Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A wild ride

It's a beautiful winter day in Hanoi - the sun sparkles through the pollution and the morning looks absolutely amazing.

Riding my Vespa to breakfast, another rider came alongside and, rather than slowing down or going around me, rammed into my bike, hitting the leg of the teen pillion who was coming with me. The young guy lost his shoe, but was otherwise unharmed. And the rider who hit him? Not a hint of regret, not even the slightest look of apology. So, he just hit a kid - but so what?

Tarah, a young Canadian volunteer teaching art to street children, was riding her bike, on the way to meet us at breakfast. Stopped at a traffic light, a local woman caught her eye. Tarah flashed a smile, thinking the woman might be somebody she knew. The woman replied by calling out, in Vietnamese, "Your motorbike is ugly."

Good morning, Hanoi.

Life as an expat here is not easy. There are daily frustrations, cultural misunderstandings and crossed communications. Not so long ago, I wrote about our neighbourhood being on the verge of riot in anger over a homeless child in our care having a small accident on the street. Since then, two more incidents have occurred - the latest being a drunk man attacking one of our staff and warning that he planned to hire a hit-man to finish him off.

There are easier jobs than this, and easier paths to walk.

The lead up to Christmas and new year is always a time for reflection and self evaluation. What am I doing with my life? Have I done something worthwhile this year? How will I use my time and resources next year?

My own conclusion: 2006 has been a wild ride.

The year started with a spate of muggings - Blue Dragon kids were being robbed, sometimes at knife point, by local thugs. We put a stop to it eventually, but not before many tears were shed.

In February things settled down considerably: we moved our center into a new building and I travelled to Singapore with two former street kids, Vi and Minh. When I got back to Vietnam, I was faced with one of the most emotional cases of the year: one of our young guys made the huge decision to go into drug rehab, and he has been there since.

While I spent most of April in Australia, April to June saw the beginnings of our work to stop child trafficking from central regions to the south. That work is still in its early days, and definitely still a work in progress, but we have had a significant impact already and are well placed now to launch an official project in 2007. Battling with child traffickers was definitely one of the major events of the year.

The summer months had some rough patches: our office was burgled, and then we went through an extortion attempt that culminated in a bomb threat. We were all glad to see a resolution to that. Our swimming lessons for street kids are much happier memories of the summer months.

In August and September, I set off on my own adventure across the sea, sailing from San Fransisco to Hawaii. To summarise in two simple words: Never Again.

Since getting back to Vietnam in mid September, I have been concentrating on consolidating our growth in Hanoi, while also planning for an expansion of our work in Hue and Saigon. We opened both a residence and a Learning Center in the space of 10 days, while dealing with the hostility from our neighbours over their disapproval of street kids being given access to a chance at a better life.

A wild ride, indeed. Huge highs, and some lows that I would rather not have seen.

And now the big question: What about next year?

The low points of 2006 are not a reason for me to give up; actually, they are the inspiration for me to keep going. If people treated our kids well, and if the opportunities for them to get ahead in life were alredy there, what work would I have to do? The "lows" are not an obstacle: they are the very reason for me being here.

I couldn't have predicted most of the developments that occured this year, so I surely cannot predict how 2007 will turn out. Undoubtedly it will be another wild ride, with great joys and awful sorrows, as well as all the frustrations and difficulties in between.

Bring it on, I say.

Monday, December 18, 2006

In the Que

Since returning from Saigon, I have spent most of my time either in the countryside, or working with people who have come from the countryside to visit Blue Dragon.

Here in Vietnam, the local word for 'countryside' is 'que' - pronounced something like "where" with a "k" on the front. The word is also often used as an insult... When somebody has an accident, or does something silly, they might be put down as a "Nha Que", meaning their home is in the countryside.

But for a foreigner living in Hanoi, getting out into the que is a highlight of the week. Even, it seems, for Vietnamese people: a chance to escape the constant noise and rush of the city is a blessing!

A team of staff, volunteers, and street kids travelled together to Bac Ninh, about 30kms from Hanoi, to help paint a house. The family is very poor, and we support their children to attend school through the Stay In School sponsorship program. The kids and adults alike painted the entire house in just one day - quite a feat, I think!

A few days later, I travelled to Hung Yen to meet a boy named To. In recent weeks, To had run away from home and found himself on the doorstep of Blue Dragon Children's Foundation. He's a great kid, and his family loves him very much - in fact, it occured to me that if only ALL of our kids had such loving families, our jobs would be over! The family had organised a small feast, and we celebrated together over lunch. A very happy visit.

And then on Friday of last week, I travelled to Thanh Hoa province with our lawyer, Van, to visit some of the families we support in that province. It was a 4 hour drive each way, but only 130 kms or so.

We met with several kids, but in particular the family of Nghia, who I wrote about in my last blog. He's at home now with his folks, and much happier. He's thinking about doing some vocational training, but not sure just what yet. Before now, he's never really had the luxury of choice!

