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French-Vietnamese scientist with big heart for local children

A renowned French-Vietnamese scientist has devoted more than 40 years of her life to helping Vietnamese orphans.

Professor Le Kim Ngoc, 79, and her husband Tran Thanh Van, are widely known not only for their scientific achievements but their big hearts, which droves of disadvantaged children have benefited from.

Ngoc was born in the Mekong Delta province of Vinh Long in 1934. Her family moved to Saigon when she was still a baby.

After graduating from high school, she was awarded a scholarship to study in France.

She entered the esteemed University of Paris (better known as the Sorbonne) in 1953. Three years later she graduated with honors and went on to continue her studies at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Ngoc made a number of scientific research achievements, and became a big name among biologists.

In 1970, she founded the nonprofit organization Aid to the Children of Vietnam (AEVN: "Aide à l'Enfance du Vietnam") in France.

Ngoc told Thanh Nien that she had witnessed a lot of children become orphans at that time due to the war. She wanted to establish "villages" for children in which they could be raised as they would in regular families with mothers.

As a member of the International Federation of SOS Children's Villages, AEVN sought to contribute to the realization of projects aimed at helping Vietnamese children.

Ngoc and her husband, along with their friends and volunteer students, began raising funds for AEVN by selling greeting cards in 1971.

Revenues from the cards gradually started coming in and were donated to the SOS Children's Village in Saigon's Go Vap District between 1971 and 1973.

In 1974, AEVN collected around US$500,000, enough to build another SOS Children's Village in Dalat. But the two villages in Go Vap and Dalat were confiscated by the government and forced to shut down in 1978.

In 1989, the SOS Village in Go Vap, which had been completely destroyed, was rebuilt by the SOS Children's Village International Federation. The Dalat village, which had been severely damaged, was renovated by AEVN.

In 1996, AEVN built a child sponsorship center and opened a French baker's school in Hue.

In 2006, it built village in Quang Binh.

The SOS villages are established for orphans, abandoned children and those suffering from other disadvantages. One village has 10 to 15 buildings, which each house about ten children and one volunteer mother.

The mothers are carefully selected based on their educational background, psychological well-being and love for children. All prospective mothers go through a six-month theoretical and practical training course that prepares them to take care of eight to ten children all day, everyday.

Children can attend school within or outside the village. They are later supported in the continuance of their education at vocational schools or universities up to the age of 20.

AEVN volunteers are still selling cards, books and posters to raise funds for the organization, which Prof. Van told Thanh Nien now donates around $200,000 each year to the three SOS villages in Go Vap, Dalat and Quang Binh.

Though in their seventies, the couple still travels from France to Vietnam in order to grant scholarships to Vietnamese students.

Van is also the founder of Rencontres du Vietnam (Meetings of Vietnam), which supports Vietnam's scientific community by granting scholarships to outstanding students.