Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The lost brothers

Last week, one of Vietnam's national newspapers ran a compelling story about a young man in Hai Phong City who begs in public places for money.

The man, "Dinh", was aged 23, but in the photos looked no older than 14 or 15. The article told the shocking story of how Dinh's older sister had introduced him to heroin 9 years previously - when he really was aged 14 - and how he had been separated from his family, reduced to begging from strangers, ever since. By all accounts, he'd had a terribly difficult life.

Shortly after the article was published, Blue Dragon staff received a telephone call... from the journalist who had written the article. She had tracked down one of Dinh's distant uncles, who told her that he knew where Dinh's younger brother was living: The Blue Dragon Shelter.

It turned out that Dinh is the older brother of a 16 year old Blue Dragon boy: an orphan (who I will call "Ton") who we first met living on the streets back in 2006.

Ton had brought himself up on the streets, living with gangs and finding shelter under bridges and in abandoned houses. His parents had died, but he knew little about them - or about himself. When it came time for him to make a birth certificate, he had no idea of his actual date of birth, so he rang me to ask if he could use mine. Every birthday I have had since then has been much more meaningful!

For the first few years that Ton was with Blue Dragon, his behaviour was impulsive and often wild. He could be heard throughout the entire building - sometimes you could hear his booming voice down the street. Learning to live in a house, and follow simple domestic rules, was a massive challenge. There were countless setbacks, as well as tremendous steps forward, but we never knew which direction Ton would take.

To his credit, while almost all of his old friends have ended up in prison, or on heroin, or both, Ton has stayed out of trouble... Or, at least, avoided being caught! School never worked out for him, but he's been learning hairdressing and in the last couple of years has calmed down to the point that nobody could ever guess his troubled past without being told.

But a constant burden for Ton has been the issue of his family.

In 2009, we found an uncle and started unraveling some of the details of Ton's life. He'd been severely neglected as a child, abandoned by just about everyone, and left to fend for himself. There's still so much that we don't know.

Regardless, Ton has longed to find his family members. He has memories of brothers and sisters, but despite our best efforts he's only ever heard rumours of where they might be and what they are doing.

Until this telephone call.

On Sunday, we finally had some concrete information that Ton's brother Dinh has been begging at a particular bus station in Hai Phong, which is a few hours drive out of Hanoi. One of our staff headed straight to Hai Phong with Ton to look, but 6 hours of waiting and asking around yielded nothing. Ton was deeply upset, thinking that perhaps there was no hope after all.

On Monday lunchtime, though, the journalist called back: she was with Dinh, on a bus, heading to Hanoi.

Ton and Dinh have not seen each other for 9 years. So much has happened in those intervening years that cannot be said in any words. Ton is elated at having finally found a brother he loves and has worried about endlessly; but also confused and frightened at the burden of his brother's heroin addiction. He just doesn't know what to make of it.

Added to this is the news that their own sister introduced Dinh to heroin. Ton has no idea how to feel about that. He's been desperately hoping to find his sister, now in her mid 20s, since I first met him - so what is he to think of her now?

Ton has been with Blue Dragon for so long that Monday's reunion has impacted all of us. The staff share Ton's confusion and sorrow, as well as his joy.

In the next few days, we will work out what to do next. Dinh seems like a lovely young guy, and in talking to him in the afternoon it was instantly clear that he's never had people care for him before. Will he want to enter a rehab program? Will we be able to get him in to one? (He has absolutely no personal registration papers, which are essential). And how will Dinh's sudden appearance impact on Ton's own dream of finishing a hairdressing course and getting a job?

There are many questions now, but no answers just yet.

Sometimes we spend our lives for searching in vain for something that appears out of nowhere, long after we have given up hope. Ton and Dinh cannot believe they've found each other; but after so long apart, they're each now wondering what their future will hold.


Anonymous said...

What an amazing turn-around for Ton. I am thinking of you all in reading this, and missing you.

Anonymous said...

A rehab will be challenging for someone in heroin for so long, but is necessary. Thanks for your good work.