Thursday, December 29, 2011

The end of the year as we know it

The calendar on my wall is still open to October. My mind is still switched on to August. Everything else tells me December is about to end.

This has been another fast moving year at Blue Dragon.

2012 will be the Year of the Dragon. Symbolically, this is exciting for us: this is our year. And we do have a few big announcements coming, but I fear saying anything too soon. So instead I'll make the prediction that this will be a huge year for Blue Dragon in Vietnam. Huge, I tells ya.

Having said that, 2011 has been a big year too.

We started on a terrible note, with the sudden death of one of our kids: a 10 year old boy named Toby Hai. At our coming Annual Tet Awards ceremony, we'll be marking a year since Toby Hai left us, but he certainly remains in our thoughts. From that awful low, things could only improve.

2011 was the year that 3 Blue Dragon teens headed to New Zealand to study; 2 of the boys studied English over 6 months, while the third joined a Business Diploma course, and did so well that the college offered him a second year of study.

Our fight against human trafficking landed some powerful punches this year. We reached the milestone of having rescued 100 kids early in the year, and since then have rescued a further 42. This included our biggest ever rescue: 23 children and youth from ethnic minority villages in the mountains. Although I don't get too hung up on the numbers, these figures are significant. Each young person we get out of a factory or a brothel is a life changed, and another blow to the filthy industry feeding off their vulnerability.

In Hue, a province of central Vietnam, we have set our sights on ending the trafficking of children to garment factories altogether. And in doing so, we want to ensure that the factories don't just start getting kids from other areas; and also that the kids from Hue don't end up getting trafficked to other industries. We plan to do this properly.

Of the kids we've rescued so far, a growing number include teenage Vietnamese girls we've rescued out of brothels in China. Earlier this month we brought back 4 more girls and young women who were tricked and kidnapped, to be sold to brothels. Whereas with the garment factory trafficking we believe we can put a permanent end to the trade, we are still just starting to get involved in this cross-border crime. All we know is that we've had some good success so far; not only in getting girls back, but in cooperating with both the Vietnamese and Chinese police, and then in helping the girls to resettle in Vietnam.

So we face the question now: What does this mean for Blue Dragon? Should we get more involved in this issue? When so many other agencies have anti-trafficking programs, is there a need for us to have one too? This is a question we need to wrestle with in coming weeks and months.

We've also been really pleased with the development of our Outreach work to street kids. Late in 2010 we were talking to a big funding agency from Singapore, which cooperates with a Hong Kong foundation, about securing funding to expand our services to reach runaway kids and others living on the streets. We went through the bizarre experience of being asked to submit proposals and conduct a survey and then finally be told that they wouldn't help because I am not famous enough - or as the woman put it, "Nobody knows who you are." (I couldn't help but wonder what she thought when CNN named me as one of their Heroes of 2011).

So instead we asked our supporters around the world to help, through a major appeal in June. Our donors dug deep and ended up giving 3 times the amount that the "major foundation" was ever prepared to consider. The result is that our Outreach work has grown from a single staff member to 3, and we're close to doubling the number of kids we meet every week. Many of the stories of these kids are incredibly moving; these are the children who nobody else is looking out for, but they're good kids and deserve a chance.

Personally, I am proud of each and every child we reach on the streets, and I am equally proud that our friends around the world have made this possible. Thank you.

Another part of our Outreach work is our soccer team, Blue Dragon United. Originally the soccer was a way to reach street kids, but as things have developed over the years the team has been embraced by youth living in a slum area close to Hanoi's Red River. Rather than street kids, the majority of the 50-60 kids who turn up each week are living in an area riddle with heroin, crime, and gangs. These, too, are a group of kids who need a helping hand. A highlight of the year was definitely our 1000th game of soccer... that's a lot of football!

The year is ending well, with news of a wedding and quite a few reunions between Blue Dragon and kids we've helped in years past. In fact, 3 of the 4 stories I wrote in November were of catching up with 'old friends'. Christmas has been great, and now for a long weekend.

Come Tuesday, it's 2012 but not quite a new year. That doesn't come until January 23, when the Lunar New Year (Tet) is celebrated throughout Vietnam. As always, the end of a year is a good time for reflection... on successes and failures, achievements and regrets, and on the road we've traveled as well as the path ahead.

It's been a good year for Blue Dragon because we've created real, lasting change for so many kids. We have over 1300 girls and boys in our care now.

But the great news is that we can hope for an even better year to come.

A wedding!

Four years ago, the Blue Dragon family was devastated to learn that one of our kids, an 18 year old named Ngoc, had been stabbed and left for dead by the side of the road.

He was attacked by a gang which mistook him for someone they were out to kill; fortunately they weren't as competent as they were violent. The story as it unfolded can be found here; scroll down to the first entry named Cut on December 7 2007.

Ngoc survived, and went on to finish high school and go to university.

Today, Ngoc came to Blue Dragon to hand out invitations... to his wedding next week. Ngoc's getting married!


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Inside the factories

Ever wondered what it's like for kids who get trafficked to Vietnam's garment factories?

Here's a rare shot that Blue Dragon staff were able to capture inside a factory that exploits kids from central Vietnam.

video



Sunday, December 25, 2011

The party!


Christmas day with the Blue Dragon kids was a blast.

This was my 10th Christmas in Hanoi, and I was very happy to spend pretty much the entire day with the kids. We started with our usual football match... then headed to The Garden shopping centre for a party organised by some good friends there... and finally went to the Botanic Park for a gathering of about 150 girls and boys.

Loads of fun. The pictures tell the story better than I can.






I'll put up more pictures of the day on Facebook during the coming week.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Depth

Yesterday morning, a few Blue Dragon staff were huddled together around a table deep in conversation. Our Outreach team leader, 2 lawyers, and a social worker. Something was happening.

When they were done, I asked what was going on. The Outreach leader explained that he had come across a young girl being used as a slave to earn money on the streets here in Hanoi. She had been living with her father in a rented room, and when her father died the owner of the building informally "adopted" her - but not out of kindness.

