Monday, December 24, 2007

And so, this is Christmas?

It's Christmas! And the celebrations are everywhere throughout Hanoi.

But a teenage boy in Hue has reminded me that not everyone is enjoying the festive season...

Chau is 17 years old and from a very poor family; they consider themselves lucky to have a tin house built on sand by the beach where Chau's father earns a pittance as a fisherman.

Two years ago, Chau was trafficked to Ho Chi Minh City to work in a garment factory. He's not alone - countless kids are trafficked for such work every year. None of the big NGOs or UN agencies are interested in solving this problem, because it's women being trafficked for sex that brings them the big donor money. Kids like Chau don't get any attention or any support at all, from anyone.

In his first year in the little factory (which is run by a family rather than a corporation), Chau earned 2 million dong. That's $125 US for 12 months work. Chau, like all the thousands of others in the same predicament, worked 7 days a week, from 7am to midnight - or longer, if there was a big order.


In his second year, Chau's pay was doubled! $250 for an entire year! If he could just keep working for another 500 years, he'd be rich.


But a few weeks ago, Chau fell suddenly ill. His glands around his throat started to swell. He started to vomit. He couldn't keep up at work.


So the boss sent him home - back to the village with you, kid.


A Blue Dragon staff member happened to be in Chau's village last week, and by chance heard about this. So he went to see Chau, who was in agony and could hardly move. His parents were desperate to help, but so poor that they can't afford to see a doctor. All they could do was ask the local fortune teller to come and pray over him.


Our staff took Chau straight to Hue hospital, about 40kms from the village. A series of tests came back with the diagnosis: cancer. And without immediate medical intervention, Chau was facing a slow and agonising death.


I'm still not totally satisfied with the diagnosis; there's too much that I don't understand, mostly because of language barriers. But the doctors have started treatment and are taking good care of Chau. We have a volunteer who lives in Hue visiting Chau and his family twice a day and sending us reports, and after Christmas an American doctor who lives in Hoi An will visit Chau to help us get an accurate picture of his condition. (Not that there's anything wrong with the local doctors - just that the translation is too difficult).


The family business that has exploited Chau for the last 2 years don't plan to contribute anything. We'll see about that. But our focus now must stay on Chau's treatment. I just hope we are not too late to help this boy.



Saturday, December 22, 2007

And today, some happy news

Some good news that many people have been waiting for - Ngoc has been released from hospital.

He's not at home yet, because his family's house isn't safe and clean enough. The house has an asbestos roof, and there's no water supply - plus a few other problems that would effect Ngoc's health while he is still regaining his strength. Ngoc's lungs are very weak, and it's very difficult for him to move about. But he's hoping to be at the Blue Dragon centre on Christmas day!

Blue Dragon is organising the house repairs, and meanwhile Ngoc is at the home of an uncle whose house is much more conducive to recovery. Anybody wanting to contribute to this repair work is welcome to contact me at bluedragon@bdcf.org.

Many people who have visited us would know one of our 'kids' - Vi, who is captain of the bar at The Vine. Vi is a young man now, but when I first met him 5 years ago he was shining shoes on the streets to support his family in the countryside.

Working for The Vine is an achievement in itself; The Vine is a fine food and wine restuarant owned by Canadian chef Donald Berger. The restaurant is something of an oasis in the midst of busy, bustling Hanoi.

This week, Vi was awarded not one, but two prizes - for Best Employee of both the 2nd and 3rd quarters of this year! That's Vi below holding a certificate; Donald is beside him.

What a long, long way Vi has come - but for sure he has many more achievements ahead.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bursting with talent

Over the past year, Blue Dragon has been offering nutrition clubs and cooking classes tailored particularly for our girls. The program began with donations from the Thai Embassy in Hanoi, and has grown into something pretty special.


Last Sunday was the final cooking club for 2007, and to showcase what the girls have been learning, they held a cook-off. All of this was organised by our Social Worker Phuong, who has run the club every weekend for the past 8 months. I was lucky enough to be one of the judges…



Each girl in the club has her own story. There are some pretty down and out tales to be told; some of the members live in frightening conditions. But on Sunday, they stood in their aprons behind the dishes they had carefully prepared, while 6 judges sampled their fare. It was all very dignified and stately.


The winner on the day was the team that prepared an Irish Stew. The three other teams cooked a shrimp hotpot; spaghetti bolognese; and risotto. Plus desserts!


And on Monday night, almost 50 of our kids joined with the KOTO trainees for a Christmas party in the beautiful KOTO restaurant. It was fascinating to observe the similarities and differences among our two groups of kids. The KOTO trainees seemed so much more confident and at ease than many of our kids, some of whom are much younger and seemed overawed by all the excitement. But one of our boys, Chinh, summed it up this morning: “It was wonderful.” And it was. Thanks, KOTO!


To pay our respects to KOTO for organising and hosting the party, the Blue Dragon children put
on a show. Our drummers performed some rhythms with the accompaniment of tap dancing by one of our IT guys – bizarre. You had to be there.


A few of our hip hop dancers put on a performance as well. This is the first time that I have seen them in action. They were awesome! Was I ever that agile?


And the drama group also put on a show; I didn’t understand a word, but the audience was in stitches from start to finish. The drama kids shone like the stars that they are.

Too often at Blue Dragon, we deal with the all the bad bits: the traumas, the sorrows, the failures, the violence. (Half way through writing this entry, I was called to a school to rescue one of our kids who was attacked by 4 hoodlums on a motorbike – one with a knife). To see the kids putting their talents on display like this reminds me what a worthwhile job we are doing.







Friday, December 14, 2007

Remember this

Caring for Ngoc has been the dominant activity at Blue Dragon this week; but we’ve certainly had lots of other things going on as well. Thursday was our monthly celebration, when we remember all the kids’ birthdays and mark any achievements or milestones in their lives. We’re also holding our breath as one of our kids goes for a job interview at the Hilton this weekend… and we’ve developed a mentoring program for the boys in our Link program, which supports kids who have been living on the streets and in serious conflict with the law.

But news about Ngoc is the most exciting. He’s still in hospital, but is now hooked up to only one drip. He looks fine – but this morning while I was visiting he was working his lungs by trying to inflate the bladder from a volley ball. At first, it was almost impossible for him; his lungs are far weaker than I had thought. We are still hoping that he’ll be able to go home within a week. And what a party we have in mind.

Last night, 6 of the Blue Dragon kids invaded the hospital armed with balloons, decorations, cards and signs. They plastered the walls of Ngoc’s little room and transformed it into something festive and bright. I hid in the corner, certain the hospital staff would be outraged. But quite the opposite! Patients, visitors, nurses and doctors came by to have a look, and the whole thing became quite an event. Our kids managed, without even trying, to cheer up the entire ward.

Details surrounding what happened to Ngoc last Thursday night have now become clear. He remembers it all, with shocking clarity. He remembers the 3 young men on a motorbike asking for someone with a similar name… He remembers the leader of the trio pulling out a machete and starting the attack… He remembers the blood as he fell to the ground.

Ngoc also remembers blacking out for a short time, and waking up to see the attackers still standing nonchalantly nearby. They were watching him die, or so they thought. As they climbed back on their bike to leave, the last thing the leader said to him was: “Remember me.”

Such arrogance. But now, a week later, Ngoc does indeed remember him: well enough to have given the police a thorough description. The police now know who the attackers are. As tough as they were that night, the 3 guys have run away and are in hiding. Not so tough after all.

Ngoc is on the mend; his health will never be perfect, but he should soon resume his normal life. For the attackers, however, the future is grim. They’ll be caught, and they’ll spend at least a decade each in prison. That should give them plenty of time to remember Ngoc.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The final cut

For the first time since Thursday night, Ngoc is sleeping outside the emergency ward.

He's been moved to another ward where he has a semi-private room and - at least when I have seen him! - a whole team of nurses to attend to his wounds. At any given time, Ngoc is well and truly in the running for the Most Popular Patient in the hospital... not only in terms of the number of visitors, but also among the staff. This angel has touched so many people's hearts.

We've also heard the news that the police have identified the attacker; we don't know yet if he's been arrested, but if not then it's only a matter of time. The authorities are taking this with the seriousness it deserves and are really doing an incredibly thorough job.

