The silent hero in the border district: Passion grows with tireless steps
“Do you know the meaning of the name Sao Va? Sao Va is a majestic waterfall with the strongest flow and clearest, purest water in the region. The waterfall is associated with an ancient story about a girl saving a young man from fast-flowing water. Our group is also doing life-saving work. That's why our group was named Sao Va."

Nhat, a member of a peer group supporting people who use drugs and people who live with HIV in the border district of Que Phong, Nghe An province, told the story of the group's name.

Participating in implementing the Saving the Future 2.0 project since 2022, Nhat and the Sao Va group have supported many young people aged 16-24 to escape substance dependence and regain their lives. He has been associated with the image of a stable, warm-hearted big brother who always gives people a sense of certainty and trust. He talked about his life, his chance to join the group, and his young, wild, and lost days, but it was "a turning point that was bound to happen" that helped him find his passion and persevere in pursuing it.

A turning point in life

Que Phong district, a mountainous area bordering Laos, is where Nhat's family lives. It is no exaggeration to say that almost every house has someone involved in drugs. 10-15 years ago, drugs were used as a form of recreation, to connect with friends, and to forget the boring life in the remote mountains.
Like many of his friends, Nhat started using drugs at the age of 14-15. Two involuntary rehabs couldn't make him quit using drugs. Because of his drug use, he was caught in a prison sentence. At the same time, he began to show symptoms of the HIV window period, such as fever, rash, swollen lymph nodes, etc.
He said, "Before going into the testing room, I felt that I had been infected. When I received the results, I just smiled."
After taking ARV*, he was advised by staff at Que Phong District Medical Center about methadone - a medication used to treat opioid use disorder. It took him two weeks to start taking the medication. When his health stabilized and he no longer needed drugs, he turned himself in to the district police for his sentence. Perhaps there is no one like this man who asked someone to ride him to the prison on a motorbike. 

Return to Freedom

Leaving the prison, he became a free man in its full meaning - not only legally free, but he was completely free from the confinement of drugs. Deeply understanding the meaning of freedom, Nhat found his life's passion.
Some of his friends were still imprisoned by drugs, struggling to find a way out. Their lives were sinking deeper and deeper into despair. Nhat wanted to find some way to help them.
In the period from 2006 to 2011, many of my relatives and friends, about twenty to thirty people, passed away. Some died of a drug overdose, others died of HIV.
“At that time, people did not know what HIV was like. They only knew that if they were infected, they would surely die, and if they came close to someone living with HIV, they would be infected. No one dared to get close to people who live with HIV. I have a friend; at his dying moment, no one in his family or parents dared to come close, let alone take care of him. I can't forget the feeling I had when I held that friend's hand and heard his last words.”
Nhat choked up, "But people like that are still lucky, they could still say their last words before leaving this life. Sometimes, I got a call saying that someone had died of a drug overdose, and when I arrived, they were just a soulless body.”
“At that time, I wished that they would have woke up and told me their last words. I could never forget those images.”
“At that time, I had a bit more knowledge about HIV than everyone else because I learned through books, newspapers, and official information sources. If everyone understood, then no such painful things would happen again. Having lived with HIV and used drugs for 12 years, I understand their pain and despair, and I hope there is a way to help them."
With that determination, Nhat went to the district medical center to apply for a job. Everyone at the center knew and introduced him to the Sao Va group. At that time, the group had just been founded. The group leader trusted Nhat and assigned him to be the group's deputy. When joining the group, he participated in training sessions implemented by the Saving the Future project to improve his knowledge and skills to reach out and care for people who use drugs and people who live with HIV. He and his group have been implementing communication activities, consultation, referral, and distribution of harm reduction items that support people who use drugs and people who live with HIV in Que Phong district, Nghe An province. 

“Having been through those young and wild days, I do understand.”

Talking about his journey to reach out to and support young people under the Saving the Future project, Nhat shared that that journey was much more challenging and needed more perseverance than supporting the community of older people who use drugs and people who live with HIV. As an experienced outreach worker, Nhat once tried to apply the method when reaching out to older clients with young people under 25, but that approach did not work. At the age of 16-24, the young do not want to disclose their condition; they just want to hide it because they are afraid of many things and partly because of the lack of awareness. They do not fully understand the negative impacts of drug use on health, nor do they grasp the effects of prevention and harm reduction measures.
Could you imagine the feeling of a person from 16 to 24 years old who is forced to drop out of school because of drug use or HIV, leaving their entire life unfinished?
“There are many people who haven’t fully understood, whether it is the first time they have been to the group, or they have been to the group many times, or I have to come to their house to explain. It's a bit funny to say that "Being handsome is not as important as having a thick face.". I have come to their house many times, and every time I come, I bring enthusiasm and sympathy to clients. If it doesn't work in a day or two, then after weeks or months, the clients will understand our work, be ready to talk, and accept the referral to treatment.”
Nhat shared, "I used not to understand why the project could not support everyone and only targets at young people from 16-24 years old. Then I realized the meaning of the name "Saving the Future" and the characteristics of the age group that the project targets. In my viewpoint, the project is very crucial for that age group as it aims at intervening physically, emotionally, and mentally on substance use. At that age, young people are still immature and curious about everything. They are psychologically vulnerable, especially when using drugs, the brain is more affected. This has implications for their future lives when they are not listened to and do not receive direction and help.”
“If I had received such kind of support at a young age, I would have finished high school, and my life would have been different, not being involved in drugs or HIV for years. No way!”.
But after that affirmation, Nhat also firmly said, "That turning point shaped who I am today”.

