Sunday, December 28, 2008
But over recent months, one staff member at Blue Dragon has had a burning desire to send some help to a very poor province where poverty is rife. Images from the local media had burned an impression into his mind and he just had to do something to help.
The province is called Cao Bang; it's way up in the north along the border with China, far from the rapid development that's taking place in other parts of Vietnam. It's one of these parts of the country that tourists rarely see; it doesn't have much in the way of resources but its people somehow get by.
One of our 'old' friends, Marc Gold, was visiting us during his trip through Asia. Marc runs the 100 Friends foundation, which distributes support to many developing countries including Vietnam. When Marc and the Blue Dragon staff got together, a plan was hatched: Marc would provide the funds for a journey up to Cao Bang, where they would distribute support among students at one school.
Once they got up there, they realised that they also needed to give something to the teachers. It was Teachers' Day (a very big event in Vietnam) and quite clearly the teachers at this school could use some support themselves.
About $1000 was spent on winter coats, stationery, and other school supplies for 90 children... as well as some soccer balls, and gifts for 15 teachers. There were 5 very special cases that received attention, too, including an elderly tribal woman who lives alone and a handicapped girl who has been unable to go to school.
All up, the trip spread some cheer and left plenty of smiles on faces. It didn't solve the world's woes, but it just might have made an impression. If nothing else, the school community is left knowing that they have friends far and wide that they never even knew existed.
Some pics below...
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
Check this out! The Blue Dragon kids made this!
Blue Dragon Christmas Card made entirely by the kids
Friday, December 19, 2008
Here's a very short clip of the inside of a factory. Apologies for the low quality - footage is not easy to obtain.
This is where the kids and other workers sleep - right on the floor beside the sewing machines. The boy in the dark blue shirt looking towards the camera is 13 years old; he's one of the kids we took home.
And here are the 11 children we took back home by train. The man in the blue shirt at the end is the Deputy President of the local government area that all these children came from.
Monday, December 15, 2008
As I write, Blue Dragon staff and 11 children (3 girls and 8 boys) are heading home on the train to central Vietnam. Another 3 girls have already gone home, bringing the total to 14. All of the children are aged under 15; most are 13 years old.
Frankly, we are disappointed that we couldn't take more. We encountered a new problem this time around: the traffickers were aware of what we were doing, so they warned the children that we were child traffickers. Some of the traffickers even rang the children's families in Hue province to tell them that they shouldn't let their kids go with us. Even though we were accompanied by an official from a commune People's Committee and a staff member from the Red Cross, the children were worried enough that some refused to leave the factories. Better the devil you know, I suppose.
But this is by no means the end. We are now well armed with facts, addresses, and names, so our next step will be to work with the police on ending this child exploitation.
And one bright note: we made the pleasant discovery that one of the trafficked children, a 13 year old boy named Tu, is an exceptionally talented artist. The garment factory where he worked was near a wood carving shop, so in every spare moment he had Tu would go and work alongside the local wood carvers. Tu's backpack is almost empty of clothes and personal items, but full of statues and models that he has carved out. It's almost unbelievable that such a little guy could produce such art! I guess we'll be getting him some art and craft supplies for Christmas...
Saturday, December 13, 2008
The big question we get asked all the time is this: Isn't this work dangerous?
Certainly this work is not a ride in a fun park. There are plenty of people who get upset by what we do, most of all the traffickers and factory owners. Even some NGOs are unhappy about it. From 2005 to 2007, we worked hard at busting up a trafficking ring that was taking kids to use on the streets. Some big NGOs had developed programs aimed specifically at working with those children - but not to take them home. The programs were just teaching them English, so that they could make even more money for their traffickers. People would be shocked if they knew which organisations were so stupid. And they weren't thrilled when we took away their entire beneficiary group and returned them to their mothers and fathers, either.
So our work doesn't make everyone happy. This afternoon, a Blue Dragon staff member was surrounded by traffickers armed with sticks, threatening violence. Fortunately, the police came - and arrested my staff! The traffickers walked away having won the battle... (... but not the war, fellers!)
So yes, there's definitely an element of danger. But there's another way to look at this.
Why are the traffickers prepared to resort to violence? What is so precious that they have to protect? And if this is how they deal with other adults, how do you think they deal with the children?
We are yet to meet a child in a factory who doesn't want to get out immediately. Nobody's having a good time there. There ain't no bonus system for those overtime hours, but there are plenty of beatings for children who fail to keep up with the work.
All of this leads me to one conclusion: rescuing trafficked children is indeed dangerous work; but the real danger is in not rescuing them at all.
I hope to have an update on Monday - and if all goes well, there'll be a train-carriage load of happy children on their way home by then.
Friday, December 12, 2008
Here are some companies that donate to our work...
This is a company based in England that's helped us in various ways over the years. Through PhotoBox you can buy greeting cards online, and nominate Blue Dragon to receive a percentage of your purchase amount.
Together in Life
Health and beauty products that would even make me look good! These are the same kinds of products that you buy elsewhere - the only difference is that part of the price is a donation to Blue Dragon. This is an Australian based business.
This company, based in Australia, goes by the motto: "Smart stuff for little people." Their quilts and teddy bears are produced in Vietnam guided by Fair Trade principles, and a part of every purchase goes to Blue Dragon.
A French company that helps students apply to study in Australia, FrancAustralia Education makes a donation to Blue Dragon every time a student fills in an application form.
People traveling through Vietnam with Intrepid sometimes have the chance to visit Blue Dragon; and Intrepid's charitable Foundation matches donations made by passengers dollar for dollar.
Wide Eyed Tours
This is a travel company that was started by some Australians living in Vietnam. They've set out to be a bit different, and one way they achieve that is by allowing travelers to design their own 'charity challenge' or visit areas where Blue Dragon works.
So... when you're spending your money, give a thought to these businesses!
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
As the seasons change, loads is happening at Blue Dragon...
In coming days, our staff will be traveling between Hue in central Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City in the south to rescue up to 20 girls and boys who have been trafficked to work in garment factories. A lot of preparation needs to go in to this - we can't just walk from factory to factory in the hope of finding the children - but so far we've been able to gather quite a bit of specific information. Perhaps the saddest case we know of, and will definitely intervene in, is of a small factory that bought a girl over 12 months ago for 4 million Dong - that's a little over $200 US. After working 16 hours per day, 7 days per week, the girl was able to get a message out that she wanted to escape. An adult friend tried to help, but all he managed to do was arrange to replace the girl with her younger brother, who now has to put up with the same conditions but equally wants - and needs - to get out. He will. Barring some unforeseen intercosmic calamity, he'll be free by Sunday.