From hereon, Ngoc's progress is certain to be steady. (I've never, ever, heard of anyone recovering so quickly from anything like this). So I am going to make this my last blog about Ngoc until there's some more substantial news. Any of Ngoc's friends and supporters can drop me a line any time if they're eager for an update.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Cut, 4

(If you're checking in to this blog for the first time in a while, scroll down and see the first "Cut" entry).

The news is getting better for Ngoc.

There are no more tubes down his throat or nose; now just drainage tubes from his lungs and side. As painful as this must be, Ngoc is managing to smile and look as though everything is just fine!

The doctors have started talking about moving him out of the emergency ward, but he'll stay there for at least another 2 days so that he gets the best attention possible. They're doing a great job of caring for Ngoc... Although they still wish that less visitors would come see him.

Ngoc is hugely encouraged by the visitors and friends and warm wishes. This morning, some former volunteers (now in Canada) emailed a photo of themselves holding up a message to Ngoc; seeing this cheered him immensely. And the police have also dropped by to gather information about the attacker. Ngoc really needs to know that these people will be caught so that, in coming weeks, he can go home without looking over his shoulder.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Cut, 3

THANK YOU to everyone who has been sending messages of support to Ngoc. He truly appreciates them - despite everything, your words of comfort are making him smile!

Last night Ngoc's temperature started to rise, which is almost certainly a sign of an infection. But whatever the cause, Ngoc is still gradually improving. He's fully conscious but when the pain becomes too severe he's given some sedatives to help him through. At the moment, the main source of his pain is the work that was done on his lungs and kidney. He's going to be feeling rather sore for a long time to come.

On the legal front, we believe the police are still searching for the attackers. It still seems that the young men were probably being paid to kill someone because they had been asking around for someone with a similar name. They obviously had no idea who Ngoc was.

For some of us at Blue Dragon, the fact that Ngoc was attacked by a hired hand just makes this even worse. The idea that someone would be prepared to cause such savage harm to an innocent person just for some money is disgusting. Whoever did this - and whoever was paying for it - needs to be caught soon.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Cut, 2

The news today is amazing. Ngoc is so much better that none of us can believe it.

He's not there yet; there's still a lot of danger ahead. But Ngoc is already off the ventilator - he's breathing entirely on his own!! - and all the tubes are out of his throat so that he can talk a little.

Ngoc is very, very tired, but happy to be seeing so many visitors. In fact, the doctors have been coming to ask who this kid is, that so many people want to see him! This morning as I was leaving the hospital with 2 colleagues, 16 of his school friends were arriving... In addition, there are embassies in Hanoi whose leaders and their families are following Ngoc's progress - particularly the New Zealand and Israeli embassies.

I'm sure that all the love and positivity is helping Ngoc to fight. His body is badly damaged, and equally as bad, he remembers the attack. He's already starting to ask why this happened. We don't know. All we know is that Ngoc is a completely innocent victim of senseless violence.

Ngoc will stay in intensive care again on Saturday night; more info to come on Sunday.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Cut

This is one of those blogs that I dread having to post.

Last night, one of our kids was attacked on the street near his home. Eighteen year old Ngoc has been a part of Blue Dragon for several years: he plays guitar with us; he studies computers in our Learning Centre; he's just finished studying a course with our psychologist for young people involved in Social Work; and he's the chief editor of our monthly newsletter, which is totally produced by the children.

In short - he's one of these amazing kids who gets involved in everything except trouble.

But last night, trouble found Ngoc. As far as we can tell, he was ambushed in a case of mistaken identity by some thugs who were looking for revenge. Ngoc was stabbed repeatedly and slashed with a machete before the attackers fled.

Ngoc was found by neighbours who called the police; the local cops rushed him to hospital and a team of doctors worked through the night. Ngoc has lost a kidney and both his lungs are damaged, but he's hanging in there.

Today the entire Blue Dragon staff has become involved. Our psychologist Khanh is helping the family and other Blue Dragon kids to deal with their emotions; our lawyer Van is working with the police to catch the attackers (that's why we have a lawyer! Thank you, New Zealand Embassy); and our teachers and Social Workers have been visiting the hospital to sit by his bedside and comfort his parents and sister.

Ngoc is semi-conscious now. He can hear and understand everything that goes on around him; but he has a long road to travel.

So far everyone who knows Ngoc and has heard of this has instantly responded by asking "What can I do?" Sadly, there's nothing to do but wait and, if you pray, then pray. Keep him in your thoughts.

I'll update the blog over the weekend.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

One step at a time

Over a year ago, Blue Dragon's social workers met the family of 5 year old Tan living on a boat moored to the island in the middle of the Red River.

This area is home to some of the poorest people in the city: rural families with no citizen registration, no jobs, and no money. It's common for them to also be illiterate and to have complex health problems.

Tan's family is facing the whole myriad of problems. His mother collects scrap on the streets, and his father is a 'xe om': a motorbike taxi driver. And to top it off, Tan has cerebral palsy.

When we first met him, he had undergone several operations on his legs to help straighten them: he was completely unable to walk because his legs were twisted under him. The operations helped, but then his family could not afford to pay for the physiotherapy that he needed to learn to use his legs.

From June until the end of November, Blue Dragon paid for Tan to visit a physiotherapist five days a week. His progress was visible, but still too slow. Because Tan's family lives on a boat, there was nowhere for him to practice walking. Our social workers encouraged the family to move into a house, which we were willing to rent for them, but their fear of change and of moving onto the land prevented them from taking up our offer.


So for the last few weeks, our social worker Phuong has been spending several hours a day with the little guy in our drop in center. We've borrowed a walking frame on wheels, which Tan can now use to speed around all over the place. And then they walk up and down the stairs, one step at a time, all the while Tan beaming from ear to ear.

Tan still has plenty more obstacles to overcome. It may be a long time before he can walk unaided; and he still needs further surgery on one of his eyes. We hope to enrol him in a kindergarten in coming weeks, too, so he gets his education off to a good start. Hanoi has some fantastic kindergartens and it would be a pity for him to miss out.




Tan is so determined and happy to be mobile, I can't see that anything will stop him now. I just hope he can keep up this amazing progress he is making.










Monday, December 03, 2007

Blame it on the Spice

This must be my longest period of non-blogging ever... What can I say? The Spice Girl have returned and my mind has been on other things.
To compensate - some pictures fro the Hoi An Children's Home! The floods have completely gone, and our staff and vols are still replacing damaged equipment but life is getting back to normal now.
Here's a picture of the Home from the front yard. During the flood, the water was lapping at the second floor.
One of the residents at the bicycle shed, which was totally suberged. Debris is still evident on the under-side of the roof.



This is the dining room...


And the study / recreation / meeting room. The two women at the front are Nicole, who runs the Home, and Nitsan, a volunteer who recently left Hoi An.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Is this a culi I see before me?

Last week, a crisis of a different kind hit Blue Dragon...

One of our volunteers, Amy, received a frantic late night phone call from a girl in our Hanoi program named Yen. Aged 16, Yen is one of our stars - she's bright and compassionate, and gets involved in everything that's happening.

Yen came to us over a year ago when we started working with one of her school mates, Hieu, who has cerebral palsy. I won't say that Hieu 'suffers' CP - she makes the best of life and is doing really well at school - but of course she does suffer from plenty of discrimination everywhere she goes. Yen is not only Hieu's best friend, but also her number one advocate to stick up for her when times are tough. Yen's just that kind of person.

So when she came across an endangered animal last week and saw that it was about to be trafficked, Yen was desperate to find a way to save it.
Some months back, we took a group of our kids, including Yen, to Cuc Phuong National Park. One of the animals that they saw for the very first time was a culi (pictured), which is found in northern Vietnam and some parts of southern China. There aren't many of them, and most people don't even recognise them, but when Yen saw one here in Hanoi she sure knew what it was, and that it belonged on the forest, not in the city!
But the culi was in the hands of a friend's family who planned to sell it; and the buyers were pretty mean looking people. I don't know what the asking price was - but it was a lot. The culi was clearly worth something, and Yen couldn't convince the family to hand it over to conservation agents.

Finally, she did what she hoped would save the culi: she offered to buy it herself. Using her own money, she bought the culi from her friend's family, saving it from being trafficked... or eaten.

And so the culi landed in my office for the day. Thanks to some friends who work in conservation we were able to work out what to feed the little guy, and he spent a day cowering among leaves inside a cardboard box.