Her new "mother" pulled her out of school and sent her out to beg and sell gum on the streets. If she doesn't make enough money, she's beaten and abused. So much so, in fact, that one of her neighbours was very happy to come and tell us everything in the hope that we can do something. Anyone familiar with Asian cultures would know it's quite rare for a neighbour to speak up about somebody else's "private business."

This is an appalling case, and the little girl has been very open with us about her desire to escape from this abuse. As a foreign charity, we don't have any power to intervene directly in such a situation, but we do have various means of getting involved and calling on the authorities to assist, so we hope to have a good resolution within a few days. Until then, the "adopted mother" knows that we're monitoring the girl's wellbeing, which is enough to ensure some temporary improvement.

Since I last wrote about the 4 girls we recovered from China, there have been several arrests of traffickers, and more to come.

The girls have all returned to their homes but are staying in contact so we can get them to hospitals for medical treatment and support them as the search for their traffickers continues. Each was trafficked by different people, and in different ways. One was met by an elderly woman at a bus station, who offered to take her to pray at a pagoda, and then arranged her abduction. Another was kidnapped by a friend of her family, promising to introduce her to a well paying job on the border with China after 2 of her relatives were hospitalised due to an accident.

We may be a long way from finalising these cases - there will be much more work to do in coming months - but we're well and truly on the way.


And among our sponsored children out in rural Bac Ninh province, we recently had an opportunity to bring 5 to hospital for health checks, thanks to a private donor. The 5 were chosen as they each had a long term ailment, and the great news is that 4 of those 5 have an excellent chance of recovery.

One of the 5 is in hospital today, having the first in a series of surgeries on her ears. She's a Grade 7 student and has never been able to hear properly, but incredibly she has gotten through school by lip reading. She's obviously a very bright and determined student. However, the hospital believes that she should be able to hear almost normally with surgery and follow up treatment.

These 3 cases we're dealing with are good illustrations of the sort of work we do. The situations are complex and sensitive; a lot of attention to detail is required for us to get things right. Most of all, to help these kids, we need to develop solutions with depth. There are no simple solutions, no quick results. But with a lot of hard work and a team approach, we stand a good chance of making some lives a whole lot better.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The look

We have some great news to start the weekend.

Blue Dragon staff have found a teenage girl who was kidnapped from southern Vietnam and sold to a brothel in China. Last night, the girl was in her father's arms in a Chinese police station, overcome not only with terror but also the relief of being suddenly free.

Three other girls were in the same brothel, and have also been released. The traffickers are in custody - well, some of them. That's a good start.

The girls will be back in Vietnam in coming days. Once they're safely home, I'll be able to write more about the story behind their abduction and rescue.

What I can say is that this is one case that we didn't hold out much hope of resolving. It sure is nice to be wrong.

Going in to it, we had all sorts of doubts. To begin with, the information was incredibly scarce. The girl had made some calls home to her family, but she didn't know where she was, other than 'somewhere in China'.

Compounding our doubt was the fact that there is some urgent work facing our team in Hanoi. The lease on our children's centre expires in the middle of 2012, and we've been searching for a new place for months, with no progress. Finally we have found a possibility - a vacant block of land in the right area - and we need to start negotiating with the owner to come up with a plan. If we don't secure a new location, our centre will be closed and so will the office. This is a significant problem.

Putting aside our long term needs aside to search for a kidnapped girl, having almost no information about her location, was no small decision.

A lot of charities in Vietnam talk about their anti-trafficking programs on their websites, but most - particularly the big ones with all the resources - don't get involved in "individual cases". They help police and government with training. This is more sustainable, they say.

Such training is important, no doubt, but when faced with a mother and father who are desperate to find their daughter and have put their house up for sale just to raise the money they need to travel to China and look for her... well, what could we say? "Sorry, but your daughter doesn't fit with our organisational priorities at the moment"?

In making our decision to go on the search, a staff member said to me: "If you could see the look in the father's eyes right now, you would see why we have to do this."

There's no arguing with that. So we made the decision, and the girl has her freedom back.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Blue Dragon / Red Stocking

December is a crazy month for many people around the world: the end of the year, plus Christmas, mean sometimes endless celebrations, as well as copious preparations for parties and finishing off our year's work.

In Vietnam, the madness spills over into January, with Tet (Lunar New Year) being the major annual holiday for the country.

All of this means a lot of frenzied and excited activity around the Blue Dragon kids!

For the past few weeks I have been on the road a lot, mostly away from Vietnam, and I am very much looking forward to getting back to Hanoi in coming days and seeing all the kids and staff again. It's a bit odd, but as time goes by I get more and more homesick for Vietnam during my trips away.

We have a lot to celebrate at the moment. Throughout the year, our work with kids who have been trafficked has grown considerably; another rescue trip is planned for coming weeks. The effect of this is to keep up pressure on the people who traffic children, and the businesses that exploit them. We're going to keep that pressure up until they stop trafficking children.

The new year will bring us the Year of the Dragon - a special and significant year for the whole country, but with particular meaning for us. This is our year! We're hoping for great things!

And of course, anyone who has been on our website or Facebook recently will be aware of our Christmas plans: Blue Dragon / Red Stocking. We're inviting people to not only fill the stockings of their friends and family, but also to remember the kids in Vietnam who would love a gift of something simple: health care, clothing, freedom.





I'm optimistic that I will have some good news to share in coming weeks about developments in our work for the kids of Vietnam!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dropping by, growing up

Over the years I have written many blog posts about Blue Dragon's work in reuniting runaway kids with their families. It's a great part of what we do, and hugely important.

Children and teens who run away are highly vulnerable to all sorts of abuse. The sooner we get them off the streets, the better.

Once they are home, my team does not always hear from them again. We manage to stay in touch with some kids, but others may change their phone numbers (that happens a lot in Vietnam!) and if they live far from Hanoi, we might not get the chance to see them again.

On Friday last week, Blue Dragon's lawyer, Van, was in the countryside helping a trafficked girl with a legal issue, and it occurred to him that he had been in this area before.

Some years ago, Van had had quite an adventure taking a runaway boy named Cuong back to his family. I wrote this story about what happened in September 2007.

So on Friday, Van decided to drop in and see how Cuong was going!

