Fighting for the Children : Christina Noble Has Battled Hardship and Bureaucrats to Create a Home in Vietnam for the Ill and the Unwanted

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When she looks into the eyes of Vietnamese street children, many of them beaten, raped or abandoned, Christina Noble sees herself. When they swarm around her in Ho Chi Minh City, hustling spare change and desperate for food, she remembers what it was like.

"I've known it, because it's my story too," says Noble. "Kids should never experience that horror on the streets, and yet the world ignores them. I've made it my business not to."

No one knows how many homeless children roam the boulevards of Vietnam, but nearly 60,000 have received medical aid, education and hope at the hospital that Noble opened there three years ago. It's an oasis of care, and something of a cultural irony: In a land that shuns street kids, an Irish woman who barely speaks the language has welcomed them with open arms.

They call Noble "Mamatina" and cling to her legs as she walks through the hospital grounds, whispering encouragement. They wait in line for hugs, hungry for affection in the only home that many have known. And they spread word that the blond woman who gives them food isn't leaving . . . unlike other foreigners who smile and disappear after a few years.

Noble has gone about her work without media fanfare, avoiding the spotlight. She's left her family behind in England and North America, devoting herself to the hospital. And it hasn't been easy, because she's an outsider in a land suspicious of do-gooders. She has few political contacts in Vietnam, and some local officials wonder why she bothers, given the frigid relations between their country and the West.

To those who know her, however, Noble's mission is no surprise.

"Chris came out of nowhere to tackle a problem the world ignores," says Jim O'Brien, a Boston lawyer active in Vietnamese relief programs. "A lot of it springs from her own story, because if you know about trauma, you can deal with it in other people. You can relate."

As a girl in Dublin, Noble was rocked by one tragedy after another. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Noble was 10, and her father was an alcoholic. The six children were sent to foster homes and institutions when he was unable to pay the rent or otherwise provide.

Noble struggled to be a mother figure for her younger sisters, even as she was sexually abused by a relative. But she fled to the streets when life at home became unbearable, learning to survive on castoff food and sleeping in the parks. At 16, she was raped by a carload of strangers and lost an emotional battle with authorities to keep her baby.

Somehow, the teen-ager pulled herself together and started a new life in England. Yet making it on her own wasn't enough. In 1971, she had a mysterious dream in which Vietnamese children ran toward her, screaming for help. Less than two decades later, she found herself on the dusty streets of the Southeast Asian country, answering their cries.

"I want to reach out to these children in any way I can," says Noble, 47, an intense but soft-spoken woman who has just arrived in America on a fund-raising tour for the foundation that bears her name. It's early in the morning and jet lag has slowed her down, yet Noble rattles off her itinerary while other companions straggle into a hotel coffee shop. Next week she'll visit Los Angeles and San Francisco, spreading the word about a problem that few Americans understand.

"We need $7,000 a month to run the hospital," she says flatly. "And I know that people are exhausted by stories about pain. But we're talking about children , and that's important."

Noble admits that strangers may be skeptical about her plea, and she's ready for all the questions: Yes, she's a religious person (Roman Catholic), but not a fanatic. No, she's not a Mother Teresa wanna-be, but a woman who tries to combat human suffering.

"I don't want to turn her into a saint," says Dan Rogers, a former Vietnam veteran who runs a Seattle-based relief program for Vietnamese children. "But she's not a figurehead or a phony. She really wants to force changes over there, and it's a battle every day."

Like many relief workers, Rogers is leery of Western volunteers who immerse themselves in Southeast Asian projects and burn out after a few years. Some do it to work out personal problems, he suggests, while others try to raise money and build empires. When they leave, others take their place. It's a tiresome game, Rogers says, but Noble is different.

"She's the real thing," he says. "She came to stay, and she's tenacious as hell."

In the summer of 1989, Noble came to Ho Chi Minh City with a friend who was there on a business trip. She knew little about the country, and her education began when she saw two young sisters in the street near her hotel. Crouched low, they were picking up ants and eating them hungrily. Midday traffic rushed past the girls and pedestrians hurried by.

Overcome with emotion, Noble convinced the sisters to come back to her hotel, where she gave them a meal and bought them clothes. But it was only a drop in the bucket: Every time she walked the streets, the former nurse's assistant saw thousands of abandoned Vietnamese children, many of them malnourished and visibly ill.

There were few government programs to help them, because Vietnam is a desperately poor country. These homeless children were also victims of cultural neglect, because their government has often viewed them as pariahs, along with Amerasians and orphans.

