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Ben Tre Businessman Gives Former Convicts, Addicts New Lease on Life

After reading his job posting in the local newspaper, many people thought Kieu Thanh Tam had lost his mind: “Help wanted: ex-convicts and drug addicts who want another chance at life.”

At first, Tam seems like any other entrepreneur in Vietnam, however Tam’s ice-making and beverage factory is different from other such facilities in that roughly 20 members of its staff are ex-convicts or drug addicts.

In a recent feature, Tuoi Tre told the story of how Tam's humble business became a haven for ex-criminals who wish to be reintegrated into the local community. At a glance, most of the Ben Tre resident's employees are gangly, tattooed youths. “People think they’re thugs, but they’re as innocent as doves,” he explained to the news source.

The 66-year-old has experienced his fair share of failures and hardship in life so Tam of all people knows how much it means to have somebody who cares during trying times.

Originally from Long An province, the man has called Ben Tre his home for more than 30 years. His first business venture was a shop that sold construction materials. When this didn’t work out, he veered into making ice slabs for local coffee shops. Tam was also one of the first people to sell bottled coconut water before 1990.

However, he lost all of his assets and even his family home after 10 years in the business.

“I tried to build a factory but couldn’t make ends meet. I even had to discard a few containers of coconut water because the customs officers were dragging their feet,” Tam told Tuoi Tre. “From someone with a car and a house, I went bankrupt in just a short period of time.”

After a moderately successful stint opening a pharmacy in Saigon, Tam and his wife decided to return to Ben Tre to make a fresh start with a beverage company. This time, lady luck was on his side. When Anh Hong, Tam’s company, started to generate profit, he thought of paying society back by helping the less fortunate, who, in his mind, include ex-criminals.

“I think that poor people already have the government and society’s attention,” he explained. “But no office or company wants to hire people who have done time.”

Since then, Tam’s Anh Hong beverage factory has employed many young ex-convicts and former addicts. According to the Ben Tre businessman, his employees have all changed for the better. Some have even gotten married and gone into business themselves, like Nghia, Tam’s first such hire.

“Now [the couple] moved to Long An. They have a truck, a small mom-and-pop shop,” he told Tuoi Tre. “Every holiday and Tet they always come here to visit me and I’m so happy.”

Vietnam’s attitude towards the poor and downtrodden has always been overwhelmingly positive. Just last month, thousands of netizens donated some VND17 billion (US$764.7 million) to help flood victims in several central provinces after MC Phan Anh’s call for action on Facebook.

However, this altruistic spirit does not extend to other marginalized groups, such as ex-convicts and addicts. It hasn't helped that over the last few weeks there have been a handful of incidents where addicts forcefully broke out of rehab facilities in southern provinces. The biggest escape was in Dong Nai, where more than 500 addicts destroyed gates and even smashed walls to escape their compound.

Reports of the commotion made national headlines, thus fueling a new wave of anti-addict sentiment among netizens. VietnamNet quoted government officials as saying that the escape was “unavoidable”, partly because of the condition of these facilities, which are overcrowded, understaffed and poorly maintained.

According to Ho Van Loc, deputy head of Dong Nai province’s Department of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs: "The facility was designed for 800 addicts, but now admits more than 1,400.”

Municipal authorities have since urged relevant government agencies to come up with plans for more community-based treatments and reduce reliance on rehabilitation compounds.

[Photo via Tuoi Tre]

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