Cuong is 18 now, and a very happy young man. He works with his father on building sites and since returning to his family after his stint on the streets, Cuong has had no further problems at home.

Interestingly, he remembered all of his Blue Dragon friends by and was interested to know how they all were. Van rang me, and I had a chance to talk to Cuong over the phone for a few minutes.

It sure is a nice feeling to catch up with a kid we helped 4 years ago, and to know that his life is on track!

Cuong and Van in 2007...



Cuong and Van on Friday!

Monday, November 07, 2011

The return

Last week I wrote about the many reunions that we were involved in, or a part of, in central and northern Vietnam.

Today most of my team is back in Hanoi, with the mountains now just memories, and I have had the chance to see photos of some of the trips that the Blue Dragon staff undertook last week. I'd like to share some of the photos of just one of these trips: a journey to reunite a teenager with his family after 2 years of living on the streets.

This trip highlights the challenging work we do, as well as the beautiful results that we can achieve.

About a month ago, our Outreach team came across a 17 year old boy - "Bac" - who had been living on the streets after running away from his home, up in an ethnic minority village near China. He's been doing odd jobs, sometimes on the streets and sometimes on building sites, all while carrying in his heart the terrible burden of missing his family intensely.

Bac's story isn't unique, but it is terribly sad. Living in poverty, dreaming about the big wide world beyond the mountains, one day the buffalo he was tending broke loose, and Bac decided that this would be a good time to start exploring the world!

A lot of kids come to Hanoi dreaming of the bright lights, but all they end up with is muck. Being from an ethnic minority background, and homeless and broke, Bac could find nobody willing to help him or befriend him.

He was in for a tough couple of years.

When he finally did meet Blue Dragon's staff, Bac's initial reaction was to be cautious. He didn't know who we were, and experience had taught him to be wary of smiling strangers. It took a few weeks before he started opening up about himself, and eventually he was ready to accept our offer to take him home.

And just like many of the runaway kids who need our help, Bac was from far, far away. Almost 700km away, it turned out.

Back in June we called out to our supporters around the world to ask for funds for this very work. Helping kids in such lonely and dire situations takes a lot of effort and resources. We don't get quick results; there are no overnight successes in Outreach work.

One substantial need was for us to buy a 4WD. This was a big move for us. There's nothing I despise more than charities which buy expensive new cars for nothing more than to take their CEO to fancy restaurants around town. It happens far more than anyone would believe.

We have had a little car for about 4 years, but it has been struggling to cope with the demands we put on it. Our staff are forever on the road taking kids home to their villages, so after a few near accidents and too many occasions like this we put out a call for help to get a car that would really serve us.

We have only just bought one, a Ford Explorer, and this trip to the mountains was its very first test. But wow, do I feel justified in the decision to buy it...


These shots were taken by one of the staff who accompanied Bac home. I think I can confidently say we have put this car to good use!

However, even the car had its limitations... the last leg of the journey had to be done on foot. Here are some shots of the walk!


It took 2 days to get there - and another 2 days to get back. The staff have returned to Hanoi exhausted, but proud of what they've achieved.

Some other photos they took along the way give an insight into what the area was like. This is not what visitors to Vietnam normally get to see along the well worn tourist roads. The final photo is of Bac's house.


There are some more photos that I would like to post here, but it wouldn't be right to do so. At the time that Bac saw his little sister again, there was an incredible release of emotion. The 2 were overwhelmed as they embraced, and through the images I can almost hear their wails of regret and sorrow.

One of the staff happened to be standing a few feet away with a camera in hand when the sister appeared unexpectedly; this is not the sort of thing we would usually stand about photographing. If I was to describe the moment in music, it would be to Train's Drops of Jupiter: "Did you miss me while you were looking for yourself out there?"

Part of me would like to publish these images, because I want people to know how real our work is. A few months ago we asked for money to help street kids - and this agonising embrace as a brother and sister reunite is the result of that. Two years lost, but a new future grasped, and it's thanks to people around the world who dug deep when Blue Dragon asked for help. That's a butterfly effect all of its own.

However, this was a deeply personal moment so I know that I should not put the images up.

Tonight Bac is home, and now when he dreams of his future he can share his dream with his family.

No more life on the streets; his days of exploring the world are done for now.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

I never thought I'd see you again

The last 3 days have been full of beautiful and sometimes emotional reunions.

As I wrote on Monday, our Child Rights Advocate, Van, is up in the mountains of Dien Bien province meeting the 23 kids we rescued from factories a month ago, while I have been in central Vietnam catching up with the children around Hue and Hoi An who are part of the Blue Dragon family.

One fantastic encounter last night was at Streets restaurant. On Monday I mentioned that one of our Hue girls is about to start training there; last night I saw Nam, who used to live in the Hoi An Children's Home, and who is about to complete his 18 month program there.


The founder of streets, Neal, has given us a glowing report about Nam's progress... not just in his obvious cooking skills (and the food at Streets is amazing), but more importantly in his confidence. We were sad to say goodbye to Nam when he left the Home, but Streets has been the best thing that could have happened to him.

It was great to hang out at the Home on Tuesday and today, catching up with kids who I have known for years and meeting some who have just been living there for a few months. All of the kids are from extremely poor families and have a range of needs which are better met in a group home than in the community. For these kids, living at their own home would almost certainly mean they could not go to school.

Apart from reunions, I was thrilled to meet someone new: a 5 month old boy named Long. His dad is the man I refer to as "Baby Nam", the first street kid ever met in Vietnam, back when I was here on holidays in 1999. No longer a Baby, Nam has his own shoe shop and family. Long was adorable, and I swear he wanted to lay like this - it wasn't just my general incompetence with babies!

While I have been in central Vietnam, a lot has been happening across Blue Dragon. Our Outreach team is on the road right at the moment taking home a boy from an ethnic minority village who ran away from home 2 years ago and then couldn't get back... so lived on the streets of Hanoi. It's a 1400km round trip, way up in the mountains, so this is a pretty big trip!

And I have been hearing lots from Van up in Dien Bien province. The families are deeply grateful that he has come back to see them. He's been distributing basic supplies, including instant noodles, just as a show of support, but these items are so highly valued that one mother said she would keep them aside, for a time when she is ill, so that she would really make the best use of them.