At the end of the day some animal rescue people came to take our new friend away, and he's now living happily ever after in Cuc Phuong National Park. For Yen especially, and her friend Hieu as well, this was a great chance to put their love of nature into action.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Cleaning

The flood waters are well and truly gone, and the Hoi An Children's Home is getting back into shape. Our manager there, an Australian volunteer named Nicole, has been working hard to get the piles of mud out, work out what's gone missing, and try to get the kids back into a regular routine.

The social worker and teenagers from our Hanoi center are heavily involved in the clean up, and they're able to give Nicole some relief so that she can take a break. Her own home was completely flooded, so she also has a lot to do there.

The community has responded OVERWHELMINGLY and we now should have enough money to replace and repair everything that has been damaged or destroyed. So I need to let you know - if you have pledged money, please do send it... if you are just learning about this, we do have enough funds now to deal with this crisis.

Thanks everyone...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Receding

The flood waters have washed away... The Hoi An Children's Home is muddy and wet, but no longer under 10 feet of water!

About 8 people have so far offered support, so we have around $500 already. Tonight, a Blue Dragon social worker, Lan, and two of our teenage kids, are heading south on the train to help out.

Lots of the cleaning may be done by the time they arrive tomorrow, but there'll still be plenty to do - and also lots to buy. It looks like the beds (double bunk timber) may be OK, despite being submerged for a day. But the cupboards, desks, and dining tables are mostly destroyed... and I am guessing the bicycles are, too.

Our trio will return by the end of the weekend, but hopefully they can relieve the burden on the Hoi An staff.

A BIG THANK YOU to everyone who has expressed concern or sent their contribution. We still need plenty more help, so email me at bluedragon@bdcf.org of you can get involved.

... And still no pictures!!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Wet wet wet

An urgent post today...

The Hoi An Children's Home is drowning!

The biggest floods in living memory have swamped the whole town. The Home is a two storey building, and the flood waters are lapping at the base of the SECOND STOREY!

No photos are available right now... there's no electricity, and both our staff and the 30 kids are trapped on the second floor, hoping that the waters don't rise any more.

Although most equipment has been moved upstairs, a lot of furniture and personal belongings have been destroyed. The girls have been worst affected, as their rooms are on the ground floor.

People in Hoi An are used to regular flooding, but nobody was expecting anything on this scale.

I will post some updates in coming days, but I am hoping that some generous people out there in the land of Blog might be able to help. We need at least $3500 US to replace everything that has been destroyed... and we need it urgently!

If anyone can help, even with just a few dollars, please contact me at: bluedragon@bdcf.org. I'll get back to you asap...

Thanks!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Our conquering heroes return

The Hoi An Children's Home is home to 30 girls and boys from central Vietnam who would otherwise have no place to live. Blue Dragon has been working there since August, when we took responsibility for managing and funding the entire operation.

The kids there are great; they all go to school and generally do well in their studies. The Home is a two storey building with some pretty big gardens; and of course it's all situated in Hoi An town, one of the most beautiful places in Viet Nam.

It's all ideal; except that getting staff to work there has been a challenge for the past few months. An Australian volunteer, Nicole, is the manager, and relies on a small team of Vietnamese social workers and carers to look after the children around the clock. But being located in such a small town, it's taken longer than we'd hoped to get all the staff in place.

When the main social worker decided to turn off his mobile phone and treat himself to an extended holiday, I decided to send down some help from our Hanoi center, where we have 4 social workers. The idea was to give Nicole some breathing space while she continued her search for new staff.

Our youngest social worker, Diep, was keen to take on the assignment; he's just 18 years old, and was a street kid shining shoes when I met him 4 years ago. Although Diep doesn't have any formal qualifications, he's an amazing social worker with a heart of gold. All the kids, without exception, love and respect him.

And so I also suggested that one of our kids should accompany Diep to help out: a 16 year old boy named To Cuong, who is a member of our Link program. Sending To Cuong was playing a wild card: we really didn't know how that would work out. To Cuong is well known for his colourful vocabulary, and has been living on the streets on and off for the past two years. We really weren't sure if he'd be more help than hindrance, but wanted to give him a chance.

On Wednesday afternoon, Diep and To Cuong returned to Hanoi, having completed their two weeks in Hoi An.

Diep's time at the Home was spent supervising kids, organising games and activities, helping with homework, and being a big brother. To Cuong was assigned some dirtier tasks, like gardening and cleaning.

And by all accounts, they have achieved some remarkable outcomes. The residents were all terribly sad to see them go; they held a party on Monday night to say farewell, but they are all hoping that Diep and To Cuong can return.

For To Cuong, this was an opportunity to rise to the occasion - and he did. As far as I know, his behaviour was perfect the whole time! He didn't complain at all about the work, but was eager to do all that he could.

This is a huge achievement for both To Cuong and Diep. Days like this, I really do believe that anything is possible.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Redux

In the past couple of months, I have written about a boy named Ngoc from a village 30kms from Hue City.

At age 13, Ngoc had a cleft lip, which is easily fixed by a simple operation – but which he had never had treated or even seen a doctor about. Because of this condition, he had never been to school and, because his parents are illiterate, Ngoc had never been taught to read or write.

Ngoc was at the very bottom of the social hierarchy in his village. Everyone treated him like an idiot, and he had learned to defend himself by tuning out. He never smiled or talked; and when anybody spoke to him, he would turn away as though he could not hear.

And so we brought Ngoc to Hanoi to live in our main residence for a few months and to have the cleft lip operation.

On Thursday November 1, my colleague Van and I returned to Hue with Ngoc. His operation is long over; he’s spent some time in speech therapy; and his confidence has built tremendously. It was time to go home.

As we traveled overnight on the train, Ngoc reverted to the ‘old Ngoc’. He stopped talking and smiling; when we spoke to him, we’d receive no response. After all the wonderful developments in Hanoi, Ngoc was preparing for the worst.

Time for a pep talk… Van spoke to Ngoc about the importance of going home as the ‘new Ngoc’, showing everyone that he is a confident and strong boy now. No longer should he accept bullying and tormenting! After all, he has all the Blue Dragon staff and kids as his best friends now – and he’s become something of a champion roller skater! So what if his voice is still a bit difficult to understand?

Ngoc took Van’s advice on board. A few hours later we arrived in the village and a huge crowd came out to greet us. Dozens of families gathered around, and they were in awe of young Ngoc! “He’s so tall and handsome!” two girls told me. All the boys were flocking to him, asking about his time in Hanoi and looking at his cool new clothes.

I know that, on the inside, Ngoc is exactly the same person he always was. He’s smart, with a wicked sense of humour and genuine concern for the welfare of others. But to the villagers, Ngoc is a whole new person. They never realized what an amazing young guy they had in their midst.

Ngoc has certainly grown – physically and in his self esteem – but otherwise he is exactly the same boy who left his village a few months ago. The greatest change is in his community’s perception.

All it took was a simple operation in a decent hospital and some time with the Blue Dragon family!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Forgiveness

A significant part of Blue Dragon's work involves advocacy: sticking up for kids when they get into trouble. Some days, our advocacy work is urgent and pressing.

On Monday afternoon I recieved a phone call from one of our boys, Nghia, who I originally met as a shoeshine boy in Saigon. Nghia studies at a local school in Hanoi now, and although his grades aren't brilliant he does stand out among the Blue Dragon kids for his happy disposition and his willingness to help anyone in need. He's a great kid.

But on Monday, he was in trouble. Four boys from school had ganged up on him and attacked; two of them had knives. As soon as school was out, the four guys got together, and when Nghia realised what was happening, the only thing he could do was run for his life. He ran through the streets, and at one point slipped in some mud but was able to get back up and keep running. Nobody helped, of course: nobody ever helps in Hanoi. This kid was on his own.

When he finally got away, he called me to come and help him get home safely. Van, Blue Dragon's lawyer, went over too. Nghia was covered in dirt, his clothes were ruined, and he was pretty upset - as you can imagine.

The next morning, Van and I took Nghia back to the school to speak to the principal. She was kind and sympathetic, and organised a meeting in the afternoon with the 4 bullies and their parents. Van and Nghia attended - I figured it would be better if the foreigner stayed out of it!

