Social Change through Soccer in Saigon
Saigon is not how I remember. Skyscrapers shape the cityscape giving it a modern cosmopolitan look. New, more expensive shopping malls abound in nearly every part of the city. Boutique restaurants cater to the fusion cuisine preferred by many global visitors. Wide, smooth roads make some of our U.S. roadways look shoddy in comparison. It is a city in many ways unrecognizable but in many ways still distinctly the same. A colleague told me that according to the World Bank, Vietnam no longer ranks as a developing country in need of foreign aid. That’s good news for a proud country that is pushing mightily to accelerate its economic growth with the hopes that by 2020 it will have achieved developed world status. But looking around, one can see that there’s still work to be done. Despite reducing its poverty rate from 60 to 20 percent in the last 2 decades (World Bank, 2013), nearly 7 million youth still live in poverty in Vietnam (total youth population of ~30 million), according to studies done by UNICEF.
Last month during a short trip to Vietnam, I met up w/ Phạm Thành Nhơn, a graduate of the iLEAP program. I hosted Nhơn, a couple years ago through iLEAP and really enjoyed getting to learn about him and 5 Gio Sang (5am), the organization he founded in 2010. You won’t find a website for it. You’ve probably never heard of it. That’s b/c, like Nhơn, it quietly exists to make incremental social change leading to micro transformations in the lives of the youth it serves. The organization uses friendly soccer training programs to encourage disadvantaged youth to stay in school and lead productive lives. 5 Gio Sang, which means “5am,” trains 30-35 young boys (at any given time) between 10-18 years old who live in the Vietnamese orphanage system.
Preferring bare feet to sneakers, these kids dribble, pass and score like many of the other kids out there playing soccer in Saigon. And knowing that they can come to a place and play and just be ‘average’ kids under an encouraging and supportive role model, like Nhơn and the other coaches, helps them see a life beyond their daily experiences.
Once a product of the Vietnamese orphanage system, myself, and raised in the U.S. by a generous adoptive family, I have this beautiful country in my blood and DNA. And I love nothing more than to see & connect with social change leaders, like Nhơn, who are helping some of Saigon’s disadvantaged youth stay motivated and stay in school while learning about collaboration (not competition) through sports — providing them an opportunity to play and just be kids, as all children deserve.
The heat is sweltering yet, the kids keep playing and show no signs of slowing down. Dust flies around. Soccer balls graze the goal posts. And finally….score.
Photo caption and credit: 5 Gio Sang kids playing soccer at Ky Hoa Sport Center in District 10, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo credit: M. Goel, Oct. 2015.