There are lots of stories that I could tell about what's been happening up there in the mountains, but one really stands out. The little guy in the picture below, "R" was one of the kids we brought home in October. Van was walking through his village, and the boy saw him from a classroom window (yes, some of the kids are back in school already!).

On seeing Van, R jumped up and raced out of the school to greet him. He was wearing his Jetstar hat, which the airline had given to all the kids when they flew home. Clearly this, too, is a prized possession.

R was overcome with emotion at seeing Van back in the village. His opening words were "I thought I'd never see you again."


If that doesn't inspire me to do my best for these kids, then what else could?

Monday, October 31, 2011

North and central

Tonight I am writing from Hue, in Central Vietnam, where Blue Dragon works with children who have been trafficked to work in factories. I'm on a quick trip to visit our staff and kids - soon I head south to Hoi An to catch up with children at the Hoi An Children's Home.

The 2 kids I met with today were both very happy girls! One, named V, is living in a pagoda on the outskirts of Hue. I've known her family for a long time, and we helped one of V's older brothers return home to Hue in 2006 after being trafficked to work on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

While V's family is in pretty good shape these days, Vi is severely hearing impaired and so is constantly harassed in her village. She's treated as a fool, denied education, and shunned by the other kids. So now she spends most of her time living in a pagoda and returns home every other weekend. She's studying now, and is treated with much more dignity than ever before in her 15 years. And she was positively beaming as she showed me off to all her friends in the pagoda!

It was also very nice to meet another of the girls, T, who has been studying English and basic skills in a training centre. T was overjoyed for 2 big reasons. First, she was able to speak to me in English, for the first time in her life - man, was she proud of that! And second, she's just been accepted into a charitable training program called Streets, which trains disadvantaged youth to prepare them for great jobs in the hospitality industry. There are lots of applicants and not many places, so she really deserves to take some pride in that achievement!

Meantime Blue Dragon's Child Rights Advocate, Van, has been trekking through the northern mountains to catch up with the 23 kids we just recently rescued from slavery in garment factories. A big part of his visit is to keep the families assured that we are still thinking of them and still committed to helping them.

Everyone is doing well, and the kids are really happy to see Van again. He was right there with the police when they raided the factories about a month ago, so all the children feel a very strong attachment to him. On the phone this afternoon, Van told me that many of the families are worried about the coming winter and are short on food supplies, so we'll get them some basic supplies on Tuesday.

It's great to be catching up with the children and their families - I only wish I could spend much more time out here in the provinces, much more often!

... and now a Post Script:

A few hours after writing this I arrived in Hoi An, and went for a stroll through the old town. Lucky for me, I stumbled across an old friend...

Kieu was the very first kid who I helped in Hanoi. I met him back in 2002, before there was any idea of starting a charity. At the time I met him, I thought I would be leaving Hanoi within weeks and would never be back!

Kieu was working like a slave in a hole-in-the-wall noodle outlet in Hanoi's old quarter. I know it's common to see young people hard at work, but this was exceptional. His job included washing the bowls in a basin which was carved into the floor, which meant that he had to reach down below ground level to work. Talk about back breaking!

His conditions were clearly awful and he was always tired. The final straw, though - and this was some months later - was when he was at work covered in chicken pox. Kieu was 13 years old. He should have been home asleep, not working 16 hours per day in a noodle restaurant!

The picture below shows me and Chung, Blue Dragon's co-founder, with Kieu around the corner from where he worked. We convinced his boss to let us take him for a walk to buy some ice cream, so that we could secretly ask his permission to get him out of there.


You might think, given the highly questionable fashion statement I was making that day, that Kieu would have had second thoughts... but he was only too happy to get out of that place.

His boss wasn't quite so happy. But that was not high on my list of concerns.

So... what's Kieu doing in central Vietnam? How is it that I ran into him tonight?

Well, he works at Green Mango - a very classy restaurant in Hoi An. And he doesn't just work there; he's the head chef, with a staff of 10 under him. Not bad for a 22 year old!

If only your old boss could see you now, Kieu.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Thanksgiving in Singapore

A quick call out to our friends in Singapore!

Come and join in a Thanksgiving dinner on November 20!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In my own words

Today we're kicking off a series of short films we've made here at Blue Dragon, in which our kids tell their stories in their own words.

We'll be uploading these on to Facebook, but for those who are not on Facebook the films are also being put up on the Blue Dragon home page.

A new film will appear each week!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Heroes

Earlier this year, CNN named me as one of their 2011 Heroes. This was a great honour not only for me, but for my whole team working along side me.

One thing that the CNN award didn't acknowledge, though, is that I too have my heroes. Many of them, in fact.

They are the girls and boys who I meet each day, who have struggled so much to have what many of us take for granted and do everything they can to make their lives better.

They are kids who have every reason to give up, but don't.

One of my heroes is in New Zealand at the moment, studying a business degree at the National Technology Institute. His name is Chinh, he's 21, and he has had a really tough life. I could write a very long post about all the problems he's had to put up with until now.

I met Chinh when he was 14 and working on the streets of Hanoi to support his family. But today I don't want to write about the hardships he's faced; I want to write about a mountain that he's conquered.

Last week, Chinh graduated from his first year at college. Despite having to drop out of school when he was barely a teen, and despite all of the obstacles that life has thrown in his way, Chinh came top of his course. Number 1.

Chinh is in the centre, along with Anne and Isaac from NTEC.

Do you see why this guy is a hero to me?

But that's not all. For coming first, Chinh was awarded a gift of $100. This is hugely helpful to Chinh, who has been working part time jobs in restaurants and cafeterias to make ends meet. However, he contacted me immediately to say that he wants this money to be given to Blue Dragon children at the upcoming Tet Awards night.

One of our prizes on this night is for kids who have done particularly well at school. Chinh would like his money to be divided among this year's award recipients.

What a beautiful thing for him to do.

Chinh, congratulations on coming top of the business course. You are an amazing young man with the whole world at your feet. You're my hero.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Joy


How's this for a photo to get you smiling?

Our staff recently stumbled across this image, which won a prize in a competition on the theme of Joy by local photographer Hoang Quoc Khanh.