Blue Dragon staff are also preparing for our first court case. We have long hired 2 young Legal Advocates who work with the police and with kids in trouble with the law, but this is the first time that one of our boys will have to front up in court. The boy has definitely done wrong - he badged a Mercedes! - but we're hoping that the penalty won't be too severe. It's a tense time as we get ready for the case, although I must say that the police have been supportive and helpful to both us and the boy throughout the whole process.
And preparations of a much happier nature... Christmas and Lunar New Year (Tet) are coming, and in 2009 Tet is unusually early. We're planning parties and celebrations, including our annual Tet Awards Night where all the kids receive certificates and gifts. It'll be a blast - it always is!
Sunday, December 07, 2008
Since then, Sam has gone back to live with his family and is doing fine. He's about to go back to school to repeat the 2nd half of Grade 2, as it's too late in the school year to start at Grade 3. Sam has been coming to hang out at the Blue Dragon centre from time to time; he seems much happier now than he ever was before.
At about the same time that we met Sam, we also met another runaway boy, named Viet. Although Viet is 4 years older than Sam, they're about the size - Viet has grown up in rather severe poverty and hasn't received much in the way of nutrition.
Viet stayed at our shelter for a few weeks before opening up about himself and agreeing to return home. He had been living with his mother in the countryside, and desperately wanted to go to school. At age 14, he'd never had the chance to study. But his mother just wanted him to work as a shoeshine boy in the provincial capital so that she could live off the earnings. Even before we took Viet home, we knew this would be a tough case.
We did reunite Viet and his mother, but Viet ran away again - within hours of going home. His mother was insisting that he get back to work, and had no intention of letting him go to school.
So Viet is back living with us, and studying in Grade 1. He's happy and lapping up every opportunity for study and play.
Things have worked out well for both Sam and Viet, although life is very different now for each. Viet will spend the next few years in the care of Blue Dragon, while Sam returns to family life.
We hope that for both of them, the future brings better fortune than they've had in the past.
Monday, December 01, 2008
One of the Blue Dragon staff, Van, has just been in Hue (in central Vietnam) where we work in 3 villages that have been the source-site of child trafficking for some years. Our work involves taking the kids away from the traffickers, getting the kids home, and helping them return to a normal life.
Last week, while Van was visiting the families and finding out about any kids who have recently been trafficked, he had the pleasure of distributing some donations that were given to us by Crocs in Singapore. Dozens of kids received Crocs shoes and shirts - and they sure looked happy about it!
Some pics below to tell the story...
Monday, November 24, 2008
There are some really cool photos up already, and more will be added as time goes on.
Friday, November 14, 2008
Monday, November 10, 2008
Check out the pictures here of a truck that really, really wanted to pass under the Long Bien bridge: http://www.tinmoi.vn/index.php/tinmoi/cau-long-bien-bi-xe-container-dam-ldquo-trong-thuong-rdquo/69491.sn
Long Bien bridge is a city icon - and something of an icon for Blue Dragon, too. Most of our kids are from the area around the bridge; we play football within sight of it; and many kids we meet live on or under the bridge.
Of course, if people keep doing this kind of thing, we might be looking for a new icon.
Friday, November 07, 2008
The Red River is very high, of course, and the families who live on boats along the river banks are really doing it tough. But in the centre of the river is an island, where many families live in tents and shacks. With the island now mostly submerged, all of these people have had to find other places to stay - and most have ended up staying on boats with friends.
A few families have moved in to Blue Dragon homes just until the waters subside; it's much too dangerous for families with young kids to be staying on the boats at the moment.
So for this weekend, the city is holding its breath in anticipation of more rain, and meanwhile we await the floods to abate and the river to return to normal...
Monday, November 03, 2008
If you haven't been trapped in a car or on a motorbike for 6 hours with water up to your stomach, then you're not really in Hanoi!
You don't need to understand Vietnamese to get the gist of this:
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Sam is 10 years old, and he was left in the care of one pagoda by his father, who loves him dearly but couldn't provide a decent home for his son. It wasn't an easy decision, but the pagoda seemed to care for the kids living there and, hey, even the World Bank was giving them funding, so Sam's father figured they must be pretty good.
But Sam didn't think so. Punishment involved being tied to a tree and beaten. Visitors walked in and out of the pagoda all day, admiring the children like in a zoo and interrupting their games and personal times over every weekend. Nobody was in charge of looking after the children, so they ran wild and nobody cared until some arbitrary rule was broken - and then the punishment was public and severe.
So Sam ran away, dreaming of finding his father. He returned to the street where his father worked as a motorbike taxi driver, only to find that he was no longer there... and nobody knew where he was.
Sam's dad had been coming to visit at the pagoda fairly regularly, so Sam knew he must be around. But soon he had to join a gang of runaway children in order to survive. The kids went begging during the days, and at night they played and slept under bridges.
One day about 10 weeks ago, one of Blue Dragon's older teens met Sam and brought him to our drop in centre.
Sam has been living with us since then, while we tried to unravel his story, verify what he claimed, and look for his father. Several of the staff have been involved, and at times it's been more like a police investigation than a standard social work case.
After weeks of searching, we had a breakthrough on Thursday: we found Sam's father. He is quite old and his health is poor, so he has been unable to work for a long time.
He was shocked to learn that his son had been living on the streets. Despite his bad health, he has been going to the pagoda every couple of weeks to see Sam... and the nuns have been telling him that Sam is there, but "he's at school this morning..." or "he must have gone out to play somewhere but he'll be back in a few hours and we'll tell him you came..."
To make it even worse, Sam's father insists that the pagoda staff have his mobile number and could reach him any time. We've repeatedly asked the pagoda if they knew how to contact the father - and they've claimed they don't know where he is or how to call him.
These huge frustrations have only served to increase the joy of the father-son reunion. Sam has finally found his dad; and now his father knows the truth about where his son has been for the past few months.
