Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The return visit

Back in February, I visited the home of Australia's Ambassador to Vietnam, Bill Tweddell.

Bill and his wife Chris had organised a special afternoon tea - not for me, though! It was to farewell one of the Blue Dragon kids, Quang and his mother, Trang.

Quang and Trang were about to fly to Brisbane, where Operation Smile was to remove a neurofibroma (a type of benign cancer) from Quang's face.

From their tiny home on the filthy bank of the Red River in Hanoi to the Martyr Hospital in gorgeous Brisbane is a massive leap. But Trang and Quang did it. They flew to Australia, they endured the pain of the surgery, they spent a month convalescing in the home of a Vietnamese Australian, and finally they flew home.

Quan's face is still swollen, but gradually shrinking back to a normal shape and size. So slowly...

Last night, we made a return visit to see Bill and Chris Tweddell. In the midst of a billion other events and meetings that make up the life of an ambassador, they took time out to sit and chat with Quan and Trang about their experiences in Australia. In the pic below, Bill and Chris are seated; I'm the tall guy and beside me is Phuong, a Blue Dragon social worker.
Despite the remaining swelling, Quan's life is back on track. After a two year break, he'll return to school in August, and to prepare him for that we're planning to hire a tutor to help him revise his studies. As time goes by, the memory of his facial deformity will become more distant, and Quan can finally have a 'normal' life.
Last night's get-together was a most appropriate way of marking this new phase in Quan's life.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


Here's a link to an article about a Blue Dragon volunteer, Andrew Souto, who works with us a mechanic trainer... A significant part of our work that not many people know about!


And while we're at it... Some AMAZING students from United World College in Singapore spent some time with our kids back in March - teaching rollerskating, and painting a house. Here's a movie they've posted in YouTube:


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Getting there

In November 2005, Blue Dragon Social Worker Bich received a telephone call from a former street kid named Hieu. On his way to work past Hoan Kiem Lake, he had stumbled across one of his old friends, an older boy named Hung, who had been missing for many months.

Hieu asked us if we could come down to the lake to help Hung. He was sick, Hieu said, and unable to walk.

What Hieu did not realise was that Hung had advanced tuberculosis. When Hung was brought back to the drop in center, we were all shocked by his appearance. Previously Hung had been unusually tall and strong for a Vietnamese teenager; now he was hunched over, and bone thin except for his horribly swollen feet and lower legs.

Hung had contracted the disease in a rehabilitation center, and was released only a week or so before we found him. He doesn't recall much about that week, other than that sympathetic passersby gave him enough food and money to survive.

As our staff rushed Hung to the doctor, and then to the TB hospital, I remember thinking that we were facing our first death in Blue Dragon, and wondered how we could comfort all of Hung's old friends. I wasn't being dramatic; Hung was barely a step away from death.

The doctors were realistic about his chances; they told us not to expect too much, but they would try. And so they did. Blue Dragon hired a carer to sit by his bedside in the hospital for some months, and slowly Hung regained his strength.

But that wasn't the end of the story. After release from hospital, Hung was living in a Blue Dragon home and continuing to take his medication. But after some months, his condition deteriorated: he had developed TB meningitis.

This time, the doctors at the TB hospital weren't so helpful. They refused to readmit Hung, insisting he just needed some more exercise or some iron tablets. The fact that Hung couldn't stand up and was hallucinating didn't seem to bother them.

Finally our staff convinced them to accept Hung, and so he started his second stint in hospital. Once again, he remained in their care for some months, and when he was released he went to live in another Blue Dragon home with somebody to look out for him around the clock.

Hung is seriously weakened by these conditions, and he might never return to 'normal' health. So our staff have had to look far and wide for a place that can train and develop Hung despite his reduced physical capacity.
Two weeks ago, Hung started learning handicrafts in a training center for people with disabilities. The work is simple, but given his condition, and the fact that he is illiterate, there are no better choices for him at present.
Hung seems happy, and is learning quickly. He lives at the center where he works, and the staff are treating him well.
What would have come of Hung if not for the TB? And what would have come of him if Hieu had not found him and called us..?
Hung will still be recovering for some time yet. He's off the medication, but still needs to visit the hospital every month. And with every passing day, he's going to be a tiny bit better. He may not be fully recovered, but he's getting there.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Gettin' our hands dirty

Meet 13 year old Duong. He lives with his father (pictured) and mother in a little house in suburban Hanoi.

Duong has an intellectual disability, so Blue Dragon supports him to attend a special school called Vo Thi Sau.

As well as being disabled, Duong has the double disadvantage of growing up in a family that is quite poor. His dad is not well enough to work, so his mother is the sole breadwinner: she works, when work is available, as a housemaid for her neighbours.

Some of our social workers came up with a plan to bring some cheer to a gloomy situation: Paint the house!