It caught our attention as one of the boys is from Blue Dragon. What a great moment this photo has captured! Oh, to be that age again...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Inspiration



Late last night I received an email from one of the Blue Dragon boys, "Ton."

I'm in Singapore at the moment, catching up with friends and supporters, so it was nice to get a message from Ton. He's about 14 and has had a pretty tough life, but so far he's been able to keep on the right track.

Last night, Ton was asking if I would help him buy something. I couldn't understand what he was asking, so he sent me a photo.

It was a photo of a stun gun. He says he's afraid of being robbed because he lives in a bad part of the city, and he wants to protect himself.

In contrast, I have spent the past 10 days or so visiting international schools whose students have been supporting Blue Dragon. Each in their own way has done something amazing to help the kids in Vietnam.

The German European School uses its annual swim gala to raise the funds that we need to teach swimming to Blue Dragon kids. (About 10 children drown every day in Vietnam - learning to swim is massively important). The French School students create Christmas cards and sell them to support the children at our drop in centre. Some children from Chatsworth International presented me yesterday with $10.80, which they raised by making and selling origami items in their spare time.

Presenting to Grade 7 at the French School of Singapore

During the week I also received some emails from schools in rural Australia, including Narara Public School - a very small school on the Central Coast of NSW, where the students raised over $1100 by holding raffles and selling food... including this extraordinary cake! (I have never seen anything like it!)

The Blue Dragon cake at Narara Public School

I find all of this incredibly inspirational, because for all of the mess that our world is in - for all of the wars, and financial collapses, and child trafficking and corruption - the world is still full of kids who want to make things better.

On Thursday night I sat in a hall at United World College (UWC) watching brilliant dance and music performances, created entirely by the students, to celebrate UN Day. There were Korean pop dancers, American hip hop, Hungarian traditional dance... even a tribute a Bob Marley. I sat with tears in my eyes, stunned by what young people are capable of.

Which brings me back to Ton and his dream of protecting himself with a stun gun.

Ton is just as capable as any teenager of making the world a better place. Had he been born somewhere else, in another family or another time, he might be the one raising funds for kids in need rather than needing to receive the help from Blue Dragon.

I find it so sad that this little guy feels worried enough about his safety that he would ask me to buy him a weapon. That's not the world I want to live in.

My time in Singapore has certainly inspired me, and in a way it's reinvigorated my hope in humanity. But in a few days time I will be back with the Blue Dragon kids, where there is still so much to do - and so much need to bring that hope to children who seem to have so little to hope for.

Friday, October 07, 2011

What I see

Among the many kids Blue Dragon helps (about 1,100 at last count!) are some beautiful teenagers who happen to be hearing impaired. They're good friends, studying, playing, and sharing life's difficulties with each other.

Over some months, we have had a terrific volunteer named Cate Gunn teaching photography to this group of kids. Her project culminated last week in a Pecha Kucha presentation - the first of its kind in Hanoi.

The kids' images, as well as some explanations, are on Cate's Tumblr site, here. Definitely worth a look. And below are just a few shots of the presentation itself.

While the photos by the kids are amazing, the growth in confidence of the 5 teens involved in the project is what's most inspiring.




Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Hot dog!

After all of the 'heaviness' of events recently, here's something that brought a big smile to my face the other night...

One of the kids we work with in Hanoi is a 15 year old boy who has been living and working at Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of the Old Quarter. (I'll call him "Thu"). At times, he cooks and sells sausages for tourists.

Thu has been studying English at Blue Dragon, and from his lessons and the slang he has picked up on the streets he knows enough to deal with foreign customers.

But on Sunday he asked me to explain a very strange request he'd recently had...

Thu knows what a "dog" is. And he's heard the phrase "hot girl" and "hot boy" plenty of times - a teenage way of admiring someone beautiful.

So he wanted to know... why on earth would a tourist ask him for a hot dog??

Monday, October 03, 2011

All home

Thank you to all of you who have been following this story and sending comments and messages of support over the last couple of weeks.

I'm happy to say that the 23 trafficked children are all home now - back with their families in Tuan Giao district of Dien Bien province, north west of Hanoi.

Here's how it all came to an end...

To save the 2 day journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi by bus or train, Jetstar donated the flights and we were able to fly the kids north on Thursday afternoon. Blue Dragon's Chief Lawyer, Van, flew with them (as he has been working closely with the kids) along with 2 police from Dien Bien province. Their presence has been important because the ultimate goal is to have the trafficker (a woman) and the factory owners (her sons) prosecuted. Their factories have already been shut down and they've each been fined heavily (including some compensation payments to the kids), but we want to see these people in court - and eventually in prison.

Once everyone had landed, I met them at the airport and we hopped on a bus (also donated - this time by Peak Adventure Travel, formerly known as Intrepid) to head to the city of Tuan Giao in the district of Tuan Giao. "City" is an exaggeration, of course... After an 11 hour bus ride through the night, we arrived at a tranquil town where many people still wear their traditional dress, or at least head scarves, and nobody seemed to understand a word I said. (After nearly 10 years in Vietnam, I hope to do better than that!)

Although the police in Ho Chi Minh City had taken statements from the kids already, the Tuan Giao police needed to take them again. They appear to be building their own case against the trafficker, and I can see a possibility that there will be 2 separate sets of charges.

The process was very quick: police and various officials had set up a room where children about 10 children could be interviewed at a time.

By that time, family members had started to arrive from the villages, so there were sporadic reunions over the course of a few hours. During these, the true state of the families started to become clear.

On the bus ride up we had bought a box of bottled water. As soon as no adults were looking, the kids pounced on the box and within seconds all of the bottles were gone.

No problem, we wanted the kids to have them... but it was a bit odd that nobody seemed to be drinking.

Once we were in Tuan Giao and the parents started to arrive, we could see why.

One of the boys, V - among the smallest of the children - had used some of his compensation money to buy some simple gifts for his mother. His father had long since died, and V had gone to Ho Chi Minh City hoping he would somehow be helping his mother. If not for the police demanding that the factory owners pay compensation money, she wouldn't have received much at all.

