Huynh Thi Minh Trang, 14, sells bananas at An Lo market in Thua Thien Hue province. The orphan says Covid-19 took away her chance of studying. (Photo: UCA News)
Huynh Thi Minh Trang struggles each day to buy two banana stalks from farmers who sell their products at dawn at a market in central Vietnam.
The 14-year-old girl cuts the stalks into clusters and sells them to customers.
“I work all day here and earn only 30,000 to 40,000 dong (US$1.30-1.70) each day to buy basic food for my grandmother and myself,” she says.
The eighth grader from Phong Dien district of Thua Thien Hue province left her school in mid-June to work at An Lo market after her grandmother, 81, suffered a stroke. Her grandmother used to sell bananas to support her.
Trang was orphaned when her parents died in a car accident in 2011.
“I am no longer interested in studies because I could not follow online lessons for months when schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic,” she says, adding that she has no computer.
She says Covid-19 took away her chance of studying and now she must work and look after her grandmother. She hopes to become a makeup girl who applies cosmetics to women, especially brides, in the future.
Ho A Thinh, a 15-year-old ethnic Pako from Nam Dong district, works at a fish market and is paid 30,000 dong a day.
Thinh, a ninth grader who has four siblings, says he dropped out of school in March because his family could not afford his school fees. They cultivated sugar cane on a 2,000-square-meter farm but could not sell due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nguyen Thi Hien, who teaches ninth graders at a secondary school in Phu Loc district, says four students have quit her class of 39. Those students performed badly and became addicted to online games during the pandemic lockdown.
Le Thi Phuong Thanh, a teacher from Phu Loc district, says five students have given up their studies in her 40-strong class. They ignored their studies after staying at home for months to obey social distancing measures.
Some students accompany their parents to work in Laos as their parents do not have money to pay their school fees.
Nguyen Thi Tu says her grandson Ngo Van Nhat, a tenth grader, left school in May and followed his parents to work in Laos.
“They found themselves jobless for months in Vietnam and had no money to sustain his studies,” Tu says, adding that in the past they sent home 3 million dong (US$130) each month to support Nhat and his grandparents.
Nhat, 16, and his mother now sell clothes at a market in Thakhet, the capital of Khammouane province in Laos, while his father works on construction sites.
Tu says many people who move to Laos, where they seek manual work or do business, often take their children to work with them there in the summer from June to August. Many students do not return to school.
“Many students will give up their studies when the next school year starts in September because their families are suffering financial woes due to the pandemic,” she says. “They could not go to school with empty stomachs.”
Catholic charity Caritas in Hue Archdiocese provided food and money to 1,000 families affected by the coronavirus in Quang Tri and Thua Thien Hue provinces.
Saint Paul de Chartres Sister Epherem Nguyen Thi Luu, who has worked with the children of boat people in Hue for decades, has recorded 19 students dropping out of school this year to work to put food on the table. Boys polish shoes and work at construction sites and motorbike repair shops, while girls sell food on streets or online goods or work at restaurants and coffee houses.
Sister Luu calls on benefactors to offer scholarships to elementary and secondary students from poor families.
“Few benefactors support us because many face economic woes due to Covid-19,” says the nun, adding that most of her American benefactors have no plans to visit Vietnam this year.
She tries to help students who quit school to learn vocational skills for a living. They are taught how to sew clothes, make shoes, apply makeup, draw and embroider paintings.
Sister Luu says Thinh will be sent to learn how to make shoes in Hue next month. “He can make money to support his family after three months training,” she says.
A local Catholic family has agreed to help Trang learn makeup skills this month.
The school year finishes on July 15 after final-semester examinations.
Daughters of Mary Immaculate Conception Sister Maria Nguyen Thi Hong says the nuns have no summer plans for students as they have not been able to raise funds. Last year they held camps and sports, offered gifts to students who performed well at school, and organized tours of religious and historic sites for 200 students.
“We must pray for the pandemic to end soon. If not, our poor brothers and sisters will suffer much misery,” Sister Hong says.