I was born in Vietnam, whereabouts unknown. I was found under a bush only a few hours old by a local policeman. He carried me to an orphanage in Saigon called Hoi Duc-Anh where I was given the name Thi Hein, and my birth date of 26th March 1969. My journey had begun.
Less than two years ago, I made a decision which was to change my life forever. I decided to pursue to my dream of helping disadvantaged children in Vietnam and sold my home, business and all my possessions to set up the Allambie Orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City.
It’s been the toughest challenge of my life and one which has filled me with both terror and excitement.
I landed in Vietnam in December 2010, having kissed goodbye to my charmed lifestyle. I was a 41 year-old Western woman, alone in a hot country where I barely spoke the language, about to embark on a very ambitious mission. Was I mad? I don’t know but, for me, failure wasn’t an option.
The move was something of a homecoming. It’s where I started out, having been found under a bush, just days old, at the height of the Vietnam War and taken to an orphanage. All I know about my biological parents is that my dad was a black American soldier and my mum a Vietnamese woman – who was probably raped.
At the age of three, I was adopted by a British couple, who were evangelical Christians, and that’s where my nightmare really began. They may have ‘rescued’ me but they were cruel and controlling, repeatedly calling me the ‘Devil’s child’. I was desperately unhappy and left home when I turned 18, with rock-bottom self-esteem.
My story might be different from those of the six amazing children I’ve taken on – two boys, Chuyen, eight and Thiet, 19, and four girls, Mung 12, Truc, 17, Nhi, 17, and Sa 18 – but I know what it feels like and to have no sense of belonging.
I met most of the kids while volunteering at an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City, in 2007. I returned for holidays, kept regular contact and sent money. But over time, the orphanage became overcrowded, illness was rife, the kids were malnourished and neglected.
I really knew I had to do something when Sa begged me to stay because she had nothing to live for and no one to love her. She now calls me ‘mum’ and is thriving. The same is true of the other kids.
When they came to Allambie, which means place of rest,
they were skinny, lice-ridden, failing at school and terrified. Chuyen wasn’t even toilet trained and, at one point, I had two of them sleeping in my room – it was the only way they felt safe.
They’ve been through hell, including sexual, mental and physical abuse in some cases. It’s heart-breaking and I’ve cried with them many times as they try to make sense of their ordeals.
My kids will always carry their scars but since coming to Allambie, they’ve changed beyond belief. They are healthy, happy and doing well at school. We are a truly bonded unit and, most importantly, we now laugh so much.
But there’s no doubt that, since moving to Vietnam, my life has been impossible at times. I’ve taken on so much and have come close to breaking point. At its worst, I was receiving death threats from the bosses of the old orphanage who tried to snatch two children back.
Another blow came just before Christmas when I was seriously injured in a motorbike accident. I was totally incapacitated but the kids were wonderful and helped me through what has been an incredibly tough time.
Day-to-day, I’m mother, cleaner, mentor, teacher, charity chief, just about everything! It’s mainly just me, although I have had some fantastic volunteers who’ve made a huge difference to the children. We’ve recently found a new cook, which has given me more time to fundraise.
It costs £3,000 a month, including school fees, to run Allambie and we receive no help from the Vietnamese government.
One of my hardest battles has been facing the demons of my past and I’m currently agonising over doing a DNA test, which could potentially find my birth mother – through a scheme which thousands of Vietnamese mothers have joined, as they try to find children they lost in the war.
Since starting Allambie, I’ve lost two stone through stress and, until recently, was surviving on three hours sleep a night. So, do I ever wish I could slip back into my old lifestyle? Never. For the first time in my life, I’m in the right place. Things are getting easier, my Vietnamese is getting better (slowly!) and the privilege of being here far outweighs my gripes.
Sometimes I have to pinch myself; I still can’t believe I’m really doing this. There have been endless magical moments, like watching the kids blow out birthday candles for the very first time. And I’ll never forget last Valentine’s Day when Thiet gave me a rose and said, ‘Mum, I love you. Thank you so much for looking after us.’
I’ve only been able to achieve this dream because of the incredible support I’ve received, not least from my ex-husband. Sadly our marriage fell apart as I pursued my dream but it’s a price I’ve had to pay.
As a proud mum to my daughter Natasha, as well as my new brood, I can’t help wondering whether my adoptive mother may be looking down and finally feeling some sort of pride herself. I hope so because this is what I was born to do and I’m determined to keep building on Allambie’s success.
For more information, visit allambie.co.uk.
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