Christina Noble, 66, children’s rights advocate, on being “Mother Teresa with balls”.
Christina Noble is the founder and driving force behind the Foundation. Christina’s passion for children’s rights is rooted in her own horrendous upbringing. Christina knows what it’s like to be young, homeless and desperate. Born in Ireland into the slums of Dublin on 23 December 1944, she was to embark on a childhood of pain and betrayal. She and three siblings were raised by their mother while their father, who was once a bare knuckled fighter, frittered away what little money the family had on drinking in pubs. The death of her mother, when Christina was 10, brought about the separation of the children, as they were all sent to different orphanages. Christina spent four desperate years in the west of Ireland in an Institute being led to believe that her brothers and sisters were dead. Her escape brought her to Phoenix Park in Dublin where she slept in a hole in the ground that she herself dug.
At the age of 18 Christina ran away to England to be with her brother. This is where she met and married her husband and had three children, Helenita, Nicolas and Androula.
It was during this particularly low ebb in her life around 1971 that she had a dream about Vietnam.
“I don’t know why I dreamed about Vietnam, perhaps it was because the country was so much in the news at the time. In the dream, naked Vietnamese children were running down a dirt road fleeing from a napalm bombing. The ground under the children was cracked and coming apart and the children were reaching to me. One of the girls had a look in her eyes that implored me to pick her up and protect her and take her to safety. Above the escaping children was a brilliant white light that contained the word ‘Vietnam’.”
This was a dream which she would one day triumphantly fulfil, albeit 20 years later. In 1989, with the goal to assist children in need, Christina arrived in Vietnam.
Against all odds, Christina set up the Foundation in Ho Chi Minh City where the number of projects has grown considerably. In 1997, Christina expanded CNCF’s operations into Mongolia but she still remains the principal driving force and inspiration and and retains close personal contact with the children.
A more detailed account of Christina’s life can be read in her autobiography ‘Bridge Across My Sorrows’ published in 1994, and her follow-up called ‘Mama Tina’ which was released world-wide in 1999.
Books about Christina Noble and her life:
Nobody’s Child: One Women’s Struggle to End the Suffering of Children
Bridge Across My Sorrows: The Christina Noble Story
- Awarded the Mongolian “Friendship Medal” by the Mongolian President, Tsakhia Elbegdorj. This is the highest honour bestowed by the Mongolian Government to non nationals and represents the appreciation of Mongolians for the services provided by the Christina Noble Charitable Fund to Mongolian children and families.
- Nominated for The Charity Awards, UK – organised by Plaza Publishing
- Friendship Medal – given by the President of Mongolia, Tsakhia Elbegdorj (Dec)
- Silk Road Award – Mongolian National Chamber of Commerce (Dec)
- Nominated for American Chamber of Commerce Women of Influence (Hong Kong)
- Christina received an Honoree Doctorate from the Open University UK – Doctor of the University, presented by Baroness Betty Boothroyd. (April)
- Awarded honorary recognition by Women’s Union of Ho Chi Minh City for contribution towards women’s development in Vietnam.
- Irish Tatler Woman of the Year, Special Recognition Award. (Nov)
- Degree of Doctor of Laws, University College, Dublin (Nov)
- Degree of Doctor of Laws, The University of Dublin, Trinity College (Dec)
- The Allianz/Scoil Treasa Award for Services to Education, presented in Belfast by John Hume, MEP.
- The International Award for Women in Science (‘RASIT’) presented by First Lady of Lebanon at the UNESCO Palace, Beirut.
- Nominated by Time Magazine (Europe) as one of ‘36 Inspiring Heroes of our World’, April)
- Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), New Year Honours List 2003.
- The Galway Bay Sports Awards, Person of the Year. (Dec)
- Nominated for the Gleitsman Foundation Award
- Meteor Ireland Music Awards – Humanitarian Award: Dublin, Ireland
- Honorary Doctorate of Laws – Dublin, Ireland
- Christina appeared as the honorary guest as Michael Aspel’s recipient of the reputed ‘This is Your Life’ Programme in the UK.’
- Certificate of Honour for outstanding humanitarian work presented by the Mongolian National Committee.
- Honorary Citizenship presented by the Prime Minister of Mongolia.
- Award of Honour presented by the Ministry Of Labour, Invalids & Social Affairs of Vietnam.