After spending some time denying everything, the 4 boys confessed to what they had done. Their parents and their teachers were furious with them, and soon they were crying and apologising. (I really regret not bring there for that).

From the principal, the conclusion was clear: the boys were to be expelled immediately, and the matter was to be referred to the police.

Then Nghia spoke up. Yes, he was angry with them, and they deserved punishment. But he asked the principal to give them another chance. Their families would punish them enough, he reasoned; no need to expel them and call the police.

Despite the terror of the previous day, Nghia forgave the bullies, and so saved their skin. They must still pay for his new school clothes, and the school may still impose some punishment for what they did. But when they return to school today, they go back knowing that they are there only because of the extraordinary graciousness of the boy they tried to kill.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Blame

One of the biggest culture clashes that I have as a westerner living in Vietnam is to do with the issue of blame.

In Australia - as in many western countries - when something goes wrong, one of the first questions to be raised is: Whose fault is this?

Here in Vietnam, it's quite common for people to see a problem or some kind of wrong, and to accept it as part of fate.

As we walked downstairs from lunch on Wednesday, a 10 year old girl named Nga suddenly collapsed and started shaking violently. It was pretty obvious she was having a seizure.

One of our newest staff, a social worker named Huong, happened to be right there, and knew exactly what to do. Within a minute, Nga was laying on the staffroom floor with a cushion under her head and her throat cleared to prevent her swallowing her tongue.

Our plan was to wait for the seizure to end - epileptic fits are normally over in about 5 minutes - and to then take her to the hospital. Nga's brother Minh, who is about 14, was in our drop in center at the time, so came over to help.

As the seizure dragged on and on, we started to worry. This wasn't like anything we had heard of before. And then Minh came forward to tell us that this was, in fact, Nga's third seizure since last night.

Time to call the ambulance.

As we waited for the ambulance to arrive, Nga and Minh's older sister came. We haven't known this family very long; they have only been in Hanoi for a few weeks. All we knew up until now was that the two kids have serious problems with their eyesight and don't go to school.

But with the arrival of the sister, some more information came to light.

Nga and Minh have never been to school. And the parents? They're both in prison. I didn't ask why, but it's almost always drug related.

And, no, Nga hasn't been to hospital before. Can't afford it. But when she has her seizures, she sees a free doctor who gives Panadol and tells the family to turn the fans off when she's sick.

Looking through my western eyes, I want to know who has let these kids down so badly. All the problems that they face - and the best help they can get is a suggestion to turn the fans off. Why has nobody ever helped them go to school? Why haven't they had their eyes tested before? Why hasn't Nga been to hospital?

Who's to blame for this mess?

But the kids aren't asking these questions. They see it as their fate. They are far more accepting of their circumstances than I am.

It's difficult to be torn between these two contrasting views of the world. I know I can't resolve this conflict; but I can do something better. I can make sure that the circumstances of Nga and Minh change immediately. Starting today, they can have a new fate.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Escape

Without a doubt, the best thing about working in Blue Dragon is that I can see, on a daily basis, the progress that our kids make. Boys who once worked on the streets shining shoes now go to college, have jobs in fine restaurants, or study at school. Girls who once worked as domestic servants now lead normal lives, playing and studying, rather than working around the clock for a few cents a day.

But there's a heartbreaking side to my work, too. Because not everybody is able to make it out of the trap they're in.

Since late 2005, Blue Dragon has been working with a young man named Hung who we met as a street kid, who contracted tuberculosis while in a rehab centre. He was so close to death when we met him that the doctors were sure he could not survive. He did, but later developed meningitis and now his mind has deteriorated significantly. In May this year we helped Hung to find work in a center for people with disabilities, but he has taken to wandering the streets, eating scrap, and living in a world of his own. Whenever I see him in the evenings, I bring him in to my home to eat and give him a place to sleep; but there's nothing more that I can do for Hung. And I don't know of any homes or shelters that will care for him.

HIV/AIDS is a trap that is becoming too common here in Vietnam. It's devastating to see it claim its young victims. One of our girls learned yesterday that she is infected; and one of our boys has recently found out that his brother is infected, and may soon die. There seems to be no hope at all.

For my staff, these are tough issues. How do you counsel these kids? What comfort can you give someone who is trapped and may never be able to lead a full and healthy life? We wish we had all the answers, but sometimes we don't have any answers at all.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Goodbye, Adrie

This week has ended on a sad note, with the death of one of Blue Dragon's good friends - Adrie van Gelderen.

Adrie has lived in Vietnam for over a decade, as head of the Affiliate Foundation, which works on education projects and once built a school in Hue. When Blue Dragon was still just an idea, Adrie offered for us to work under the auspices of his foundation until we were properly registered. He made that offer to me on the first day that I met him. That's the kind of guy he was.

In the past 2 years, Adrie's dream has been to establish a communal pepper plantation for homeless families in Cambodia.

Last time I saw Adrie, he showed me the plans and some new photos he had taken. But Adrie's health wasn't good, and he knew he might not see the project through. Adrie has been fighting cancer, and I thought he was winning, but I was wrong.

Adrie left Vietnam just a few weeks ago, to go back to Holland for medical care. He died on Thursday night in his cottage in France.

Anyone who knew Adrie must know that he wouldn't want any sentimentality because of his death. Adrie was always too upbeat and alive for that. But we'll miss you, Adrie.

The world is a better place because you were here. I hope you knew that.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Link

Blue Dragon has started a new program for street kids - The Link.

Over the last few months, we have been in contact with more and more kids who are out of school and aren't at all likely to go back. Most of these kids end up joining gangs that roam the streets at night, stealing and having fun.

These kids are all boys, and all from families that have been damaged one way or another. And some of them - I am tempted to say 'most of them' - are interested in getting back into a more regular kind of life, but all the doors are shut for them.

School is just not suitable for these kids. They're too restless, and need to be doing something hands on, with plenty of positive attention. Nobody wants these kids around - my neighbours glare at me daily just to remind me that they wish these kids would vanish off the face of the earth.

So, we've created The Link. It's a program of classes that are active, fun, and hands on; and most of all, the kids have ownership of what they're doing. So far there have been up to 7 boys each afternoon, and they've been doing art, mechanics, English, and cooking.

We don't have any money for this, so we're sharing the resources from our other activities at the drop in center. Lam, our education coordinator, is organising the teachers and the schedule; while Andrew, our amazing VIDA volunteer from Australia, is involved in most of the classes.

No big problems so far, although there are probably only 3 kids who so far 'own' this program. The others are still testing the waters, and have yet to make up their mind.

I'm optimistic, though. You just wouldn't believe the transformation they go through each afternoon, from being noisy and boisterous in the drop in center, to giving their full attention to the class when they head upstairs to study...

Some pics to show you what they've been up to!



Sunday, September 30, 2007

Get a haircut, son

My minor outrage, as well as a rather more significant victory, for the week happen to both be concerned with hair.

One of our boys, Cuong, has gone back to school for the first time in 4 years.

Cuong is a wonderful kid: even though he’s 15, and has spent 4 years as a street kid, he has a childlike joy in life that makes him adorable. When he’s really happy, he bounces up and down! And his smile takes over his whole face.

But his life to date has not been so joyful. Cuong’s parents left him when he was just a few years old; they decided to move on and so gave him to an aunt and uncle, who are nice people but didn’t particularly want somebody else’s son to raises. So as Cuong got older, he dropped out of school at age 10, and ended up living with his mother in southern Vietnam for a year or two.

But that didn’t work out well, so he returned to the north and lived on the streets of Hanoi. One of his friends suggested that they go to work in China – and so they did! Cuong and his friend traveled across the border and spent over a year selling things on the streets.

When Cuong came back to Vietnam, he once again worked on the streets, shining shoes and sometimes stealing to survive. Since we met him just a few months ago, he has gladly given up life on the streets once and for all – and he’s gone back to school.

What a great achievement! Yet, what a disappointment for me to hear this week that he’s in trouble at school because of the colour of his hair. Cuong has died some of his hair a copper colour, and his teacher has decided that it’s a major issue that will destroy not only Cuong, but also the entire school. The only solution is that he must cut out the died bits as quickly as possible, in order to save the universe.

Give me a break! How on earth can the colour of his hair be even remotely important?


Meanwhile, another one of our kids has achieved a major milestone in his life, and has marked it by getting a haircut.