Small successes, big efforts

The Sao Va group is known in the AIDS prevention of Nghe An province for its energy, enthusiasm, and responsibility. The number of patients admitted to methadone treatment has nearly doubled compared to the time the group was not in operation. The group has discovered and referred half of the district's newly infected patients to ARV treatment. In the group, Nhat is always trusted by everyone because of his enthusiasm, diligence, and effective work.
A family in the district has three children who used to be addicts. The second son was in and out of jail many times because of his involvement in drugs. The family was poor, the parents were old, the family seemed to be broken, and the children seemed to miss the future ahead. After Nhat advised, supported, and introduced to the family that methadone treatment could help people give up drugs, the whole family put aside their doubts and encouraged their son to take methadone. Nhat closely followed and supported the family, answered questions, and came to take the son to methadone treatment. Gradually, the son's health stabilized, and he stopped using drugs. Now, whenever Nhat or the Sao Va group members visit, the family treats them like family members.
That is just one of many cases that Nhat and his group have supported and referred to treatment in the Saving the Future project.
“There was a young man who used to be addicted, but now he has quit. Although he couldn't go back to school at that time, he is now working and preparing to get married.”
“I really appreciate those words of thanks. Every time I refer someone, whether with HIV or drug use, to treatment, I have a lot of feelings that are hard to describe. Really! I don't know if it can be called an achievement, but it makes me feel happy because all the effort I put in has paid off.”
“There were tears shed, but they were no longer tears of pain because of losing friends and brothers, but they were tears of happiness. What I appreciate the most is that the project has supported the right person in need, and that person has changed for the better. I am so happy.”
What Nhat and the Sao Va group are doing not only contributes to HIV/AIDS prevention in Que Phong district in general, but also brings smiles back to the faces of the people that the group supports in treatment and their family members. 

Passion grows with tireless steps

The work of a community outreach worker is challenging and requires perseverance and persistence. In Nhat, people can see passion, enthusiasm, and fierceness, which is not only in his words but also in his actions.
“There were times when I felt tired. There were days when I had to travel 50 kilometers, then days when I had to travel 100 kilometers, going to remote areas. Sitting on the side of the road, eating a piece of dry bread, I asked myself, “Do I feel tired? Yes! Do I feel bored? Yes! Can I take a break? No, I can’t!”
“If I give up, all my clients' trust in me will disappear. I don’t want to give up like that.”
I just need to have my clients' trust in me, and that's enough for me to continue.
He shared, "When the project ends and if the Sao Va group is no longer there, I am still ready to bring my knowledge to train others and apply it to support people who use drugs and people who live with HIV. I'm really happy because I get to live with my passion. No matter what my future life is like, working for the community will always go hand in hand with me.”
When interacting with Nhat, people can feel the fire of enthusiasm radiating from his warm heart. Most of all, people have a lot of pride and admiration for this resolute Thai guy with a generous and friendly style. Like the origin of the group's name, Nhat and the Sao Va group members are like life buoys. Even though they are small, every day, they quietly help those who are about to sink to have another chance, "saving the future" of young people who still have a long way to go.
*Saving the Future is a project implemented by the Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives (SCDI) to control HIV infection among young people who use drugs in Vietnam. To date, this is the first and only project in Vietnam aimed at strengthening the quality of HIV intervention among drug users aged 16 to 24 through innovative strategies.
*Sao Va is a community group supporting drug addicts and HIV-infected people in Que Phong district, Nghe An province. The group joined SCDI in 2022 in the project “Saving the Future” and other projects implementing harm reduction activities for people who use drugs and people who live with HIV in Que Phong. 
* ARV is an HIV antiretroviral drug, which inhibits virus replication and maintains viral load in the blood at the lowest possible level. When a person is infected with HIV, HIV weakens the immune system. Therefore, if treated with ARV drugs, the viral load in the blood is low, so the immune system is not affected. Most people infected with HIV who are on ARV treatment are healthy; they can work, study, and have happy families. Scientists have proven that a person infected with HIV, treated with ARV drugs and reaching an undetectable viral load in the blood, has a very low risk of sexual transmission of HIV, from negligible to no risk. Negligible is defined as: so small or unimportant as to be not worth considering; insignificant.

Article by: Ngoc Anh
Photos by: Hung Nguyen
Copyright 2023 Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives (SCDI) - Vietnam.