Sam is still staying in a Blue Dragon home, but just for a few more days while we help sort out a few family problems. We expect that he'll be living with his dad again by the end of the coming week. They'll need some support - both material and social - to make it work, but both want to be together so I can't see why it should fail!
This has definitely been one of our more complex cases. It sure is nice to see things working out for little Sam.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
One 14 year old boy named Vuong has just started school - for the first time in his life! He came to us several months ago, having run away from his family in the countryside. After we took him back to his mother, it was clear that he would never have the chance to study if he stayed there. Within hours he had run away again and appeared at our centre asking to go to school. How could we say no!?
Linh, a 16 year old girl, has also gone back to school after an absence of 2 years. Our social workers have spent a lot of time working with Linh to get her ready for returning to the classroom; it's fantastic to see this happy outcome.
Some news from one of our original staff team... Tung, who started volunteering at Blue Dragon back in 2003 and later became a senior social worker has just passed an exam to study a Masters Degree at the University of Economics. Congrats, Tung!
BIG NEWS from one of the youngest Blue Dragon kids. Tan, who has cerebral palsy, has just been accepted into Grade 1 in a local primary school. Tan's story is here - and although we've been making good progress with him, it's been hard to find a school that could include him. We now plan to work with the school on preparing their staff and upgrading some facilities so that Tan can fit in with all the other kids.
And on the not-so-bright side, one of the Blue Dragon boys was injured last week in a knife attack in our parking area. Actually it was more of a sword than a knife, and the local police have been GREAT in looking for the attacker. Fingers crossed that they find him before he strikes again - but we've had to put a few extra security precautions in place.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Two families in Hue are having a crisis of their own: homelessness. Each family consists of two sons and a mother; and each lost their house in a storm. The first family (below) owns their own land, but are living in a tin shack which will be freezing this winter and has been unbearably hot all summer.
The second family (below) is one that I have written about previously. One of the sons was trafficked to Ho Chi Minh City, but we helped him come home in August. This family is living in a tent on the beach; their living conditions are just extraordinary.
Friday, October 10, 2008
In the Central province of Hue, in a tiny village by the beach, a group of girls walk home from school.
Just weeks ago, these same girls were working in garment factories in Ho Chi Minh City, 700kms away. Having been bought by traffickers, sold to factories, and rescued by Blue Dragon... finally, finally, they are back where they belong: with their families, in their communities.
I can't help but smile.
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
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"My dream, and my hope, for this great nation of ours, is to dream of the hope of the... ah, just read the newsletter already." - Barack Obama
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What more do I need to say?
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Every time Blue Dragon meets with great success, we know that the next day may well be brim full of difficulty and failure. And on those terrible down days, when everything goes wrong, we know that the next day may be the best we've ever had.
So it goes with looking after 800 boys and girls living in extreme poverty.
Of those 800, only about 60 live in Blue Dragon homes - the vast majority live with families or relatives, or in their community. But those 60 living with us certainly face the biggest challenges of all the Blue Dragon kids. These are the children and teens who cannot fall back on their own families, for any number of reasons. Some have no families at all; many are from families torn apart by alcohol or violence or drugs.
And as you can imagine, kids who have grown up in such hardship can't just leave their baggage at the door when they enter Blue Dragon's homes. Making the transition to a stable, caring environment isn't easy at all.
Many of our kids, although living away from families, are strongly affected by what happens back in their own homes. One of our teenagers, "Hieu," is wrestling right now with a powerful dilemma: he's been saving up money with the dream of opening his own business, but last week one of his brothers landed in huge trouble with the law and is facing the choice between paying a massive fine, or going to prison for some years.
The trouble is entirely of his own making and the police have dealt with him very fairly; but now the onus is on Hieu to save the whole family by sacrificing his dream of having his own shop. Hieu is one kid who has moved his way up through determination and hard work; he was a shoeshine boy when I first met and he's spent the last 2 years studying, training, and working part time. I dread the thought that Hieu's dreams are about to take such a blow.
For other kids in our homes, the allure of the streets never seems to fade. While most give up life on the streets and never look back, others are constantly tempted to once again join the gangs, hang out in the night markets, and make some quick money to buy a new mobile phone or bicycle. "Just this one more time," they tell themselves, "and then never again."
Earlier this week a group of kids who have been torn between having a home and tasting the freedom of the streets were sleeping on Long Bien bridge, which crosses the Red River and is home to many young people living rough. One 17 year old boy, "Vu", was sleeping too close to the edge of the bridge; he rolled over in his sleep, and dropped over the side. When the others woke, they saw their friend sprawled on the ground 30 metres below. Vu is in hospital now, with two broken legs and a host of other injuries - but he'll make it through.
For both Vu and Hieu, tomorrow will be a new day with new opportunities and also new challenges. They can fight their circumstances and try to make a change; or they can roll with the waves and accept whatever happens as their "destiny." That choice, at least, is theirs.
But whatever choice they make, their stories will go on. No matter how far they fall, there's always a way back up. It's never, ever, the end of the story.
Friday, September 19, 2008
I love proving them wrong.
The street children who Blue Dragon works with are as diverse as any cross-section of any population, anywhere. One of the kids we 've helped now works for the government as a Garbage Collector; another works part time as an admin assistant in a foreign owned company while studying languages in her free time. To each their own.
Over the last few weeks, I've watched as one young man has made the transition to full time study at an IT College. The phrase "like a hand in a glove" comes to mind: he just seems so suited to his course.
Linh was a tiny runaway boy when I first met in 2004. He lived in Thanh Hoa province with his mother and sister, but they were just so poor that everything kept going wrong for them. It became too much for Linh, so he took off for Hanoi and ended up shining shoes to survive. (I wrote more about this in the Roundup blog a few weeks back). One of our volunteers was able to reunite Linh with his family, and over the past few years we have supported both Linh and his younger sister to go to school.
Now that Linh is studying in College, he seems like such a different person. He's a young man now, not a child. As part of being selected into the college's "elite class," he has been given a laptop, which he carries everywhere and keeps in perfect condition. It struck me the other day that Linh was carrying a rough timber box of shoeshine gear when I first saw him; now he's carrying a laptop in a special bag.
