In the beginning, he planned to stay in Vietnam for just one week, which extended to one month, and now, he has spent seven months in HCMC during an unprecedented lockdown. In an interview with The Saigon Times, Mr. Karim Schneider, a professional volunteer and founder of the Viral Kindness group, shared his thoughts on life in HCMC, especially during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Excerpts:
The Saigon Times: Let’s start with the beginning. Where are you from?
Mr. Karim Schneider: I am half Italian, half Swiss. I grew up in Italy, and I lived a little bit around. It is a little bit strange that I have an Arabic name. Five years ago, I started to travel around the world. One day, I got an email inviting me to come to Vietnam to teach English as a volunteer. This is why I am here.
What was the recommendation for Vietnam based on? Was it made by a friend who traveled here?
Actually, a lot of people suggested that I come to Vietnam. When I was in Thailand, the Philippines, Bali, I asked my friends: “Where can I go next?” And nearly, everybody told me that I should come here. It is really nice, amazing, with nice people, friendly. Everybody gave me that suggestion. So, when I got an email asking me to come here, I thought: “OK! Looks like I have to go to Vietnam.”
Did your first impression of Vietnam match what you had heard?
Yeah. Because the first info I got from a friend was about the traffic and the motorbikes. That matched completely, (it was) even worse than what everyone told me. But everything was fine.
So, you originally came as a volunteer for education? How was your experience with that?
When I arrived, it was really hot and the traffic in Saigon (was bad). A lot of people came to me and asked me: Where are you from? What is your name? How long are you going to stay here? I told them maybe one week, maybe one month. I don’t know. I haven’t experienced, maybe I won’t like it, maybe they won’t like me. But I saw a very nice environment, very nice people, I wanted to be a part of this place. In the end, I stayed for seven months. So, I can say that I like it.
You volunteered and then Covid happened? What was the beginning of the pandemic like for you?
At the beginning, it was a bit strange. I am Italian. I don’t look Italian. I don’t have an Italian name. But I heard the news (on the Covid outbreak) from Italy. It was quite bad at the beginning, in March, in areas surrounding Bergamo and Milan. There were a lot of deaths and (it was a) really scary situation. I know a lot of people who lost their parents and people in their family. On the one side, I was hearing news from Italy. On the other side, Vietnam was safe. It was safe during the beginning. But I heard some news about Italians being refused entry to hotels, tours, taxis, and whatever because people were scared that we were Italian (would infect them).
What were your experiences with Covid and the lockdown in Vietnam?
At the beginning, I tried to help because I had spare rooms at my place to help Italians who were stuck here. Because some people in Vietnam, when they heard someone had come from Italy, they got worried because they (feared they) would bring Covid. I helped translate for the tourists to connect them because the tourists had more difficulty than somebody who lives here.
With some people and friends in Vietnam, we started to help people in quarantine centers. They were volunteers. I thought okay, let’s start a group, so we can help make things easier during Covid. What can we do to feel better? The social distancing really was something new for everybody and something that we had to deal with. I tried these kinds of things to share something positive, some viral kindness, and then I started actively to do something, so we raised some money, and we started to distribute food in Go Vap District.
It was amazing when I shared this on Facebook, on some groups, on expat groups mostly. It was amazing, the reaction of the people. There were so many people who wanted to help. So many people wanted to volunteer. We received donations of money…of 100 kilograms of rice. At the end of that month, we gave away like one ton of rice.
One ton of rice?
Yeah. I am nobody here. I am not high in the society. I am not important. I have normal connections with people. I am an average guy, but a lot of people trusted what I was doing. They helped me. I managed to do amazing things. But I am a nobody. So, everybody can do this.
It sounds like this opportunity was in front of you. What made you reach out and take it? What drove you to accept this responsibility?
I really believe in kindness. I believe that there is a lot of kindness around us. A lot of good people, but they hide very well. We do not see them for different reasons because they are shy, because sometimes they do not know how to show it. But anyway, I really think that there are a lot of good people around. We can do good things together.
So, you created an organization called Viral Kindness…
We are not registered. I wanted to register as I wanted the one before. I have a good team. (We decided) Let’s start to give a little bit of food. We raised a little bit of money among some friends, and we gave food to the homeless. How many times, I do not know. Let’s start, let’s do. Not plan, not how many times, how much we need to start to do something. Even if it is just one person, you save the world. If you save one life, you save the entire world. (So, we thought) Let’s save one (life), let’s do something.
Tell us about some projects that Viral Kindness has been running?
Right now, we are jumping from one project to another, and sometimes some friends contact me and they tell me about a need somewhere, and I tried to figure out how I can meet it, what I can do to help. So, (we keep) connecting the dots, finding donors, the owners, or whatever.
We take food to the homeless using motorbikes. We visit orphanages. We do different activities. We even give food to an ethnic minority, Dalat. We do a lot of things.
Right now, we are helping an orphanage here in Saigon, in Binh Thanh. It is a shelter. They have 45 newborns and children up to four years old, with moms who are poor, or facing difficulties, or having problems anyway. We have started to support them with baby formula, net pieces, and toys, whatever works.
What were your experiences with the volunteers during the notebook program? Did they enjoy it? What kind of outcomes did you get?
The volunteers, they really enjoyed, (they were) really happy. Some people told me: “Tell me again when I can do it. Send me again some of the notebooks.” There were some notebooks, there were really, really amazing. There were masterpieces—like we could sell them. They were so beautiful. So, it took a lot of effort to do that. And one really nice thing, when I asked them to write a message, many messages were things like: “Never give up. Be strong. Be positive.” Because actually that is my goal, so I am happy that it worked.
It is said that people don’t remember facts. They remember feelings.
People will forget what is, what you tell them, or whatever. But they will remember how you made them feel. So, if you make someone feel good, they will stay there.
That’s great. What are your goals for Viral Kindness? Where do you want this group to go?
Oh, good question. I will be really happy if Viral Kindness can inspire and be of help to the people. If people can feel better because of Viral Kindness, if people start to do something nice because of Viral Kindness, that is much more important to me.
This question is for people who are inspired by your story. What do you recommend to people who don’t necessarily volunteer but want to get involved?
First, be nice to your friends. Be nice to your family. I mean there are many things we can do. There are many people close to us that we can be nice to, be kind to. Maybe someone is experiencing a lot of suffering over something and is your friend, you can help them and have a drink together. Make them feel better. This is already something good. One step further is to be nice with a stranger. I think in Ireland, they say: “A stranger is a friend I haven’t met yet.” So, be nice to the people around you.
How can people contact you if they want to get involved?
Right now, I am working on a website, but it has not gone online yet. So, the best thing is to just look us up on Facebook: Viral Kindness Saigon. I think that would be an easy way to connect.