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.

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