Joe* teaches a class in Cambodia before leaving for Vietnam where, since the national lockdown, he has been stranded. Joe left Cambodia because he found a better job in Vietnam but he has not been able to work as the learning centre has been closed during the lockdown in that country. Picture: Supplied
*Not his real name
Joe* teaches a class in Cambodia before leaving for Vietnam where, since the national lockdown, he has been stranded. Joe left Cambodia because he found a better job in Vietnam but he has not been able to work as the learning centre has been closed during the lockdown in that country. Picture: Supplied *Not his real name

Covid-19: 'Mama Bear' helps Eastern Cape teacher and other SA expats survive in Vietnam

By Chad Anthony Williams Time of article published Apr 24, 2020

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Cape Town - The coronavirus pandemic not only physically affects individuals, but as we have seen over the past few weeks, it also has negative consequences that impact millions of people the world over.

The international economy is under heavy strain as governments across the world ramp up measures to contain the spread of the virus, all  in an effort to flatten the curve.

For many South Africans stranded abroad during this time, it has been a traumatic experience trying to get back to the country, but for many expats who are determined to make life work overseas and remain there during this health crisis, it’s an even bigger challenge.

Joe*, a 26-year-old young man from Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape shares with African News Agency (ANA) how Covid-19 has scuppered his dreams of making a better life for himself.

Coming from a disadvantaged background, Joe lived with his parents, whom he watched work hard day and night to provide for him and his nine siblings.

“It was just unbearable to watch ... the financial burden weighing heavily on their shoulders,” Joe said.

“Odds seemed stacked against us as a family and I knew my parents were trying really hard to raise us.

“My sisters and I were fortunate enough to go to college, because we wanted to get a better education in the hopes of finding a decent job to support our parents.”

Joe studied Accounting at Nelson Mandela University. “I struggled to find work after I completed my studies, I searched for months. That’s when I decided to look for opportunities abroad.”

He applied through an agency and secured a part time job teaching English at a primary school in Cambodia.

“With the help of my sisters, who helped me to pay for my passport and my flight I was off to Cambodia.

Joe completed his Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course in Cambodia through a South African company.

“Initially, the job was a part time thing, but later it ended up becoming full time.The salary wasn’t that great, but at least I could pay for my accommodation, which wasn’t anything fancy by the way.

“I couldn’t afford a laptop and I also couldn’t buy me a cellphone. At this point all I could afford was food and accommodation.

“After three months of working in Cambodia, I did some research and found that Vietnam had better opportunities. I decided to apply for jobs in Vietnam. Just before the whole Covid-19 outbreak, I managed to land a job at a language centre in Vietnam. 

“I was really excited, but little did I know what was lying ahead.”

Joe was meant to start two weeks after his arrival in Vietnam, but found the learning centre had closed during a lockdown in that country due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

However, Joe says, the learning centre insisted that it would re-open after two weeks. It did not and remains closed to this day.

Joe only had enough money from his last salary to last him for two months.

“I decided to stick it out in faith, I was stranded in a foreign country, but I knew I had to make it work. Eventually I ran out of money, which means I couldn’t pay for accommodation or food.

“Knowing that my family back home are not by the means to send me money, I dipped into a small amount of money that I saved for emergencies. [But] this would only last for 10 days.

Joe said he had to choose between using the money for accommodation or sleeping on a park bench and using it to buy food. 

Meanwhile, South Africans abroad started a Facebook group for expats stranded overseas. A young lady heard about Joe’s predicament, after another South African woman posted his story in the group.

The 19-year old woman who is from Cape Town, and her boyfriend found Joe and offered him accommodation at her mother's house in Hanoi.

“These people who hardly knew me offered me shelter and food up until this very day," Joe says.

“I do miss home, but I remember the reason why I moved to Vietnam. I love my country and I miss it, but I need to support my family back home.

“I am still with the South African mum, just outside of Hanoi, where she is known by all expats as Mama Bear. I know I am okay here and she has helped me and continues to help as much as she can.

“She spends many hours on her phone, giving emotional support to expats scattered all over Vietnam who are facing difficult times.”

The good Samaritan who took Joe in is assisting South African English teachers in Vietnam in dire straits due to the pandemic, many of whom haven’t been paid in months due to the lockdown and don’t know where their next meal will come from.

Charmaine Page who is also an English teacher in Hanoi is working on the ground for the South African Vietnam Educators Teachers Relief Initiative to assist South African teachers destitute due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

* Not his real name

African News Agency (ANA)

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