I guess I'm so excited about this (excited enough to be writing about Linh in 2 separate blog entries!) because I see Linh as truly reaching his potential. He's taken on this course because he loves IT, not because he's poor and "this is a good job for poor people," a phrase which stirs an instinct within me to bare my teeth and growl. He's doing it because he wants to, and because it's the right 'fit' for him. The laptop definitely suits Linh much better than the shoeshine box did.
I'll add a photo as soon as I remember to take one... And I must say a special thanks to the donor (you know who you are) who has paid the very expensive course fee for Linh...
Sunday, September 14, 2008
On Saturday, one of our teenage boys - let's call him Nam - was riding his bicycle along a main rode in the middle of the day when two motorbikes veered across his path. Nam had spent the morning working at an international school, as a 'runner' for the morning soccer matches, and was on his way to the other side of Hanoi where he has an apprenticeship in a mobile phone repair shop. This is one kid who works hard and doesn't spend his weekends playing games!
The two motorbikes, each carrying three young adults, were cruising the streets looking for someone to rob. When they saw Nam, they hoped to steal at least his bicycle, but were hoping he might also have a phone or some money they could take. (Hey, who needs a job when you can just go around robbing people, right?)
The men on one bike beat Nam up and fled with his bicycle. The guys on the second motorbike realised that they'd been tricked by their own gang - they got nothing! So they then tried to convince Nam that they would take him to find his bicycle... if only he'd get on their motorbike and go with them...
When they worked out that Nam wasn't so stupid, they beat him around some more and left.
All this on a major road in broad daylight.
When Nam was able to ring for help, I called for one of our social workers, Hai, to come to his aid. Hai happens to live nearby and he was happy to go see what he could do. Hai and Nam went and filed a report at the police station; and while the police were very helpful and sympathetic, finding these guys will be like finding a needle in a haystack.
Nam really loved his bicycle, and added to its loss is the humiliation of a public beating and the senselessness of being mugged while on his way from one job to another on a sunny Spring Saturday morning.
He really didn't deserve this... but I think that's a line I have written in dozens of my blogs over the last couple of years. If it wasn't for the fact that Nam is such a good person, like so many of the Blue Dragon kids, I think that this latest incident would really get me down.
Friday, August 29, 2008
Blue Dragon launched the school year last Sunday in Bac Ninh province, where we are supporting 350 students from Grades 5 to 12. The annual Opening Ceremony is a bit of fun for the kids, and they all get their school gear as well as some encouragement to do their best.
And finally, some great news from our older teens. Now that Blue Dragon has been working for 5 years, some of our kids are finishing high school and looking to enter tertiary education. This is quite a development for us - it's a sign of our success, but not something that we have been expecting! One of the kids who has been accepted into college is a boy named Linh, who we first met on the streets over 3 years ago.
I met Linh when he was shining shoes on the streets of Hanoi to survive. Linh and his mother were living in extreme poverty: every day was a struggle, and every night the family went to sleep hungry. Eventually the pain and tension were too much for Linh, so he headed off to the big city to try to escape it all. Our volunteers were able to take him home and sort things out with his mother, who was worried sick about what might have happened to her son. Since then, we've been supporting him to go to school and keeping the family supplied with rice. Next week, Linh starts a 2 year course in IT at Aptech College. He's been selected to join the top class, which means he'll study morning and night, with all classes in English. With a bit of help, Linh has gone from being a street kid to being a college student in a selective class. What a change, and what a chance for him to make something of his life.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
For some years, the Home had been struggling to care for the 30 girls and boys who lived there - the passionate long term director, Mrs Diep, was all but alone there, with no carers or social workers to look after the kids. There was rarely enough food to go around, and on many nights and weekends there was simply no staff at all at the Home.
August marks not only the 12-month anniversary of Blue Dragon's work, but also the new intake of children to fll the places vacated by those older teens who have finished school and are heading off now to university or jobs. School starts in September, so the 'new kids' are starting to arrive and get settled in.
The program manager, an amazing volunteer named Nicole, spent a good chunk of her July traveling around the countryside interviewing families who had applied for their children or relatives to move into the Home. We couldn't accept all of them, but we did make a commitment that any child who wanted to join the Home, but didn't really fit the criteria, still received some form of ongoing support to make sure they'd be OK.
And so the Home filled up to its maximum of 30 children, and everything was set out for the coming year.
We received a call from Robyn Morley, who runs a medical-focused charity called CHIA. Robyn had come across an 8 year old boy named Nam who was in desperate trouble. He's never been to school, his home is no more than a shack, and his family situation is... well, it's appalling. It's the sort of situation that no kid ever, ever, deserves to grow up in.
Robyn and her staff were worried about Nam, and asked if we could accept him into the Home. The short answer was "no": The Home is already full, and Nam is too young anyway. Normally the youngest child at the Home is 10, and even that's in exceptional circumstances only.
However, there really was no other choice for Nam. Either he would live at the Home, or he would have to stay living in a rotten situation. Nobody wanted to refuse him.
So Nicole called together the 30 residents of the Home, as well as the staff, and put the problem to them: Nam needs a place to live. He needs to go to school. He needs someone to look after him. Are we going to help him, or are we going to say 'no'?
This was one of those occasions when we just had to roll the dice and see if our number came up. Everyone in management wanted to say yes, including Nicole and Mrs Diep; I wanted to accept him, and Robyn wanted us to do this. But if the staff and children were unwilling to help, it just wouldn't work. Having nam at the Home would undoubtedly mean more work, extra responsibility - and, ultimately, a stretching of our already limited resources.
But here's the incredible thing: absolutely EVERYONE agreed. If Nam needed us, then what were we even waiting for!? Bring him in!!
Nam moved in within days. The kids at the Home have taken him under their collective wing; everybody wants to help!
There's a long road ahead, though. How will Nam fare at school? Can Nicole and the team help Nam get a birth certificate, and jump through all the legal hoops required to register him as a citizen? Will Nam really be happy living at the Home for the next 10 years? And what then??
The signs are good, though. Nam is smiling from ear to ear, and so far there hasn't been a single problem. This is Nam's new chance. Whatever has happened before, the future is a different place now.
Anything is possible.
Let me help! All the kids want to do their bit for Nam.
Monday, August 11, 2008
All of the children were working in small factories or in home-based factories, cutting out cloth for garments. The youngest of the kids Van rescued is an 11 year old girl; the oldest is a 15 year old boy.
