Monday, February 27, 2006

Tales of the Merlion

It's been a whole week since I last posted, as I've been (and still am!) in sunny Singapore.

The messages I have been getting from Hanoi keep telling me of the awful, rainy weather over there - so it's good to be away for a few days!

But it's Blue Dragon work that brought me here - I was invited to take part in the annual Fringe Festival organised by The Necessary Stage. This year's Festival theme is "Art and Healing", so I spoke about the role of photography and creative arts in our work with street children. There were some other interesting presenters involved in the same forum, including one guy who travelled here from Thailand with a truck load of papier mache dolls made by Burmese sex workers. Interesting...

I've been to Singapore a few times, but on this trip I brought some friends - including a long term volunteer from Blue Dragon, and two young guys who were among the first boys that I met on the streets of Hanoi. They're 18 years old now, and have great jobs, so the purpose of this trip for them has been to give them a taste of life outside Vietnam.

Anyone who has been to Singapore can imagine what it's been like - shopping all day and then some more at night. (To be honest, it's mainly been window shopping, but we loaded up with souvenirs today!)

- I always find it hard being away from the Blue Dragon center - don't know how I would survive without email and SMS. Our lawyer, Van, has been keeping me informed of developments with the runaway boys we met last week. So far two of the five have made contact with their families, and we're working toward some solutions for the other three.

- I must say a big thanks to the hostel I have been staying at here in Singapore, The Betel Box on Joo Chiat Road. The hostel owner agreed to let the four of us from Blue Dragon stay here for FREE in a private room for the whole of our visit. I doubt we could have come if we couldn't find free accommodation. This is a terrific place and I can genuinely recommend it to anyone looking for a backpacker hostel in Singapore. Thanks, guys!

Tonight we're having dinner with Heather Campbell from Sydney - her dad Evan is principal at Tuggerah Public School in Australia and they've helped Blue Dragon out a few times now. I'll be back in Hanoi soon - will post on the weekend with developments from the past week.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Home, under the bridge

ONCE UPON A TIME, a potential donor was visiting Blue Dragon to talk about funding possibilities.

We were introducing him to some young people we'd been working with for almost two years. We were very proud of those kids.

During the meeting, the donor said he had a problem. It was this:

The kids were too good.

They were clean. They had nice clothes. They were polite.

They didn't look like street kids.

It's the main Catch-22 that Blue Dragon - and other charities like us - face. People want to help helpless, dirty waifs in rags. I know of one charitable center here in Hanoi where the Director gratefully accepts donations such as big TVs and nice clothes - but as soon as the donor is gone, the donations go into storage. Otherwise, the next donor might think that the center is already well equipped and doesn't need any help!

Blue Dragon's policy is different. We don't want our kids to look poor. We don't want visitors to walk in and see street children; we want our kids to look just like anybody else their age. And to tell the truth, we don't mind if that turns away a donor or two. The wellbeing and happiness of the kids are simply more important.

THIS WEEK we face a challenge with some kids who definitely qualify as 'helpless, dirty waifs in rags'. On the way to drumming on Sunday, I saw a couple of boys looking absolutely filthy, collecting scrap near the office. SO I invited them back and spent some time chatting. Late for drumming again...

The boys are living with some friends under a bridge - yes, that photo is actually their home. At least some of the kids are runaways; our experience in working with kids like this is that it takes time for them to trust us. And it's only when they trust us that they'll start telling us the truth.

Until then, anything that they say might or not be true, and our staff don't pass judgement on anything.

These boys are really doing it tough - I wouldn't trade places with them for anything! Even our other kids here at the center are shocked to see where they live.

Nothing like a challenge to start the week, though...

Thursday, February 16, 2006

A week is a long time on the streets

Friday is staring me in the face - and I am smiling.

Another huge week at Blue Dragon; there really is never a quiet one. I wouldn't have it any other way, but it sure is nice to have a day to slow down and work at a sane pace.

Lots of great news this week!

- The young guy who has been missing for over 2 weeks, T, is back. Our cleaner ran across him in Long Bien market at 7am on Wednesday and brought him back to the center. What a tremendous relief. A few tears were shed... He's still not talking about what happened or where he's been, but we hope he'll open up soon.

- We have a full time volunteer from Australia! Candice O'Brien started work on Monday; she's sponsored by VIDA which is a new program that's been developed by the Australian Youth Ambassadors organisation. Candice is mainly here to work on developing our admin systems - the less sexy side of caring for street kids. Just 12 months ago, Blue Dragon was me and one staff member in a small building, with a street kid as an assistant. Today we have a staff team of about 10, working with over 400 children. While the 'real' work has taken off like a Vietnamese dog at a thit cho restaurant, our admin systems have been struggling to catch up. Let's hope Candice can work some miracles! (And thanks to the good people at VIDA).

