Le Van Do (holding guitar, center) and Stephen Abatiell (blue shirt, sitting by Do) posing with other Vietnamese AO/Dioxin victims at the Vietnam Friendship Village in 2012. Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Abatiell 

I met Le Van Do during a volunteer trip at Vietnam Friendship Village (in Xuan Phuong ward, Nam Tu Liem district, Hanoi) on a hot summer day. He was moving his wheelchair to the football field, where a friendly football match between some AO/Dioxin victims and students took place. Deep in his eyes was a longing for freeing himself from the wheelchair that has been tied to his life for more than 20 years now, to be able to stand on his own feet, to stride along the road and follow the ball on the soccer ground.

Do, born in 1988, is the fifth son of war veteran Le Quang Vinh in Tuyen Quang province. He is one of the four siblings with muscular atrophy and paralysis due to the effects of AO/Dioxin from his father who had been exposed to AO/Dioxin during the war in Vietnam.

Asked about his life in the Vietnam Friendship Village, Do shared, “Each person has his or her own thoughts and desires. I chose to stay at the village, because here I meet many friends like me and I find myself useful here.” Along with the staff of the village, Do guided the newcomers to the village with his knowledge and experience, especially in English language and IT. Those jobs are both his joy and motivation to continue leading a meaningful life so that he could forget his illness and losses.

Do's room at the Vietnam Friendship Village is just over ten square meters, with two single beds and few necessaries. His one precious possession that he always takes loving care of is his laptop. Thanks to the computer, he learned and practiced Photoshop and other computer applications. Moreover, it is a means for him to connect with friends, including foreigners.

“It's a gift from my foreign friend, Stephen Abatiell. He is halfway round the earth from me,” Do said.

Le Van Do keeping in contact with Stephen Abatiell via the Internet

They met for the first time five years ago, when Stephen and his father, Peter Abatiell, an American veteran who had fought in Vietnam in the 1970-1972 period, visited Vietnam and volunteered at the Vietnam Friendship Village. Stephen, along with other volunteers, helped AO/Dioxin victims in the village study English. What connects the two people from halfway around the world is Do's eagerness to learn and Stephen's enthusiasm. Within a month of volunteering in the village, Stephen was impressed by Do’s ability to learn English and computer skills. Stephen taught Do English, while Do taught Stephen Vietnamese. They soon were very keen on each other, like brothers. At the end of his period of volunteering, Stephen returned home, with the desire to help more new friends in the Vietnam Friendship Village.

Stephen confessed that his father’s exposure to AO/Dioxin during the war in Vietnam has affected his health. In fact a large number of Vietnamese children have their parents or grandparents exposed as well and so, Stephen feels he and the Vietnamese AO/Dioxin victims are brothers in this chemical legacy. “I have been lucky enough to be born healthy and with many benefits as an American man. It is my duty to pitch-in how I can for a better world,” Stephen shared via Facebook.

When talking about his friend, Le Van Do, Stephen said, “I was really proud that Do was on the radio in Hanoi, talking about how people with disabilities should be confident to get more education and try things. The computers, gifts to Vietnamese friends in the Vietnam Friendship Village, are from NatureBridge.”

Stephen worked at NatureBridge, an environmental education organization based in San Francisco. In 2016, NatureBridge upgraded its computer system and decided to donate laptops to the Vietnam Friendship Village Project. NatureBridge has lived up to this core value by donating recycled laptop computers to Vietnam Friendship Village Project-USA and diverting this potential e-waste to a good cause.

In recent years, Stephen participated in international workshops on AO/Dioxin and its affects and in launching a book entitled “Letters from the other side of silence” by a US committee member Joseph Little, to raise funds for the Vietnam Friendship Village Project. Stephen Abatiell is currently President of the Vietnam Friendship Village Project-USA. He wants to undertake more activities that are practical for the AO/Dioxin victims in Vietnam through the project.

Do and Stephen are now longing for the upcoming meeting in 2018 in celebration of the 20th founding anniversary of the Vietnam Friendship Village. The friendship between American and Vietnamese friends is still being cultivated through sharing their stories via the Internet and carrying out practical activities of the Vietnam Friendship Village Project to soothe the consequences of AO/Dioxin, especially in supporting AO/Dioxin victims in Vietnam.

Written by Thuy Duong