Profile of Allambie Orphanage owner, Suzanne Thi Hien Hook.
I was born in Vietnam, whereabouts unknown. I was found under a bush only a few hours old by a local policeman. He carried me to an orphanage in Saigon called Hoi Duc-Anh where I was given the name Thi Hein, and my birth date of 26th March 1969. My journey had begun.
Vietnam was in turmoil; the Vietnam War had been raging since 1965 and had become worldwide news. Initially, the French were heavily involved, and then the Americans joined in as well, there were many casualties. Many had lost their lives, limbs and others would never be the same mentally again; however, there were other casualties, the children who were placed in orphanages or found wandering in the street.
Vietnam was a dusty, dirty and poor country, but for those of us placed in the orphanage, this was our only hope of survival. The orphanages were of course over crowded, food was in short supply and resources were hard to find. The nurses were under staffed and in constant fear of being bombed – which did not help.
Most of the nurses in the orphanages were Vietnamese who, of course, had families and their own opinions of the war. Many of the nurses did not agree with the American intervention. Unfortunately, some of the orphans were the product of these Americans and were easy to spot. They were of mixed race and more often than not, were the last to receive treatment and food. I was one of those children; my mum was Vietnamese and my dad a black American GI.
As the war raged on with no sign of letting up, in England a group of Christians in Leamington Spa had formed an association called Project Vietnam Orphans (PVO). They had recruited nurses who were willing to fly out to Vietnam to offer help and support to the Vietnamese nurses in the orphanages. Amongst those nurses were Margaret Routh, Sue Spencer, Wendy Goodship, Anne McCrudden and Judy Seward. These women were to become my saviours.
When the nurses arrived, they were shocked to see the condition of the children and the orphanage. They soon realised the mixed race children, in particular, were very malnourished. Word was soon sent back to England about the orphanage and about the amount of children who needed homes. Many couples responded by coming forward to help and many offered homes. Those of us who were adopted where then moved to a safe house and looked after on a more one-to-one basis. This house was called Allambie. I was one of those lucky children and flew to England in 1972. I had bowed legs and a big tummy due to malnutrition.
Thirty five years later, in 2007, I went back to Saigon (my legs had straightened, still got a bit of tummy but that’s because I like my food!) to teach English to orphaned children. The fact that I’m severely dyslexic and I had to do a TELF course first (in Saigon) was a small detail. The year I spent in Saigon 2007 was one of the best years of my life.
I got to know the children in the orphanage very well and we had a special connection as they had never met another Vietnamese orphan who had returned to Saigon. I would take the children swimming every weekend to the local pool and bought them all brand-new swimming costumes. When I first took them some of the children were scared of the water but a year later I couldn’t get them out of the pool. I also got them to write letters to Santa, and they each asked for a present. I went and bought every single present wrapped them up, and we had a big Christmas party which was magical. We also all went to the beach and had great time eating, swimming and playing games. I made some wonderful friends and had some amazing experiences. Some good, some bad, I had my up and downs. There were times when I was really homesick, tired and ill, but I kept going and it was worth it.
Before I went to live in Saigon I never really talked about my past unless asked and then I would rush through it, I never used my Vietnamese name and to honest was never comfortable saying I was Vietnamese. But by the end of 2007, all that changed and I, for the first time in my life, I started to use my Vietnamese name and was proud to say I was Vietnamese.
When I arrived back in England, I was very depressed and found it hard to settle back down. For the past three years now I have returned to Saigon every year to see the children and spend four weeks with them. I did what I could to pack in a year’s activities in just four weeks. I settled back into life in England but the kids were never far from my mind and my dream was to one day set up my own orphanage.
A few months ago I finally decided to follow my heart and open up that orphanage and to make my dream become a reality.
In April 2010, I returned to Saigon on a personal trip to finally meet two more of the nurses that looked after me all those years ago; Wendy Goodship and Anne McCrudden.
It was an amazing trip and it was great to get to know these wonderful ladies, and to listen to their stories. It just confirmed to me that now is the time to open the orphanage.
I am selling my house to fund this, and am committed to this project for the rest of my life.