Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Show me the papers

No matter which country you're in, 'bureacracy' is a dirty word. Long lines to wait in... being sent from one office to another... getting the right signature or stamp... losing your file and starting all over again... This is a part of life we've all experienced.

Here in Vietnam is no different, except that things can be a little more complicated. Vietnamese bureacracy is not yet computerised, which comes as a great shock to westerners who are used to having all their records kept on databases that can be accessed in a flash.

At Blue Dragon, we regularly meet families who need help with what appear to be simple bureacratic matters: teenagers without birth certificates is a common one. Parents, often poor and illiterate, might not bother with the fuss of obtaining a birth certificate, and 15 years later suddenly find that now their child cannot obtain an ID card, which is essentil for going to high school, getting a driver's licence, applying for a job, qualifying for government benefits, and so on.

But once a child is in their teens, the process of getting a birth certificate is no simple matter. In every case we've encountered, the family has moved away from where the child was born, or the parents have died, or other official family documents have been misplaced - all of which mean that a birth certificate cannot be issued.

This is why we hire two lawyers!

In the last few years, our two lawyers, both fresh out of uni, have helped 132 families get their paperwork and legal documents. Considering that it can take weeks of investigative work and gathering evidence, 132 is quite an incredible feat.

And last week, the number reached 133. This was perhaps the most difficult case we've so far encountered, because the family in question had absolutely no evidence at all of who they were or where they were from. Their oldest daughter Quyen is now 18, and her school has been very flexible in allowing her to enrol and study - but to get her final mark and then apply for university, Quyen must have her papers in order.

Final Grade 12 exams are just weeks away, and university entrance exams will follow in July. Our lawyer Hong has been working feverishly to get the papers in time - and with a huge sigh of relief, last week Hong could declare 'case closed.' Quyen, along with her mother, brother and sister, now has all the official paperwork she needs. Her birth has been registered, she has an ID card, and her mother even has registration back in the village where she was born.

Getting some papers just seems so unimportant, but Quyen's mother was crying with joy when she returned to our centre after traveling with Hong to the village. I really felt embarrassed receiving her profuse thanks, but I could see how important this was to her. They weren't just papers, they were the family's legal existence and their right to take part in society.

And with that done, here's hoping Quyen's final exams give her the result she's hoping for!