Greeks are renowned all around the world for their filotimo. It is one of those rare, words in a rich language that cannot be translated or defined. We know when we see it, and we can feel it when we are on the receiving end.
Anna Papoutsakis personifies filotimo. She has spent 8 years volunteering tirelessly in Vietnamese orphanages, at her own expense to improve the quality of life of disadvantaged, as well as disabled children, and to educate local carers. For these children she has been a mother, sister, friend, nurse, teacher. A beacon of hope in their lives, and a bottomless pit of love and fun. Her achievements have been massive. In her most recent trip earlier this year, she became the first foreigner to receive the Red Cross Humanitarian Medal in Vietnam.
GCT recently spoke to Anna about her journey, experiences and goals for the children and communities she has fallen in love with.
Visiting Vietnam’s orphanages
I had not taken annual leave in two years and my boss was making me. My entire annual leave was based around me going to help disadvantaged children. Everyone thought I was crazy! I work with children in my career and they could not understand why I wanted to go on my first holiday in two years to go work with MORE children “for free” as they put it. But volunteering was something I always wanted to do and I did not want it to become something I spoke about then I became older as “something I wish I had done”. So I decided, if not now, then when?
My first visit was in 2010 and I was in shock at the conditions and how children lived. I mean, I worked with some of the most privileged children in Sydney and this was, well… a complete opposite would be an understatement. The children were amazing and wonderful and full of smiles – some a bit more shy and others more forward who would run into your lap for a cuddle and to try and see what you had in your bag for them! The disabled children were the most heartbreaking for me. When you first walk in, you cannot help but judge based on your own life and experiences and what you see as ‘right’. I walked in and there were children tied with ropes to the beds – and I use the word ‘bed’ to mean either a wooden frame or a metal bottom. Mattresses were not present. I remember looking at the carers thinking “how can you do this?”. But I quickly learnt. When I felt more comfortable on this first trip, I actually went and untied all the children. And I learnt quickly why they were tied up. They were all of varying needs but all required direct supervision. I spent the next half hour trying to control them and catch them – some had run over and out past the rice fields, others were attacking the other children….. and then I had no choice but to tie them back again. It broke my heart. There would have been about 15 children in here and only ONE carer. What was this poor carer supposed to do first? A lot were incontinent and with no nappies, she spent lots of time cleaning them and then the other half of her time would be feeding them as all needed spoon-feeding. Each one took 20 – 30 minutes. And she had 15 of them! So my look of “how could you do this?” quickly changed to one of “I get it. I understand. You are doing the best you can with the limited help you have”.
I came home and cried for 4 months. I felt disheartened that the problems there were so far beyond me and my capabilities that no matter what I did, I would never solve them or begin to scratch the surface of finding solutions to their daily adversities. Initially I was overwhelmed but gradually I realised it’s like a wave. Resist and you will be knocked over. Dive into it and you will swim out the other side, as Judi Dench once said. This was a new and different world for me. Nothing like the world I live in and am accustomed to.
I then decided after those 4 months that I wanted to return and do something more to make more of an impact and difference.
I figured doing something was better than nothing. If I could make one child happier, make one child feel safe and secure, get one child doing physio as opposed to lying in a metal cot 24/7, then I feel like I have given something back and I am not just taking from this world. I am blessed and fortunate to be living in an amazing country – but really, why am I so lucky? And these people I come across are not? I do not see myself as any better than them. That could have been me in the jungle, going from dwelling to dwelling getting a tablespoon of rice from each household in order to feed my children. I get emotional even saying this.
I have been brought up in a house where our empathy (not just sympathy) was cultivated and that we should help where we can. I have connected with this country, its people and communities and its hard for me to stop returning. I am emotionally invested and really feel like I am a part of their journey. It is the best feeling when I get the reports cards from the children we support to stay in school. Or when I receive a letter written from them where they tell me how the cow I bought has changed their life and given them hope to go on and strive for excellence to break their poverty cycle.
Sen; the girl I tried to adopt
Certain children strike a chord in you and you have an immediate connection with them. Sen is one of those children. I first met Sen in a cardboard box outside of the orphanage. I was guessing she was about 10 days old. She slept a lot and had the most angelic face. I could not stop staring at her. My gut told me that something was not quite typical with her. I noticed that after a few days she still had not opened her eyes. My initial thought was that she was perhaps blind. I could also sense that one of her eyelids was flatter than the other and did not really have the shape of the eyeball under it. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw her open her eyes a few days later and I saw a pupil that was deformed. I took her to the director and asked to take her to the hospital. The doctor did tell me she was blind and the other eyeball was sunken quite deep to the back, so you could not see it at all. From here, I took her to the big city to get more assessments, to see if it was a vision impairment I could pay for a procedure for her, but alas I was told she had congenital blindness and since the connection to the brain was severed, there was nothing we could do for her.
