Three years ago I met the kind of person who can ignite a fire
under even the most jaded individual. And that’s exactly what she
did to me. Not by what she had to say, although that was stirring
enough, but by what she has done.
I met Binh Nguyen Rybacki at a Christmas party where people
huddled around her to hear the stories of her children. As I
listened I was appalled that any child in America endured the dire
conditions she described. And then I learned that her children live
a world away-and that she has 2,000 of them. This is the story of
my journey into her world.
As an 18-year-old girl, Binh fled Vietnam a few days before the
city of Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. Binh came to
this country to build a new life, and she now has a family and
works as an information technology specialist at Agilent
Technologies in Fort Collins, Colorado.
It was easy for Binh to try to forget the life she had left
behind. Yet, deep inside, and especially after the loss of her own
young child, Binh knew that God was calling her to something
greater than the “American dream.”
After a visit to Vietnam in 1993, Binh’s true mission in life
became clear to her. She had returned to her homeland to make peace
with her past and contact her extended family. What she saw,
though, exacted a lifetime toll for her to ever truly experience
the peace she sought.
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Staggering poverty as she had never seen before and children
abandoned to the polluted streets made her reel in disgust. Binh
saw children who were beggars, street peddlers, and prostitutes. In
Vietnamese society these children are known as children of the
dust, having no value whatsoever. Binh came back to America and
never forgot what she had seen.
That same year, she founded Children of Peace International
(COPI). It began as one orphanage with 27 Vietnamese children. Her
own salary fed, clothed, and educated the children. Now her
nonprofit Christian organization depends upon donations to support
2,000 children in five orphanages in Vietnam. In addition to the
orphanages, COPI helps provide medical equipment to children’s
hospitals, funds English classes, and supports Operation Bootstrap
for small business development in Vietnam.
At least twice a year, Binh travels to Vietnam to check in on
the orphans she loves so deeply. Her trips are packed full of
meetings and delivering donated supplies and gifts for the
children. On her most recent trip, I was fortunate to tag along to
capture the images that would tell the story of one small woman who
is making a huge difference in a forgotten corner of the world. We
traveled with a team of doctors and dentists who worked with not
only kids in the orphanage but also with the village children who
had probably never seen a doctor or dentist before.
There’s a very old saying that says, “Be careful what you wish
for; you may just get it.” I’m thinking of that as I ride behind a
Vietnamese interpreter known as Uncle No Problem. We’re heading to
a roadside stand to buy bread in a driving rainstorm that makes it
seem like our ancient moped is traveling 100 miles per hour. For
the past two hours, I’ve been photographing a team of doctors and
dentists from the United States as they work on the townspeople and
children of a small village in the middle of Vietnam. What I don’t
know as I hang on to Uncle No Problem is that when we finally
arrive back at this makeshift clinic, armed Vietnamese police will
arrive and force us to pack up and leave. You see, in a communist
country, you don’t do things when you feel like it; you do them
when the government tells you to.