- Peace & Justice International Award, St. Angela’s Peace and Justice Group, Ireland
- People of the Year Award, organised by Rehab, Ireland
- Belvedere Justice Award, Ireland (Belvedere College Union)
The award was first initiated in 1989 to recognise those who silently and unobtrusively work in the pursuit of social justice.
- Medal presented by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social affairs for Christina’s humanitarian contribution to Vietnam.
- Honorary certificate presented by the People’s Committee of Dong Nai for her contribution towards saving children of the province.
- Voted one of the 20 most inspiring women in the world, Harpers and Queen UK (Jan)
- Medal from the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs of Vietnam in recognition of Christina’s work in this Vietnam. (Oct)
- People of the Year Award, London (Nov)
- Outstanding and Self-Sacrificing Social Workers Award, the Kuala Lumpur Rotary Charity Foundation. (Dec)
- Readers Digest Hero’s Award
- The Hearts of Gold Award, BBC UK (April)
- Voted one of the British Women of the Year 1995 (Oct)
- Nominated for the Conrad Hilton Award for humanitarian work (Nov)
- Paul Harris Fellowship Award, Rotary International (July) is presented to individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to their community
- Nominated for the Livelihood Award of Sweden.
The Right Livelihood Award was established in 1980 to honour and support those “offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today”. It has become widely known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’.
- The Unsung Heroes Award, The Celebrities Guild of Great Britain (Oct)
- Medal for Peace and Humanity presented by the Mayor of Nimes, France
Greg Callaghan: How did a 44-year-old fish-and-chip-shop owner and mother of three in Birmingham wind up running a children’s refuge in Vietnam and establishing a worldwide children’s foundation? Christina Noble: It was back in 1989, my kids were fully grown, and I had a bit of money from my catering business and fish and chip shop. I’d had a dream many years earlier, during the Vietnam War in fact, that I would someday be working among the street kids there. When I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, malnourished, ragged street kids seemed to be everywhere. They called them bui doi, “the dust of life”. They were being sexually exploited and treated like vermin. I knew I was meant to do something for them.
Your work started in a dilapidated building in Ho Chi Minh city which you converted into a medical and drop-in centre…
Yes, when you have malnourished young kids coming in with gonorrhoea and serious skin infections, the most important thing is to give them access to doctors and nurses who can treat them. Once they have been treated in this way you can then address emotional and educational issues. Actually, that first building at 38 Tu Xuong is still the flagship of the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation, which is now in 10 countries.
It’s been said that children are very hard to rehabilitate once they’ve been on the street for six weeks or more.
Yes, it does take a great deal of effort and time. And at some point, they need to want to help themselves. First up, a simple shower and new clothes can give them a boost to their self-esteem. Then the long, hard work really begins.
You were once described as a “Mother Teresa with balls”.
Ha, yes, I’m not easily taken in and the last thing I want to do is provide hand-outs. Not in a developing country, where there is a pimp around every corner. My own childhood in “The Liberties”, a slum in Dublin, held me in good stead for this.
Did working among street kids in Vietnam help you process your own traumatic childhood?
Oh yes. It did more than that. It offered me a form of salvation. Vietnam became the place where I resolved the fear, sorrow and anger I had repressed for most of my adult years. It was the place where I learnt to regain hope and rebuild my life.
Do you encourage or enable reconciliation with parents?
Yes, as long as they’re able to look after the kids properly and there is no history of abuse. When you’re in a poor country it’s not always possible to be certain of course, so you have to go on gut instinct.
In 1997, your work expanded to Mongolia…
We began with a mobile medical clinic for the poor and the sick, and a night clinic for street kids. What we try to do is get facilities up and running, give them as much financial support as possible, and educate the locals into running them.
Any recent success stories?
We’ve been doing work in a juvenile prison outside Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. It’s a pretty grim place. With help from the Foundation, two kids who were imprisoned there graduated this year with a certificate in IT and a business degree.
Your charity has also tried to establish legal precedents…
Yes, we helped a group of Mongolian teenage boys successfully prosecute the director of a state-run refuge for repeatedly beating and starving them.
You now spend a large amount of your time raising awareness and fundraising. How often do you return to Vietnam?
Around six times a year. I always look forward to going back.