Son is also 14 and has been living on the streets for a couple of years. He first came here as a runaway, and we were able ro reunite him with his mother but their relationship is too far gone to be saved - for now.

I count Son as a good friend; he comes by the office to see me all the time; he hangs out and has dinner with me most evenings; and he even brings other street kids to us so that we can help them.

But by night, Son takes to the streets to steal fruit from Long Bien market. He’s a gang leader, and many of the kids respect him. Even many adults in our area treat him like a priest and confide in him! You’ve really got to meet him to understand this guy.

We've had some tough times in our relationship, too. Like the time Son turned up drunk at my house at 6am, yelling abuse at the neighbours.

Recently, though, Son has been thinking about making a change. Blue Dragon has started preparing to launch a new program which will offer life skills education to kids like Son – kid who are never going back to mainstream schooling, no matter what we say or do. And Son is really keen on this idea.

If you see Son, you’d instantly recognise him as a street kid: long straggly hair, bare feet (it’s easier to run away from the police in bare feet); filthy rags for clothes.

Except… Today, Son went and had a haircut. He bought some flip flops. And some nice shirts. And tomorrow he’ll go and buy some trousers.

Son doesn’t want to be, or to look like, a street kid any more. He wants to do something with his life, even though he isn’t sure exactly what that is.

On Monday, when he goes to the Blue Dragon center, many people will be shocked by Son’s transformation. He looks like a new person. Like an ordinary kid.

It’s amazing the difference a haircut can make. And if he colours his hair, I won't be complaining.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Back from Singapore

I have been silent for over a week now, which usually either means that something really big is happening, or I am away from Hanoi and trying to avoid a break-in at my home by keeping quiet about it.

For the last week, I have been in Singapore talking about Blue Dragon with schools and groups who are interested in our work. Some of the older 'kids' came with me - three boys who used to shine shoes, but now have good jobs and are doing well for themselves.

We received a warm reception everywhere we went; this is not the first time we have been to Singapore, and it sure won't be the last. It's great to spend time in a place where everything works and is so clean!

We stayed at the Betel Box hostel again - and again, the owner Tony Tan gave us free board for the whole week. Apart from the great service and facilities, the Betel Box is fascinating for its location. Despite all the highrises of Orchard Road and endless building developments in the city, parts of the country have preserved heritage buildings and quaint villages where families have lived for generations. Joo Chiat Road, where the Betel Box is located, happens to be one of those areas.

Just a few doors down, a family makes Singapore's best popiah - a traditional food resembling a spring roll. They've been there for decades and have even been visited by Mother Theresa! There's a beautiful mosque down the street, and because of Ramadan one whole end of Joo Chiat Road turned into a huge festival every night.

But I got a real surprise to also see a seedier side to Singapore. Considering the kind of work that I am involved in here in Vietnam, seeing prostitutes working the streets isn't particularly shocking. What blew me away, though, was to see it so openly in a country as conservative as Singapore seems to be.

And what got me really interested was seeing the very large number of Vietnamese women working the streets around Joo Chiat Road. For Vietnamese, a trip to Singapore is fairly cheap and easy: no visa is required, and flights are being sold for as little as $50 each way.

For a country reputed to be so strict, it was strange to see parts of the city where the streets were lined with women - and sometimes men - outside residential apartments, along busy roads and side streets, and all around budget hotels that were springing up everywhere.

Along Joo Chiat Road, which has such a rich history, room-by-the-hour hotels have sprung up since I was last there 2 years ago, and all the good restuarants are being pushed aside by nightclubs and 'coffee shops' where the women went from table to table, even when the tables were out on the footpath.

Local residents and long-term businesspeople are in despair to see their community being turned into a red-light district. As a visitor to the area, I couldn't understand how this rapid change in the area has been allowed to happen.

Sometimes, even the most beautiful places are not as they seem to be...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Some action at Blue

Wednesday was one of those amazing days in which everything seems to happen at once.

The day kicked off with a runaway boy named Cuong coming to the Blue Dragon center. He was brought by the leader of one of the street gangs, who has a heart of gold and often helps us out. Cuong was a nice kid; he had been in Hanoi for about a week after running away from home in the countryside. A story we've heard dozens of times before.

Cuong wanted to return home, but was frightened that he'd get into trouble. So one of our staff, Van, offered to accompany him back on a trip that should have taken no more than 3 hours to get there and back.

Unluckily for Van, Cuong was so worried that he kept giving the bus drivers and motorbike taxi drivers false directions! They travelled to the wrong province, then had to take a ferry to get them onto the right road... then they rode in circles on the back of a motorbike... then walked for 4 kilometers... and then Cuong announced that he didn't want to go home after all!

It was a happy ending, though. Van finally reassured Cuong that everything would be OK. And it was. The family was hugely relieved to have their son back. They are extremely poor, and love their son. So we will support Cuong to go to Grade 9 at his local school, and maybe help out with a bicycle for the family.
That's Cuong in the blue shirt; his mum and dad are wearing white.

Van's 3 hour trip finished 8 hours later...

Back in Hanoi, our social workers Diep and Giang organised another community service day, in which some of the kids from our center were invited to help renovate the home of a family with a disabled child.

We've done this before, but this time we took a bit of a risk: the kids who came to help were mostly from the gangs that roam the streets at night. But they rose to the occasion, and spent the day scrubbing and painting walls. They returned to the center late, tired, and covered in paint... but exhilarated to have done such a selfless thing.

Perfect!

And at the Blue Dragon center itself, we had a day of visitors: first from the Young Falcons in the morning, and then from the World Vision Singapore team in the afternoon.

World Vision Singapore has been the main supporter of our work with street children over the past couple of years. This was our first meeting, though; and it was a blast! About a dozen of their staff came to the center, loaded up with games to play, music to dance to, and prizes for the kids. It was a riot!

They even organised a fashion show, in which some of our kids (and staff!) dressed up in balloons, toilet paper, and streamers, and paraded down a catwalk.

Our kids howled with laughter for hours. For me, there's no better sound. Anyone who brings such happiness to our boys and girls is warmly welcome ANY time.

What a great day.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

House building in Hue

At the end of last week, Blue Dragon's lawyer, Van, headed back to Hue to visit the families we are working with there.

Most of the families there have had children trafficked to the south. Since helping the kids to return last year, we've continued to work with the community to address their poverty and keep the kids in school. For every family, the issues are different. And they're always complex.

Two particular families are receiving some special attention right now.

First is the family of Vien and Viet. Vien is a 10 year old girl who has a significant hearing impairment. She's a bright girl, but has never been to school and is treated pretty badly by the local people. Once when I was talking to her family, a neighbour came into Vien's house and told her to get out! (I promptly threw the guy out and gave Vien a seat next to me. That'll learn ya).

Here's Vien with her cutest smile...

Vien's older brother Viet (pictured below) was trafficked to Saigon a couple of years back to sell flowers on the streets. He's very bright, too, and doing well now that he's back in school.

This family owns a decent block of land, but their house is made of metal and full of holes. It's unbearably hot in summer; impossible to keep dry in the rainy season; and half the house blows away every time there's a strong wind. So we are helping the family build a new house - one that won't blow away!

The second is the family of Hung, another trafficked boy living in a nearby village.

Hung's family is much poorer than Vien and Viet's. His parents don't own, and have never owned, any land. They just live in a thatched hut that they have built on the sand beside the beach. The touching thing about this family is how neat and tidy they keep their home. This is not an easy task to accomplish, but to me it shows their pride and their dignity.

For Hung's family, we have found a block of land to buy in the name of Hung. Once it's been bought, the next step will be to build a house.

Hung is pictured here with his father and two younger sisters, who are too shy to ever speak to me!

It would be easy to help these families buy and build their homes, and then for us to walk away proclaiming what a great job we have done. I've seen it done countless times before - and of course the new house must have the organisation's logo! But for us, providing a home is just one part of the overall picture. It takes a lot more than bricks and mortar to ensure a child an grow up without poverty.

Oh, and we won't be putting our logo on their houses, either.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A success for Ngoc

Some weeks ago, I blogged about a boy named Ngoc from Hue, in central Vietnam. (See here and here for the last entries in which I wrote about Ngoc).