Among the gifts that V handed over was a bottle of water, taken from the box on the bus. He and his mother live in such poverty that a mere bottle of water was treated as a prize possession, a sign of love from son to mother.

And most telling of all was that V's mother had no idea how to open it. One of the policemen, seeing her try, stepped over to open the bottle. How small and humble I felt at that moment.

The children and their family members wanted nothing more than to get home, so they left around midday on motorbikes arranged by the local government.

Van and I wanted to go out with them to visit each of their homes, but with the threat of a tropical storm looming we could only go as far as the first village, which was about 45 minutes by motorbike. This is the 'richest' of the villages, and it was really disappointing that we couldn't get out further and see more families.

Along the way, I shot some film from my camera to get a sense of the countryside we were in.

video


And once we reached the village, I was able to capture some images of the homes that the kids lived in. The film below shows a typical house in this village.

video


Not one of the houses that we entered had electricity or running water. The floors were bare dirt, and the finger-wide gaps in the walls made me shiver with the thought of the coming winter.

I can see why the trafficker chose to come up here to get these children. She assumed that nobody would notice, or care. She believed that even if someone did notice, and did care, that they wouldn't possibly put in the effort required to find the kids way down the other end of the country and bring them home.

It turns out she was wrong on all counts. Quite a few of us noticed, and cared. And we were more than willing to travel the length of the country several times over in order to find, protect, and bring them home.

In coming weeks my challenge is to work out what to do next.

The kids left their villages because someone came along offering them the promise of a better life. But it was a lie, a cheap trick with nothing more in mind than exploitation.

They've been working up to 18 hours a day, every day, for many months; they're exhausted, they have been through hunger and beatings and verbal abuse. Now we've taken them home to their families.

But will life be better now? Somehow, it has to be. We have to find a way, or else we'll have lied to the children, too.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Heading home

Some quick (and good!) news today... the 23 trafficked kids are heading home.

As I write, they are in Ho Chi Minh City on the way to the airport. Jetstar has donated free flights for them, saving us well over $1000 and a 2 day bus trip. My staff and some police are flying with them. I can only imagine how they'll all be feeling... these kids have never seen an airplane before, let alone flown in one!

In a couple of hours I will meet them at Hanoi's airport and then head back to their villages with them. It's a 12 hour bus ride, but again one of our friends here in Vietnam has offered to help. Peak Adventure Travel is providing the bus for free, once again saving us a small fortune.

The really good news in all of that is we can now use the donations you have sent us for the direct care of the children and their families.

Once the kids are home we will start planning out a map of how to help them for the longer term. We need to address the issues that lead them to being trafficked in the first place.

But that's all for tomorrow. For today - the kids are going home!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Discovery

Here's an article about Blue Dragon that has recently appeared in Vietnam Discovery magazine. They don't have this online, so I'm posting as images... just click the 2 images to make them bigger!


Preparing for the journey home

A quick update tonight about the 23 (yes it's gone up!) young people Blue Dragon has been helping over the past week.

In the next few days, we need to get them home. They are all still in Ho Chi Minh City, staying in shelters which are looking after them very well... but now the kids just want to get out of there and see their families again. Having worked as slaves in garment factories - some for 7 months, some for 2 years - they can't wait to get out of the city and return to their villages.

The map below gives an indication of what lies ahead. I hope to have some good news very soon about how we're getting the kids home. For now, you'll just have to withstand the incredible suspense!!



View 23 trafficked kids in a larger map


I know that for me and my staff, this rescue operation has been both rewarding (there's NOTHING like seeing the smiles on children's faces when they are told they are free to see their families again), and also very draining at times. There have been setbacks and fears, and just by looking over my posts here and on Facebook you can see how often the information has changed - 32? 19? 22? 23!

And meanwhile, all the rest of Blue Dragon's important work has been continuing at a frantic pace. My writing lately has focused on this case, but plenty has been happening in other areas too. I hope that soon I'll be able to 'fill in some of the gaps' of what else has been going on!

I will be posting again when the kids are headed home - hopefully soon, and hopefully quickly!

Friday, September 23, 2011

22 smiles

What a week of twists and turns this has been!

It's ending well, although with much more yet to happen. So a brief update.

I'm writing tonight from Ho Chi Minh City. It's great to be here, and while I was frustrated earlier in the week at being so far from all the action I can see that the kids we've rescued have been in very good hands.

On Tuesday, Blue Dragon staff worked with various police departments to locate and rescue 15 children from Dien Bien province who were trafficked to work in garment factories. (If you're not familiar with Vietnam's geography, Dien Bien and Ho Chi Minh City are opposite ends of a very long country).

On Thursday, another 3 children were found. These 18 children, along with another 4 who had run away from their factory last Friday, have been through some terrible times but they know that their ordeal is over now.

Of the 22, only one of the kids speaks fluent Vietnamese. Most speak a little, but they are from an ethnic minority which speaks a different language and has its own customs and culture.

Being slaves in garment factories is not a part of that culture.

I am yet to find out very much from the children; this morning I spent some time with them and didn't want to start questioning them, as they've all been giving statements to the police. I figured they'd prefer to have a laugh then retell their stories, and I happen to be outstanding at playing the fool so the kids got a few laughs.

What I did gather, though, was that it's no exaggeration to say that the kids have been held as slaves.

One of the boys, about 15 years old, has been in a factory for 7 months.

Since the day he entered the building, he has not stepped outside. Not even once. His skin is pale from being indoors with little sunlight. For 7 months.

Apart from being a fool, I can also be a real wimp. I had tears in my eyes when he told me this. I'm not sad, though; I'm angry. The people who kept that boy locked away, working for a few dollars per month ("if he completed his work satisfactorily"), deserve all the punishment that's headed their way.

One thing that did stand out to me, though, was that the kids have been trafficked and held captive by just a few people: one trafficker and her 2 adult sons. By contrast, there are now dozens of people working together for their welfare: police, Blue Dragon staff, and even some friends around the world who have sent money for the children.

The kids have had an awful time, but what I saw today was 22 smiling, happy young people who just can't wait to get home to their families.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Safe, but not well

The day has ended very differently to what we planned!

