In 2017 Luminous Giving changed course with the retirement of Beth Goldring and the subsequent closing of Brahmavihara, the best, most compassionate, humanitarian award winning micro NGO in the world. Our focus switched from the complexity of supporting HIV/AIDS victims in Cambodia to helping survivors of life shattering acid attacks in Vietnam.
There are many horrors in the world perpetrated by sick and violent people, and acid attacks are among the most heinous, if not the most. There is no real recovery from an acid attack, not physically or emotionally. Victims are often disowned by their families and shunned by society in general, which only adds to the emotional brutality of what they must endure.
The following translation is a report by LJ photographer and humanitarian, Nguyen Vu Phuoc. It involves a 2017 acid assault on Nguyen Ngoc Dep, a vibrant high school girl with her entire life ahead of her. Dep’s plight was so profoundly moving to us that the decision to take up her cause was instantaneous.
NOTE: There are 6 chronological updates below, the latest being April 20, 2021. It includes some heart-rending videos of where she is today, and the meaning that has come into her life.
The Last Selfie Before the Attack
There were several newspaper articles about her after it happened. How tragic, how sad, how this was happening too often in our country, as well as other Asian nations. Nguyen Ngoc Dep, an adorable 17 year old who, along with her older cousin were attacked by two men hurling acid. The reason a boyfriend’s anger over a break up with the cousin. Dep was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The acid hit her face and eyes, ear, nose and mouth. She was also hit in the neck, chest, and thighs. In total 54% of her body was burned. She has lost most of her left ear and can no longer hear on that side. She has lost sight in her left eye as well. Her cousin was burned on 37% of her body, but no vital organs were struck. Amazingly, Vietnamese law treats it the same as a simple assault, so there is not nearly enough deterrent to keep it from happening. Perhaps in this case the law will take a stronger stand.
I visited Dep on Wednesday afternoon November 20th, 2017 in those days the weather is a little bit cold as the young people at her age joyfully anticipate the Christmas season, when they make decorations and take photos wearing Santa Claus hats. Yes, even in Buddhist Vietnam.
I went to the 4th floor burn unit of Cho Ray Hospital in Saigon, room number 7. The youngest burn patient was facing away from the door, too afraid to face anyone, let alone a stranger. She’s even afraid of the light. She can only speak in faint whispers this day. Her older sister Xinh is there and tells me Dep feels shame in being a victim, hates that people are talking about her, feeling sorry for her. The same people who will shun her later. By now she’s already had 5 surgeries by dedicated doctors who unfortunately, have much experience with acid victims.
She was too young to endure and understand this pain and the “why” of it. Her parents had divorced and afraid of the burden she represented, and neither went to her side. There are 3 sisters in the family, the eldest sister is Xinh, then there is Dep and the youngest is Tot, too small to really understand. Her sister has left her job and goes to Saigon to be with Dep and support her the best she can. Medical fees are already far higher than they can possibly afford.
The consequence of acid burns on the human body are indescribable. To the human mind, incalculable. All too often survivors are pushed to the street where they have no choice but to beg for a living. It is my dedicated aim to help see to it this does not happen to Dep or her cousin.
In my photo project about Dep and other acid victims there are many times when I was discouraged and wanted to stop for many objective reasons. But my heart won’t let me stop. I will not give up. My project’s purpose is to use photography as a MESSAGE to help victimsrecover, get past the shame and regain their own purpose. It’s also to condemn the vicious actions of the perpetrators, push for much stronger laws, and to establish care centers.
To help Dep live and recover, your support will mean a great deal to her, as you would imagine. This is not a tax deductible situation, this is a case for unconditional caring and support. This is an opportunity to see your donation dollars go not only to a vital cause, but directly to a known person whose progress you can follow through this page and the GoFundMe page we have set up for her.
For more info or to donate if you are in Vietnam, please contact Nguyen Vu Phuoc.
Everywhere else the easy way is to visit the GoFundMe page for Dep. It only takes two minutes to donate and you can do it anonymously if you wish.
Photographer Nguyen Vu Phuoc delivers a Luminous donation to Miss Dep two weeks after she is discharged from hospital.
First the good news. The culprits in this horiffic crime were caught and brought to trial on August 2, 2018. While she still lives in constant pain, Dep had recovered enough to attend the trial and testify with her cousin. Talking with Dep outside the courtroom before the trial, she was able able to laugh. Twice! This was very heart warming indeed. Although so damaged physically and emotionally, with her life changed irrevocably, her spirit is strong and getting stronger. This is good news.
