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:
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


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


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.


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...


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.