Tuesday, September 29, 2015

It's the end of the blog as we know it: 1/2

It's time to bring the Street Kids blog to an end.

I've been writing here for almost 10 years - this started in November 2005. That's a long time to be blogging, and it's also a long time to be reading!

Over these 10 years the nature of the blog has shifted gradually as Blue Dragon's work has developed and changed. In the last year or so I have found it difficult to keep on writing, and so at last I am bringing the blog to a close.

But first...

Before signing off, I want to finish with some thoughts on what Blue Dragon has achieved for Vietnam's street kids, as well as for the young people who have been trafficked and exploited. I'd also like to add my thoughts on how Vietnam has changed over the past decade; and so I will indulge in a two-part finale to say farewell.

Back in 2005, Blue Dragon was a young organisation finding its way. We started as a few friends wanting to help the street kids of Hanoi, and without having any rulebook on what to do or where to start, we simply did what we could see needed to be done. We met the kids on the streets, and helped them to return to their families or live in shelters and go to school.

After all these years, that part of our work hasn't changed. We have staff out on the city streets every night now, working in a team that is lead by a young man who happens to be one of the first street kids I met back in 2002.

The core of Blue Dragon continues to be caring for the children we meet every day. Although we have grown over the years, we have never 'outgrown' the fundamental heart of who we are.

Sadly, however, the context in which we live and work has changed. Hanoi's street kids face serious threats from paedophiles who target the lakes and parks where homeless children tend to congregate. In just one week of this month we met 4 boys who had been sexually abused while homeless. It's an outrageous situation.

I have written about this in several blog posts over the past year or so. What's hard to capture in words is the heartbreak of this terrible abuse. Over and over we have met kids who feel utterly worthless and see no future for themselves; some have chosen to remain in the cycle of abuse, submitting to the paedophile rings every night and then dulling the pain with methamphetamines and online games all day. The kids say to us that they hate the abuse, they hate the abusers, but they can see no other way of life. They refuse to believe in themselves, and they have given up.

But there is still reason for hope. While many kids, aged 13 and up, are trapped in these rings, many more have escaped. At the Blue Dragon centre we have a few teenage boys who we thought we could never help. They came to us for help, then left to return to the paedophile rings, then came back to us and then left again... And miraculously - because I don't know how else to describe it - they have come in to us, and stayed.

For some it has taken months before a spark of life has appeared in their eyes, but when it comes it is unstoppable. The great thing about the Blue Dragon centre is that when you meet the kids here, you have no idea what any of them have been through or where they have come from. They are just happy, cheeky, lively kids and teenagers who want to play and sing and dance like anyone else in the world.

And again, there is more reason for hope. Vietnam is developing, and so is people's understanding of children. Even just a year ago, this issue of boys being sexually exploited was completely unknown. Now it's all over the media, and the police are taking action.

Several people have been arrested and charged with 'indecency against minors', because the law still doesn't recognise that males can be victims of sexual abuse; but that is changing too. I continue to hope that the criminal code of the law will be revised later this year to include boys and men as potential victims.

Without that law in place, Vietnamese police have a tough time prosecuting paedophiles who abuse boys, but it is happening. Even a foreign man has been arrested and is awaiting trial: see the article here. So protection is slowly evolving, and with a review of the law there should be much more powerful intervention from the police and authorities to keep all kids safe.

My deep regret is that even once the law has changed and Vietnam's street kids are substantially safer from abuse, there will always be those children we could not help. There are teens and young adults selling themselves on the streets of the city who I have cared for, eaten meals with, and shared laughter and tears with; but who are now so entangled in the world of sexual abuse that it's unlikely they will ever recover. No matter how good things get from here, there will always be that painful sorrow.

Next week's post will be my final blog entry. Come back next Saturday for a final story from the streets of Vietnam.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

News Roundup: July-August 2015

An occasional roundup of news stories impacting kids in Vietnam and around the world.

Local News

The Vietnamese government takes aim at child labour in a new program.

Access to higher education in Vietnam remains a messy affair according to some families.

Across the region

The Philippines government commences a crackdown on the production of child pornography.

A joint Vietnamese-Cambodian operation results in the capture of traffickers (it can be done!).

Progress on trafficking in Cambodia - or maybe not?

Around the world

A provocative take on whether we are sincere in our opposition to slavery - worth a read.