Not all of the factory owners were agreeable to losing their free labour, but they didn't have much choice and maybe will think twice before recruiting children next time.
Van accompanied the 8 children home on the train - that's a trip of about 700kms - and experienced the joy or reuniting them with their families. The children, of their own volition, spoke out about the terrible time they've had - working up to 16 hours a day in squalid conditions with barely enough food - so we hope that the word is spreading through the community.
But we have more work to do!
First, we need to support these 8 children, and the 35-or-so others who we have taken home in the past, to return to school and get involved in their communities again. Our dream right now is to create a Youth Center for the children in their village so they can have a safe place to hang out, play and seek help.
But second, we have to go back to Ho Chi Minh City... the 10 year old pictured below is just one of the many, many kids we are yet to rescue...
Sunday, August 10, 2008
This news is still 'hot off the press' - so hot that I don't have all the details just yet - but late this week a couple of Blue Dragon staff traveled to Ho Chi Minh City in search of 7 children from central Vietnam who were taken to work in garment factories. There were some kids who they couldn't find, and others who they didn't expect to find... so 8 in total, and lots more to come.
All of the kids are from Hue province by the beach; all from extremely poor families; and all were tricked into going to the south with the promise of 'free job training'. Instead, they've been working 12-15 hours per day making cheap clothes, and all for no pay.
More details in a day or 2 when I can find out exactly what happened!
Thursday, August 07, 2008
The idea behind the program was reaching out to teenage boys who are 'chronically homeless' and unlikely to ever have a regular home, education, or job. It hasn't all been roses - 2 of the original 7 are in reform school now. Others have come and gone, though, and despite the rough patches there have been some inspiring outcomes.
One of the 'newcomers' to the program is a 16 year old named Ton. He's been on the streets for 6 years - with one extended break in a detention facility. Ton came to us early in 2008; although I had never met him before, he simply said that he wanted to get off the street and go back to school, so would I mind if he stayed at our shelter? It's quite common for kids to tell us what they think we want to hear; so on that first day when Ton came to see me, I really didn't know if he was serious or not. But since then, he has not spent a single night on the streets, or gone back to the gangs that he once roamed with.
Ton's story, like most others, is tragic. First his mother abandoned him, then his father walked out. In the earliest years of his life, Ton was left in the care of an aunty, who looked after him because there was nobody else who cared. Ton's aunty was loving and treated him like a son; but at age 10, Ton felt that he was being a burden, so he left home and headed to Hanoi.
For 6 years Ton looked after himself, occasionally getting into trouble with the authorities. His aunty and grandparents had no idea where he was, and feared the worst; but they never forgot him.
When Ton went hom earlier this week, for the first time in 6 years, many tears were shed. Ton's family was overjoyed - they never thought they would see him again - and they took him to see a small plot of land that belongs to him. For all the hardships he has been through, Ton is quite a lucky guy to still have a family who cares so much.
Today Ton returned to Hanoi, this time with his grandparents, who wanted to see the home he is living in and thank the staff of Blue Dragon for looking after their only grandson.
In coming weeks Ton will return to school - he's been out of the system for quite a while now, but he has a goal and intends to make the best of his opportunities.
This is one kid who really has a bright future in the making.
Sunday, August 03, 2008
We've only ever failed in two cases so far - although I know I should be a bit more careful not to jinx myself...
When Blue Dragon works with runaway kids, our aim is to 'close the case' within 2 weeks. Some runaway kids end up living with us for the long term - we have at least 5 such teenage boys in our residential homes right now - but as far as possible we try to get them back with their parents.
Over the last 2 weeks, we have hit a problem with runaways that we haven't had to deal with for over 5 years: runaways with intellectual impairments. And just to make life interesting, we have come into contact with 3 such kids, including one set of identical twins.
The twins, Hai and Hung, are lovely kids. They're 17, and for some reason they decided to run away to Hanoi to find a job. Only problem was that they had never been out of their village in the mountains before. They made it to the city, but when I found them sitting under a tree outside the Horison Hotel they looked like frightened puppies with nowhere to go.
Hai and Hung spent about a week at our Shelter before agreeing to go home. During that week, their family was worried sick about them, fearing the worst of course but not knowing what to do to find their sons. When our staff accompanied the twins home, their parents wept with genuine joy and relief.
So a happy ending..? Almost. The twins, emboldened by having found their way to Hanoi, decided to try it again, and turned up at our Shelter the next Saturday morning. When I asked why they had come back, they told me in all sincerity that they needed some money - the equivalent of just over $300,000US, it turned out. They simply didn't understand what that amount of money really is; so I was able to bargain them down to $30,000 before the staff called their mother to come to Hanoi and pick them up. Reunion No. 2 was also a success, but I'm hoping that this time it might be a longer term success...
Meantime, we have a third runaway at our Shelter who also appears to have some intellectual impairment. He was brought to us by one of our other kids - a former runaway who now lives with us, as it happens. This new boy (let's call him Nam) was covered in scabies and skin infections, which thankfully now seem to be clearing up... many thanks to our good friends at Hanoi Family Medical Practice for their treatment...
At this stage, we know nothing about Nam other than that he's been living very rough for at least a few weeks. Building trust and getting information from a teenager with an intellectual impairment is quite a different scenario to doing exactly the same work with an average-ability teenager. This is yet another challenge... but hey, just another mountain to climb, right?
Stay tuned to see how this case works out...
Monday, July 21, 2008
One morning, Hung's attention strayed long enough for the buffalo to wander off and demolish a neighbour's rice field. Terrified of the trouble he was about to find himself in, Hung decided to run away rather than face the inevitable spanking.
As tends to happen to runaway boys, one thing lead to another and before he knew it several months had passed. Hung returned home, deeply sorry for what he had done and hoping to find forgiveness. But something terrible had happened: his mother and little sister were gone. They had been trafficked to China and nobody knew how to contact them. Hung would later learn that his mother was sold as a bride. All these years later, he still does not know the fate of his sister.
Although he had some relatives in the countryside, Hung knew that there was no place for him without his mother. So he headed to Hanoi and became a street kid, shining shoes and selling trinkets on the streets. Eventually he met Blue Dragon through our weekly soccer games; his group of friends became quite close to us, in a fairly short time, and things were starting to look good for Hung.