At age 13, Ngoc had never been taken to hospital to have his cleft lip healed. His family and community have considered him to be stupid, and he's never been to school simply because of the lip.
About a week ago, our social worker Hai took Ngoc to a hospital here in Hanoi to have the surgery done. We actually went around to a few hospitals, and selected the one that seemed most confident and knowledgeable. Cleft lip operations are pretty common and run-of-the-mill, but they're usually for kids aged 2 or 3, not 13...
Ngoc's surgery has been a HUGE success. We are all stunned at how well his lip has sealed up. From a few metres away, it's easy to miss seeing the tiny scar that gives away the fact that Ngoc has had cleft lip.
Here's Ngoc at his home in May 2007:


And here he is in my office today:


Ngoc's future suddenly looks a whole lot better.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The New Blue

We've done it!

Blue Dragon has moved into a new center!


We are no longer spread out over 4 buildings along on street. Finally we have moved into a newly renovated center, with room for everything we do in 4 storeys.

Our first day, Tuesday, saw the center filled with happy sounds of laughter and games and cheering. The kids now have space to spread out, make some noise, play lego, and do whatever they want! The place is even bigger than it seemed when we first came to look at it some months ago.

Up until now, we have squeezed up to 25 kids at a time into a tiny lunch room that shouldn't have held more than 15 people. But now our kids have a huge covered balconey, with views over the Red River and a (sometimes) cool breeze. We can easily fit 30 or more kids, and up to 40 if we need to.

We have a small library, and a much larger computer lab than before. There's a dedicated art room attached to the drop in center, as well as shower facilities for kids who live on the streets.

Even the kitchen is something to be proud of: We found some second hand stainless steel benches, and use shelving out of our old buildings, to create a huge room with a professional kitchen that can be used not only for cooking meals, but also for teaching the kids about how to cook in our various nutrition and cooking clubs.

The new center means we have much better facilities for the kids, and a far safer place for them to seek help. But I think that our house is still fairly humble and homely.
Hats off to the Blue Dragon staff, kids and volunteers who did all the packing, moving, and scrubbing for the past two weeks. Everyone is still pretty exhausted... We all went the extra mile, but WOW has it been worth it!
Now for some photos...
This is looking down from the stairs; you can see the art room on the left and the entrance on the right.


A view inside the drop-in center. We still need to get some art up on the walls!


The rooftop, which is where we have lunch, drama, games, and other activities.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The OC

On Saturday morning, about 12 Blue Dragon staff and kids headed to Bac Ninh province, where we support over 350 students to attend school. The occasion: The 4th annual Opening Ceremony!

Our OC doesn't have fireworks or inflatable kangaroos, but it is a positive and encouraging event intended to kick the school year off on a high note.

It's also a bit more than a ceremony; the students receive their school bags, stationery, and text books in preparation for returning to school.

As always, a picture tells a thousand words...


Tom Cruise gave the opening speech




In Viet Nam, you can't have a ceremony without singing



A quick break for fruit and drinks



The kids lined up to recieve their text books...



... and then chose their school bag. This year, green is in.





And then it's time to go home and study!



A BIG THANKS to all the Stay In School sponsors!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Don't call me Baby

Before I came to live in Viet Nam, I travelled here several times on holidays as a backpacker. I still look back fondly on those days - carefree travel, coming and going as I pleased...

On my second trip to Viet Nam, I found myself in the central region, in Hoi An town. It was there that I first made friends with a street kid; a 13 year old boy named Nam.

Nam's father had died, and when his mother remarried he was sent out to the streets to earn a living. This is a common story, but Nam was luckier than most. He was met by a man living by the town river - "Big Nam" - who sold pottery on the street. The two Nams took a liking to each other, and soon were living together. Big Nam's wife and children came to see "Baby Nam" as a family member, and he grew up in their home.

Fast forward about 5 years, and Big Nam asked me to help him set up a restaurant in his home. Big Nam had been struggling financially, but had a big heart and I trusted him completely. So the two Nams set up the Blue Dragon restaurant, which is still running today and does really well.
This week, I went back to Hoi An for a very special occasion: Baby Nam's engagement ceremony. The very first street kid I befriended in Viet Nam is also the first former street kid I know to get married.

I think it's time I dropped the "Baby" nickname; Nam may well have a baby of his own before long.
It's so great to see the kids growing up...

Here are some shots of Nam and his fiance, Dao, at the ceremony. The engagement took place at Dao's home, which is pictured at the bottom.




Monday, August 20, 2007

He's a-walkin'

I wrote a while ago about an English volunteer who decided to walk the last 1000 miles of his world travels, in order to raise money for Blue Dragon.

Iain Purdie is well on his way... he's walked over 200 miles by now, and has the blisters to prove it.

C'mon, folks! You've gotta support this guy. He's obviously completely crazy, but he's making a HUGE effort for the kids.

Check out his blog http://www.iwouldwalk1000miles.me.uk/ and tell your friends!

I'm about to head to Hoi An for a few days - by plane, though, as much as I'd like to follow Iain's example. Some very interesting things are afoot... will blog again at the end of the week.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A moving blog

It's been in the pipeline for some months now, but finally I can reveal the big secret...

Blue Dragon is moving!

We've been in our current location, Lane 131, for just over 2 years, but we outgrew it in the first 12 months.

To make up for our rapid growth, we rented a second building... and then a third... and then a fourth. So at the moment, Blue Dragon is spread out over 4 buildings up and down our lane.

There are lots of problems with this, as you can imagine. Safety is a big one: our kids have to walk up and down the street from service to service. There's always a construction site somewhere on the street, and our neighbours are health hazards in themselves. (One of our boys, Nghia, likes to take my smaller dog Bear for a walk each day. One of the neighbours comes running out to attack them every time he sees them! No reason, just likes to get the futility of his own existence off his chest by beating up a child).

For the staff, communication has been an ongoing difficulty. With the team spread out over 4 buildings, getting messages through to everyone has not been easy.

And then there are the challenges of dealing with four landlords...

Our new center should simplify all that. We have taken out the rent on a 4 storey building that's deep and wide enough to consolidate all of our 4 current buildings. Some renovations have been needed, though, and the owners were good enough to let us do some pretty major work on their home. We've removed a staircase, knocked down walls, taken out their kitchen, built new rooms, repainted, created a new electrical system, and enclosed the balconeys to make the rooms larger.

The building work is almost finished - it's been going on for some weeks now. It's been expensive, of course, but all the renovation work is being paid for by the Schmitz Foundation in Germany. This means we don't have to use any of our general funds to pay for the building work. The final result will be a huge drop in center, with classrooms upstairs, a proper kitchen and dining hall, and all staff and services together in one building.

We're expecting that this new center will be our permanent home. It's too disruptive for the kids if we move often, so if all goes well we will be in our new home for many years to come.

I'll post some pictures soon!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Amazing

My post on Monday was partly about a boy from Hue with a cleft lip; Ngoc, who is 13 years old.

Ngoc's life has been miserable, not to put too fine a point on it. In the year that I have known him, I've never seen him smile or even look remotely happy. I've never seen him talk or interact with anyone.

Now he's with us in Hanoi for the operation, and in just 3 days Ngoc has made leaps and bounds in his personal development. He's smiling, he's playing, he's taking risks, and to some extent he's even talking.

This morning, I walked into the drop in center to see the most amazing thing. It's hard to explain... But Ngoc was sitting on the floor, with several other kids and our social worker Giang. Ngoc was teaching the group how to make kites.

They've all just driven off to Lenin park to fly the kites they've made. Ngoc was smiling shyly and waving out the window as they drove off.

The confidence and interpersonal skills required to do what he has done this morning seemed far beyond Ngoc just days ago. I feel like I've witnessed a miracle.

Monday, August 06, 2007

An opening, and a closing

Close to 2 weeks since my last blog! But don't think this means nothing has been happening... It's actually the opposite. Some things just can't be blogged...

We have had some rough times - our staff have had to go out on some very long limbs to ensure the protection of a couple of kids, but all round we seem to be reaching good conclusions. It's hard to say more!

In the midst of it all, I went to a wonderful event last Tuesday night: the opening of a cafe.

By local standards, the cafe was pretty ordinary. Plastic flowers on the wall; a karaoke system loud enough to service a football stadium; and tiny plastic stools around tiny timber tables.