The Guardian examines progress made by the UN's Millennium Development Goals.

A critique of the claim that less people in our world suffer from hunger.

The UK announces a new initiative putting the onus on big companies to end the use of child labour in their supply chains.

... and the US State Department's annual TIP Report is here.


Monday, August 10, 2015

A tribute to Jerry

A great friend of Blue Dragon has passed away: the performer and Creative Director Jerry Snell.

Over the years I have met countless people wanting to join in at our centre and lend a hand. Jerry was the best of the best. He had a boundless energy that I could never quite keep up with. He would be in Hanoi today, overseeing a hip hop club at the Blue Dragon centre, and tomorrow he would be off to Taiwan to direct a multi-million dollar show before heading to the Thai border where he worked with refugee children from Myanmar. The man just didn't stop, ever.

Jerry's gift to Blue Dragon was the creation of a Street Arts club at our centre in Hanoi. He came to us with a vision, offering to set up an after-hours group that would open a door for our kids to express themselves. And that's exactly what he did.

The kids took a particular shine to hip hop, and so the club quickly developed into a hip hop crew for both boys and girls. As someone with all the groove of a metal pole, I can only marvel at the talent in these kids. But before Jerry came along, this talent was hidden. The kids themselves had no idea of what they could do.

Jerry used to wear a hat with the saying: Hip Hop Saved My Life. Every time I see the Blue Dragon crew in action, I think of those words. Learning to dance and being part of something great has transformed their lives. It has taught them to be confident and to shine both inside and out. There are kids in the group who have never before shown commitment like this: to come on time, to try hard, to practice constantly, to follow instructions. There are kids who started with no knowledge at all and who now teach newcomers to the group - kids who I have never before seen helping others.

Just last week, a Blue Dragon "old boy" got married, and a group of us went to his wedding. As Vietnamese weddings usually are, it was a huge and elaborate affair. And when some dance music came on, two teenage girls who were with us headed straight for the stage and gave an impromptu performance. Both girls are members of the Blue Dragon crew; both were working on the streets when we met them a few years ago. When they first started coming to Blue Dragon, it was unimaginable that they would ever have the confidence to get up in front of a crowd of strangers and put on a show. This was simply impossible. But Jerry's vision has turned the impossible into the normal. Without hip hop, I fear for what would have become of those girls.

Today the kids are learning of Jerry's death, and around the world there is an outpouring of grief for this exceptional man. We will mourn his passing, but celebrate his life. Jerry lived his dream, bringing dance and creative arts to people across South East Asia. His legacy is in the connections he made: performers from Asia were connected with Cirque du Soleil and Cirque du Monde, and other artists from around the world. He didn't try to do everything himself, but rather he developed talent, brought great people together, and coached them as they grew. His success was in giving his power away. Instead of controlling and managing, he taught and inspired, and then he moved on to help where he was needed next.

We will all miss you, Jerry, but you will long live on in dance. Your hip hop has saved our lives.


Monday, July 27, 2015

Working boy

At age 11, "Binh" was working on the streets of Hanoi.

During the day he would go to school, but at night he would be out selling trinkets by Hoan Kiem Lake, along with his mother who kept a watchful eye over him. Binh enjoyed the freedom of working on the streets, but he wasn't there for fun: he was there to help his family pay the bills.

When Blue Dragon met Binh in 2011, he was eager to join our activities and grateful to receive financial help so that he didn't have to work any more. He was able to focus on his studies, and took up some sports such as kung fu and dance.

Anyone seeing Binh at the Blue Dragon centre would see a boy full of life and happiness. His smile dominates his face, and when he's dancing on stage or in front of a crowd he energises everyone in the room.

But something has been bothering Binh for a couple of years.

Underlying his happy demeanour has been a concern for his family. He has been worried that, while he is learning and having fun, he hasn't been sharing the burden of caring for his mother and sister. Even though he is still a teen - soon to turn 17 - he feels the need to start a career and begin earning a salary.

And so, at the start of July, Binh took up an apprenticeship in a local restaurant. The owners are well known to Blue Dragon and wanted to give Binh a chance, so we knew he was going in to a job where he would be well trained and well looked after.

A month on, Binh is still beaming that huge smile. He loves his job, he feels empowered to now be supporting his family, and he is still taking part in the dance and sports activities at Blue Dragon. He has found the path that he wants to be on.

