A WOMAN'S ABUSIVE PAST AND THE INSPIRING DREAM THAT LED HER TO RESCUE THE STREET CHILDREN OF SAIGON
By Christina Noble with Robert Coram
Grove Press, 257 pp., $21
WHEN she arrived in Saigon in 1989, Christina Noble was a middle-aged woman with no education, no money, and no clear idea of what she was doing in Vietnam, other than she believed God had led her there to help street children.
Walking out of her hotel one steamy day, the Irish woman saw two little girls grubbing for ants in the dirt. They were street children, or bui doi, a derogative Vietnamese expression for ''the dust of life.'' Thousands of bui doi roam the streets of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City; they are poor, ill-treated, and live like animals. They reminded her of her childhood on the streets of Dublin.
At that moment, she realized she had reached a turning point in her life: ''If I touched one of these children, I would be making a commitment from which I could not turn away. If I touched them, I could never go back,'' she writes.
Noble did reach out to the little girls that day, and since then has become a crusader for street children in Vietnam. She tells her life story in ''Nobody's Child,'' written with Atlanta-based writer Robert Coram. The book, a bestseller in several European countries, is a heart-rending tale about an unloved, unwanted child who endured some horrendous ordeals, yet triumphed to save other forlorn children. Noble appears to be a fun-loving but tenacious and outspoken individual who sometimes talks tough, and all these qualities come through in her well-written book, which is hard to put down.
Noble grew up in the Liberties, a ''beer-soaked, violence-ridden'' slum in Dublin. Her mother, often ill, worked tirelessly to earn money to provide her six children with what scant food she could afford. Her father squandered money from his job on alcohol.
When her mother died, Noble and three of her siblings lived with relatives in a cramped flea-ridden flat where they were beaten and abused. They were then split up and sent to different orphanages. Noble escaped and spent much of her teenage years living on the street, sleeping in a cavelike dwelling in a park. She remembers: ''I needed just one person who would not see me as dust, or barely more than an animal.''
Wanting to put Dublin behind her, Noble moved to London. But life there was also hard; the man she married was physically abusive. During this time, however, she dreamed that a Vietnamese child reached out to her.
Years later, after she had made a new life for herself and her children, she thought of little else but what she interpreted as a vision. With a suitcase and a little money, she boarded a plane for Vietnam. There she set out with a vengeance to save children whose lives mirrored hers at one time. Through determination and spunk she opened two schools and a children's center that provides social services and health care. She is known throughout the country as ''Mama Tina'' and has even walked the streets of Ho Chi Minh City at night angrily plucking children from foreigners who use the youngsters for sex.
''Nobody's Child'' describes a great deal of human suffering and tragedy. But it is also an account of a resilient individual whose love overflows in a world that showed her so little. The lasting impression it leaves is one of hope and compassion for children everywhere.
*Elizabeth Levitan Spaid is a Monitor staff writer in Atlanta.