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.

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