Transitioning from being a 'street kid' to being a full time student and then on to an employee is never easy. It takes a lot of determination and a lot of hard work. But for Binh, so far all the signs are good that he is going to give this his best.

After his first day at work, he went home and wrote on Facebook: "From today, I will change." He wanted to tell the world that he is growing into a young man who cares for others, looks after his family, and makes a contribution to society.

And doesn't the world need more people like that?


Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Over the weekend, I travelled with Blue Dragon staff to Lang Son, a northern province of Vietnam bordering China.

We were on a journey to reunite a teenage boy, "Quang", with his family. Quang had run away from home and the Blue Dragon Outreach Team had found him on the streets of Hanoi. Fortunately we met him within a day of his arrival in the city; street kids here are routinely approached by pedophiles and their pimps, sometimes within hours of getting off the bus. Our strategy is to keep a presence on the streets as far and wide as possible in order to find kids as soon as they arrive.

Quang had come to Hanoi because of problems at home. As a baby, he was given to another family to raise, and deep down he has always felt a resentment at being handed over like that. I guess that nobody has ever explained to him why it happened.

Although he was raised by a family who cares for him, he has never felt that he belongs. As teenagers do, he has been acting out and subsequently has been labelled as a troublemaker. In reality, all he wants is to be loved.

As he ran away from home, Quang took a motorbike owned by his adoptive family. He planned to ride it all the way to Hanoi, but was stopped by police in the very first town he reached. The police confiscated the bike, and Quang continued by bus to Hanoi, where he met Blue Dragon.

After a few days at our shelter, Quang agreed to go home, although he was pretty nervous. He lives in a very remote village, accessible by a dirt track which cannot be used when it rains. They have electricity, but the connection is feeble and blackouts are common. The level of education is extremely low: Quang himself has only finished Grade 4. As an ethnic minority village of the Dao tribe, many people do not even speak Vietnamese.

The road to Quang's village.

Along for the journey were 3 Blue Dragon teens who we took for a break from the city. All are high needs kids who have lived on the streets and are now in shelters but need a lot of care.

We had a 6 hour drive to get to Quang's home, but stopped for lunch on the way at the home of a young man named Minh. Minh was one of the original Blue Dragon kids back in late 2002; he was a shoe-shine boy on the streets of Hanoi, supporting his family financially, and he moved into our very first shelter, The Big Room. Now Minh is married with 2 beautiful children of his own, and runs a bakery in Lang Son province. His business is booming, and it was wonderful to see the new life he has created for himself.

Minh's bakery in Lang Son province.

Finally we made it to Quang's village, and the difficult journey was well worth it. Nestled in the mountains, Quang's home was extremely poor but with an astounding natural beauty. His adoptive family was glad to see him home and willing to work through the problems that they face. Blue Dragon offered to help recover the motorbike, which was still in the police station, and we'll stay in touch with Quang in coming months to make sure he's OK.

Quang's home, made of mud brick. His family runs the town's only store.

The view from Quang's front door.

By the time we left, everything was not resolved but the family was talking and committed to helping each other. And so we began the long journey back to Hanoi, leaving Quang with his family.

Along the road home, one of the Blue Dragon teens spoke up. He said that seeing a village like this, and a home so poor, reminded him that there are people less fortunate than himself. This is a powerful lesson for a boy who has grown up in an abusive and unloving family, and who at age 15 is already covered in scars from knife fights.

Blue Dragon Children's Foundation has so far reunited 256 runaway children with their families. Not all reunions have been so complex and remote as Quang's, but many have - indeed, many have been much harder than this one.

Getting a child safely home to their family, and out of the dangerous life on Hanoi's streets, is always worthwhile, no matter how difficult the journey may be.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

The courage to dream

Last week, Blue Dragon's Rescue Team completed their 100th rescue of a girl trafficked into China and sold to sex slavery. In today's blog, we look back at the story of one of the first young women we rescued. Names have been changed for confidentiality.

In 2011, Hanh was a first year university student and four months pregnant. With the prospect of becoming a single mother, she was anxious about the future and didn't know where to turn for help. When a kindly woman offered friendship and guidance, Hanh was most grateful.

But instead of helping Hanh, the woman trafficked her to China where she was sold to a brothel. Her dilemma of how to deal with being a pregnant uni student had become a nightmare of being held prisoner far from home, with no prospect of escape.

