“I don’t know my real parents,” she continues. “My real mother abandoned me when I was a baby. I was found by a policeman on the streets of Saigon and put straight into the nearest orphanage.”
Suzanne knows what she’s dealing with, in bringing up eight Vietnamese children given up for adoption in the Ho Chi Minh City home Allambie maintains. She knows it’s up to her to provide a home for children who’ve never known one.
In the orphanage she spent her first years in, she was in the exact same position. Due to her dark skin, it was thought that her father was a black American soldier, which put her at a disadvantage in wartime Vietnam. “We were always the last ones to get food,” she says, “the last ones to get care… We were left to rot.”
The whims of fate took Suzanne to the UK at the age of three, where she had the opportunity for a life that many in her situation would never get. “I was very lucky,” she says. “An organisation from England flew nurses out, and they specifically looked after the mixed-race children in my orphanage. When these nurses first met me, I was lying in a cot with severe malnutrition, bowed legs, a very big tummy. I didn’t have the energy to even lift my head off the pillow.
“I was one of the lucky ones that got adopted by an English family.”
Suzanne still bears the scars of her upbringing. Throughout her successful life in the UK, it’s something she’s never forgotten.
A Turning Point
After 34 years in the UK, she began to feel she was ready for a change. With her husband’s blessing, she returned to the country of her birth.
“In 2006, I decided to come back to Vietnam for the first time, just to see my country, really. And to see if there was anyone else who looked like me. So I got off the plane expecting to see loads of people with my skin tone, who looked like me — and I got off the plane and there was no one. And I just fell in love with Vietnam.”
Suzanne came back a year later, and then again and again. She spent her time volunteering at a badly-run orphanage and found a deep connection with the kids there, a connection she’d been missing in her life.
And they found a connection with her. One 15-year-old she’d grown especially close to couldn’t bear to see her go after a 2009 visit.
“[The girl] burst into tears and said, ‘Well I’m just going to go kill myself. No one loves me, no one cares about me, I’m not going to school, the woman in the orphanage beats me. I don’t have a future.’
“The thing is, I understood her, and I understood her pain.” Suzanne has to stop here, the memory too painful. “The flight to England is 14 hours, and by the time I got off the plane I had decided I was going to go back to Vietnam.
“These children don’t need another institute,” she thought then, “they need a home. And that’s where it started.”
“I flew back four weeks later just to see her, and tell her what I was doing. And I said to her, ‘Don’t do anything stupid because I’m coming back for you.’”
It was December of 2010 when Allambie first opened its doors. In the interim, she left her husband and sold their house in England, using the money to give Allambie its start.
“In 2009 me and my husband split up, purely because of Vietnam,” Suzanne says. “For me, coming back to Vietnam in 2006 opened up Pandora’s Box. When you’re an orphan, and you go back to your country, and you start to look into your past and find out your history, you are opening Pandora’s Box.”
And she couldn’t leave again. She’d finally found her place.
There are now eight children at Allambie — all going to school, some taking dance classes, some taking photography lessons, some practising Kung Fu. A network of people has come together to make sure these kids have all the opportunities they can handle. The children themselves have come together.
“These kids that live at Allambie all now regard each other as family,” Suzanne says. “We eat every meal together.” The kids call her ‘Mum’.
The opportunities at Allambie extend in more ways than just the material. What Allambie does best is to instill a sense of identity in its charges, a feeling of belonging.
“When you’re an orphan,” Suzanne tells from experience, “all you want is to belong somewhere, all you want is to feel love. And when you don’t have that, it makes your life unbearable.” — Ed Weinberg
To sponsor a child, volunteer your time or to donate, go to allambie.co.uk