Habitat project takes Westerners to Vietnam
  • | GVNews | December 29, 2009 09:58 AM

What may seem like a small and meager living space for people living in homes with modern conveniences in the United States has become a wish come true for some families in Vietnam.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter meet with workers in Vietnam. Christine Mitchell is directly behind Jimmy Carter, wearing a baseball cap.  

With the help of 200 people from the U.S. and New Zealand, 32 families now have a home 30 miles west of Hanoi.

Christine Mitchell of Green Valley was part of a recent Habitat for Humanity Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project and said it was “divine intervention” from a neighbor that gave her this longed-for opportunity.

She recently returned gratified for the experience and realized how much she and others take for granted.

Working with others, Mitchell helped build interior and exterior walls of cinder or concrete block for a new home of a family of four that included a 9-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy. Their only home had been their fishing boat.

“Some of the concrete blocks were so uneven that we’d go pick up pieces of gravel from the road to help level them,” she said. “Before having this home built, the family lived on a boat earning a meager living fishing... To see the progress, they’d come every day after fishing and just smile.”

School-age children who live on a boat don’t attend school. She said this home will give the children an opportunity to attend school for the first time, which in turn will give them opportunities for better employment in the future.

The dream home

Mitchell’s description of the home is a far cry from what most Americans would likely be excited about, yet for the 32 Vietnamese families, a 450-square-foot home is a dream they never thought they’d realize.

“It’s about 12- to 15-feet wide and 20- to 25-feet long. At one end there’s a bathroom with a commode and a shower. The water sprays all over... there’s no hot water, just cold.

“Next to the bathroom is the kitchen. Separating this from the main room is an interior wall that doesn’t go to the ceiling.”

The parents and children sleep near each other in the main room. There may be a piece of furniture like a bookcase separating the children’s beds from the parents.

Memorable experiences

On this Habitat for Humanity International project, former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, spent most of their time in Thailand. However, they came to the building site in Vietnam for one day and Mitchell got to meet and be photographed with them.

“Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have done so much since he left office (in 1980)... Vietnam is very special to them... a lot of people take for granted all the work they’ve done. He’s very much a pacifist,” Mitchell said.

She gave a visual description of the streets in Hanoi that bring to life photographs of their crowded and busy streets.

“There are open-air markets with live frogs and snakes for sale. The meat and eggs aren’t refrigerated... the meat is out on a chopping block.

“The streets are total chaos. There are mopeds everywhere. No traffic lights or stop signs and very few cars.

One site Mitchell visited and described as “a magical place” was Ha Long Bay. “It’s very peaceful and has a floating village of about 600 people. Children are educated in one room on the floating village.”

Another visit

Feeling safe wherever she was, Mitchell said the greatest challenge of the journey was getting to Hanoi and then returning home from Phuket, Thailand’s largest island. There were stops and long layovers in Bangkok, Hanoi, Seoul and Los Angeles before landing in Tucson. Mitchell said every flight in Asia left in time and it wasn’t until reaching Los Angeles that there was a delay.

What were the main rewards? “Seeing the looks on the families’ faces... and their smiles realizing they will have a home.”