The brothel owners forced Hanh against her will to abort her baby. Three days later, she was put to work with her first 'clients'. Looking back, she still cannot talk much about the horror she experienced in those first days and weeks. She had never imagined that anything like this could happen.

She was kept as a sex slave for 11 months until Blue Dragon and Chinese police rescued her.

Hanh crossing back into Vietnam
following her rescue from the Chinese brothel

After bringing Hanh home to Vietnam, we provided her with counseling and support, including legal advice and medical treatment. Her university was reluctant to accept her back, so we visited them with some officials and persuaded them to let her return to her studies. According to the law Hanh should have lost her student status, but the school considered the exceptional circumstances and re-enrolled her.  

Life was starting to go well for Hanh, and she was doing her best to focus on her course when her old boyfriend got back in contact. She was reluctant to see him at first, with all that she had been through, but finally accepted him back.
A few months later Hanh made a shocking discovery. Her 'boyfriend' was actually married and had a family in the countryside. Everything he had told her was a lie. Hanh immediately told him that their relationship was over; his response was to threaten to kill her if she left him.

Blue Dragon and the police met with Hanh’s boyfriend and cautioned him to stay away from her. He had thought that she was weak and easy to frighten; but seeing the support she had behind her was enough to scare him away for good.
Facing yet another traumatic experience was too much for Hanh. She dropped out of university and returned to her village, finding a job in a local factory. She despaired that her life would never amount to anything; she had lost so much.
But through all this time, Blue Dragon stayed in touch and talked to Hanh regularly. When she told us a year later that she had always dreamt of being a teacher and wished she could go back to university, we again persuaded the university to let her return.

Hanh taking part in a 3-day therapy program organised by Blue Dragon

After three years of Blue Dragon’s financial, legal and psychological support Hanh is lnow about to enter her final year of study. A year from now, she will be looking for a job as a mathematics teacher.

Few of Hanh's friends have any idea of what she has been through. Seeing her on the street, or in class, or at the Blue Dragon centre, she looks like any other young woman and fits right in with the crowd.

But to face every day and to dream of the future takes incredible courage for Hanh. She may never receive any accolades, yet she surely is a hero for making so much of life despite everything she has endured.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

News Roundup: June-July 2015

An occasional roundup of news stories about the issues impacting kids in Vietnam and around the world. 

Local news

UNICEF discusses the ongoing need to help children in Vietnam, beyond the Millenium Development Goals.

Children are being recruited for "Vocational Training" only to be used as slave labour.

Many families in Vietnam believe that sending children to work is more useful than sending them to school.

Across the region

Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia announce a crack-down on human trafficking.

Cambodia continues to take a strong stand against child sex tourism.

The disparity between male and female births in China is driving the trafficking of women from other countries.


The UK continues to be a major destination for children trafficked by crime gangs.

A bleak view of the impact the Trans-Pacific Partnership will have on slavery.

Nepal worries about a potential rise in human trafficking following the recent earthquakes.

Sunday, July 05, 2015


When "Hien" was trafficked in early June, her family in central Vietnam was devastated.

Aged 19, Hien fell into a trap set by another young woman who took her across the border of China with promises of a good job, but instead sold her to a brothel.

Hien's mother had no idea what to do; she reported the case to the police, but with no knowledge of where Hien might be, there was little they could do.

Just 2 weeks later, the trafficker rang Hien's family with an offer: for a payment of 15 million Dong (about $750 USD), Hien would be returned to her family.

Hien's mother immediately set off to the north with all the money she could find and borrow. She believed that this was her one chance to get Hien home.

Before reaching the border, Hien's mother rang a relative who happened to be a journalist who has worked with Blue Dragon on the issue of human trafficking in the past. The relative encouraged her to contact us, and once we were in contact we were able to investigate quickly.

It became clear to us that the trafficker had no intention of returning Hien; instead, she would take the money and lure the mother into another trap, to be sold as a bride to a Chinese husband.

Working with both Vietnamese and Chinese police, we caught the trafficker in the act of receiving the money and then trying to trap Hien's mother. It was a dramatic afternoon, but with a good result: Hien's mother was safe, and the trafficker was in handcuffs.

But where was Hien?

The trafficker quickly confessed to everything and told what she knew of Hien's location. The Chinese police immediately began a search, but it was 3 days before she could be found. They were 3 very tense days, particularly for Hien's family. However, the police located her and got her out of the brothel that had enslaved her.

