Friday, July 29, 2011

Hope and disappointment

This blog has been a bit quiet in recent weeks, largely because there's been so much happening.

At the moment, the Blue Dragon kids are starting to go back to school. Last weekend, over 650 children in rural Bac Ninh province received their text books, school bags, and other school gear, all paid for by sponsors from around the world. (See a few photos here).

Among the many happy stories, Blue Dragon staff have been working with some teen girls who escaped sex traffickers in China earlier this year and returned to Vietnam. One of those girls started back at school on Wednesday, and she's so excited to be studying again that she can't contain herself.

Just a few months ago, she never thought she'd ever have a 'normal' day again in her life. None of the students or teachers at her new school have any idea of what she's been through, so she really has managed to blend back in with the crowd and is getting on with her life.

We've had some scary moments, too: one of the kids who frequents our centre went missing for a few days, and the only other children who had information about where he might be are profoundly deaf and hearing impaired. Some of the Blue Dragon staff are quite proficient in Vietnamese Sign Language, and it was fascinating watching them talk to the kids and gather information, sorting out 'imagination' from 'actuality' - not an easy task! Fortunately the boy returned after several nights, rather embarrassed about the stir he'd caused, but completely unharmed. Phew!

Our legal team have been kept on their toes with some cases of kids who have been arrested, or facing court... We seem to have just gone through a month of teenagers going in and out of detention.

We're all very happy to welcome back one boy, T, who was released from reform school last week and has returned to Hanoi with a new vigour. With a little support from our team, we hope that he'll stay on the right track. (He's one of our best soccer players, too, so the timing is great with our 1000th game coming up. T was all smiles when he realised he was home in time for that!)

It's always disheartening for us to see young people (usually boys) we've worked with over a long time getting caught up in crime, and eventually finding themselves in trouble with the police. At times it's like a slow motion car crash - you can see it coming but you can't do anything about it. And the regret that follows is just as inevitable.

A few days ago I received a letter from a young man, "Minh," in prison for drug offenses; Minh was very close to me as a teenager but just couldn't kick his heroin habit and is now serving a 4 year sentence. His letter spoke of 'disappointment and sorrow'; he hardly dares to hope yet for better times ahead.

At Blue Dragon, we see such different worlds every day. There are so many kids, young people, and families who find a way to make it work. With a little bit of help, they do all they can to get out of poverty and better their futures through education or training. But there are also those who just can't seem to make it, or who don't believe that they can ever make it and give up on themselves.

I can't judge them, though; and time after time I am caught surprised by kids 'turning the corner' and making a change when all seemed lost. My job is to keep on trying, and keep on hoping, even when 'disappointment and sorrow' is all that seems to be left.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Towards a goal

It's been an embarrassingly long time since I blogged... there's been so much happening that I haven't known where to start! So: more posts to follow this week (for real) with some stories about what the kids have been up to.

A few weeks ago I wrote that I was working with my staff on a plan to end the trafficking of kids from central Vietnam to the garment factories of Ho Chi Minh City. Since 2005 we've been getting kids out, and putting a stop to trafficking village by village in Hue province, but we want to see now if we can put a stop to this trade in children altogether.

I know that a lot of people who read this blog have supported our anti-trafficking, so I think it's only right that I share what has come out of that meeting, and give an overview of our plan.

First the bad news: we don't believe that we can completely end the trafficking. We can't take it from its current level right down to zero. Why not? Well, for the same reason that Australia, and the US, and every country on earth has human trafficking... People do bad things that we just can't control.

But we do believe that, given a time frame of about 5 years, we should be able to get as close to ending the trafficking as anyone can. If I have to put a target on it, I'd say we aim to reduce the trafficking by at least 80%... but that just raises the question "80% of what?" There isn't much data on how common this problem is. One of our goals is to try to get a more complete picture of how widespread the trafficking is by arranging community meetings where local people can talk with us about how many children from their village have gone to the factories, both now and in the past.

After some lengthy discussion about what impact our work has had so far, what's been working and what's failed, we came up with a set of 5 'conditions.' Our thinking is that the trafficking will come to an end when:

1. Children and their families no longer want or need to go to work in the factories.

This is a big one. To achieve this, we need not only some poverty alleviation work and income-generating training, but also some significant work on the local culture. In many of the villages we work in, we find that families consider it 'normal' to send their children to work in factories. This is not typical of Vietnamese culture, but is a sub culture specific to these areas that have long been targeted by traffickers. We'll need to help the families and communities change their minds by showing them the reality of factory life in Ho Chi Minh City - it ain't pretty.

2. Factory owners no longer want to employ children.

To achieve this, we will need to keep on taking the kids out of the factories - because every child we take home represents a significant expense for the business, and some weeks of lost labour. We also need to work with the police and Vietnam's Chamber of Commerce so that we're not alone in changing the minds of the factory owners.

3. The traffickers are too scared to continue their work.

If we can keep the stories of child abuse in factories alive in the newspapers, and if the police will arrest and prosecute the traffickers, they'll pretty quickly find a new career.

4. The general public considers child labour and trafficking unacceptable.

Again, the media will have a big role to play in this. Already the tide of opinion has started turning against having children in factories.

5. The government actively enforces the law.

Just a few months ago, a new law on trafficking was passed by the National Assembly, and for the first time trafficking within Vietnam is considered a crime. But of course, just because it's a law doesn't mean it's enforced. We'll need to work more closely with the police to enable them to go after the traffickers and shut down factories which use children.