But then he vanished.
He was picked up on the streets as a vagrant, and spent some months - maybe a year - in a detention center. I have never been clear about where he was taken, or why. But while there, he contracted tuberculosis, and as his condition became more and more severe, no treatment was made available. Finally, when Hung seemed ready to die, he was released - presumably so that the center wouldn't have to report a death.
One of Hung's good friends stumbled upon him at Hoan Kiem lake and rang our staff to come and help. What we saw was truly shocking: Hung was disoriented, weak, and skeletal. He recognised us, but he couldn't remember any details of leaving the detention center and getting to the lake. His lower legs were swollen, but the rest of his body was thin and covered in sores.
Hung was on the verge of death. We took him straight to Hanoi Family Medical Clinic, who realised that he had tuberculosis, and although they sent us to the Hanoi TB hospital, they were very clear that his chances of survival were slim, if not nil.
Hung did survive, though. He spent months in the hospital, and we hired a carer to sit by his side making sure he was fed and bathed. When he was well enough, he came to live in one of our houses: but some months later, the TB returned, this time with meningitis. Hung's health spiralled downward, and he returned to the hospital. Once again, the prognosis was bleak.
And once again he survived. Since then, Hung has been living in a Blue Dragon shelter, recovering gradually. His lungs have been OK, but his mind and body have been weak. He's 23 now, so he doesn't fit in well with a children's foundation. However, there has been nowhere else for him to go. He has just been hanging out at the drop-in center, getting involved in small projects, and learning basic literacy with our teacher.
Last week, we finally took the step of travelling with Hung back to his countryside to meet his relatives. Our staff drove up to the border and then walked for 2 hours up a mountain just to find the house.
Hung is now living with some uncles, and although Blue Dragon will keep supporting him financially for another year, he's learning to live more independently. Hung will never recover fully - he will never be the young man he was shaping up to be. But now, 10 years since running away because of a buffalo, he at last has a home and some family to care for him.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Blue Dragon supports Tung to go to school in the countryside, and a few months back we discovered that the injuries done to his body when he fell into a fire at age 2 could largely be corrected, or at least improved.
Tung has been in a hospital in Hanoi for just over 3 weeks now. His father has been by his side the entire time. At first Tung had surgery on just one finger of his left hand, and the doctors then operated on the thumb on his right hand. We were expecting them to carry on with four more fingers, but instead the doctors decided to operate on Tung's right foot, to correct the toes. For each of Tung's fingers and toes, the doctors have to remove old, then straighten them out (and pin them into place) before adding fresh skin.
So now, both of Tung's hands, and his right foot, are bandaged up and causing him plenty of pain... But he's still smiling!
The hospital has suggested that the little guy is in enough pain for now; any further surgery should be delayed for at least 6 months.
This Friday, Blue Dragon staff will drive Tung and his father home - they live about 40kms out of the city. What a dreadful summer holiday Tung has had; but there is great hope that this surgery will be worthwhile in the long run. I sure hope so.
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
One thing I know is that, in recent months, Tuan has had no home at all. He's been sleeping around Long Bien bridge, or on the island in the Red River, or in doorways of friends' homes. Since coming to Blue Dragon, he seems to spend about half of the time sound asleep, as though he has a lot to catch up on.
One of the boys in our Link program brought him to the Blue Dragon center about a week ago, and Tuan has been living in our Shelter since then. He seems so happy to be there - so pleased to have a comfortable bed and friends to play with - but it's early days yet. My experience is that some kids will wear a mask of happiness because they think that's what I need to see. Those are the kids who will be with us for a while, and then vanish.
Other kids - most kids - quickly learn they can let their defences down, and let us into their world. Those are the kids who stay with us, and grow up as part of the Blue Dragon family.
Vi was one of those kids who came to trust me and the Blue Dragon team back in our early days, 5 years ago. I met him shining shoes outside my house, and invited him in. Six months later, Vi was among the first kids to move in to a Blue Dragon residence (The Big Room), and now he's senior captain of a bar in a fine restaurant, has travelled South East Asia, and is starting to think about the day he'll open his own fine restaurant. He's come such a long way from his days as a shoeshine boy earning money to send his younger sister to school.
Vi is 21 now, and one of my best friends. We hang out whenever he has spare time, which isn't often. But this evening we met up and had a meal, and then Vi came with me back to the Shelter to talk to the kids.
A group of the boys were playing on the floor, making enough noise to drown out a jet plane. Tuan was right there beside them - sound asleep. He looked so serene, and even seemed to be smiling in his slumber, despite the riot going on around him.
Vi noticed this too, and we both found it most amusing.
"How can he sleep with so much happening here?" I laughed to Vi, who gave me the most profound answer: "He feels safe here."
I hadn't even thought of that before. But Vi would know - he too went from surviving on the streets to living in a safe home in the care of Blue Dragon.
"He feels safe here." Of course he does. He doesn't have to worry about where his next meal will come from; he doesn't have to hide from the police and the gangs at night. No wonder he can finally catch up on all that missing sleep.
Saturday, July 05, 2008
Tung was volunteering with Blue Dragon even before we were Blue Dragon. Back in early 2003, when the idea of forming a charity to help street kids was just beginning, Tung was a friend who was available to help with absolutely anything.
Two years later, he joined us full time as a social worker (when we finally had some money to hire social workers!) and has been with us ever since.
Tung has been with Blue Dragon through all the ups and downs: the start of the Big Room; urgent trips to rescue staff who were stranded while rescuing trafficked kids; the opening of each of our drop in centers; and every single week through all this he has been a referee at our Sunday soccer games.
Tung has been more than a staff member; he’s been a one-man institution. Other organisations have recognized this, and tried to steal him from us… but failed. Tung’s heart has long been in returning to university and completing a masters degree in economics.
That’s a far cry from being a social worker – but Tung really is a versatile kind of guy.
So we’ve had a farewell, we’ve given him some gifts, and won’t be in at the drop in centre on Monday. But this is not goodbye. Tung still plans to join in the weekly soccer, and has already put his hand up to help with our summer swimming classes.
Tung oi, you’ll always be a part of our family. Good luck with your studies, but don’t forget to come and hang out at Blue Dragon from time to time!