Yesterday, a team of social workers, uni students, and 4 street kids from our center spent the day scrubbing, painting and rebuilding. That's the group below, with the exception of Mr Hai who took the photo. This is the 'after' shot - notice the difference!

The nice new look for the house was intended as more than a paint job. It was our way of showing this family that we care for them. It also gave some of our street kids, who receive a lot of help from us, to give back to the community.

A happy day for all. I hope we'll be doing more projects like this soon.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Something old, but new

I first travelled to Hoi An, in Central Vietnam, as a backpacker in 2000. At that time, I had no idea that I'd eventually live in Vietnam and work with street children.

With Hoi An, I had no 'love at first sight' experience. One of the first things I did there was book a ticket to leave. The town itself struck me as being beautiful, but somebody tried to rob me (inside my hotel room!) and some of the street vendors were driving me crazy.

But something changed: I met a family. "Big Nam", the head of the household, was selling ceramics in front of his shabby, run down house. He was very poor, but had taken in a street kid - "Baby Nam" - and was raising him as a son. This family was so warm and welcoming that I changed my mind - and my ticket - very quickly. My love affair with Hoi An had begun.

I've been back there at least 20 times since. It's where I spend my holidays, and my favourite place to go to the beach. Hoi An is very quiet, with its own pleasant pace of life and a very relaxed attitude.

While I'm there, I usually visit a children's center, called Cahors. About 30 girls and boys live together under the supervision of the elderly Mrs Diep. She's been there since the center opened, about 12 years ago. The kids are orphans, or from extremely poor families in the districts around Hoi An.

As a Center, there's obviously a welfare aspect to Cahors. The children live there, eat there, and grow up there. But the real reason that the kids are at Cahors is to go to school. Without the Center, they'd be street kids.

Cahors is a great place, but has been seriously under-resourced for some years. Different groups have pitched in to help - NGOs, local associations, and individuals - but Mrs Diep and the kids never know how their next set of bills will be paid.

Over the last few days, I have been in Hoi An again. This time, I was not on holiday. This trip was about Blue Dragon getting involved in the running of the Center, to help out with the long term needs.

Blue Dragon has been involved at the Center for some years already. A few months back, when the roof blew off the building, I posted a blog and some good friends sent some money to get the place fixed. Long before that, I've been visiting the kids, providing bicycles at times, and helping out with small needs here and there. So our involvement there is nothing new: but we're about to start working in a new way.

If all goes to plan, Blue Dragon will begin working there on a permanent basis, starting in April. We'll be taking our unique social work and psychology program to the kids, which means individual planning and a 'whatever it takes' approach to getting kids out of poverty.

The really great part to all this is that the Center's children will be the winners. They come from difficult backgrounds, which for various reasons mean that they can't go on living with their families. Living at a children's Center is only a second best solution. Our goal is to make it worthwhile and fulfilling for everyone there.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

I'm off

Time to head south...

Today I'm heading out of Hanoi with some key members of Blue Dragon to work on our project in Hue. On Tuesday we'll head to Hoi An to talk with officials there about supporting a street children's program.

Will write an update when I return!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

He's in!

Our first day back after the long weekend started with some GREAT NEWS.

One of our kids, a boy named Ky, has been accepted into the KOTO training program.

Ky was a shoeshine boy for some years, and turned up at our weekly football game one Sunday in early 2005. His background is tougher than many of the kids we have met, and he's had a really difficult time over the last year and a bit. When we first knew him, his behaviour was kinda unpredictable, but we were patient and forgiving... and expected him to improve. So he did.

This latest milestone sets him on a path to develop his vocational skills over 18 months, preparing him for a career as a chef or a waiter.

Being accepted into KOTO is an accomplishment in itself. KOTO is a foreign-owned training restaurant, with limited placements and a reputation for high quality. It's almost certainly the best hospitality training organisation in Vietnam. Only one Blue Dragon kid has been accepted into KOTO before today.

And so, Ky is moving on... but never leaving. He'll move out of our residence in coming weeks, as KOTO trainees have their own accommodation. But he will still be part of our family, and I guess I'll be going to eat at KOTO more often now.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


It's May Day!

This is a long weekend in Vietnam, so the pace at Blue Dragon has slowed for a few days.

Over the last 2 weeks, we've had some newcomers to Blue Dragon who are still settling in as part of the family.

Hung arrived first; he has lived in Hanoi for a few months, working as a shoeshine and living under bridges. I accompanied him home on Thursday last week to reunite with his family; but the final outcome was that he should return to the city to live and study.

Next came Cuong... One of the quietest street kids I have ever met. He's been on the streets for 3 years, and we still have a bit to learn about what he's been through. Seems to be a great kid, though.

And today's newest arrival is Bear! Some of the Blue Dragon kids returned to their countryside over the weekend, and this morning one boy, Nghia, arrived at 7am with a pup. My own dog, Wheels, isn't quite sure what to make of this new situation, but it looks like Bear is here to stay. (That's Nghia holding Bear).