Some had been scrounging food for years, ever since parents left them to fend for themselves. Others were missing arms or legs and hobbled about in urgent need of care. Some were blind, deaf and unable to speak and could barely approach pedestrians on the street. A large number offered sexual favors for food or money, under the eyes of pimps.

Noble was determined to do something, recalling the strange dream she'd had in 1971 and remembering her own bitter childhood. But where to start? She was a headstrong woman with virtually no money, in a foreign country that would never take her seriously.

"I approached one woman, a government official, and told her that I wanted to do something to help these children," says Noble. "But she didn't believe me. She said, 'Why are you doing this? You're a rich lady from the West.' And I said, 'No, I'm a poor lady from the West. And all I want to do is help the children of your country.' "

Wary Vietnamese made her jump through bureaucratic hoops: Noble would have to travel to Hanoi, the capital. There, reports on her proposal would be filed. Her personal background would be checked. Investigations of the homeless problem might begin, but no promises could be made.

Undaunted, Noble mastered local politics and won over a cadre of skeptical officials. But she was only halfway home, because the nearly bankrupt country was not offering her a penny. She would have to raise thousands of dollars on her own.

Back in England, Noble began approaching oil companies that were drilling in the waters off Vietnam. She hoped that an appeal to their consciences might free up money, but it was hard getting a foot in the door. Many executives dismissed her, refusing even to return calls.

"I had to fight every inch of the way, because nobody wanted to hear about this problem," she says. "But finally, somehow, I got their attention . . . and some money as well."

After months of appeals, Noble raised $69,000 in cash and amassed $360,000 worth of donated medical equipment. Vietnamese officials were impressed and finally allowed her to rehabilitate an old building in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. The project took off, and today proud cabbies point out the Christina Noble Rig-Aid Foundation to Western visitors. (Rig-Aid refers to the oil company backing that helped launch the project.)

Housed in a three-story structure, the center includes outpatient service, a patient facility and a day nursery. It deals with 1,000 outpatients per month, treating malnutrition, respiratory illness, gastrointestinal disorders, cerebral palsy and other illnesses.

Children come to the hospital on their own or with parents who also live on the streets. Outreach teams scour the slums and bring in even more patients. The all-Vietnamese staff includes six doctors, 12 nurses, four physiotherapists and about 25 other workers. Noble, who oversees the operation and sleeps in a small office, also runs schools for more than 120 students.

"It's a great facility," says attorney O'Brien. "But the most noticeable thing is Chris herself. She always has a kid on her hip, and her love for these children is obvious."

Noble says the affection is returned because her children gain self-respect: "You have to give these kids a sense of importance. They've been living in a sewer for so long, and when you see the light come on in their eyes, it's worth all the hard work. You get results."

Today, the two sisters Noble found on the streets have learned to read and write. And there are other success stories: Thanh, a 3-year-old who came to the hospital on the verge of death, has regained strength and rocks back and forth in his chair, impatient for attention. Ngo, a malnourished kid of 13 who looks three years younger, is slowly learning to read.

It's an uphill battle, and Noble says she needs money--for food, diapers, medical supplies, clothing and education. She can go on for hours, telling stories about children. But when the conversation turns to herself, Noble grows quiet. Sometimes the truth is hard to describe.

"We were a very close family, and when I was 5, everything seemed so normal," she says. "I had my first communion in a new dress. My mum came from a farm background, and my dad had a steady job. Then, suddenly, our whole world fell apart."

Reaching back over a lifetime, Noble tells of a mother's death that left six children stunned. She talks about a father who began drinking and her nights on the streets.

"When I took to living in the park, I was living in my own dream world," she says softly. "I would invite people to my imaginary house. Every night, just before covering myself with leaves, I'd say, 'I'll have my bath now.' I was so frightened and alone. So full of pain."

Noble doesn't talk about the night she was raped, except to say that it happened quickly and brutally. It took years of therapy for her to regain any sense of self, and along the way she married and divorced twice. Noble won't speak ill of either man and suggests it would have been hard for either marriage to last, given her painful readjustment.

But it hasn't all been negative: She has three grown children, each with a career and a bright outlook on life. Despite years of upheaval, her surviving family members have been reunited and keep in close touch. Her father died last year, an alcoholic to the end.

"For what I've been through, I'm a very lucky woman," says Noble, stirring a cup of tea. "I'm a tough character. I'm determined, and I won't be easily sidetracked."

Momentarily out of breath, she leans forward and clutches a visitor's arm.

"You must understand that this is not about me, it's about the children," Noble says. "God, it's about children all over the world. We can't ignore them. Never, ever again."

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