Vietnam monks rehabilitate drug addicts
Church love and care for substance abusers replace the incarceration and beatings of government-run centers.
Joseph Le Dinh Luu and others prepare food at the Huong Thien Retreat Home for recovering drug addicts in Quang Tri province in Vietnam. (ucanews.com photo)
Joseph Le Dinh Luu, whose left arm is covered in tattoos, carefully prepares rice, fish, soup and vegetables for illegal drug users at a Catholic church-run rehabilitation center.
"Today it is my turn to cook, so I try to fix good food for people here who I love as much as my relatives," Luu, himself a former drug user, said while wiping perspiration from his face.
He hurries to finish the food preparation in order to join daily prayers at the center's chapel before the meal.
"Here I learn how to cook and garden organically as well as raising fish and poultry," Luu, who is wearing a T-shirt and shorts, said. "I am very interested in undertaking activities and spending time praying with God and Mother Mary."
From the north central province of Nghe An, Luu said he has become a new man no longer addicted to drugs since being sent in December to the Huong Thien (Towards Good) Retreat Home based in nearby Quang Tri province.
Aged in his early forties, Luu began to use methamphetamines given to him by friends to treat influenza in 2005. He got hooked and ended up selling family goods to buy illegal drugs to sustain his addiction.
His family sent him to state-run drug rehabilitation centers five times, but he escaped and went back to using narcotics.
Drug abusers were treated like prisoners in official rehab centers where drugs were secretly sold to addicts, he added.
The state-run VnExpress newspaper reported in August 2018 that inmates at such a center in Tien Giang province of southern Vietnam violently attacked officials and ran off.
One ex-drug center inmate talks of punishment for trivial rule breaches, including beatings, forced labor and having to kneel for hours on end.
According to official statistics, Vietnam has more than 220,000 drug users, with a third of them held in rehab centers and prison camps.
In the first five months of 2019, police dealt with over 10,000 drug cases, seizing 301 kilograms of heroin, 440,000 synthetic drug tablets and 260 kilograms of marijuana. Nearly 12,000 people were apprehended.
Luu, who looks older than his age, now feels safe and and calm at the Catholic retreat where he daily attends Mass and also plays sports, cooks and makes rosaries as well as furniture. And he helps repair the home's facilities.
"We treat one another like brothers and there is no supply of drugs here," he said.
Luu said the retreat is completely different from rehab centers because it has no guards and its gate is usually open. "We are trusted, loved and respected and are responsible for our daily work," he said, contrasting this with the harsh confinement of government establishments.
Father Francis Xavier Tran An welcomes relatives of drug users to the retreat. (Photo by Peter Nguyen)
Benedictine Father Francis Xavier Tran An, 47, who founded the retreat in 2012 next to the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang, provides both physical and emotional healing, as well as accommodation and vocational training, to 44 drug users including Luu.
Father An, a drug addict prior to becoming a Benedictine, said life at the church center is similar to that of long religious retreats, bringing people closer to God and Mother Mary who heal them.
The priest, who lives around the clock at the retreat, said drug abusers need to be brought back into a healthy environment where they find love and respect instead of isolation. That includes having time to reflect on their past existences, obtain Divine mercy and integrate into their communities.
"Drug users have to voluntarillive a community life, obey our regulations and have no pocket money or cellphones," the Benedictine monk said, adding that they are not allowed to go out of the home without his permission or to swear, drink alcohol, steal or cause divisions.
The priest, who offers spiritual advice to drug victims, said they are also given chances to join in with social life by visiting religious sites and going on sightseeing tours.
In the past seven years, the retreat has looked after some 400 drug abusers for periods of four to eight months. Many have since married and obtained steady jobs. Ten of them joined a Benedictine monastery based in the central city of Hue.
Father An said the retreat is sponsored by benefactors such as business people, Marian pilgrims and families of former drug users who have completed their rehabilitation there.
Truong Dinh Be, 26, who ended his drug addiction in 2017 after five months living at the retreat, said all members live in peace, harmony and brotherhood.
"I am deeply grateful to Father An, who taught me how to behave with great dignity and avoid evils," said the man who now works at a motorbike parking area in Hue.
Be spent years in prison and official rehab centers where he said drug users were bullied, shouted at and forced to serve other people while incarcerated.
Luu is expecting a brighter future. "I will return to my family in August," he said with a smile while watering beds of vegetables at the retreat. "I plan to raise chickens and plant fruit trees on a 5,000 square meter plot of farmland."