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Their argument, which sounds reasonable enough, is that if Blue Dragon was not working in Vietnam, our beneficiaries would have to be self reliant, or rely on their local community. Hence, Blue Dragon is creating a need, rather than fulfilling a need, and it might be better off if we weren't here.
I can answer that criticism in many ways. The first response that comes to my mind is: "Is it really a good thing to force 6 year olds to be self reliant?" (And a related question to the critic could be: "And have you put your belief into practice by sending your own children onto the streets to earn their school fees, so that they don't become reliant on your help?")
But rather than argue the point, an easier response is for me to explain that we do, in fact, encourage independence - when the kids are at an appropriate age and level of health.
We all know the saying, "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." Fair enough, but it would be nice to give him a fish to eat while he learns to catch them himself.
This is the case with the Blue Dragon kids: they're not ready to be independent. They need time, care, and teaching to get them there, and that can take many years.
Two of our girls, Thuy and Trang, exemplify this process of moving from dependence to independence. These are great kids; they do well at school, they get involved in community service, and they make the most of every opportunity they can find. On separate occasions in recent months, they approached our staff to ask for help in finding part time jobs. They want to start supporting themselves even though they haven't yet finished high school.
Blue Dragon's role in helping teens get jobs is to help set up interviews and liaise with employers. The kids have to earn the jobs themselves - we never ask businesses to hire anyone as a favour. And we also have a 'one-time-only' rule: we help kids get their first job only. If they leave for any reason at all, they have to find their next job themselves.
So it's essential that we find good employers, and Thuy and Trang were fortunate to get jobs at a famous Italian restaurant where the bosses are committed to training and demand high standards, but also care about their employees' welfare. The girls are earning good incomes, and still have time to study.
Having a job doesn't mean they no longer need support from Blue Dragon. But it does mean they are on the road to independence, with an end in sight.
And surely, while the development experts talk about their theories and policies over a long lunch at a fine Italian restaurant, they've got to be happy about that.
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Francaustralia Education is holding an ebay auction to sell the winning entries in a photography competition - and the money raised goes to sending Blue Dragon kids to school!
The 3 photos up for auction can be found here. But the winning bids receive more than the photos - they also receive a certificate and either a photographic image or anthology of pictures taken in Vietnam.
Give it a go - auction ends Saturday!
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Many people are familiar with the story of Quan, a terrific kid who has had to live with a neurofibroma growing on his face. Quan's father is a xe om (motorbike taxi rider) and his mother sells fruit in a market - so this is a fairly poor family who could never afford the complicated surgery to restore their son's face to normal.
In March last year, with the fantastic help of Operation Smile Australia, we took Quan from Hanoi to Brisbane, where he underwent some very complicated surgery that removed almost all of the cancerous cells that made his face swell and grow.
Quan has been fine since then, but last week he started to experience pain in one of his legs, where he also has a (much smaller) cancerous growth. This one, too, is benign, but it's never caused pain before. Quan's mother took him to a local hospital, which carried out a series of tests, and booked Quan in for surgery on Monday June 30.
This operation should be fine - but let's keep those fingers crossed to be sure.
And anyone who read our June newsletter will know about 14 year old Tung from Bac Ninh province. Tung was severely burned in a fire at age 2, leaving much of his body significantly scarred. Both of his hands needed extensive surgery, but Tung's family has never had the money to get the operations done. Their local Women's Union raised money from the community to pay for one hand to be 'fixed', although one of his fingers has curled up again. So Tung has needed operations on 6 fingers, but just hasn't been able to find the way...
Until now! We wrote about this in our newsletter, and instantly had several people respond with pledges or offers to help. We called Tung's parents, and the next day Tung and his father turned up at our office so that they could go see a doctor with Giang, one of our social workers.
The doctor was very positive; if the family agreed, Tung could check in to a room right away and start surgery in the morning! (Those of us from western countries with 6-month waits to get ANYTHING done in a hospital are wondering how it could be so quick!!)
But Tung and his father had to think about what this means: 3 weeks of operations... pain... more trips to the city in coming months...
For Tung, this was a very easy decision. He wanted to check in immediately. He wants his hands to look like everybody else's, and his fingers to work properly!
After some quick discussions among the family, it was agreed, and Tung went back to the hospital. He's now had one finger repaired, and so far so good.
I've spent a lot of time in hospitals in the past 8 years, and fortunately none of it has been for me. I truly admire people who can stay positive through their pain; and when it comes to kids, I am astounded by their resilience and determination.
Both Quan and Tung have also been in hospitals a lot - too much - but unlike me, they've been there because of their own suffering. Let's hope for a happy ending for these kids.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Blue Dragon has a new, exciting, dynamic newsletter! It's more popular than The Da Vinci Code... more insightful than Pride and Prejudice... and more coherent than anything by James Joyce.
Drop me an email if you'd like to be on the mailing list. (And I'm really, really sorry to all those Joyce fans. I know you're lovely people).
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Each year we have a celebration for the kids who receive special awards for their efforts and results at school. This year, about 30 kids travelled to Cat Ba Island, where they played and toured for two days as a reward for their great work. Some of the children who went on the trip were teens who had never been to school before this year; their success was particularly noteworthy.
We received great support from Intrepid Indochina for organising and sponsoring this trip, as they did last year.
We also organised a trip to Halong Bay for 20 children with disabilities, none of whom had ever seen the beach before, and most of whom have never been outside Hanoi. Many had a parent accompany them, but for those without a carer Blue Dragon sent along some teens from our drop in centre who volunteered to help out.
This trip was fully sponsored by Buffalo Tours.
Although our main work is helping kids with day to day issues, special trips like these are still a valuable and worthwhile part of what Blue Dragon does. If nothing else, these girls and boys will have happy memories to last a life time!
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Chau's funeral took place on Sunday, so the family is still in the early stages of mourning. Their entire community, which is very poor, pitched in to help, as the family is now left with significant debts from the hospital treatment and funeral.
Although we couldn't save Chau, it's time for us now to turn our attention back to the kids we can keep from exploitation, as well as those who are far from home and need help to get back. While it sounds cliched, I think it's fair to say that our work is never ending.
Friday, June 13, 2008
Chau died at home on Thursday at about 10.15pm. He has suffered from cancer for over a year, and now his pain is finally over.
I have written about Chau previously - here's my last blog that mentioned him.