Over Christmas and new year, we expect to meet up with more of our 'old' kids - the girls and boys who have been and gone, but stay in touch and often still recieve our help, if they need it.

Some of the kids have also been making a journey of another kind to mark the passing of the year. Here at Blue Dragon, many kids have relatives in prison, and it's quite common that the prisons are far from the city. Getting there and getting in is something of an ordeal.

On Sunday, one of our Social Workers, Phuong, started to take the kids, one at a time, to visit their mums and dads in prison. It's such a sad thing to do, such a miserable task, and yet the kids are so happy to have this chance. Most of them keep the fact of their parents' imprisonment a secret: the children will often say that their mother is dead rather than admit to the truth. It's so painful for them, but seeing their parents or relatives for just one hour brings great joy. A difficult journey, with an invaluable result.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Big Secret

This evening I am writing from Saigon - I flew here on Thursday night for a quick holiday, and will head back to Hanoi on Sunday. Just a few days' escape.

Thursday finished on an awfully sad note; one of our kids and his mother were given some bad news from the children's hospital.

The boy, Duc, is about 14 and has a growth hormone deficiency. Mother and son have been to so many doctors, and had so many contradictory diagnoses, that their levels of hope for recovery have risen and fallen a hundred times over. One of our Australian volunteers, Skye, and a staff member, Lam, have been accompanying them to various hospitals and doctors, both foreign and local, in search of a definitive answer to their questions - can Duc be treated? What medicines does he need? How will his condition impact his health and future?

Simple questions, but no simple answers. Some doctors at Hanoi Family Medical Practice have become deeply involved - one doctor even accompanied Duc to a local hospital on Thursday. But the final verdict is that Duc cannot grow any more. There is no possibility of treatment.

Duc and his mother are pretty upset. They have been through so much - Duc's health is just one of many problems - and this is yet another blow to them both.

But... when I get back to Hanoi I believe I'll have some good news for them. It won't make up for all the suffering they have been through so far, but it will help. More on that during the week.

There have been some good developments, too, for some other kids. Another of our teens, who has a facial growth that keeps getting bigger, seems to have been accepted for surgery in Australia in March, and has just been issued with a passport. Now we must get him and his mum a visa, and find somewhere for them to stay in Brisbane.

And here in Saigon, a very sudden and unexpected development: a new street kid has joined us!

Blue Dragon has no official work in the south - not yet! - but there's an increasing number of street kids here with whom we have contact. Yesterday, I met a shoeshine boy named Nghia (That's him in the photo below). He's from Thanh Hoa, in the north, and has been working here for about two months.

He hates it; he's miserable and he misses his family. But poverty and some family breakdown have lead him to the south, where he earns money for his mother and send it home every couple of weeks.

Nghia is one of these kids who just breaks my heart. He's smart, kind, and honest - and shining shoes on the street. Such a waste of a great, valuable life.

I had one of the Blue Dragon staff help me talk to Nghia to see how we could help - what would I do without a mobile phone? - and Nghia says he wants to go home, finish Grade 9, then study a Vocational Training course. He refused to take any money, and told my staff over the phone that he has already saved enough money to buy a bus ticket back home. But he was very anxious to know that we will help him once he returns to the countryside: Can we really help him and his mother? Will we pay his school fees? Is there a way that we can send him to study a vocational course?

If only I could tell him: It's all so easy. The Big Secret of charity work is that it's ALL easy. It's just a matter of will.

Our growth-hormone deficient boy, Duc: We can't make him grow, but we can ensure a high quality of life at least until he gets through university. We've recently employed his mum, so she no longer has to sell fruit in the market from 5.30am until nightfall; now she's a carer during the weekdays, looking after a small group of homeless kids.

And Quan, with the facial growth: In Australia, the operation that he needs is not such a big deal. It's no walk in the park, but it's fairly routine. There's no need for him to spend his whole life with the deformity.

Now for Nghia: Yes, we can get him home and back to school. Why not? All we have to do is talk to his school, visit his home, and organise to pay school fees and check his attendance.

It's so, so easy. Just a matter of will; and my staff and I have plenty of that.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Here's an article of interest: Study Finds Wealth Inequality Is Widening Worldwide

The key finding of the report is astonishing: the wealthiest 1% of the world owns 40% of the "world's net worth".

The poorest 50% own 1.1% of the world's wealth.


And that was in 2000...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Bazaar Days, Royal Nights

Hanoi’s International Women’s Club held its Christmas Bazaar on Sunday – always a huge affair, and one of the Big Days on the calendar for expats living here. It’s a day of mad shopping and meeting up with all the friends you haven’t seen for months, and 100% of the money goes to charities, like Blue Dragon. Christmas shopping without the commercialism!

Each year, Blue Dragon has a stall selling some of our wares – honey, jewelry made by the kids, greeting cards and shirts. This year, we went even further… We helped the Club out by managing the parking (1500 motorbikes!) and a troupe of the Dragon Drummers put on a terrific performance – the best they’ve done yet, I believe.