But for me, this was a very special opening night. The cafe owner, Tuyen, is the older brother of one of the teens at Blue Dragon. This boy - I'll call him Van - has had a pretty depressing life. Since his mother died a few years back, the family has fallen apart. Both Tuyen and Van have spent time shining shoes to support their family, and another brother has been in and out of drug rehabilitation over the past 3 years.

The opening of Tuyen's cafe was the first real success that Van's family has experienced in a long time. Tuyen and his wife Trang were so eager to please, and their drinks really were better then average. Their cafe will never make them rich, but it's their own cafe, and it's about a million times better than working as a shoeshine. Their determination and initiative deserve a medal. They won't get one, but the pride on their faces (and on Van's face) more than made up for it.

Also in the past week, the hope of a closing...

Blue Dragon has been helping about 30 families in Hue (Central Viet Nam), although we don't have any staff there, or even an official program. Once or twice a month, we take the train 600kms south to visit the villages and catch up with the families. Most of them have children who were trafficked to Saigon to work on the streets, and many have kids with disabilities or serious health conditions.

One of these is a boy named Ngoc, who at age 13 has a cleft lip. His parents consider their son to be cursed - and they tell him often. He's never been to school, never been taught to read and write, never been encouraged to think or talk or enjoy life.

We've been trying to get a hospital to operate on Ngoc for about 8 months, but every time we're close something goes wrong. Ngoc gets sick, or the hospital is busy - one time he even broke his arm. But we're sick of waiting, so on Saturday night we accompanied him to Hanoi on the overnight sleeper bus.

Ngoc will stay with us while we find a hospital to close up his cleft lip; and just as importantly we will help Ngoc to gain some confidence. Even though we have only a month or two, we should be able to teach him some basic literacy.

Ngoc's life is unimaginable to anyone who has not spent time in his village and seen what it is like. It's nearly impossible to comprehend how someone can be so badly treated by an entire village, including his own parents. I can't explain it myself, except to say that ALL of the children with disabilities in that area are treated the same.

Hopefully I'll soon be writing about a successful cleft lip operation - stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A debt to be repaid

The last few days have been a bit chaotic - more kids seem to be having crises right now than ever before! Not sure why...

On Tuesday morning, two teenage boys turned up at Blue Dragon. The 14 year old, Quy, is a familiar face. I've met him a few times, while visiting the countryside of another kid - a runaway boy named To, who we took home to his family and have visited several times since.

Quy was with a 17 year old brother, Thanh, who has a disability. One of his legs is twisted around; apparently he was born with the condition.

Quy, Thanh, and their oldest brother Ty, are orphans. Their mother died some years ago - I don't know the details - but their father died, 4 years ago, of a protracted illness.

(The boys are pictured below in my office: Thanh in the light shirt; Ty in the middle; and Quy in black).


When Quy and Thanh appeared at Blue Dragon, they told me they had both quit school to find jobs. Their reason: their father left behind a huge pile of medical bills, and they now owe over $1000US in debts. As the three brothers rely on just one brother, Ty, for an income, they have no way of paying back the debt... unless they all get jobs.

So they spent the day in Hanoi, and we encouraged them to consider other possibilities. What kind of job can a 14 year old do, and receive a decent income? And what about Thanh - he's finished Grade 11, so it seems a pity to not go on and complete his final year of high school. On top of that there's the reality that employment for people with even minor disabilities is really tough in Hanoi; people with 'imperfections' are rarely considered employable.

On Wednesday morning there was a new development: their oldest brother, Ty, came to see me. He had not known what Quy and Thanh were doing. He had no idea of their plans. Their decision to quit school and get jobs had been kept secret, because they knew Ty would disagree.

But they are so desperate to help their brother, and get the burden of this debt off their shoulders, that they ran away and hoped I would help them find a job.

Tonight the three brothers are back in their countryside, with the two younger boys preparing to re-enrol at school. We have promised to help them with their school fees, and also with some rice every month...

But what we'd really like to do is find a way to help them with their debt. It's accruing interest, so it ain't going away. It's just sitting on their shoulders, keeping them from eating well and having a decent life.
So a call for help... is anybody interested in helping out the boys? Don't leave a message, but email me: bluedragon@bdcf.org.
Post Script: We've done it! Enough money has been donated to the boys! And I'm the lucky guy to tell them on Saturday morning! Thank you, blog world... - Friday 12.21 pm

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Skaterday

It's Saturday... and that means rollerskating!

Not me, though. The kids.

Blue Dragon has a couple of residential homes; the bigger of the two is home to about 12-15 boys and girls. On the weekends, the kids have some spending money for group activities, and most of the time they use it for skating. I like to go along, but I prefer to sit and watch... and have millions of minor heart attacks every time one of the boys tries out a new trick (it's always the boys with the tricks).

Oh, to be young again.

I'm kinda glad this week has come to an end. The last few weeks have been a rough emotional ride, with some kids being seriously ill, as well as the funeral last week. One of our boys, Nghia, was so ill this week that at one point he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. False alarm, though.

Having already put one teenager through TB treatment - twice - I hope we never, ever, have to go through it again. The few hours that we believed Nghia might have TB were terrifying. Added to that was the stress of knowing that, if he had TB, quite a few of our staff and kids would also be at high risk... Me in particular.

But today Nghia was out there on rollerskates, which is a pretty amazing comeback for someone who started the week in the tuberculosis hospital.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Cuc Phuong Pix

As promised last week... Some photos from the Cuc Phuong trip!
About 20 girls and boys spent 2 days in Cuc Phuong National Park, as a reward for their excellent progress at school. Big thanks to Intrepid Travel for helping out with the costs of the trip...


Setting out on a bush walk



Trekking


The gang visiting an ancient tree





Hai, a Blue Dragon social worker, hangin' with the kids




Checking out an ancient tree

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A death in the family

Wednesday morning started with a telephone call from one of the boys who lives in our residence.

Minh (not his real name) was calling me from his family home, by the Red River. His sister was dead, he told me; she’d been in a motorbike accident during the night and had died in hospital a few hours later.

Minh’s story is so sad and special. I’ve written about him before – see the link here. He was born in prison, and in a few weeks more he will start school, age 14, for the first time in his life.

But he’s a beautiful kid. He has a genuinely innocent nature; he cares about those around him, and he lives by his conscience. When you see the squalor and misery that he’s grown up in, on the banks of the river, surrounded by drug addicts and hardened criminals, it’s hard to see how he can still be such a little angel.

I hurried over to Minh’s house along with our lead social worker, Tung. Minh seemed stunned. He lost his father about 5 years ago, and now his 17 year old sister was so suddenly gone – here yesterday, gone today. Completely senseless.

We spent the morning waiting for news from Minh’s mother, who was at the hospital during the autopsy. Even now, there are several different versions of how the accident happened, so I’m not totally sure what the truth is. It looks like Minh’s sister was one of three people on a motorbike, certainly none with helmets, probably nobody had a licence, and it’s likely that they were involved in racing.

But that scenario is commonplace here. This death won’t make the news. It’s not even particularly noteworthy, in a city where you see dead bodies on the road at least once a week. By official estimates, 30 to 40 people die in traffic accidents every day in Vietnam. Add that to the thousands more who are injured and disabled, and you have a nation-wide plague that nobody seems too concerned about.

Every now and then, some company or NGO likes to shoot off a press release proclaiming their efforts to improve safety. There’s one organization that claims to have given out 150,000 helmets, for free, to primary school children throughout Vietnam. But spend an hour out on the streets, and you’ll be luck to see more than one or two people wearing them. More money down the drain. A quick and easy program to run, with plenty of photo opportunities, but no apparent effect. Certainly not for Minh’s family.

Today we went to the funeral – Nadine from Australia, Tung, and our lawyer Van came to support Minh. He stood bravely beside the coffin, his head swathed in a white bandage as a sign of respectful mourning. His little face is all puffed up from lack of sleep and too much crying.

We’ll see Minh back at the residence in a couple of days. For now, he just wants to spend time with his mother. I am sure she doesn’t realize how lucky she is to have such a good son.

Leaving the funeral, a big group of teenagers piled onto motorbikes – 4 teens on this bike, 3 on that one – and sped off out of the hospital. No helmets, no licences. Nobody seems to have wondered if maybe there’s a lesson to be learned from the otherwise senseless death of a 17 year old girl.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In the kitchen

Reaching boys through our street kids' program in Hanoi is pretty easy. In Vietnamese culture - as in most cultures - boys have plenty of freedom to roam about.

