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

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


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.