Giving hope to disadvantaged youths in Vietnam
By Judy Yates
Special to the Epoch Times
|Jul 23, 2007|
KOTO is no ordinary restaurant.
KOTO is the brainchild of Jimmy Pham, the ‘Jamie Oliver’ of the streets of Hanoi. Since 1999 his charity has helped some of the most deprived young people in Vietnam. It has educated and trained them, given them a home—and a future more stable than they could ever have dreamed of.
Jimmy Pham was born in Saigon (Ho Chi Min City). He was two when his mother, like so many others at that time, fled from war-torn Vietnam. She and Jimmy eventually settled in Australia, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that he returned to the land of his birth, as a tour guide. What he found shocked him. Thousands of children literally living on the streets, homeless and without hope.
The legacy of the war in Vietnam is that the country’s population is young and poor. Sixty per cent are under the age of 25. Many who travel from the countryside to the cities with dreams of finding jobs and making enough money to support themselves fail to find the life they were searching for. They end up living on the streets, selling postcards, shining shoes and are horribly vulnerable to a world of drugs, exploitation and prostitution.
Jimmy befriended a group of nine of these street children in Hanoi. Each time he passed through the city he would meet up with them, feed them, and buy them clothes.
"Meeting the kids of the streets of Hanoi and seeing the lives they were being forced to lead transformed my life and changed me forever," says Jimmy. He asked them what they wanted out of life. They simply replied, "We need skills so we can find stable jobs." Jimmy abandoned his tour guiding and in 1999 opened up a small sandwich shop which he and the street children ran. Thus KOTO was born. "KOTO" stands for If you Know One you should Teach One.
"KOTO is about creating a safe environment where a small group of extremely vulnerable young people can learn and grow – because through education and skills comes empowerment and the path to a brighter future," says Jimmy.
In just seven years that humble sandwich shop has evolved into a magnificent 120-seat restaurant which opened at the end of 2006. It is open seven days a week and serves over 400 covers every lunchtime. The Vietnamese and European cuisine is professionally cooked and served by its trainees—street children who have found new hope and skills through its training.
Every six months KOTO accepts 25 vulnerable young people, referred to them by vocational schools and detention centres—and, of course, by other students. Sadly only about one in seven of those referred can be taken in. The new recruits are given vaccinations and health checks, provided with uniforms, and paid a small allowance. They are given accommodation in group-houses each with a member of staff who tries to help them come to terms with what, in many cases, are quite traumatic pasts.
For the next 18 months the students undertake an intensive life-skills programme, learn English, and study either Front of House service, or Commercial Cookery, which gains them an internationally accredited qualification from the Boxhill Technical Institute in Australia. Much of the trainees’ practical experience is gained through working in the KOTO restaurant. During their last six months they are also expected to mentor the newer trainees. The drop-out rate is extremely low (under 15 per cent) probably because the competition for entry is so very high.
Chien Le, a typical student, is aged 23. Chien came from Hai Phong City, about a hundred kilometres east of Hanoi. He is visibly upset when he speaks of his mother, and finds his family situation extremely painful to talk about. He was brought up by his maternal grandmother, but she is very frail. His mother disappeared 20 years ago, and he never knew his father. As a teenager he was taken in by a Japanese run charity and taught to read and write, but his future was bleak until he was accepted to train at KOTO.
His face lights up as he talks about it. "KOTO is my life, my dream, and my future. It is my family," he says smiling broadly. He is soon to graduate. He will doubtless find work, but the move from the womb of KOTO to the outside world is a daunting one for a boy who has never really had a family before. But Chien now does have a family and a future.
KOTO’s association with the students doesn’t end when they leave. The students keep in touch and help each other. Many of them, often after they have had experience working elsewhere, return to KOTO to train newcomers. In fact 35 per cent of KOTO’s current management are returnees, and the number is growing.
In Hanoi a new Chief Executive has taken over, Daragh Halpin, an Irish Australian whose arrival has enabled Jimmy to concentrate on his plans to replicate KOTO elsewhere.
KOTO can never help all those in need, but Jimmy’s vision is that KOTO in Hanoi will soon be sustainable, and that in 2008 he will be able to replicate it in Saigon (Ho Chi Min City), and then perhaps in Cambodia, and other countries in need. He will initially bring graduates from Hanoi, and they in turn will help the poor of Ho Chi Min, after all, as Jimmy says, "The greatest accomplishment for the person who has helped you, is to see you stand on your own two feet and then in turn help someone else who reminds you of yourself, because if you Know One, then you should Teach One. "
He says his dream is that, "One day I will go into a room where there will be KOTO graduate giving a talk about the organisation, and its achievements, and I will stand at the back of that room and nobody will know who I am."
It’s a rather an imp
robable hope for a man with as much charisma and energy as Jimmy, but his vision that KOTO will be self-perpetuating is very feasible. The bond these young people have with KOTO and one another is very strong. While Jimmy will always be hailed as its founder, the organisation has every chance of becoming self-sustainable.
In the meantime, KOTO’s fame is growing. Barbara Bush had lunch there during the APEC Forum in Hanoi in 2006, and tour guides from western tour operators such as Travel Indochina make a point of taking their clients to eat there—"Good food for a great cause".
If you are interested in helping Jimmy to perpetuate KOTO, and are planning to visit Hanoi, do make a point of visiting KOTO—you wont regret it! KOTO is located at 59 Van Mieu Street, opposite The Temple of Literature, one of Hanoi’s tourist landmarks. But even if you have no plans to visit, you can also sponsor a trainee, or make a donation.
More information can be found at www.streetvoices.com.au.
Postscript: Since this article was written Chien Le has obtained a job as a waiter at the Hanoi Club, a five-star establishment in the city, and he is progressing well. He is hoping to bring his granny to Hanoi so that she can see where he is living and what he has achieved.