Preben Hansen, The General Secretary of NGO Fontana, is a former alcoholic. Now he’s devoted to help addicts from Vietnam to stay clean the rest of their lives via a unique program.
By Signe Damkjaer
Preben Hansen and Per Larsen at the Bin Minth Centre in Ho Chi Minth City
“People have always asked me to find solutions to the impossible,” says Preben Hansen.
And this time he has definitely found a hard challenge. Being the General Secretary of NGO Fontana he runs a treatment program for drug and alcohol addicts in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
With support from Danida the Danish NGO Fontana and their local partner are looking for a new location to set up a new centre for people who have completed the first part of their treatment. Most of them still need help to finish the last part which is a combination of treatment and education in order to get back into the society.
Binh Minh Centre
NGO Fontana is the only organisation in Vietnam, as well as in Asia, which offers drug and alcohol addicts something more than medical treatment. At the Binh Minh Centre in Ho Chi Minth City the NGO is treating people by the ‘evidenced-based 12 step program’.
“If you follow this program you can stay clean for the rest of your life. If you don’t you will end up in a drug or alcohol abuse again”, says Preben Hansen.
Being an alcoholic himself he knows what he is talking about.
“I will be in recovery for the rest of my life, as long as I don’t drink. Isn’t it wonderful”, he asks.
Together with his practitioner Ragnar Larusson he took the initiative to start treatment for drug and alcohol addicts in Vietnam in 2003.
“I had been doing business in Vietnam for a while and I had seen how treatment for drug and alcohol addicts worked here. Which it basically doesn’t,” said Preben Hansen.
He initially came to Vietnam in 1998 as a businessman on request of Danida, who were looking for Danish partners for their private sector program.
“When I came I thought – what a nice country, but I just can’t be bothered to stay”, he clearly remembers.
But one day he changed his mind completely thanks to a taxi trip from the airport.
“It was harvest time and we were driving thought a rice field. Suddenly I saw about 100 young Vietnamese girls and boys impeccably dressed in white and blue passing by us on black bicycles. I saw that there was such dignity to these people. That was the moment I decided to stay”.
Preben Hansen is today the manager of the companies Euro Care and Domus Medica Vietnam, which delivers laboratory and hospital equipment to UN projects in Africa and develops malaria medicine in Hanoi. He stays in Denmark and Vietnam on and off and whenever he is in Ho Chi Minh City, he is helping out on the Binh Minh Centre.
The centre currently has 68 patients. 21 of them have chosen to follow the treatment program offered by NGO Fontana. 4 of these are former patients who receive special training in order to become the first Vietnamese 12 step assistant counsellor. The treatment is free but patients have to pay for their own food and medication. In some cases NGO Fontana is able to help out economically via the Club 24 Foundation.
“The patients come from all parts of society. They are students, businessmen, fathers, mothers and prostitutes”, says Per Larsen, who is in charge of the daily treatment and training.
The patients live in rooms of four to eight people.
“You would think they would prefer to have their own room to get some peace in their life. But Vietnamese are used to stay a lot of people together. To isolate them is actually the worst punishment for a Vietnamese drug addict,” says Hansen.
When someone arrives at the centre he or she is sent directly into detoxification.
“This can last from a few days to several weeks,” said Per Larsen and continues:
“After this period we conduct a screening to figure out what this person has been through and what kind of treatment the person need,” explained Larsen.
Per Larsen started working at the Binh Minh Centre ten months ago. The first period was a part of his internship in his education as a counsellor. As well as with all other counsellors in NGO Fontana he is a drug addicts in recovery himself.
“It’s our policy here that our counsellors must be drug- or alcohol addicts in recovery themselves but they must have been clean for a minimum of 2 years. Counsellors are worthless if they have not been addicted to drug or alcohol themselves. Only then they can understand the devil and madness inside our heads”, Preben Hansen explains.
The next project for the enthusiastic Dane is to find a location for a new centre where people who have completed all of the treatments can find support the next few years.
“There are no centres like it in Vietnam today and this is such a crucial time in the treatment process,” said Preben Hansen.
And it’s essential since there is a huge risk that people will go back to using drugs once they have left the Binh Minh Centre.
“It is part of the Vietnamese culture that they solve their problems over a glass of rice wine. For a former drug addict this is the direct way back to the drugs”, he elaborates.
But sometimes it’s more difficult than in Denmark to get things started.
“We have tried to set up support groups but in Vietnam you cannot just start an organisation like you can in Denmark. If it involves more than four people you need a special permit. Otherwise it’s illegal,” says Preben Hansen.
However, Per Larsen points out, Vietnam has one huge advantage which is not so common in Denmark.
“A very positive thing about the Vietnamese way of thinking is Buddhism,” explains Per Larsen. “One of the elements in the treatment is about leaving your faith in drugs and find faith in something bigger. You must start believing that there is something more to life. Something bigger than drugs. Something bigger than yourself. Thinking like that is not as hard for a Vietnamese Buddhist as it is for the rest of us”, Per Larsen says.
Preben Hansen agrees:
“In this way Vietnam has another dimension to life, which we don’t have in the western world”.