- A 16 year old girl, Tuoi, who we've been working with has also been getting about with a big grin on her face. Until this month, she was working about 14 hours a day for just $10 a month so that she could send the money to her sick mother in the countryside. Tuoi is a bright girl - she's got a great future if only she can get through school - but she's just had too many obstacles in her way. This week we enabled her to bring her mother to Hanoi for medical tests at Bach Mai Hospital. Apart from our staff member getting pickpocketed while he was there (another mobile phone gone!) everything went well and we'll have the results by Friday afternoon. Tuoi's mother has been taking traditional medicine, but she doesn't even know what the cause of her illness is. We're hoping to find out exactly what the problem is, get some treatment happening, and support Tuoi to get back to school full time.

- Hoping not to jinx myself, but there has been a lull in the robberies and muggings that were taking place over recent months. A lot of this is thanks to our local policeman, Mr Thanh, who was pretty serious about helping us and putting a stop to the crime wave. It's worked!

- And finally, Little Chung (see my last blog!) has been talking to us about where he's been and what he's been up to for the past 18 months. He and I are rebuilding our relationship - I'm wondering what happened to him, he's wondering how I will react to seeing him again after so long. But the signs are all good, and Chung is keen to get back to school asap. So good to have him back...

Now bring on Friday!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Postscript: Little Chung returns

SUNDAY is usually the best day of the week for me… We have social activities with our kids outside the center, with plenty of time for a slow breakfast at CafĂ© 252. And I try to keep the boring admin work to a minimum!

We start the day with soccer: 8am on two dirt fields near the office. We’ve been playing for three years now, with about 50 kids joining in every week.

The soccer is purely a social event – we’re there for an hour no matter what the season or weather, so any street kids in Hanoi can find us and meet us on their own terms.

Last night I wrote about how we often have kids who ‘disappear’ for a year or more, and we just don’t know where they are or what has happened to them. This morning, one of our guys returned after being away for 18 months.

Friends and vols know him as “Little Chung”. He’s an orphan, who met us back in 2003 and was making good progress for a while, before things started to fall apart for him. We had helped him enrol in school and he wanted to join a handicrafts course, but neither of them worked out well. He started hanging out with a bad crowd and got himself into trouble, so started to drift away from us. And then one day he was picked up off the streets and sent to prison.

He was 13 then, and everybody here was worried about what had become of him. We didn’t know that he’d been arrested, and had no way of knowing. So to see him back at the soccer this morning was a real buzz for us. He’s already back working on the streets, so hopefully he’ll come by on Monday and we can start over again…

OUR OTHER SUNDAY ACTVITITY is a drumming circle at the American Club. But I failed to make it there today – despite inviting others to come and see me there!

One of Hanoi’s few truly fine restaurants, The Vine, was holding a party for its staff and their families. Donald Berger, the amazing guy who founded the restaurant, has hired 6 older teenagers from Blue Dragon; and as most of our kids don’t have families, one of the boys invited me to accompany him.

I had no idea what I was in for – I thought I might stay a few minutes and then head off to drumming. No chance. Apart from being a great meal (and about a truck load of wine), the party was a celebration of the staff’s achievements.

The big event was the announcement of the Employee of the Quarter award. In the last quarter, Nguyen Van Minh won the award; I first met Minh back in 2002 as a shoeshine in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Today, another of Blue Dragon’s young people received the Award – Le Hoai Hai.

Hai is an orphan, and unlike most orphans he doesn’t know anything at all about his background. His earliest memory is of walking the streets in Hanoi, selling chewing gum. He was probably 5 or 6 years old. A local woman named Phuong saw him and took him into her home – now, eleven years later, he’s still there, and has even assumed Phuong’s family name.
Hai’s time at The Vine hasn’t always gone smoothly. He’s quit twice, when the pressure seemed to be too great. One time, a local journalist persuaded him to answer some questions for her by promising Hai guaranteed entry into a sports academy – so he quit his job the next day! But each time this has happened, Tu the Executive Chef has urged him to come back to work and sorted out any problems.

So today’s award is a massive feather in Hai’s cap. Receiving Employee of the Quarter is really something when there’s a staff of 100!

It’s a pity I missed the drumming, but what a treat to see one of the poorest and most vulnerable young people we work with receiving his certificate.

Congratulations, Hai – and welcome back, Little Chung!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The vanishing

One of the realities of life when working with street children is that many of the kids come and go - the little girl we take to the doctor today with a severe case of bronchitis might suddenly decide to leave Hanoi tonight, and we can only hope that she is somewhere safe and taking her medicine.

But we don't know, and there's nothing we can do about it.

It's very rare that one of our kids disappears permanently; some have mysteriously vanished for over a year before coming back to us. Just last week, a boy named Nhon started sending me text messages from Ho Chi Minh City - we last saw him when he stole a bicycle from another one of the kids 18 months ago!

(For those volunteers and friends who knew us during 2004 and 2005, Nhon is the shoeshine boy who gave me Bob, the cat. And considering what a psychopathic freak Bob turned out to be, it was in Nhon's best interest to leave Hanoi!)

So usually when kids 'disappear', we don't worry too much. We know they'll be back.

Except... Since Tet (Lunar New Year), one of our young guys has disappeared, and I have a really bad feeling about it.

T is 16 - or so he says. Actually he has no idea - no birth certificate or official registration papers; and his father is the last person on earth who would have bothered to remember what year his son was born in.

