Table of Contents
Time Magazine, June 19, 1995
An adoptee returns to her homeland to help
hard-to-place orphans, as someone once did
by Tim Larimer, Thuy An
In a hot, stuffy nursery at an orphanage on the edge of a rice paddy in Thuy An, a farm commune north of Hanoi, Joy Degenhardt watches 12 babies sleep under mosquito netting. Their blankets are frayed, and their mattresses are thin straw mats. Most of the babies are underweight. Many are covered with pink rashes and red sores. But these 12 are lucky: they have American families waiting to tuck them into cribs in the U.S. Outside, a dozen 9- and 10-year old boys wait, watching silently as foreign visitors elbow one another for a chance to cuddle a baby. The older boys will probably never make it to America.
Degenhardt has seen both sides of orphanage life. "All I know about my early childhood is what I have been told," she says. Someone -- maybe a stranger -- brought her to a nursery set up by Catholic nuns in Cam Ranh Bay to care for wartime orphans. "It was a terrible time to be born," says Degenhardt, 27. Then, in 1972, the 4 1/2-year-old was flown to the U.S. in a B-52. She was adopted by Dawn and Ed Degenhardt and grew up in Houlton, Maine. Except for two adopted siblings from Vietnam, she never saw another Vietnamese, never spoke the language. At the University of Hawaii, she studied Japanese.
But these days she is back in Vietnam, doing for today's generation of orphans what someone once did for her. In 1992, on her first visit to Vietnam, she toured the orphanage at Thuy An, which was populated primarily with handicapped children. "It was so bleak," says Degenhardt. "I gave the children some presents, and then I just started to cry." Six months later, she moved to Vietnam to begin working without pay for the Maine Adoption Placement Service, a nonprofit organization her mother founded 18 years ago. Degenhardt is establishing relationships with orphanages in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Da Nang, Hue and Hanoi. In two years she has helped place 69 children in American homes. "I could have been one of these children," she says. A 12-year-old boy, she is told, has been skipping school. She playfully raps him on the back of the head. "You must go to school, or I will not come back to see you," she tells him in nearly flawless Vietnamese, which she has learned since her first visit.
Estimates of the number of orphaned children in Vietnam range from 30,000 to 100,000. In the first two years after Vietnam began regulating international adoptions in 1992, only 1,300 kids were placed in homes overseas; more than 700 went to France and 275 to the U.S. Degenhardt devotes much of her time to helping the majority of children who will never be adopted. At Thuy An, her agency has paid for a gymnasium with athletic equipment, bought books for the library and taken blouses embroidered by older children to sell in the U.S.
In addition, Degenhardt has started programs in which U.S. contributors sponsor the children's education and help support elderly people who have no family. The humanitarian work no doubt helps the adoption work: establishing good relations with orphanages enables agencies like Degenhardt's to match children with prospective parents. "It shows we care about Vietnam," she says, "not just about finding babies to adopt."
Adoption is a sensitive topic in Vietnam. Last year, after charges that documents relating to international adoptions had been forged and some families had been paid to relinquish their children, the government introduced reforms. In January responsibility for international adoptions was removed from the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs and turned over to provincial justice departments and local police, each with its own rules. Degenhardt's and other adoption agencies complain that this makes the process more difficult, though they acknowledge that Vietnam is trying to put an end to the abuses.
Finding adoptive homes within the country is an alternative, but progress has been slow. In Vietnam, where blood ties are important to families, adoption is not common. Moreover, many Vietnamese are suspicious of foreigners' motives. Another nonprofit agency, Holt International of Eugene, Oregon, has found adoptive families in Vietnam for 23 of the 200 children it has handled in 2 1/2 years; Holt has also returned 90 children from orphanages to their parents or relatives and placed 88 children abroad.
Degenhardt's unique situation -- an adopted orphan returning to aid other orphans -- gives her a special entree. "Seeing her helps people at my center understand it is good to let the children go to the U.S.," says Nguyen Xuan Chuong, director of the Thuy An center. Degenhardt realizes the importance of being considered Vietnamese. As she sits down with Chuong, she whispers to another visitor, "Don't call me Joy here. Everyone knows me by my Vietnamese name. Call me My Lien." The name, given to her by the Cam Ranh Bay nuns, is appropriate. Translated into English, My can mean "America" and Lien "connection."
Straddling two cultures exacts an emotional price. "I don't know where I'm supposed to be right now," Degenhardt says. "I cannot say I'm Vietnamese or I'm American. What am I? I don't have a place where I belong." The children of Thuy An orphanage would disagree. As she leaves after a recent visit, a boy asks, "When will you come back?" She smiles and answers, "You know I will come back soon."
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