I went even further to the capital city and sought out blind schools. It was much harder than I am making it sound. I found one run by Australians and they told me that they would accept her at the age of 8 if I sponsored her (which of course I would have done) as long as she had no other developmental delays. She would learn to read Braille and become self-sufficient. Knowing that Sen only had a 30% chance of NOT having any other delays, I held my breath for years and waited. In the mean time, I had to petition to try get her moved over to ‘belong’ to a different state so she could attend this school. This became impossible. So then I tried and started the process of adopting her. Vietnam and Australia do not have an Intercountry agreement and so I had many roadblocks right from the beginning. But I kept researching and looking and I found another way around it. It would mean I would have to move to Vietnam for 12 months. And so that’s what I did in 2012. Unfortunately I got right up until the end and then got hit with a huge personal bombshell that made it impossible for me to have her and bring her back to Australia with me. She will be turning 8 years old in October this year and I have been with her since the beginning. Unfortunately Sen does have a few other developmental delays that became evident the older she became. I would not be able to enrol her in any blind schools but support her in the shelter she is in currently.
The amazing contributions
People have been amazing and over the years I have taken clothes (which I don’t do anymore because they are so cheap over there and I prefer to use the weight for other things they don’t have there), lots of pawpaw creams and medical supplies. I have taken physio equipment for the disabled, laptops and tablets, lots of educational toys and games that do not exist there, lots of art and craft and things to keep everyone entertained and stimulated.
Over the last 6 years in particular, I would say donations have gone over $100,000.
The first foreigner to receive the Red Cross Humanitarian Medal in Vietnam
I did not even realise I was the first foreigner to receive the Red Cross Humanitarian Medal until I was in the ceremony! I was wondering why the media was there and why I was on the news that night and in the newspapers the next day!
This last trip was pretty special for me because I received three awards: I was honoured with being nominated and subsequently selected to receive a Certificate of Merit for what we have achieved in the last two years.
This celebration was held for over 100 NGOs, Diplomatic & Foreign Aid Organisations, as well as individuals who have been working in the Quảng Nam province and contributing towards improving the lives and socioeconomic status of people in Quảng Nam. I was standing up there next to organisations such as Fred Hollows, Habitat for Humanity, World Vision and Pepsi. Just goes to show you do not need to be a big organisation to make a difference.
I was also nominated and subsequently, granted a Peace Medal from the capital city in Vietnam to acknowledge our great contribution to the poor in Quang Nam. I am told this Medal “For Peace and Friendship among Nations” is a noble reward for special foreigners who have been engaged in long-term donations for the poor and disadvantaged. These are not offered lightly and internationally, I am the 58th person to receive it. In the Quảng Nam region specifically, I am the second.
I was very humbled and extremely grateful that they went to the trouble of completing all this paperwork for me in order to be nominated. I have met some amazing people over there whom I cannot do what I do without. The locals I meet and work with from different organisations have the heart, but not the funds and so together, we have been able to ‘join forces’ and help change people’s lives.
I have begun to think wider and broader- many children in the orphanages have families, they just cannot afford to keep them. I want to work backwards and instead of funding the orphanages, fund the disadvantaged communities to give them a ‘leg up’ in a sense to support themselves so they can then keep their children with them. The orphanages get some funding from the government, The families, out there in the mountainous and rural areas, not so much. That’s why I have been buying cows and supporting school expenses. I know that 19 children aren’t in orphanages because of this. One child at a time. That’s what I am going to do! I focus on one little person and one family at a time. I wish I could help them all, but that is impossible. However, to those people who have told me that I could not possibly do anything to change this enormous world issue, I implore them to come with me out to these districts and meet these families and still tell me the same. We are not too small or individual to make a difference.
I am drawn to the beauty of the country, it is quite picturesque, but mainly I love the people. The way they see life as a privilege and not a right teaches me something. I have realised that I am neither better nor smarter, only luckier. So many people are in pain- no matter how smart or accomplished- they cry, they yearn, they hurt. But instead of looking down on things, they look up, which is where Vietnam and all my special little people have taught me to look. The positivity of the people I meet out in the mountains. I have never heard them as ‘why me?’ and be negative about their situation. They get up each day and keep going. Ms Ngan who gets up at 4am to go and pick wild vegetable in the forest to go and sell them in the markets in order to feed her three daughters; and she does all of this with a smile on her face.
After 8 years I have learnt the cultural differences and now can laugh at things where before I used to get angry and frustrated: like the pushing and the fact that they shout at each other when they talk – almost like being with my big Greek family gathering – everyone shouts at each other when they are just talking!
It’s really hard to narrow for me to narrow down what change I am most proud of, but I must say having a part to play in keeping children with their families has been pretty phenomenal to witness.