One of our staff will travel south to Hue on Saturday to attend the funeral. This will be a very difficult trip; although we have comforted many children in our care after they lost relatives, we have never had to attend the funeral of one of the kids in our programs.
There is no surprise that Chau has died - it's only been a question of time. But that doesn't reduce the grief for anyone, or lessen the sense of injustice about what he went through.
Long will you be remembered, Chau.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Apologies for not writing much - it's not that nothing has been happening, but that too much has been happening! Stay tuned for an update over the weekend.
Wednesday, June 04, 2008
Back in March, I wrote about a boy named Phuong who I met on the streets of Hanoi: see the original post here. He had run away from home some months before and was living and working in the Old Quarter. He was a very bright kid, and his parents were most thankful when our lawyer Van took him home. Tuesday this week was Phuong's 14th birthday, so Van made the journey to Phuong's home (a few hours' drive out of the city) to catch up.
Phuong will return to school in September - he ran away from home during Grade 8, so has to repeat the whole year. But he's happy about this, and all his neighbours and friends are still excited to have him back.
Phuong's family threw a party to celebrate his birthday (and the fact that Van was coming). It was a very nice confirmation that the little guy is much loved and wanted by his family and community.
Monday, June 02, 2008
The Big Room is the first residential home that we started, back in 2003. Blue Dragon wasn't even officially a recognised organisation then. We had no money, no staff, and no legal status, but we did have a group of kids who wanted to get off the streets and go back to school. So we took the plunge and rented a house.
The home started off with 6 teenage boys, all kids who I had met on the streets shining shoes. We employed one of their mothers to supervise and care for them, and also recruited a team of volunteers to teach English and run educational activities. Our budget for the first year was a whopping $5000! This was donated to us by some expatriate women who hardly knew us, but believed that we were trying to do the right thing. (Thanks, Chantelle and Danielle!)
Five years on... the kids aren't kids any more! There has been a lot of movement in and out of the house, as some kids have moved out and others have moved in. All residents now are 18 or over, and have good jobs - some in fine restaurants, and one even works at Blue Dragon. The Big Room gives them a much better home than they could otherwise have, while allowing them to save money so that they can move out eventually and have homes of their own.
Of course, over the years there have been many dramas and comedies at the Big Room. A broken arm... frightening visits from the police... and the now-infamous "beer on a string" incident (but you had to be there to understand it). In 2004, the German Embassy paid for an upgrade for the building, although in 2006 a project in a neighbouring school funded by Plan International completely blocked all natural light from entering the house. Grrr.... But anyway, over the years we've watched the kids become young adults and take their place in society.
Today's celebration was a chance to acknowledge the exceptional successes of a small group of street kids who took their destinies into their own hands. We're proud of ya, guys!
Monday, May 26, 2008
Some finished products
Friday, May 23, 2008
Last weekend, I headed out with a few of the staff and a group of about 8 kids to Bac Ninh province, a beautiful rural area not far from Hanoi where Blue Dragon supports 350 students to go to school.
Our gathering was not simply to celebrate the end of the school year; it was also to celebrate the fact that these kids have persevered with their studies, despite terrible difficulties in their lives. Many have done really well at school, but that's not even the main point: the fact that they have made a commitment to study, and followed it through, was the key theme of the day. We were very proud to be awarding certificates to 18 students who had graduated from Year 12 - what an achievement!
As always, a picture tells...
One of the Hanoi teens handing out gifts to the kids. Each bag contains items donated by Unilever Vietnam - shampoo, tootpaste, cleaning products, and a toothbrush. Worth a small fortune to these families.
In coming days, all of the kids will be on holidays, and then we can turn our attention to the next challenge: how to make sure these kids, and others, can stay in school for another year.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Last week, two boys who both happen to live in our residences had a birthday on the same day. Hieu turned 15 and Cuong turned 17. So as is our custom, we threw a party (two parties, in fact) to celebrate.
What was really special, though, was that neither of these kids had ever had a birthday party before.
It's hard to imagine growing up without ever receiving gifts and singing the Happy Birthday song... Such a small event in the course of world events, and yet so important to these terrific young guys.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
The more feather boas, butterflies, tinsel, electrical devices and umbrellas on your bike, the cooler you are.
Imagine the chaos when it rains...
Sunday, May 11, 2008
We wanted to interview Chau, the 17 year old boy who is dying of cancer in his family home by the beach. Chau had been taken to Ho Chi Minh City to work in a garment factory in appalling conditions at the age of 14. He started to get ill a year later, and without any medical attention he was eventually far too sick to work any more. The boss sent him home, which is when we met him and found that he had advanced cancer. I've written about Chau here and here if you want more of the story.
Time is dwindling away now; pain management is all that's left for this boy and his family. After talking to his parents, Van and I decided to interview Chau on video to create a permanent record of what he has been through. He has something to say, so we gave him the chance to be heard.
As we spoke to Chau about his childhood, life in the village, and his time in the factory, we had to keep taking breaks as pain swept through his bones, then subsided long enough to let him talk. I couldn't help but feel like some kind of monster as I pressed Chau for information, asked for more detail, and then waited for him to be able to speak. I don't know how journos can do their job in situations like that.
The purpose of documenting Chau's pain is not just about keeping a record of events. Chau needs an advocate - someone to stand up for him when he cannot stand up for himself. He's been mistreated, and at the very least someone should listen to him.
There was also a very practical outcome of our interview. In this day of modern medicine, nobody needs to be in such pain. For some reason, though, the doctor overseeing his case had prescribed just two shots of morpheine per week. The afternoon that we interviewed Chau, he'd had one of his twice-weekly shots, and was already in agony again just hours later.
It doesn't take a medical degree to see that Chau needed serious relief - but convincing the doctor of that wasn't easy. It took some weeks. But now Chau has been prescribed two shots a day, which has helped enormously to reduce the pain.
Hand in hand with pain relief, of course, comes the morpheine haze and various uncomfortable side effects. Chau's mother and father wait on their son around the clock, massaging him when the pain comes and sitting by his side when they don't know what else to do. We bought the family a TV and DVD player just so that they'd all have something to take their minds off the relentless misery that they are living in.
Such a waste of a valuable life. I know our world is imperfect, but sometimes it's very hard to accept.