not only attend school during the day but also to, consistently rank first in her class every year. After my parents married, they lived in a small shack with a dirt floor and would sometimes go hungry. Yet, my mom managed to build up my family’s coffee, tea, and silk businesses with her bare hands. My mom is an incredibly beautiful and intelligent person. She raised six grateful children. She is my standard of success.

    Is there a role model in society that you look up to?

    There are many people that I respect very much because they champion dignity, equality and justice. One Vietnamese person you may know is Trần Lệ Xuân (AKA Madame Nhu), the sister-in-law of the late President Ngo Dinh Diem. She did a lot to improve the lives of Vietnamese women such as ending the practice of polygamy, ensuring access to land rights for women, and opening up all work to women.

    Madame Nhu (1924-2011), the former "Iron Lady of South Vietnam"

    If you have one dream you wish to come true, what would it be?

    There is a lot of work to be done to improve the lives of women around the world. My professional goal is to become an obstetrician and gynecologist. However, if I had one dream come true, it would be to be able to build a hospital dedicated to serving women and eradicating the diseases that disproportionately affect women. It would be somewhere where medical care for women is non-existent. That is my dream.

    Children for Change-Cambodia's students under Minh-Duyen's watch as a CCC's international Board member

    Comments 4 Comments
    1. Thuyền Nhân's Avatar
      Thuyền Nhân -
      Hello there! Here are some comments from my friends arriving today:

      "Thanks for sharing the wonderful touching story, it gives me much inspiration," pastor Kiêm V. Lê, San Jose CA

      "Thank you for a beautiful story of a beautiful person," Lan Huynh, FL, a retired nurse

      "Thank you. I enjoyed the article. She’s an amazing young lady," Ann Nguyen, CA, attorney
    1. Thuyền Nhân's Avatar
      Thuyền Nhân -
      More comments today:

      "Thank you for sharing. Wonderful story, what an inspiration. The world needs more leaders like her," Fawn Lee, San Jose CA

      "I feel so moved by Miss Nguyễn Minh-Duyên's story of compassion for the children of Cambodia. She does have a clear understanding of the pain those beautiful children are going through. She is living proof that compassion for our brothers and sisters is not only a matter of just feeling it but doing something about it. I can see a very bright and beautiful future for Miss Nguyễn Minh-Duyên."

      José Valentín, PhD, San Jose CA
    1. minh's Avatar
      minh -
      I don't know what kind of "Fruit of Knowledge" she eat but her compassion, hope and dream would make a difference in someone's life. Thanks for sharing the story.
    1. cqf-article-team's Avatar
      cqf-article-team -
      Quote Originally Posted by minh View Post
      I don't know what kind of "Fruit of Knowledge" she eat but her compassion, hope and dream would make a difference in someone's life. Thanks for sharing the story.

      Many parents specifically said they don't want their children be exposed to tragedy like sex trafficking and abuse of children. They don't want their children to be mentally affected or wind up choosing a path like MinhDuyen's and may put themselves at risk. Then there are those like MinhDuyen and for that matter, the volunteers of Children for Change-Cambodia, choosing to try to make a difference for others.

      We made reference to the Bible in the story to suggest a parallel between Minhduyen's path and the teaching of her Catholic faith which is to walk to the path of the abused, sick and needy. She never made any reference of her faith in the interview, but we can't help to see the similarity.

      We know of another story of a 7th grader in San Jose who wanted to raise money for Aid to Children without Parents to fight human trafficking. The organization refused her help because she was too young. She waited 2 years when she became a freshman of Harker School, in San Jose, to lobby her student body to build a school in Phnom Penh for the at-risk children. The school raised $7,000+ and helped erect a new school in Svay Pak on the site of a former brothel that once enslaved children.

      Minhduyen would be quick to point out that she's only trying to help and not necessarily achieved anything grand yet. She's doing the first step, which is learning the issues and problems, and any solution she provide is still far away. Nevertheless to be on location exposes her to a lot of risk physically, and mentally. It invariably costs her family a lot of concerns as well. We ask that when you read the story, please pray for Minhduyen, her family and also all the volunteers for CCC and for that matter for all the people choosing to leave safety and comfort and provide help for others.

      CQF is not a religious organization, but we must recognize that the only way to understand some people's behaviors and choices is to understand their spiritual inspiration. It's undeniable that these inspirations change lives and society, and the world would be better off if there were more people making the kinds of choices Minhduyen and her peers at CCC have made.

      Thank you for interest in their story.
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