Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Anger, fear and laughter

I'm still in my post-oceanic euphoria. As much as I loved the sailing journey - and I DID love it - it's great great great to be home.

I am still finding myself riding some emotional waves, though. We're dealing with some powerful cases this week, and I think that all of the staff are feeling the heat.

On many occasions, I have mentioned our work in the area of helping kids who have been trafficked for child labour. Apart from reuniting children with their families, the most effective thing we can do is to educate people about the dangers of selling their kids to the traffickers.

Now, I happen to think we have done a pretty good job of this so far. But we were greatly shocked on Monday to learn of a mother who has just sold her 12 year old daughter, in spite of us having rescued her son once from a very serious situation. This mother knows better than anybody that her daughter is now in great danger; but it seems she wanted the money more than she wanted the daughter. This is VERY unlike Vietnamese families, which are normally so strong and caring. Family is everything.

The woman's son, who is now 13, is confused and angry about what his mother has done. In most cases, I would encourage kids to not be angry with their parents... But, well, I happen to think he's right about this. And I think it shows great strength of character for someone so young to be prepared to take a stand on such an important issue. Anger isn't always a negative emotion.

In a completely separate case... On Saturday night we received a call from a good friend who works in Vietnam, named Kees, who had seen a small boy sleeping on the streets and was hoping we could help. Kees knows us well, and also knows a lot of our kids.

We found the boy on Sunday night, wandering about near a massive apartment complex on Hai Ba Trung street. The boy, Hieu, is tiny: he says that he is 15, but if I posted a photo, nobody would believe me. He looks like a 12 year old who is way too small for his age. At best.

Van and I spoke with Hieu for about an hour. He absolutely would not consent to come with us. His clothes were filthy, he clearly hadn't eaten well in weeks, and his huge brown eyes made him look so incredibly vulnerable - but there was no way he would trust us. He finally agreed to walk with us to a cafe, where we all had a drink. Even then, I could see how frightened he was that we would hurt him.

We did our best. We gave him some money and said that, if he came with us and did not like our center, he could leave immediately. We promised that we would not force him to do anything, would not make him call his parents. We suggested that he could stay just one night, and then leave the next morning if that's what he wanted.

Nope. No. Forget it.

So we rode home, unsuccessful. Not a good feeling.

Before we left, though, we promised we would come back the next day. And so, on Monday night we returned, this time with a secret weapon: Vi. I first met Vi about 4 years ago when he was shining shoes on the streets. Today he is a senior barman in a fine restaurant; he speaks fluent English, and has traveled to Singapore, Thailand, and China. (He would have gone to the US for the summer if only they would give him a visa! C'mon, Bush, I KNOW you're reading this.)

We found Hieu, in deep sleep on a stone slab beside the street. It took me so long to wake him that I started to fear something was wrong. But when he did wake, he seemed - well, not pleased, but certainly less hostile than the night before.

Vi, Van and I took him for another drink. We chatted, talked about computer games, joked about, listened to Vi tell his own life story... and finally, FINALLY, Hieu gave us a smile. The impenetrable barrier was breaking down. (Confession: I had to tell him that I am married to my dog, Wheels, and that we love each other very much in order to get this smile out of him. But it was worth it).

Hieu agreed to come back with us. He spent the night sleeping with several other kids at our center, and the whole of today was taken up with reading comic books and sleeping. And laughing. I swear, his smile is the most beautiful sight on earth.

He's still afraid, and there is so much that we don't know about him yet. He is telling us that his parents have died, which might be true... But it's also what 99% of runaway kids tell us when we first meet them.

It's going to take a lot of time to build up some trust before we can find a way to help Hieu. For now, I'm just glad that he's not sleeping on the street tonight.