Hien is now back in Vietnam, with the horrific ordeal behind her but a long road to recovery ahead. Blue Dragon's Psychologist has already started working with her, and the Legal team has helped her to give statements to the police.

Hien's rescue, and that of her mother, has ended well; but this story could have had a disastrous ending, had the mother fallen into the trafficker's devious trap.


Monday, June 15, 2015

The difference between bravery and stupidity

Just by chance, I was sitting on a boat when the call came.

The 'boat' was a café moored in Hanoi's West Lake. I was on the top deck with some friends on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and when my phone rang I was surprised to see it was an international call.

Hugh, a close friend who had left Hanoi a few years earlier, was living in Fiji now. His call came out of the blue, but as it turned out he had an offer that I immediately accepted.

Hugh had bought a boat in San Fransisco - a 42 foot Peterson - and needed to get it to his home in Fiji. Would I be willing to help him take it on the journey home?

Having never been sailing before, my immediate thought was of blue skies and smooth seas. How could I say no!? And so, two weeks later, Hugh and I set sail from San Fransisco, bound for Fiji.

Usually when I tell people the story of my one-and-only sailing adventure, the immediate response is: "You were brave to do that!" I quite like the compliment, but it's not true. I wasn't brave at all, because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Had I known, I might not have boarded the flight to the US. My enthusiasm to go wasn't bravery. It was stupidity - I went into something with my eyes closed.

Having said that, I am glad I went. Parts of the trip were frightening, and it took me a full 5 days to overcome sea sickness - but in hindsight it was one of the best things I have ever done. Never have I learned so much about myself and tested my own limits. (And, for the record, I didn't make it to Fiji - I only reached Hawaii).

It's easy to mistake stupidity for bravery . The results are often the same, or at least similar. But bravery is knowing what you're up against, and yet going in to a difficult and dangerous situation anyway. Stupidity is going in with your eyes closed, not knowing or maybe not caring what the consequences could be.

Every day at Blue Dragon, I am surrounded by people who act with extraordinary bravery. I often think that, back in my home country of Australia, these people would be showered with awards for what they do.

I see boys who dare to make statements to police about sexual abuse they have endured, knowing that their friends and family may think less of them or they may be exposed to public shame.

I see girls and young women who have been held against their will in brothels or in family homes deep inside China, constantly threatened with violence and beaten into submission, who dare to beg or steal a mobile phone so they can call for help and so begin the arduous process of being rescued.

I see mothers and fathers who will give up all they have just to find their missing children and get them safely home, regardless of community perception or the personal risks they face in searching for their sons and daughters.

And I see my own team at Blue Dragon - the Social Workers, lawyers, and even the cleaners and administrators - risking their personal safety day after day for the kids who walk through our doors or who call for help.

Just 2 weeks ago, a little boy turned up at our centre with a shackle on his ankle - a police handcuff had been used by a violent family relative to lock the little guy up. He had broken free, and found his way to us with the cuff and a long chain dangling from his foot. And so one of our cleaners grabbed some tools and started cutting the boy free, knowing full well that the enraged relative could come in at any moment, but also knowing that this boy needed to be set free. The wrath of the family was not as important as the care of the child.

Our rescue work in China is another case in point. We receive calls for help from girls locked in to homes or brothels in unknown cities scattered throughout China. In responding to those calls, we know that every rescue operation carries a risk of us being found out by the traffickers, who lose substantial money - and their freedom - every time we succeed. But we go anyway, because we believe that the need to intervene outweighs the fear of the traffickers' vengeance.

Yesterday I was texting with one of the Blue Dragon staff about a particularly murky situation we are involved in; gangs of pimps here in Hanoi are recruiting underage boys to sell to pedophiles. My staff replied to one message with the observation: The world is getting worse.

I want to believe that that is not the case, but sometimes the evidence certainly seems to point in that direction. Either way, this situation demands that we face up to the dangers and stand in the way of the pimps and pedophiles; not rushing in blindly, but preparing for what's to come and standing our ground.

In comparison to all this, my boat trip a few years back seems easy. I could almost wish again for some weeks on the open seas. But there's much more to be done here, and facing the traffickers and the abusers will take great courage - not only from me, but from the whole Blue Dragon team and, most importantly, the kids.