As I wrote on Sunday, Blue Dragon staff headed from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City on Monday night to start looking for 34 trafficked children. These kids, aged 10 to 16, were reported as having been taken from 2 remote rural villages in northern Vietnam to work in garment factories in the south.

Frustratingly for me, I had to stay behind in Hanoi. I'll be heading south on Wednesday afternoon, but it was important that I stay out of the way while the police and Blue Dragon staff carried out the surveillance on factories... And OK, I confess that I do kind of stand out, being a big white Australian bloke and all...

Two things developed, however, quite differently to expectations.

First, we found out that there were not 34 kids, but 19. And 4 of them had already escaped from a factory on Friday, so our job was to find 15.

Although it was definitely good news, I was perplexed to hear this. The very significant difference seems to mostly have come from language barriers: the villagers who reported the trafficking don't speak Vietnamese, and with a very low level of education they appear to have reported to us a list of every child and young adult who has left their villages in recent months. This included men and women in their 20s who had gone to work in the city, but were not necessarily trafficked.

Second, today turned out to be much more than just a search for the kids. As has happened with some previous rescue trips, one thing quickly led to another and soon our staff and the police were raiding 3 garment factories and getting all of the children out - in fact, it happened so quickly that we were all taken by surprise.

It was incredibly frustrating for me to be in the office getting text messages and phone updates throughout the day when I really wanted to be there in the thick of things... I needed to get some exercise this evening just to release the tension and use up the adrenalin that's been flowing all day.

I am hugely relieved, though, to know that the kids are safe. They're together in a shelter being well looked after tonight, but they are not in good health. It's evident that they are malnourished and have been locked up in factories for some months, with no free time or opportunities to get outside into the sunlight.

They are not well, and are going to need some care. But caring for kids is something Blue Dragon happens to specialise in!

I won't have many updates for the next 24-36 hours. The police now need to gather evidence and statements and work out how to proceed from the legal point of view. Vietnam introduced a new law on trafficking back in March, so the authorities haven't had much chance to test how it applies to cases like this.

Because it's now a legal matter, I can't say too much... But it's safe to say that thing aren't looking too good for the traffickers...

Once the police have done their work, we've got to figure out how to get the kids home. It's a long way from Ho Chi Minh City to Dien Bien province, and the kids are in a pretty fragile state.

So now that they're free, we'll just take one thing at a time.

And a quick P.S... We've really appreciated all the kind comments and messages of support that have appeared on our Facebook page today. Thank you! These are noticed and valued!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's on

Friday saw an unexpected development in our search for the 34 trafficked children.

High up in the mountainous village where the kids come from, a parent received a phone call from a child care worker in a province near Ho Chi Minh City in the south.

4 of the 34 had somehow escaped their traffickers and were picked up either by a friendly local or perhaps by a police officer and taken to a shelter. The first thing they wanted to do, naturally, was ring their mothers.

We have no idea yet how they escaped or how they ended up in the shelter. We've held off questioning them over the phone because we don't want to scare them. We are complete strangers, after all.

On Monday night our operation will kick off. Thanks to this escape, we're now in a (presumably) better position to find the remaining 30... assuming that these 4 can lead us back to their trafficker, and that the trafficker is still there.

We're expecting that it will still take some days of work; there is still a lot to do, and we want to be sure that the trafficker is caught and punished. We're still not certain what sort of work the kids are doing.

But we're going ahead. It's on.

THANK YOU to those people who have already sent donations for this. Whether it's $10 or a few hundred, it will help.

We are still in urgent need of more funds to arrange this rescue, and I invite our friends around the world to help out with this. You can donate here or drop me a line if you want to ask more: bluedragon@bdcf.org.

I'm excited and nervous about what's to come. Here's to hoping we can get these kids home.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Where are our children?

Ngoc was just 13 years old when we rescued him from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

Worn to exhaustion, he walked the streets throughout the night, selling roses to drunk partygoers in the city's tourist district. Every dollar he made went straight into the hands of the traffickers, who sat down the road watching the children they had brought in from the countryside.

That was back in 2005. He was the first child we rescued from traffickers. We've rescued 109 now, and Ngoc is a role model of a young man working in a restaurant here in Hanoi.

But the trafficking continues. Since lifting Ngoc out of his slavery, we've rescued girls from brothels and helped scores of kids get out of garment factories. Last year we undertook a rescue operation to find 3 girls who had escaped a brothel in China and were hiding in fear of their lives, over a thousand miles from their homes in a foreign land.

We've had some success so far, as well as some setbacks and disappointments.

Today we're facing a new challenge - something on a scale we haven't dealt with before.

About a week ago, the Vietnamese police contacted us to get involved in a case of children being trafficked from remote villages. When our staff arrived, they found 2 extremely poor communities in the mountains which had been approached by a single trafficker, a woman, offering to give the children a 'better life'.

These villages are remote and very, very poor.


Altogether, she took 35 children, saying they were headed to Ho Chi Minh City for training and jobs. The kids were aged just 10 to 15.

A few weeks ago, one of the children returned to the village: a 15 year old girl. She was pregnant.

The villagers immediately realised that something was wrong and put out a call for help. They are desperate and alarmed, but have no idea where their children really are.

Families coming to register the details of their missing children.


It seems incredible to you and me that anybody could let their children go with a complete stranger. But keep this in mind: in each of the 2 communities, there are just one or two people who are literate. Vietnamese is not the language of these villagers; they belong to a tiny hilltribe group with its own language and customs.

These people know virtually nothing of the world outside of their mountain-top villages.

Now we're in the midst of planning to find the remaining 34 children. We have almost no information to go on, but until now we've been pretty good at tracking down trafficked kids even without any solid leads. I guess I should say we're "cautiously optimistic."

Our main worry is that this trafficker has gone to such unusual lengths to get children for the factories. There are many places in more accessible locations where traffickers can find vulnerable families. Taking the kids from these remote areas was expensive and time consuming... Which makes us think that whatever the motive, there must be considerable profit in the work.

We fear that the children are in serious danger.

Assuming that we can find them, there's a lot involved in the rescue of these children. Their Vietnamese language skills are fairly basic, and they're going to be frightened (and possibly traumatised) - so caring for them in the first days is going to be absolutely critical, and very complex!

