Sunday, December 28, 2008

More than 100 Friends

The way Blue Dragon usually works with disadvantaged children in Vietnam is by making plans for the medium to long term and then providing ongoing support. We don't normally just give handouts or do 'quick fix' charity work.

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...

One of the recipients clutching his bag of gifts.


This photo gives you an idea of the living conditions in the area.


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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Santa comes to football

In an unannounced visit to Hanoi's Long Bien football field on Sunday, Mr S. Claus revealed that all Blue Dragon children have been especially good this year...





















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Monday, December 22, 2008

In the Christmas Spirit

... and now for a refreshing break from my anger and outrage of recent posts.

Check this out! The Blue Dragon kids made this!

Blue Dragon Christmas Card made entirely by the kids



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Friday, December 19, 2008

Conditions

I've written a lot about the child trafficking that Blue Dragon has confronted; here are some images to show what I've been talking about.

Here's a very short clip of the inside of a factory. Apologies for the low quality - footage is not easy to obtain.

video



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

Rolling home

A quick update on our trip to Saigon to take trafficked children home...

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...



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Saturday, December 13, 2008

The real danger

As I write this, Blue Dragon staff are in the process of rescuing children as young as 12 from garment factories in Ho Chi Minh City. Most of the kids are from central Vietnam; some are from northern provinces. All have been taken by child traffickers who promised their families a chance at a better life, but instead were put to work up to 16 hours a day for no pay. The role of Blue Dragon is to demand the release of the children, take them home, and support them to live again in their communities.

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.



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Friday, December 12, 2008

Ethical shopping

I've been contacted recently by people who want to know about any businesses supporting Blue Dragon - and I've never done much in the way of promoting those businesses that help us, so it's about time I write a blog about them!

Here are some companies that donate to our work...

PhotoBox
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.

Little Smarty's
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.

FrancAustralia Education
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.

Intrepid Travel
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!


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Preparations

Winter is rapidly approaching in northern Vietnam. The cool days are starting to feel cold and everyone is hoping that we don't have another dreadful winter like last year!

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!


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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Sam and Viet - doing fine

A few weeks back I told the story of Sam, a kid who came to Blue Dragon after running away from a pagoda to look for his father.

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.


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Monday, December 01, 2008

Smiles in Hue

My silence over the last 2 weeks has simply been because of all the busy-ness of Blue Dragon... so I will start off with some happy news!

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...

This young guy lives in a tent on the beach. We rescued him from a factory in Ho Chi Minh City a few months ago.


The entire community came to see what all the excitement was about when Van was distributing the shoes and clothes.


Some very happy girls and boys showing off their new possessions!


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