Friday, July 21, 2006

Mothers, swimmers, and dragons

It's midday Friday, and I am sitting in my office at the Blue Dragon center.

The last 24 hours have been quite full, and I am still processing what I have seen and done.

Thursday morning started in Hue, in Central Vietnam, where Blue Dragon has helped about 25 families whose children were trafficked to Saigon. Our lawyer, Van, met me there (I travelled north from my holiday in Hoi An, he travelled south from Hanoi) so that we could see the families and make sure they were able to enrol their kids for the coming school year.

As we travelled about, we came across a quite exceptional family living on the beach.

Their house was tiny and cramped, made of scrap and lacking electricity. We only saw the mother, as the father was out working as a fisherman.

The four children were home - including the youngest two, who were infant twins, born by caesarean.

Van and I were drawn to this home by an unusual sight: a huge frame, hanging near the door, filled with certificates of excellence from the school of the two older children - 10 certificates in all.

This mother was so proud of her children's achievements that she had given their certificates pride of place in the home. Her son and daughter study at night by tiny oil lamps - undoubtedly to the detriment of their vision - but despite all of their hardships, they are succeeding.

And that's not all. Here's the real twist to the tale: A trafficker named Phuc has come to buy the children, offering nearly $200 each. The trafficker has come five times to try to convince the mother.

Five times.

The family could use the money to pay off most of their debt.

Or they could get the electricity connected.

Or they could repair their tiny house.

But this mother wants her kids in school, and she refuses to succumb to the trafficker's pleas.

What a beautiful mum.

Now that I am back at work, I have a mountain of paperwork to see to - so I did the only sensible thing this morning, and went swimming.

While I was on holiday, our staff started swimming lessons for street kids. Each adult is responsible for teaching just 2 or 3 kids.

What a great thing to see: children who love the water actually learning how to swim, how to survive.

I had expected that the kids would be most interested in playing about rather than learning, but what I saw this morning was terrific - they were really putting an effort into practising their breathing, or strokes, and asking the teachers questions about technique. Well done, kids! You've given me a way to avoid my work while feeling that I am doing something good.

(Swimming photos by Adam Hurley - thanks Adam!)

And finally - some Aussie dragons. Sophie from the Shout! group at North Sydney High recently sent me a CD of photos of her school mates dragon dancing earlier this year to raise funds for Blue Dragon.

Dragon dancing is a common activity in Vietnam and China, loaded with symbolism and tradition.

The girls at North Sydney might not have captured all of that symbolism and meaning - but more than made up for it with enthusiasm and laughs!

Thanks, girls.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Where am I?

It’s been a while since I last blogged – but no, I haven’t been abducted by aliens (would you be surprised if I was?)

In fact, I’ve been on holidays in beautiful Hoian. I kept this off the blog until now, because last time I was away for an extended period, somebody took the opportunity to break into my office and steal the main Blue Dragon computer. We got it back, but it took a flurry of emails between Sydney, Sai Gon and Ha Noi; and my lead Social Worker had to pretend that he isn’t Vietnamese. Considering how much work that took, I thought I’d just shut up about being out of town this time. (And I really don’t think that Tung wanted to go through the ‘me no speak Vietnamese’ routine again).

So – Hoian. Fantastic beaches, the best food in Vietnam, and friendly people everywhere.

I’ve been hanging out at the Blue Dragon restaurant most of the time. This isn’t my restaurant, but a privately owned business run by some Vietnamese friends of mine. I helped them get started, and they help Blue Dragon by donating part of their profit every month. It’s a perfect arrangement.

As usual, I haven’t been able to stay away from work completely. Today while I was at Ha My beach, I got talking to some staff who are building a new resort right on the beach. The staff, Dung and Anh, were 15 and 13 years old respectively, and work 11 hours a day, 7 days per week, in return for less than $30US per month.

Naturally, I expect that this is because the owners of the resort are:

a) Very poor people, who have somehow scraped together a few million dollars to develop this new complex - or

b) Planning to make this a very inexpensive resort - $5 per night, children stay for free! – or

c) Greedy bastards who don’t mind exploiting children.

Take your pick. And where’s John Pilger when you need him?

This is not an unusual practice, though. My friend who owns the Blue Dragon restaurant once worked for Victoria Resort, where he too earned about $30 per month. I wonder if the people staying at these places realise how little the staff are paid?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Something to celebrate

We've had a few exciting events this week that are definitely worth sharing.

