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Giving Voice to 'Children of the Dust'

Books: Ex-O.C. resident hopes his work raises awareness of the plight of 50,000 boys and girls living in Vietnamese streets.

March 02, 1997|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The contrast couldn't have been greater. Mikel Flamm's childhood in Newport Beach was idyllic and protected; the lives of the homeless children he photographed on the streets of Vietnam are anything but: boys and girls sleeping in storefront alcoves, scavenging for food, begging for money and often becoming the sexual prey of tourists.

An estimated 50,000 children live on the streets of Vietnam. The Vietnamese call them bui doi--"dust of life."

"Children of the Dust" is the title of the book Flamm, a Bangkok-based photojournalist, has written with Ngo Kim Cuc, program officer of the Street Children Program sponsored in Vietnam by World Vision International, the nonprofit humanitarian organization.

The plight of the street children in Vietnam is not unique in Southeast Asia, Flamm says. "You see it so frequently in Thailand--and in Cambodia it's even worse," says Flamm, 46, who recently returned to the U.S. to visit his parents, Don and Bobbie Flamm of Balboa Island.

"Children of the Dust," which was published by World Vision International, features Flamm's black and white photographs of the street children that he and Cuc encountered in Hanoi and other Vietnamese cities. Text features the voices of many of those children.

Children such as Doanh, a 14-year-old shoeshine boy, who tells of the man he met on the street who led him up to his hotel room. "He sat down on the chair and pulled me closer to him, then kissed me. . . . I didn't know what to do."

Or Nguyen Thi Nham, a 16-year-old girl who says she was always being arrested for stealing and recalls how, when she would tell her life story to the police, they would take pity on her. "Most of the time I was just let go by the police. I guess they felt sorry for me."

Or 19-year-old Nguyen Thi Nga, who says, "Sometimes I dreamed of loving someone whose parents were living. . . . I never had a mother who would sit with me and ask if I was happy or if I needed someone to talk to."

"Children of the Dust" was launched at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok in November. It is being distributed in Thailand by Asia Books Ltd. Locally, "Children of the Dust" ($20) is available through the communications department at World Vision International in Monrovia ([800] 777-7752).

"One of the reasons we did this book was to raise public awareness of the plight of street children in Asia and the children who are being sexually abused," he says. "They're kind of on their own. Hopefully, this book will let people understand more of what these children are up against.

"The big thing now is the children--especially Vietnamese girls--are being trafficked into Cambodia and China to work as prostitutes. They're sold by their families, by their boyfriends."

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In his foreword to the book, Nghiem Xuan Tue, director of Protection for Displaced Children in the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs in Hanoi, describes "Children of the Dust" as a "useful reference for those who are concerned with the welfare of disadvantaged children.

"The book gives an insight into the lives of individual street children and is valuable for experts to plan preventive and supporting programs for street children in Vietnam."

Flamm's father, Don, a freelance writer and a retired director of public affairs for Ford Aerospace, edited the manuscript, which his son sent to him on computer disk.

A 1968 graduate of Newport Harbor High School, Flamm graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 1976 and ran his own studio in Hollywood, where he specialized in fashion photography.

In 1987, he read a newspaper story about Cambodian war refugees housed in camps on the Thailand-Cambodia border. The story changed his life.

Moved by the refugees' plight and interested in becoming a photojournalist, Flamm took a two-month leave from his work in 1988 and flew to Thailand to see the border camps for himself and chronicle what he saw.

He returned for two more months the following year, that time selling some of his pictures to the Associated Press.

In 1990, Flamm bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok. Except for a couple of return visits home to see his parents, he's been living in Thailand ever since.

Working as a Bangkok-based freelance photojournalist, he covered the return of the refugees to Cambodia in 1992 and the national elections in Cambodia in 1993 for Associated Press. He made his first visit to Vietnam in late 1993, doing stories for World Vision International on the organization's various humanitarian projects in Vietnam, including Cuc's street children program.

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Flamm says World Vision International sponsors four group homes in Danang, which support about 120 street children. The children, he says, are given educational opportunities, and the older boys are linked with businesses in the community where they can learn a trade. "Basically, it's to give them a chance so they don't return to the streets," he says.

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