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Overcoming adversity with a smile

Abandoned by father, a young orphan cheerfully takes care of his aunt’s family

Ho Minh Hieu lives with his aunt’s family and his swine and piglets. The story of the 12-year-old, who is studying in central Quang Nam Province’s Nguyen Thanh Primary School, documented by photographer Dinh Chi Trung, has touched the hearts of many people.

Hieu’s mother passed away when he was little and he has never heard from his father. After his mother died, he was sent to Laos to live with his uncle. Life on the other side of the border deprived him of family feel and intimacy, and he gradually lost the ability to speak his mother tongue. Hieu returned to Vietnam when he was 7 years old and started going to school.

Hieu lives with his aunt’s family. Her husband and their second child suffer from developmental disorders and do not have jobs. His aunt works in HCMC as a dishwasher, and Hieu takes care of his uncle and cousin with the help of his aunt’s first son.

His grandmother gave him a sow as a means to make a living. Hieu takes care of it diligently. Every day he cuts vegetables to feed it and goes to the market to find leftovers for it, tends and bathes it and hugs it like a pet.

Now it has given birth to three piglets, leaving Hieu overjoyed. Le Van Dung, 27, his cousin, said: “Hieu has raised this pig for two years and it has produced three litters. Every time he gets to sell a piglet, he is overjoyed.

“There were eight piglets in the last litter, but he could only sell them for a few hundred thousand dong (a dozen of US dollars). The next litter had three and he made VND900,000 ($38). Hieu used that money for school expenses and buying groceries.”

Hieu is the oldest in his class but his small stature keeps his seniority under the radar.

A drawing of Hieu’s aunt, who holds a special place in his heart.

Ho Thi Tri, 51, Hieu’s aunt, said she earns around VND5 million ($213) a month and sends VND3 million to Hieu, her husband and sons for their expenses.

“Hieu raises pigs to have an income and have a hobby that makes him happy, but I’m basically still his main provider. My husband and son are still getting treatment. I usually call Hieu to advise him what to buy for food. He is very smart when it comes to buying groceries at the market.”

She said his father severed ties with him and the family after his wife’s death when Hieu was not yet four.

While other kids enjoy television or family dinners after school, Hieu has other duties. He goes to the market to buy ingredients to cook dinner.

He returns home with his bicycle basket filled with vegetables and fish. He boasts about giving his cousin all the money he earns from selling pigs. His cousin gives him money for his breakfast and market trip every day.

After his trip to the market, Hieu and his uncle cook dinner together. Then he makes sure his pigs are fed. His cousin, Dung, works until late, so Hieu bathes the pigs by himself.

To Thuy Hang, the principal of Nguyen Thanh Primary School, said: “When he came back from Laos, Hieu had many scabs on his body. He couldn’t communicate with anyone at school when he first enrolled. He would flash a shy smile or run away when someone tried to talk to him.”

Hieu’s school held a meeting to find a solution for his situation. It was decided a teacher would teach him Vietnamese during breaks every day. He was encouraged to participate in traditional games. He gradually became more fluent in Vietnamese and has made friends at school. He also does better in class.

Principal Hang said: “Hieu is young but is sensible and honest. One time I dropped my bracelet when I was taking off my raincoat in the school yard and couldn’t find it anywhere. Hieu found it and the minute he realized it was mine, he returned it to me. Everyone at school knows about Hieu’s family’s situation and so they all try to take care of him; even the vendors at the school gate often give him food.”

Hieu has only one wish: that his aunt could come back and work in their village so their family can be together.