And then there's the issue of accommodating 34 children in Ho Chi Minh City for a couple of days, before taking them all home from one end of the country to the other.

These are the sort of things we're thinking about at the moment!

I don't often do this, but I need to ask for donations for this rescue trip. We're estimating that we need about $3400, and so far we have one very generous donation of $400 to kick us off. If you can help, drop me a line - bluedragon@bdcf.org - or head to the Blue Dragon donation page:

http://www.streetkidsinvietnam.com/donations/

It's a lot of money all up, but in fact the cost is just $100 per child, which is pretty small considering the impact this will make on their lives. Every dollar will help!

I do have to emphasise that we're still in the planning stages, so by all means hang on to your money until I am sure we're going ahead. I'll post more in coming days, and you're welcome to email me with your 'pledge' so I can get back to you when we have more information.

There's a lot of uncertainty about this case, but what I do know is this:

34 children are missing, and we've got to find them.

Behind the scenes...

Blue Dragon's newsletter, Dragon Tales, has just been released.

This edition explores our Child Rights work, looking behind the scenes at the team responsible for Blue Dragon's advocacy work and rescue operations.

It's a good read (as always!). If you're not on the mailing list, get in touch - info@bdcf.org - and we'll email you a copy.

Friday, September 09, 2011

A long search

Something special happened yesterday morning in the northern city of Hai Phong: a 13 year old boy, who has been out of school for years and living on the streets, started his first day of Grade 2.

A hugely important part of Blue Dragon's work in Hanoi is our Outreach service, which involves looking for street kids and offering them help. Just like our work with rescuing trafficked children, our Outreach brings us into contact with young people in utterly desperate situations.

To really be successful, we need to find the kids within a couple of weeks of them arriving in Hanoi. The sooner, the better.

Over the past few months, though, we have been working with a tiny 13 year old, T, who has been on the streets for over a year - and much to our own surprise, we seem to have achieved a pretty good result.

I've written about T several times on Facebook, but it's only now that we have the full story.

T grew up in a very poor family on the outskirts of Hai Phong city; his parents divorced when he was young (which is a big deal here in Vietnam) leaving T and his older sister with their mother.

Although the mother did her best, she couldn't keep on supporting both children, so in 2007 she sent T to live with his father in Hanoi, and she kept on looking after her daughter at home. Because of her financial difficulties, she moved about from rented room to rented room.

Shortly after T arrived in Hanoi, his father remarried, and as often happens in Vietnam, this meant the children from the 'old marriage' were no longer wanted. T was sent to live in a pagoda, where he stayed for over a year.

The pagoda wasn't a great place for him though. After being bullied and neglected, he finally ran away to live on the streets. His father and step-mother had moved away, so he couldn't find them, and he had no idea how to contact his mother.

T survived by collecting scrap on the streets.

Little did he know, but back in Hai Phong things had gone badly for his mother and sister. His mother one day vanished - she left their home in the morning and simply didn't return. T's grandmother, who brought the sister to live in her own home, believes the mother was trafficked. There's no evidence that she deliberately abandoned her child, as she left all her possessions behind. She just disappeared.

By the time Blue Dragon's Outreach workers met T, he had been living rough for over a year. I could write a novel about the troubles he had living on the streets.

We knew it would be difficult to help him: any child who has lived so long on the streets has great difficulty settling back in to a house with rules and expectations. But T did so remarkably quickly. We provided him with a place to live while our staff, including our Child Rights Advocates, started the search for T's family.

This turned out to involve an awful lot of detective work. We thought we were looking for his mother, of course, and we drove T to Hai Phong to look for the last places he knew she lived. That first trip was futile; he couldn't remember where they had been living, and we were to learn later that she was long gone anyway.

After more than a month of enquiries and searching, we located T's grandmother - a breakthrough! Once we were sure it was her, we bundled T into a car and headed off for the reunion.

It was a beautifully touching moment: the tiny kid seeing his sister and grandmother for the first time in years, but also finding out that his mother was missing and nobody had heard from his father.

How can a 13 year old deserve to get news like that? Some things in life just aren't fair.

When it came to to leave, T was worried. Did he really want to live in Hai Phong again? He'd never lived with his grandmother... would they get along? Would she be too strict? And what of all his friends back in Hanoi?

So we made an agreement: we would leave him with his grandmother for 2 weeks, then come back and talk again.

The 2 weeks passed, and grandma rang to say that T wanted to stay with her. She was thrilled, and deeply appreciated an offer of financial support from Blue Dragon to help look after him. Grandma now had 2 grand children to look after, and no income at all - she was really doing it tough!

And then for the final step: Getting T back to school. Apart from the fact that he has only finished Grade 1 and he's now a teenager, the biggest hurdle was that according to Vietnamese law he didn't meet the criteria to study in a regular school. At first the school accepted him, but then realised they really shouldn't... and so early this week we got the call that his application had been rejected.

But, hey, that's why Blue Dragon employs lawyers!

Yesterday morning one of our Child Rights Advocates headed back to Hai Phong to meet with the school and help them see how they could accept him... and so they did. T had his first day in school, and by all reports everything went well.

I am hesitant to say "case closed" - there's a long long road ahead - but for today, I am happy to say that things have turned out about as well as we could have hoped. I wish we could find T's mother, but for now he is with his grandmother and sister, and he's back in school.

At least now he has a chance of a better life.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The big day - 1000 games!

Today was a big, big day for Blue Dragon...

Our soccer team, Blue Dragon United, has now played its 1000th game!

We organised a tournament through the morning, and although it was very hot the kids had a fantastic time. We were joined by teams from the Hanoi Youth Football League, which has been great to us over the last couple of years so we invited them to join in and make our big day even more exciting.


Staff and kids alike joined in...



We had a warm up...


... but most kids were warm enough and were looking for some shade...


Everyone had a great time...






... and the U13s finished with a penalty shoot out:



(I promise to set up a Flickr account some time this coming week to make it easier to see photos on my blog).

... and here's the radio interview from Thursday, in which Blue Dragon's Outreach Worker Vi and I were interviewed by Howard Sattler on 6PR.

video


It really was a great morning. More pics to follow soon.