As her own remarkable story is told on the big screen, Christina Noble tells Stephanie Smith about the children who inspire her.
“Even when I was small, I was a giver. What little I had to give, I still found a way.”
Christina Noble has spent her life giving, but not just a little. To date, she has helped more than 700,000 children in Vietnam and Mongolia, taken them off the streets, given them a home, food, healthcare, education, a future, and love.
“I think I was born with that kind of character, otherwise we wouldn’t have got through it,” she says. “It’s the same with the Foundation. It’s very hard, a lot of responsibility.”
The Christina Noble Children’s Foundation is the charity she began in 1991 in Vietnam, after battling to rescue street children from extreme poverty and exploitation. Her story is told in the film Noble, an award-winning biopic, written and directed by Stephen Bradley and starring Brendan Coyle and Deirdre O’Kane.
Christina came to Harrogate last week for a special screening of Noble at the Odeon, accompanied by her daughter, Helenita. Together, they watched it with employees of Harrogate-based cashmere fashion retailer Pure Collection, which sources its cashmere in Inner Mongolia, and has so far raised more than £200,000 to help the foundation with its work there.
It was her opportunity to thank them and continue spreading word of the plight of the poor children of Vietnam and Mongolia, encouraging companies and individuals to donate.
Noble the movie tells how, in 1989, 45-year-old Irishwoman Christina arrives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as a tourist. She is alone, her own children grown, and she is following the memory of a vivid dream of almost 20 years previously, in which children, distressed and naked, ran from a napalm bombing, imploring her to help them.
The film cuts between Vietnam and Christina’s own horrific childhood in Ireland. Born in 1944 in a slum area of Dublin, her mother died when Christina was 10 and, because her father was an alcoholic, she had to try to care for her siblings.
“Altogether there were eight of us,” she tells me when we meet in Harrogate’s Hotel du Vin before the screening. “Two boys died. I became the mother. My mother’s death was quite horrible, because I was present when she died and she threw up blood all over me, and she died just after that. I had my confirmation frock on.”
The experience is one portrayed on screen, although Christina says: “The film is true, but it’s softened, very much so.”
Even softened, it’s a remarkable, moving story, telling how, despite her desperate efforts, the siblings were taken into care, separately, and she spent years in an institution, led to believe they were dead. She escaped to Dublin where she slept in a park, was gang-raped and had a son who was forcibly adopted.
“It’s only now that I realise, yes, how did I get through that?” Christina says. “I had to survive and I had to get on with it, no matter what happened to me, and horrific things happened to me.”
At 18 she ran away to Birmingham, where she met and married her husband and had three children, Helenita, Nicolas and Androula. It was an abusive marriage which did not last. It was at this time, around 1971, that she had her dream about the children of Vietnam.
Fast forward to 1989 and the sight of so many homeless children on the streets of Ho Chi Minh jolts Christina into action. She begins to help at an institution, forms plans and dreams for expansion and improvement, hounds the executives of international companies based there until they come up with funding, and so the foundation is born.
Now the CNCF provides free basic medical care at outpatient clinics and medical stations, has projects to provide education and much more to help poor children, their families and their communities. In 1997 the foundation began working in Mongolia, also providing health care and education, support and inspiration through sport and the arts, founding kindergartens, helping send children to school and university. “We have three kids working towards the Olympics in martial arts,” Christina says proudly, adding: “Quite a lot of children are sponsored.”
The children call her “Mama Tina” and sometimes she has taken them to look at a tree. She explains: “I said, ‘what’s this tree?’ They said, ‘Mama Tina, very beautiful.’ I said, ‘But it’s all different colours, all different types of foliage.’ They said, ‘Mama Tina, very beautiful.’ I said, ‘It’s like all the peoples of the world, all different colours, different religions, but one earth, very beautiful.’” Now the children draw a tree for her, with multi-coloured leaves, but one trunk, representing the earth.
Currently, the foundation is working on a project for children who have been in Mongolia’s children’s prison. “My dream is to build something very beautiful but not expensive, so they have colour in their lives. They’ll all have their own rooms. I want them to be part of the colour and turn it from something nobody would want to remember into something so beautiful and free, take them from the dark into the light and have fun and laugh, and graduate.”
She will too, with help, which she knows how to find. “I’ve seen it all, kid. I know the world has evil in it, but I also know it has some amazing people in it.”
Find out more about the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation on www.cncf.org. Noble can be downloaded from Amazon and and iTunes on www.thenoblemovie.com.
Now 72, Christina Noble continues to fundraise and work closely with the children the CNCF helps in Vietnam and Mongolia.
Awarded the OBE in 2003, she won a lifetime achievement award at Woman of the Year UK in 2014 and was nominated by Time Magazine (Europe) as one of “36 Inspiring Heroes of our World’”
She has been awarded numerous medals, doctorates and accolades across the globe in recognition of her work.
Co-founder of Harrogate-based Pure Collection, Nick Falkingham, who has witnessed the CNCF work in Mongolia, said: “It immediately struck me as a charity around which all our colleagues and customers could wrap their arms and get to work to support. All of us at Pure Collection are very proud to be able to give back to a region so important to the cashmere industry.”
■ Pure Collection has created a special dragonfly print scarf, left, costing £39, of which £10 goes directly to CNCF. It can be bought at the York store on Stonegate and at www.purecollection.com.