(So good, in fact, that the New Zealand Ambassador and his wife, James and Alison, shouted them all to NZ ice cream afterwards! Woo hoo!)

It was a big day for us, with almost every staff member volunteering at least half of their Sunday.

And on Tuesday night, a royal affair at the Melia Hotel… The celebration of the King of Thailand’s birthday. Long live the King!

The Thai Embassy has done something quite special. They have asked other embassies and international organisations to NOT send the usual bouquet of flowers; but instead, to make a contribution towards Blue Dragon.

We’ve committed to using this money for a nutrition program aimed specifically at the girls. At the time of writing, I don’t know how much money this has raised, but regardless of the final outcome, I am touched by the Ambassador’s generosity. I had only met him and his wife once before this!

As Director of Blue Dragon, one of my duties is raising funds for our work with street kids. I call it a ‘duty’ because that’s what it is – if I don’t raise the money, the kids don’t go to school. It’s something I have to do.

But it isn’t something I enjoy. If anything, I see it as a distraction from my ‘real’ work, of overseeing Blue Dragon’s programs and getting to know the kids. So when somebody like the Thai Ambassador, or the Head of Irish Aid (see my last post!) calls me to offer support, I am always deeply grateful.

It’s also very moving to be contacted by people around the world who know me only through the blog, and want to lend a hand. Of course, it’s not me they want to help – it’s our kids – but I can’t help but feel like a lucky guy to receive such support.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Catherine Hancock in Australia who, totally out of the blue, emailed to ask if she could donate the proceeds from her New Year’s Eve party to Blue Dragon. She’s calling the evening “A touch of Blue” and has invited all her friends.

In Singapore, the staff of Barclay’s Bank got together to send us a shipment of hygiene and toiletry products that we will use for the kids who visit our center every day. What they have sent amounts to a year’s supply for us!

And this week, we received a donation of shampoo, soap, OMO and toothpaste from the local staff of a Russian company here in Hanoi. Initially I was contacted by a woman named Phuong, who said that she had just received her first paycheck and wanted to make a contribution to charity. She then got her colleagues involved, and others at CBOSS joined in the collection. From Phuong and her friends, we have a year’s supply of toiletries for the kids at our residences. Thank you!

We are fortunate to have such good friends…

All of these events remind me, though, to never lose sight of what Blue Dragon is really here for: the kids. We spent the weekend and Monday working with another run away boy, To, who seems to have been in a fight with his school teacher, and fled in panic! His parents came to Hanoi and were delighted to see him again.

And we have been keeping in touch with Loc, who I wrote about earlier, and is back with his family in the countryside. A couple of photos of Loc’s home are below; you can see he kind of poverty he is living in. We’re looking for some ways to help the whole family out.

Finally… A salute to Our Man In Hanoi, aka Steve, an English volunteer who has been working in a Vocational Training restaurant the past couple of years. Steve is moving on – a difficult thing to do after being here so long – and I understand his next move is to work with another project for street kids in another country. Farewell, OMIH…

Monday, December 04, 2006

Blue Dragon's Irish Heritage

Another huge week at Blue Dragon, and another occasion for me to apologise that I have not been blogging more!

Last week - November 29 to be exact - we had a visit by a member of Ireland's parliament, Mr Noel Dempsey, along with the new Irish Ambassador to Vietnam and a team of staffers involved in setting up the Embassy and organising Mr Dempsey's trip.

The occasion was the launch of Blue Dragon's Learning Center, a facility with a computer lab, reading room, and psychology counselling space for the street kids in our project.

I have to boast for a moment about the Blue Dragon staff... we set the computer lab up in just a week, which included painting the room; getting the computers, desks and chairs; installing everything; and then preparing the rest of the house, which used to be a residence, and so was pretty dirty. Another minor miracle performed by the most amazing staff team in Vietnam.

The Irish delegation were great - they really connected with the kids, which took me by surprise at first. I later found out that the Minister used to be a school teacher and counsellor, so I quickly offered him a job with us, should he get tired of politics. I'm still waiting for his call...

Of course, there are some strong links between Blue Dragon and Ireland. One of our volunteers is the daughter of the man who founded Finnegan's Bar here in Hanoi. And somebody once translated Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as Young Man" into Vietnamese and then donated the proceeds from the launch to us. All of this is very impressive. But the real connection between us came through soccer games at the United Nations International School, where I often meet Sean Hoy, Head of Irish Aid, while his son and the Blue Dragon kids played.

All those early mornings at soccer have been worthwhile! The best thing about this new Learning Center is that it provides our kids with resources that are the very best available. There's no organisation or business in the country with a better computer lab than ours; even the teacher is one of the best in the country.

No wonder, then, that we've already had an attempted break-in... But thankfully, the Irish grant included funds for an alarm system.