Xavier Mouffe never quite realized his dream of running his own bakery business, but he found the next best thing — helping disadvantaged teenagers and young adults from Vietnam learn the bakery trade in his home country of Belgium.
It was 2001 by the time that the first Vietnamese street boy, Cong, made it to Brussels; he stayed on the Sao Mai (Morning Star) programme for three years. He spent his time in Belgium studying French, working hard dealing with the cultural differences, learning his trade and living frugally in order to send the majority of his wages back to Vietnam for his family.
“[Cong’s] positivity is what encouraged me to continue finding more students for the apprenticeship,” says Xavier. Sao Mai is an intense course in life skills and a built-in family with Xavier and Serge Goossens, the patron and mentor in Belgium.
It is difficult to obtain more than one visa to Belgium from Vietnam for this programme per year, and so the people behind Sao Mai take great care to ensure that they choose the best potential students for the job.
“We can’t accept everyone, so we must ask around,” continues Xavier. “Obviously we want to help [teenagers and young adults] who are struggling, but we can’t let this opportunity go to waste.”
The Sao Mai team also spends a lot of time fundraising by selling artworks from Vietnam and Asian flavour-inspired speculoos, dubbed speculoos zen, at Christmas time in Belgium, to cover the costs for the students and guarantee them a successful experience. Xavier comes to Vietnam twice a year to see his “kids”, making sure that everything is okay with them.
Nang Nguyen Manh, 32, is one of the graduates from Sao Mai, having studied in Belgium from 2008 to 2011. He is now the owner of Goossens Ice Cream Shop in Go Vap, named after his benefactor.
Manh proudly admits the influence Serge had upon his life.
“He is a military man with a tough work ethic, but he was patient as well,” he says.
Returning to Vietnam in 2011 still presented its challenges, and at first Manh worked in Metro, then took a job working for Haagen-Dazs developing their moon cakes and other baked products. Even with the help from Sao Mai, he still needed a lot of tenacity to get to the position he is in today.
That is what the baking apprenticeship offers on the surface; the ability for the students to cook, create and feed themselves and others. The three tough years also sees the boys developing skills they may not have normally had access to; foreign languages, leadership and intense dedication.
“I give them the first step,” says Xavier, “but it is up to them to endure the challenges they will face in Belgium.”
Most boys are eager to return home, and that is the point of the programme — not to absorb the boys into Belgium and European culture, but to allow them to immerse themselves in an intensive vocational and linguistic education and come back to Vietnam with valuable life skills.
It’s not easy — many of the past students have struggled with homesickness, language issues, and adjusting to the colder climate of Northern Europe. But every student has left the course and returned to Vietnam with initiative, business savvy and gratitude.
However, it hasn’t all been plain baking, so to speak. One student arrived and stayed in Belgium for a time only to realise that he had no passion for the trade, and wanted to return home to become a hairdresser instead.
But the seven successful boys Xavier is proud of will not be his last, and the Sao Mai team are currently looking to take on another apprentice in Belgium. The next student, before leaving Vietnam, will have to complete two months training with some of the past Sao Mai graduates to test their dedication and skill, a sign that the programme is developing as time goes by.
“After everything I have been through,” says Manh, “it’s my duty to teach others, [but only] if they want to learn.”
To find out more about Sao Mai, or how you can help, please visit sao-mai.be