Being among the oldest of the group with no understanding of the Khmer language, Huong faced a challenging decision for a 14-year-old: Stay in the OBV Cambodia house or join the OBV Vietnam house.
By staying in Cambodia, Huong would live close to her father and his family, all of whom objected to Huong's mother's idea that Huong be sent to Malaysia with the young woman who visited her earlier in the year. Her father and his family told Huong that she would remain with them instead of going back home to her mother, despite having no knowledge of the Khmer language, no formal or legal documentation that would allow her to continue her education, and no friends or social network. However, Huong would live with her new OBV Cambodia sisters, a group of young girls who quickly took a liking to Huong and made her one of their own.
By returning to Vietnam, Huong would be far away from the safety of her father and his family, and she would have to leave her new OBV Cambodia sisters. She would, however, continue her education in Vietnamese and eventually join a trade program. Her desire is to learn how to cut hair. She wouldn't have to learn a new language, and she wouldn't have to adapt to a new culture and society, one that generally looks down on Vietnamese immigrants and treats them as second-class citizens. She would join the OBV Vietnam house and gain 16 new sisters, all of whom would welcome her with open arms.
Huong was at a loss on what to do. During her week in the OBV Cambodia house, Huong expressed a desire to focus on learning the trade of cutting hair and an unwillingness to learn the Khmer language. She enjoyed the company of her new sisters, but their ability to communicate in two languages made complete assimilation into the family difficult for her. It wasn't that she was against learning Khmer, she just didn't feel the need to learn it since she wasn't Cambodian and had no Cambodian friends outside of the OBV sisters.
From the day she moved in to the OBV Cambodia house Huong had daily phone calls with her family. The calls started out as innocuous check-ins, but they quickly turned into requests for Huong to be returned to her family.
Linh would soon come to find out that Huong's father could no longer find employment in Phnom Penh, and that he made the tough decision to return back to Vietnam to continue his search for work. He also decided that he would bring his daughter home with him.
And with that, the decision was made by both Huong and her family. Huong was to return back to her father's house and then accompany him to Vietnam. She would not join the OBV house in Vietnam, but would instead follow her dad to wherever he could find work. Somehow she would continue her education, but there seemed to be no guarantee.
This news shocked Linh. Linh tried to negotiate with Huong's father and family, explaining that Huong would have a chance at a better life with OBV, regardless of which OBV house she chose to stay. Linh tried to convince Huong's father to let OBV worry about raising his daughter; he could focus on finding a job and making a better life for himself. He would have one less mouth to feed, and he would still have opportunities to be a part of her life.
Unsure of where he would ultimately live and adamant that his daughter stay with him, Huong's father thanked Linh for her generosity and decided not to have Huong stay with OBV, at least for the time being.
Linh gave Huong's father her contact information in Vietnam and told him to think about letting Huong stay with the OBV Vietnam house. He was noncommittal in his response, telling Linh that he would think about it and get back to her.
I asked Linh if these kinds of instances are common for OBV Cambodia. To my surprise, Linh confirmed that this wasn't the first time a family gave their daughter over to OBV, only to turn around ask for them back.
Although expectations are explicit and contracts are signed by both parties and with witnesses present, OBV doesn't have an official legal presence in Vietnam. Enforcing a contract of this nature is very challenging.
OBV can't deny visitation rights, so there is nothing to keep a family from keeping their child from returning back to OBV once they've come home. Furthermore, if a young girl doesn't want to stay with OBV, then OBV can't really do much to keep them in the house.
Forcing a girl to stay would create a negative environment for everyone and do unnecessary damage to the girl's wellbeing, not to mention sully the reputation OBV has among the small Vietnamese community. Word spreads fast among this community; OBV can't afford to jeopardize the goodwill it has created by keeping a girl in the OBV against her or her guardians' wishes.
Huong is a 14-year-old girl caught between a mother who wanted to send her to Malaysia with a young woman who claimed to have gain riches simply by doing nothing but sit at home, and a father who wants to protect his daughter by having her stay with him while he travels throughout Vietnam looking for work. She's caught between going home to her native land of Vietnam where everyone speaks her language and where she can make friends easily, and staying in Cambodia where she would have to learn Khmer and have only her OBV Cambodia sisters as peer support.
Huong's decision was not an easy one to make. Her tears were warranted. Her fears were justified.
During our second mission trip to Cambodia this week, we will visit Huong and her father at their house. We'll check on Huong to see how she's feeling about the situation, and follow up with her father to see if he has given any consideration to the offer of having Huong stay with the OBV Vietnam house.
Hopefully the past two days has given him enough time to think carefully about the decision he's making and about what would be best for his daughter's future.
Jesse Robbins (original link)