In all there were three defendants. The spurned boyfriend, a friend he recruited to assist in the attack, and a third in on the conspiracy. They were found guilty and received 12, 9 and 5 years prison time, respectively. The bad news? They were also ordered to pay millions of Vietnamese Dong in compensation. Unfortunately those millions came to about $1,300 USD. Even worse, the families of the guilty created a bit of a shouting scene in the courtroom after hearing this, refusing to pay anything at all! Unconscionable.
There is no support or specific charitable institution in Vietnam to help victims of acid attacks. So obvioulsy your help is needed as much as ever. Dep desperately wants to continue her education, learn English and business and eventually be able to earn a decent living. Any amount donated helps and will be personaly felt and greatly appreciated by Dep.
To donate, please here is the GoFundMe page set up for Diep.
For up to the minute info please contact Nguyen Vu Phuoc. If you have experience setting up support groups and/or care centers in the developing world, and would like to help in this capacity, please contact Phuoc or Benn here @ Luminous Journeys.
The defendants were found guilty and sentenced to a combined 26 years in prison. The girls will receive no compensation.
UPDATE 2, Oct 12, 2018:
A big step in DEP’s long recovery process is happening today, when hopeful and generous doctors at Cho Ray Hospital in Vietnam will perform surgery on her destroyed left ear to try and restore her hearing and alleviate her pain. The fee of the surgery was paid by LJ and international photographers donating to DEP. We hope that all good things will come to her and her future will both fullfilling and an inspiration to other victims of such heinous attackes.
Sincere thanks to everyone who has donated thus far, and please remember this is an ongoing process. Remembering to donate as little as a few dollars every month will be a greatly appreciated help to DEP. We will keep you updated on her progress here and on https://luminousjourneys.net/luminous-giving. Please donate at GoFundMe here: https://www.gofundme.com/devastating-acid-attack-in-vietnam
Big thanks to:
Dr. Chinh Dai, Department of ENT, Cho Ray Hospital.
Exp. Thu Quyen, Department of External Relations, Cho Ray Hospital.
Update 3 – April 2019
Dep (her name means ‘beautiful’) continues to get better, both mentally and physically. She recently had two surgeries, one on her left eye and another to repair her badly burned ear. She will always be scarred and never have a normal life, but with help from a number of people from family to doctors, friends and kind people like you, she is now determined to have a meaningful life.
This, as you might imagine, was not the case for a long time after she was so terribly attacked and burned with acid. Before we update her living details with some relative good news, Dep wanted to share some of her story from her own perspective.
Photographer and humanitarian Nguyen Vu Phuoc, who has been helping her with great love since the tragedy, met with her recently in Saigon. She wore a hat covering most of her forehead and eyes, with her clothes hiding all but her scarred hands. Phuoc asked her to describe the events of that terrible day.
Dep: “I was on a bike with friend riding home, when we heard a motorbike near us from behind. I felt a liquid hit my hair and I turned to look. Just as I did more liquid struck me in the face and I collapsed off the bike to the road. I couldn’t figure out what was happening to me. I felt a strange burning pain but was still able to stay calm while people came to me screaming and shouting. I guess I was in shock. Then I lost consciousness.
When I revived hours later I was in Cho Ray hospital in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). They said I had been a victim of an acid attack. I couldn’t believe it. I picked up my mobile phone and took a photo of my face. When I saw myself I fainted from the shock. I couldn’t imagine such a horrible thing happening to my face. That was the last time I looked at myself. I don’t dare look into a mirror anymore. It’s still nearly impossible to accept what has happened to me.
I am not lucky enough to have a happy family as other people do. I used to go to pagoda to pray for my parents, who were always fighting. My sisters and I never knew a happy home. In my heart I felt I could take all the worst things in life, if only my family could live without tears and difficulties. Now I have the worst but my parents are not together and they never see me. They don’t care. I think they are scared. But thankfully my sister’s still love me and visit me.
The pain of my body is nothing to the pain in my heart and mind. Once close friends have become strangers and act as if I don’t exist. My relatives – the ones who will still see me – don’t feel comfortable in my presence. I got a job in a restaurant kitchen, but when the chef saw what was behind my mask he shouted at me and kicked me out on the spot. My depression was extreme. My life was hell. I thought of suicide many times. I reached a point where I had no tears left to cry. Surely the next life would be better?”