T has been living on the streets for most of his life, and smoking heroin for the last year or so. My staff and I have been trying everything to get him to quit. We've known that, once he starts injecting, it's just a matter of time before he contracts HIV.

With no special expertise in helping drug users, and no resources to rely on other than instinct, we've encouraged and supported T as much as we could. We gave him his own special corner of the office in which to keep his few belongings, so that he could at least have a place to identify as his own. We included him in all the normal outings that we could, took him along with us for lunch and dinner, experimented with confrontational and non-confrontational approaches, and even saved his life when a drug dealer was threatening to kill him. The same dealer has been switching between exploiting him and caring for him, leaving T both dependant and terrified. T has been visibly torn between embracing the support of Blue Dragon, and submitting his soul to these vile drug dealers.

About 3 weeks ago, he turned up at the center with his arms looking like pin cushions. Bad news.

And now he's vanished.

The last time I saw T was on the eve of Lunar New Year. One of the Social Workers, Tung, had been here at the center and left a little before midnight to see the fireworks down at Hoan Kiem Lake. I was getting ready for bed when the doorbell rang... T was in tears, confused, ashamed to be alone on the eve of the New Year.

He wasn't stoned - for the first time I had seen him in a long time. Reality was hitting him hard.

So we watched the fire works from the top floor of the building - he 'wow-ed' and 'whoa-ed' with the awe of a little boy.

For the following hours, he was restless: something was wrong, but he didn't know what. Was it withdrawals? Or just the agony of realising how alone he is in life? I wanted to ask him where the dealers were, and why they had abandoned him on such an important night.

Finally T left, mumbling about going to see someone – and we haven’t seen him since.

In a police operation last week, the dealers were all arrested. Was he with them at the time? Or did he see the police coming and think that he was in trouble, and ran away?

This afternoon I was sorting through some bags that I found when we were moving into the new center earlier this week. Out of one bag fell a piece of paper, with T’s name, written over and over. Just a few months back, we started teaching T how to read and write his name, and other important words such as “Vietnam”. We had such hope. Things seemed to be going so well for him.

This isn’t the end of the story, though. One thing I have learned is that the story never ends; something more will always happen, for better or for worse.

Now it’s almost midnight here in Hanoi; it’s raining and it’s cold. I don’t know where T is sleeping tonight; I don’t know how the next chapter of this story will be written.

I can only hope that it will be for better.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Not just a building

I’m not the sort of guy who gets excited about bricks and mortar.

Nice new facilities and modern equipment do not mean good services for kids; there are plenty of international NGOs right here in Hanoi that are up with expensive offices and staff cars, and back in the dark ages when it comes to service delivery.

But I have to confess that I am feeling pretty excited today about our new building. Because it’s not just a building – it’s now the center where the 100 or so disadvantaged kids in our programs can come for classes, medical help, activities, and a DVD or two.

Up until now, Blue Dragon’s street children center has been based in the same building as our offices (and my home!) As of today, though, the center is a building all on its own, just a few doors away from our current building, which is still used for offices and a computer classroom.

This gives us loads more space to work with the kids – 4 classrooms instead of 1! And 2 psychology rooms instead of none!

Maybe it’s not the building that I’m excited about, but the opportunity for us to achieve more with the kids.

- THANKS (again!) to those people who have contributed to getting us set up with the equipment… I really don’t like spending money on furniture, but of course there’s certain equipment (such as classroom seats!) that we need in order to provide services to the children. We’re just about there now - we started off needing over $3000 but thanks to donations of money and equipment, we now need only about $700 more. Christine Becksted and Robert from Giving It Back To Kids deserve a very special thank you.

- On another train of thought altogether (isn’t that what blogging is about??) an Australian woman who volunteers full time in Hoian, Nicole Woods, is in Hanoi this week making contacts and enjoying the northern drizzle. I’ll be meeting Nicole on Thursday to work out how Blue Dragon can help the Street Children’s Center that she works at in Central Vietnam. More on this later!

- And finally, some news about the spate of attacks against our kids over the past 2 months. Our local policeman, Mr Thang, reports that the man who was behind three attacks (including robbing a child at knifepoint) has now been caught and will be spending the next couple of years getting his back tattooed. (It’s a Vietnamese prison-culture thing). While I wouldn’t wish prison on anybody, I can’t feel too sorry for people who make a living out of robbing street kids.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

In the News

A quick note today. Hanoi is slowly coming back to life and Blue Dragon is still (sorta kinda) closed. Some quiet days...

The Vietnam News Agency has run an article on the hair styles our kids were getting as Tet presents. It's mostly accurate (which is the most you can hope for sometimes) and worth a read:

- BIG THANKS to the people who have responded to our request for help to buy equipment! We still need funds to buy study desks and gear for the children's center, so contact me if you can help.

- We had a small victory in the fight against the gangs of thieves who have been robbing our kids. We tracked one of the thieves down to his family home, and (with some careful negoatiation) eventually received a note of apology and a refund of the money the guy stole from one of our children.

- The kids are coming back from holidays now... Football starts up again on Sunday and the office is officially open on Monday.

Life's good!