Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Runaway reunion

Working with runaway children is a significant part of daily life at Blue Dragon. We have staff whose job is to meet kids on the street and help them sort out their problems, so there are always at least 2 or 3 children around our centre who have run away from home and have been living in Hanoi.

We can't always help the kids to go home - sometimes they have run away for their own safety - but we do try to get them to at least visit their families to open up a line of communication.

Yesterday, two of our staff - Huong and Vi - traveled 6 hours out of Hanoi with a 16 year old boy to reunite him with his family. Here are some photos that give an idea of what's involved...

1. The journey
Many runaways in Hanoi come from very isolated parts of Vietnam. Getting the kids home is often a challenge! The Blue Dragon car does its best, but sometimes needs a little help...

2. The reunion

There are usually tears. Nothing wrong with that at all.

3. The issues

When children run away from home, there are always several related and complex reasons. Poverty is usually (although not always) a big factor. This is the home of the family our staff went to yesterday.

4. Family.

There's almost always a family. Forget the stereotype that 'street kids don't have families.' In all of our work over the past 8 years, we've only encountered one child who has absolutely no family at all - and even in his case, it's probably just that nobody (including the child) knows who the family is. Runaway kids do generally have families, and many (like this one) have family members who truly care about their welfare.

Monday, August 16, 2010

And a happy new year

In late December 2009, after spending Christmas in Hanoi with the Blue Dragon kids, I headed to Ho Chi Minh City for a short holiday.

I love Saigon. When I moved to Vietnam in 2002, my plan was to live there. Although I'm happy now living in Hanoi, I still miss the south and love to spend my holidays there.

So this year I wanted to spend New Years there. I figured it would be fun and relaxing, and I went with no real plans other than to catch up on some sleep.

Late on the 31st I walked the streets of the city, watching some outdoor concerts and enjoying the festivities. But, not being much of a party animal, I decided to head back to my hotel at about 1130.

It was a long walk, and by midnight I was getting close. I knew it was midnight because I could hear the firecrackers start far off in the distance.

At that exact moment, a small boy appeared out of nowhere with a huge smile and a friendly "hello!" He was oblivious to the fact that it was new years eve and midnight, and that he was missing a great display of fireworks not too far away. He was just genuinely excited to be talking to a foreigner.

I quickly learned his name was Vu, and he was selling helmets by the side of the road at a major intersection. I'd walked past this same spot half a dozen times, but never noticed him before. On this night, he was there with his 2 cousins, whose mother owned the stall but had already gone home for the night.

Vu was 14, and his cousins were about 17 - but all looked far younger. They were a bit dirty and were clearly very tired, but the sudden distraction of a foreigner who could speak Vietnamese cheered them up immediately. We chatted for about fifteen minutes before I wandered off, smiling to myself at what a happy and unexpected encounter I'd had.

Over the next few days, I met Vu and his cousins repeatedly. The older cousin, just turning 18, was pregnant. The younger one, a boy, worked until 2am each day in a side-of-the-road restaurant, earning about $70 per month. So the long day of selling helmets was mostly left to Vu and his aunty, who I spent many hours with at the intersection, talking about her life in between customers and learning about how she had come to sell helmets with her children and Vu.

Having worked with street kids for over 7 years now, I'm fairly good at getting a sense of the character of young people. Vu impressed me. At times he was like a child in kindergarten, wide-eyed at a new toy or jumping on the spot with joy at seeing a friend. But every time a motorbike crashed near his stall - which was at least two or three times a day - he would run out into the traffic to help someone get up, brush them down, and see them on their way. Over and over I watched him go out of his way to help complete strangers, never for any reward, and many times he was treated with disdain by passersby on expensive motorbikes, but it never deterred him. He wore the same infectious smile no matter what happened.

Until, that is, the day I was leaving. When it was time for me to return to Hanoi, Vu was inconsolable. Trying to hide his tears, he told me that he had an eye infection, but he was clearly distraught and for the following week I had constant text messages from Vu, using his aunt's mobile phone, to ask what I was doing and when I would return to see him.

Since that eventful new year, I've been back to visit Vu and his family several times. His cousin has given birth to a baby boy, and Blue Dragon helped out with some medical costs as well as a small allowance until the baby's father got a stable job. Vu's enthusiasm for text messages has eased off a bit - I imagine his aunty had to sell quite a few helmets to pay the phone bill - but we've still been in contact regularly and Blue Dragon has helped the aunty with some cash each month to support her nephew. They live in a tiny room, 4 people and a baby all together, and work unbelievably long hours to scratch together a living. What could I do to make things better?