Dep has been through 6 surgeries to date, with many more to go. There has been significant improvement, but she still suffers pain from the burns and related injuries, some facial paralysis, blindness in one eye due to burned skin adhesion over it (it’s not known if she will be able to see after the surgery), and a high body temperature that keeps her awake at night. She also experiences sudden seizures now and then, making commuting by herself on motorbike impossible. Worst of all, the sad cruelty of the general public and the emotional pain it causes will never be far away.
Update 4 – June 2019
Some wonderful news happened a few weeks after the cruel restaurant chef shouted at Dep and threw her out of his kitchen because of her injuries. Phuoc, her knight in shining armor, secured her a place at Maisen Hospitality Training Center in Saigon, where they house and train poor teens from around Vietnam to become skilled in the culinary arts, as well as to speak fluent English. It’s a very highly regarded 3-year program. Some graduates will work at the highly rated Maisen Bistro, while others will go on to other restaurants and hotels.
She is doing very well at Maisen, and all it took was people to care and be kind to her so she could gain confidence and begin to re-blossom. Evidently she is having a profound positive effect on the rest of the kids in the school, and has become a favorite. You can see the shining spirit inside Diep come out in the following short videos, which is very heartwarming to see. They had this writer in tears. Please watch. And when you are finished, please give something to her medical fund. Every little bit helps, and she is deeply grateful for each and every donation. And if you have been very successful in life and would like to speed of the process with a big gift, please feel free! This is one cause where you can see the positive results and share in Dep’s recovery directly.
Update 5, January 2020
We are very happy to report that our dear young girl, Miss Dep, continues to make wonderful advancements both in mind and spirit.
For those of you who have scrolled down and missed the above, Dep was brutally attacked with acid in 2017 while riding on the back of a motorbike in Can Tho area of southern Vietnam. The attack destroyed the left side of her head and face and burned much of her little body. Her attackers were jailed, but will never pay for any of medical treatments.
With the dear help of Luminous photographer and humanitarian Nguyen Vu Phouc, Dep has come a very long way. Most importantly, from suicidal to confident, funny, and with a renewed zest for life, despite her terrible injuries. A grand testament to the human spirit.
Dep’s second eye surgery was primarily a cornea transplant, following up on the extremely delicate work to remove melted skin that was covering it. This first part was thought impossible by most, but thanks to the brilliant work by Dr.’s Dai, Thao, and Chau at Vinmec Hospital in Hanoi, it became a reality. The cornea transplant was successful and now after more than two years, she can see from her left eye!
Big warm thanks are due all who have donated to Dep’s medical care, including the Thien Tam Fund, V-G, Luminous Journeys’ Photo Tours and it’s most special clients and friends, photographers from around the world, anonymous people on Go Fund Me, and of course, Nguyen Vu Phuoc.
We would like to thank the An Re Mai Sen organization and many friends for their great help and support in providing vocational training for our future chef, as well as housing.
In Vietnam and most anywhere if we are being honest, it is extremely difficult for persons who have been horribly maimed to gain acceptance into their larger local community. While Dep is beloved and accepted in the cocoon of the Mai Sen community that knows her, it is still an emotional challenge out in public. People can be so cruel, as we all know. So Diep, as we all would, is desirous of any medical procedures that can help restore her appearance as much as possible.
Every donation, however small, receives a heartfelt prayer of gratitude from Dep.
Update 6, April 20, 2021
We have some fantastic news about our Lioness. Since we reported last year, Dep continued to learn at Maisen, and then excel right into her recent graduation!
Also during this time she had some surgery to help improve her eyesight in the left eye. Even with the new cornea she still has a reoccurring growth - a membrane of sorts - that bothers her. Whether it can ever be removed for good is not known at this time.
Now back to the good stuff! After graduation she was hired as a chef at a European restaurant in district 2. She loves it there, loves the new challenge and is on her way to one day become a master chef of Vietnam.
We deeply and sincerely thank her greatest benefactor from the beginning, Nguyen Vu Phuoc, who was heroic in his efforts. Huge appreciation to the wonderful people at Maisen, the great doctors who continue to help her, and of course all of you who have supported Dep along the way.
Many challenges remain ahead, but with her amazing strength of spirit and positive good humor, despite all she has suffered, we know she will continue to do well and be an inspiration to others.