On Wednesday morning, Blue Dragon threw a party for 12 of our kids who have received Certificates of Excellence for their results in the 2005-06 school year. Although they've already been given their certificates, issued by their schools, we made up a special Blue Dragon certificate for them to hang on their walls as well.

Their achievement is truly something to celebrate. It would be so easy for them to accept their difficult situations and drop out of school, or perform poorly, and blame it on their poverty. But they haven't done that, and so the future is theirs for the taking.

At the same party, we awarded certificates to children who received bicycles from us last year... and who still have them!

It's easy for our kids to 'lose' their bikes - which may mean that they sold them, or gave them to a relative who demanded it. There's a lot of theft in our area, too, so the kids must take extra precautions to keep their property safe. Our small ceremony was intended to congratulate those kids who have cared for the bicycles, and so have shown that they value what they own.

Also this week, we have started a new program for our kids: a daily lunch hour for our most malnourished children.

A few years back, an Australian man living in Hanoi who works as a "development economist" told me in all seriousness that there is no malnutrition in Hanoi. I don't know who was paying him to believe that, but I see malnourished children EVERY DAY of the week.

Many of our kids are physically under developed, and their minds are much 'younger' than they ought to be, too. So of course, these kids are way behind in school, and every week we are dealing with the health issues that arise as a result: ulcers, infections, and all kinds of mystery illnesses that could be cured by some fruit and a healthy drink.

So, although we are focusing on longer-term goals such as education and training, as opposed to food handouts, many of our kids need to improve their diet in order to get ahead in life.

One of our kids (who now happens to work at The Vine) is the chef, and the meals are amazing. Brown rice, freshly made spring rolls, soup, fish, fruit, yoghurt... we've got all the bases covered. We're planning to measure the kids' growth over time, to compare with kids who do not attend the lunches, to see how effective the program is.

And one other achievement this week - a whirligig on a roof!

Countless houses in Hanoi have them; they are like an exhaust fan on the roof, sucking out hot air and creating a gentle breeze from bottom to top.

One of the boys in our program, Ha, lives in a tiny, stuffy house that is just hot all summer long. Ha's dad is severely crippled from polio, and so never, ever leaves the house.

Today, two volunteers, Eric and Andrew, climbed up onto Ha's roof, cut a hole in it, and installed the whirligig. The temperature is already a couple of degrees lower. So simple!

Another satisfied customer...

Sunday, July 02, 2006

University, not brooms

Some weeks ago I mentioned that Blue Dragon was participating in the World Bank Innovation Day, competing for funds to run programs for disadvantaged youth.

Since then, a few people have written to ask me the result - we lost! Our two proposals failed to gain support.

This was kinda surprising for us, because we (obviously) believed that the proposals were very good. One was to help disadvantaged girls improve their chances of navigating through the education system; the other was to train people who work with disabled kids and youth.

So what were the winning proposals, if ours didn't make the grade?

They were much simpler proposals than ours - whereas we tried to be comprehensive (resource booklets for families, workshops with role models, training packages, a photography course and exhibition), the winning proposals were much 'neater' packages. One was simply to rent a room that children could visit; another was to teach poor children to make a video documentary about themselves.

In light of missing out on up to $20,000 in funding, my staff and I have to ask if we should have done things differently. Should we have made our proposals simpler, too?

And the answer to that is: no.

Many of the winning proposals will result in fun activities for poor children, but they'll do nothing to get anybody out of poverty.

Some proposals, in fact, were clearly aimed at keeping people IN poverty!

Activities such as teaching orphans to make straw brooms or to create paper flowers are the antithesis of anti-poverty programs. But these are the proposals that won.

Or maybe I am just naive! Maybe teaching children low-value skills, such as how to make a broom, really is a good idea. Forget computers and school, kids - the future is in straw brooms!

At the same time that we were competing for the Innovation Day funding, one of our kids - a boy named hoang - was heading to Sai Gon to sit an entrance exam to university. (Hoang is pictured below, standing with the bike).

When I met Hoang, he was a shoe shine boy. His parents had died a few years earlier in a flood, so Hoang had quit school to earn money for his elderly grandparents, and also for his younger sisters - so that they could go to school.

Blue Dragon got Hoang off the streets and into a motorbike repair course. He did really well in his studies, and then returned to the countryside where for the next two years he worked part time in a repair shop, while going to school during the evenings.

Now he's applying for uni, so that he can be a sports teacher.

Hoang is an inspiration to me, and everybody who knows him is amazed at his achievements. From shoeshine to university... it doesn't happen very often.

But if only I had persuaded Hoang to make brooms instead, I might have received that funding!