A few months ago, I contacted a man named Paul, who runs the Saigon Children's Charity. Vu had told me that he wanted to study, and I was happy to pay for a tutor, but I was wondering if Paul could help me find a suitable teacher.

Instead, Paul asked his social workers to look into the case, and eventually they came up with a way to help Vu get back to a proper school. This was something that I simply couldn't do from Hanoi! And on top of this, they found a reputable local shelter that was prepared to accept Vu so that he could have better living conditions. In short, this was to make sure he wouldn't be compelled to work until the early hours of the morning, which would certainly mean that he couldn't keep up at school. Vu has been out of the schooling system for a couple of years, so he needs all the support he can get.

And finally, the Saigon Children's Charity staff found a vocational training course for Vu's cousin who has been working in the restaurant. He now studies motorbike repair in the morning, and helps his mother sell helmets in the afternoon.

This morning, Vu went to school for the first time in 3 years. He's in Grade 5, and one of the staff from the shelter sent me a message to say that he's doing really well.

Vu's outlook is great. He's back at school, living in a secure environment not too far from his aunt, and his cousin is studying a trade with a guaranteed job upon graduation.

If only every story could have such a happy ending!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

First day

The new school year is starting, and there are lots of exciting developments among the Blue Dragon kids.

Here's just one:

This afternoon, a 15 year old boy named Hung went to school for the very first time in his life.

Hung has grown up on the streets of Hanoi with his mother and siblings. To earn money, they shine shoes in the outer districts, but Hung has long wanted the chance to study.

Our outreach worker Vi met Hung late last year, and gradually built up a relationship with him and his mother. Hung has been coming to our drop-in centre every day for over 6 months, and apart from playing Connect 4 with the other kids (he's a champion! Nobody can beat him!) he's been studying with our teacher, Ninh, to learn some basic literacy.

And today, he went to school.

I can't post a photo, but I can say that we're immensely happy to have made this happen.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

From street kid to IT guy

In July 2004, I met a teenage boy shining shoes on the streets of Hanoi.
Linh was a bright kid, and very shy. It took some time to learn how he had come to be on the streets, but eventually he revealed that he had run away because of a dispute with his mother.
Linh lived in the countryside with his mother and a younger sister. They were extremely poor, and often didn't have enough money to eat breakfast. So one day, frustrated and not able to face the difficulties of his life, Linh left home and headed to Hanoi.

At the time, Blue Dragon was a very small organisation - we were not even registered with the Vietnamese government - but we had really good outreach into the community and had already started a (tiny!) drop-in centre. So we were able to help Linh with some basic needs, and could give him a place to stay when he needed it.

Linh (in the yellow shirt) at the Blue Dragon centre.
This picture was taken in July 2004. The other kids pictured were
also street kids at the time.

After some weeks with us, Linh was ready to accept our help to return home. Van, who is now Blue Dragon's lawyer (but on leave to study in the US), was a uni student at the time, and volunteered to accompany Linh home. This was Van's first experience of reuniting a runaway with their family, and it was a terrific success. Linh's mother and the entire neighborhood came out to celebrate the return of the boy who they feared was dead!

Once Linh was home, Blue Dragon continued supporting him to study, and to ensure that his family didn't have to worry so much about money. His school results were always good, and from time to time he'd even travel to Hanoi to visit us.

Today, Linh is a student at a private college in Hanoi learning IT. He's in one of the best colleges around, called Aptech, with the course almost entirely in English. We normally couldn't afford to send him to Aptech, but a private donor gave us the money to pay for the course in full, and so Linh has had the opportunity of a lifetime.

Linh with a certificate of excellence from his college (July 2010).

Linh is now entering the last 6 months of the course, and his results have been great so far. He's starting to dream of landing his first job, or maybe studying further overseas.

Such a long way from his days shining shoes to survive in Hanoi!

Sunday, August 01, 2010

A great idea

There's a new venture in Hanoi that is being set up as a way of supporting local orphanages. It's called Little Tigers, and the website is here: little-tigers.org.

Little Tigers runs a second-hand store in Hanoi, with all the items donated, and all profits going to fund specific needs in orphanages in and around town. As they're still in the early stages, the shop is currently only open once per month... and the next opening day is this coming Saturday, August 7.

Check out their website... Shop there this weekend... And support this great cause!