But girls rarely enjoy the same freedom. Families are more concerned about their safety when they are out on the streets, so keep them at home to look after infants, and prepare meals. A bit of a raw deal, from my point of view.
It means that girls are less likely to come by our drop-in center, unless we have a specific activity that we can invite them to. So earlier this year, when the Royal Thai Embassy organised a donation to Blue Dragon, we established a nutrition club for girls.

One part of this involves a cooking club every second Sunday. The girls are taught to cook food that they normally wouldn't experience making - like chocolate cakes, smoothies, and pasta. There's an emphasis on hygiene and nutrition, but the classes are fun and should produce at least as many smiles as calories.

Last Sunday, our guest cooking instructor was Alison Kember from New Zealand; and muffins were the order of the day!

Mmm... Muffins...

Monday, July 09, 2007

Hot in the city

We've had a tough week with illesses; some strange infection has been hitting the kids, leaving them with fevers that rise to over 40 degrees (that's 104 Farenheit), then dropping back to normal for a few hours before spiking again. Our houses have had a few extra residents, as so far each of the kids with the fever hasn't had a family to look after them. As I type tonight, one of the boys is on the floor beside me, hooked up to a drip. Poor kid...

But some happier news, too... On Friday and Saturday, about 20 of our kids went to stay in Cuc Phuong National Park. We invited all of the kids who recieved special awards from their schools to take a two-day trip the the countryside, where went bushwalking, searching for turtles and, I'm told, lots and lots of singing.

I'll post some photos as soon as I can...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Money well spent?

Over the past few weeks, an old friend of Blue Dragon from Australia has been volunteering with us - Doug Everett, a senior accountant who has come to us for the second time through Australian Business Volunteers. His job is to work with our accountant to finetune the accounting system, prepare for an audit, and help us draft budgets for the coming year. I don't really understand all that much, but I think I have worked out when to smile and nod.

I like to think of us as a low-budget, high-impact NGO. There aren't many groups around that can do what we do, with as little as we have. That's my boast, and I'm sticking to it.

So when another organisation comes along and announces a multi-million project, I'm pretty interested. And just a touch jealous.

This week a media release has come through the email from USAID, the American government's aid agency. They are working with MTV (yes, that's right. MTV) to distribute anti-trafficking messages throughout Asia. At a cost of about $14million USD.

OK, so that sounds like an innovative approach, right? Reaching out to young people through a popular medium to warn and educate them about the dangers of being trafficked between countries.

Except...

Well, except that I don't think people who have cable TV in their home are at very high risk of being trafficked. And I am not so sure the traffickers will be tuned in to MTV, either.

One of the teen girls we have been working with here in Hanoi has recently vanished; her family has no idea where she is and the word on the street is that she's been taken to China. If she has, she's in pretty serious trouble. Trafficking from Vietnam to China and Cambodia is all too common - it's a very long border, and obviously difficult to police. Once across the border, the stories are terrifying yet very predictable.

Let's hope that this young girl and her traffickers are somewhere with cable, so they get the message...

Am I overreacting? Does this seem like a good use of $14million?

Monday, July 02, 2007

Going, going...

Gone.

The 2 lovely ladies who were peddling heroin around the corner, and using orphaned street kids as salesmen, are gone.

Thank you, Ba Dinh police.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Gutter scum

Blue Dragon Children's Foundation is based in a neighbourhood that has a substantial drug problem. The authorities know about it, and they do what they can. We have two teenage boys currently in drug rehab. Seeing drug users shoot up is a part of our everyday life.


I don't judge drug addicts; I do believe that, unless they have a real choice in life, nobody should judge them harshly for doing what they do.


But today I am drawing a line.


Two blocks away from our center there are two ladies in their early thirties who peddle heroin on the streets. To avoid trouble with the police, they have started using a whole new strategy. They are recruiting orphan and homeless children as young as 12 to sell the drugs for them.

Last night, they beat one of their new recruits with a stick, and took a few slashes at his leg and neck with a knife. He's got plenty of deep bruises and cuts to prove it.


I don't care what kind of hardship these women have endured. I don't care what excuse they have for turning to drugs, and drug dealing, as the best choice they have in life.


Anyone who uses children to sell drugs is gutter scum. Trash.


Vietnam has zero tolerance for drugs. And the death penalty for drug trafficking.


We have started working with the police, and their response has been immediate. The dealers are still at work, but not for long. I am looking forward to the full weight of the law coming down on these animals who think that nobody cares about the kids.


More to come - watch this space.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

On the up

Some great developments at Blue Dragon over the past couple of days.

On Monday, two Blue Dragon kids started work at The Vine, one of Hanoi's finest restaurants, as waiters. And then today, four more were accepted as trainee chefs! (That's the 4 cooks-to-be below, celebrating with a fruit shake after their job interviews).
And this afternoon, the young guy below, Manh, was reunited with his father after spending about a month on the run in Hanoi. Manh and his dad spent some time sorting out their differences with the help of our chief psychologist, Khanh, and lef tus resolved to get things right. We wish them well!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Flat out

It's Thursday night, and I have spent the whole week so far studying the ceiling. Not that the ceiling is so interesting, but I managed to pull a muscle in my back - probably while practicing for the Olympic gymnastic team. Or something.

This means, of course, that I have not seen much action at Blue Dragon over the past few days. But I do hear bits and pieces from the kids who walk in to my office to look sympathetic and give me advice on what I'm doing wrong. Thanks guys.

There is something pretty exciting going on, though. Late last year, the Irish Embassy gave us a grant to open a computer lab, staffed with a full time IT guru. And then, early this year, a British company called Springboard4Asia gave us accreditation to train our kids in ICDL - the International Computer Driving Licence.

Normally, street kids are given a very simple choice of training options: motorcycle repair (if you're a boy), and sewing (if you're a girl). There's nothing wrong with either of those vocations, but there IS something wrong with the assumption that, somehow, all people from disadvantaged backgrounds are only capable of them.

In coming days, 8 of our kids - 4 girls and 4 boys - will go to a testing center and sit the exam. If they do well, they will have an internationally recognised certificate attesting to their computer literacy.

I'm really looking forward to the results... Now if only I can get up to go congratulate them...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Hieu and Thao’s comeback

In December 2005, Blue Dragon was building a house for a family in Bac Ninh province. The younger son, Hieu (then aged 14), was supported through our sponsorship program to attend school. Thao, then aged 16, had quit school at Grade 4 to support his chronically ill mother, Mrs Tat. Their house was in such bad condition that it urgently needed to be rebuilt.

On December 27, just weeks after the new building had been started, Mrs Tat died in her old home.

Thao and Hieu had little choice but to be brave and strong. They did a great job of it, too. In the following days, all sorts of relatives turned up to look at their land and their new house under construction, and to drop very blunt hints that the boys should repay a debt of gratitude by handing over the house, or some land. My staff and I were shocked by the outrageous display of greed, and we sent our lawyer in to make sure that Thao and Hieu didn’t lose any of their inheritance. Even their father, who hadn’t been around for 10 years, put in appearance and started talking about taking over the house.

The house was finally finished, with some help from Aussie school students and some of Thao and Hieu’s own friends. Blue Dragon started supporting the boys with extra money for rice and clothing, and Thao went looking for seasonal jobs. Things were looking bleak. None of us knew how these teenagers could possibly get through.

It’s now about 18 months since Mrs Tat died. And despite all the hardships, things are looking up for her sons.

Hieu has just passed his Grade 9 exams, and will enter Grade 10 in September. For a child in his situation, it’s very rare to carry on at school.

Thao has finally landed on his feet. Thanks to our volunteer mechanic Andrew, Thao has picked up a traineeship as a welder in a foreign-owned company in Hanoi. Up until recently, he’s been going home to the countryside every second weekend to see his little brother – but he hasn’t been going more frequently because the bus trip takes too long, and he gets travel sickness.

But this week, a teacher living in Hanoi named Andrea donated her motorbike to Thao; Andrea is leaving Vietnam soon, and wanted her bike to go to a good cause. Now that he has a bike, Thao can return home every weekend, as the trip will only take about 45 minutes.

You can never tell what will happen next in life. And of course, Thao and Hieu’s story is far from over. But it’s great to see them doing so well now, and making the most of the opportunities that they have.