I've just returned to Hanoi after spending a couple of days in Hue, visiting families of trafficked children.
I've written many times about Blue Dragon's work of rescuing kids who have been trafficked from central to southern Vietnam. It's a difficult and dangerous part of our work, but arguably the most valuable.
Once we get the kids home, though, we still have much to do. Helping the children return to school is never easy: most have been away from school for 2 years or more. Some of the kids, now in their early teens, have never been to school. We can't just take the to the school gates and drop them off, hoping that everything will be alright.
Across the three communes where we are currently helping families, some of the children have dropped out of the schools or training courses we helped to enrol them in. While this hasn't been a huge problem, it has been growing, so I decided to go to Hue and talk with the families about this directly.
In Hue, we have just 2 staff running our anti-trafficking program. They're out in the villages every day helping families to solve problems, and often overseeing the building of houses or the running of a youth centre we opened in one village. To deal with this issue of children giving up their studies, we decided to call 3 meetings - one in each commune - in which the staff and I would stand together with local government and Red Cross officials to talk about the importance of education. In short, we called for the parents to work with us to keep their kids in school.
We've never done anything like this before, but this is a new problem so we needed to think of a creative solution.
Each meeting was a little different. The very first meeting was attended almost exclusively by fathers and grandfathers; the second was attended only be mothers. Each village clearly has its own way of doing things!
In one village, the Red Cross leader told the families that education must be important - after all, Michael has come all the way from Australia to help your kids go to school, so surely you can make more of an effort to send them! I couldn't help but chuckle at that line. But, hey, whatever works!
Families were invited to give us their feedback and let us know if they had any problems we could help with. This was the part of the meetings where all the really interesting stuff happened.
One very elderly man spoke about his two grand daughters, both of whom we brought home from factories. Although the whole family wanted them home, he explained, the younger of the two just didn't want to go to school, so they took her to a fortune teller. The advice was that the girl was never going to be a doctor or a teacher, so there was no real need to force her to go to school. Instead, the mother took her back to Ho Chi Minh City to find another factory to work in.
While a story like this might just seem bizarre to anyone in the west, it's not unusual at all here in Vietnam for families to make a decision like this based on the words of a fortune teller. Even with the local officials urging the grandfather to bring the girl back and send her to school, it's unlikely that he will.
At another meeting, a group of parents had joined together to write a proposal to us. They needed help to improve their incomes, they said, so would we consider giving them a loan to buy fishing nets? I must have looked stunned for a moment, because I was just so impressed that the villagers had thought up a solution to their problem and had the foresight to put it in writing. Mistaking my expression for confusion, one mother spoke up: "If you can give us this loan, we'll be able to earn more money for our families and invest more in our children's education."
These are the words that charity workers dream of hearing. Yes, they'll be getting that loan for sure!
There's no doubt that these community meetings have made an impact on the parents. They all agreed that they should do their best to encourage their kids to go to school, and to let us know if there are any problems we can help with. School starts again in mid August: we'll soon know just how our strategy has worked!