Clearly, this isn't our action plan - just the set of goals we need to reach. We also need to be sure that, in reaching these goals, we don't simply end up with children from central Vietnam being trafficked to other types of work, or the factories filling up with kids from other regions. We really need to solve this problem by coming at it from all angles at the same time.

Even though we don't think it's realistic to achieve 'zero trafficking', we do believe we can change the context so that trafficking is no longer a common, widespread issue, but rather an occasional aberration.

In coming months and years we'll be rescuing more kids from factories, opening more community centres in the villages being targeted by traffickers, working more closely with the government and media, and spending more time getting to know the families who need our help.

It's bound to be a lot of hard work, but if we really can achieve these goals there's no question that it will all be worth while.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The thousands

Every month, my staff collate data on the kids they have helped, and we produce a simple list of our results which gets added to our email signatures. It's just a nice way of letting people know what we're up to.

This month's figures are below, and there are a couple of really exciting developments...

To date, Blue Dragon has:
Sent 2,036 kids back to school and training
Provided accommodation to 109 girls and boys
Served 221,930 meals
Built or repaired 45 homes for families
Distributed 21,475 litres of milk
Handed out 24,714 kilos of rice
Reunited 85 runaway children with their families
Taken 753 kids to a doctor or hospital
Put 5 teens through drug rehab
Obtained legal registration papers for 567 children
Rescued 101 trafficked children
Placed 62 teens in jobs
Played 936 games of soccer!

First, we've now helped more than 2000 children go to school. Woo hoo! (And if we say that we help each child go to school for 4 years, on average, then that means we've helped Vietnam with 8,000 years of schooling... right??)

And second, as I mentioned a couple of months back, we are quite close to playing our 1000th game of soccer. Looks like "the big day" will be in late August, and already the kids are hassling us for details of how we'll celebrate!

Apart from telling our friends around the world about our progress, these numbers are also a good reminder to my team here in Vietnam that we really are getting somewhere and making a difference.

And speaking of making a difference, I have returned to Hanoi after 3 days in Hue of planning and strategising. In coming days I will post again about the direction we will take with our anti-trafficking work.

I am a bit excited about these plans, though I am not sure that they're going to make riveting blogging!

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Dreaming of endings

Ngoc was 13 when I met him, late in 2005. He was tiny and exhausted, selling flowers on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Normally he'd start work around sunset, and walk up and down outside tourist spots and nightclubs until 2 or 3am.

His traffickers, some middle aged women, had brought him from his village in Hue province, in central Vietnam. Every flower he sold was for their benefit; his "payment" was a place to sleep on a concrete floor and some plain rice or noodles a few times per day.

If he didn't sell his quota of flowers each night, he was rewarded with a beating.

Angered by what I saw, and shocked by the compliance of 2 other charitable organisations with this trafficking, I asked one of our volunteers to help me find a way for Ngoc to escape and get back to his family. That volunteer, a uni student named Van, is now Blue Dragon's Chief Lawyer.

We found a way to get Ngoc away from the traffickers, and in doing so learned that his situation was not an isolated case. Dozens more kids just like him had been brought from central Vietnam to the south and put to work as slaves, mostly under the pretense of 'vocational training'. The parents were extremely poor - often living in tin huts or tents on beaches - and were easily convinced that their children were being offered an opportunity to escape from grinding poverty.

And so, in addition to helping street kids, Blue Dragon started helping kids who had been trafficked.

Six years on, we've rescued 92 kids who have been trafficked for slavery within Vietnam. The trafficking rings that took Ngoc and his friends to Ho Chi Minh City to sell flowers are long gone; we interrupted their business so much that they just gave up. We've effectively ended trafficking in 4 communes of Hue province, but there's still a huge trade in children from Hue being taken south to work in the garment industry.

The question for Blue Dragon remains: Can we end this trafficking of children from Hue to the garment factories permanently?

If we could bring down one trafficking ring, can't we bring down some more? And if we could end trafficking from 4 communes in Hue province, then can't we end it in all communes?

These aren't just hypothetical questions... These are the issues that my staff and I will be talking about this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Van and I are in Hue now, to meet with our staff who are based here. We intend to come up with a strategy that will put a permanent end to the trafficking of children from Hue to the garment factories.

It won't be easy; and we're going to need a few years to really make an impact. But it's time for us to take this dive into the deep end. Our work so far has had some terrific results, and I am proud of what we've achieved. However, I think we can put our knowledge and expertise now to an even more powerful end.

Why is it important?

It's all about the kids. Ngoc is a young man now, and he has done brilliantly for himself. Although he had never been to school when I met him, he has since gone on to study a few years of primary school, and now works in a restaurant in Hanoi. He's an excellent chef, much loved by his employer, and he is one of the most responsible Blue Dragon kids yet. He's a great role model to all those around him.

There are just so many more Ngocs out there. The photo below is of some of the other trafficked kids we've rescued and have gone back to full time study. Last week our staff invited those who achieved excellent school results on an outing to a bookstore. The idea was for each of them to buy whatever reading material they wanted... but they saw some painting activities and decided to have a go at that, too.

These are kids who were working 18 hours a day in garment factories not so long ago. The chance to go to a bookstore, buy whatever they want, and join in some art activities must have seemed like a ridiculous fantasy - but why shouldn't they have the chance? Why should such a simple pleasure be denied them?

Dreams can indeed become reality; and my dream is that kids from Hue don't have to sell their childhood to produce cheap clothes in Vietnam's factories. Over the coming days, my challenge is to figure out how to do this!

Friday, July 01, 2011

We made it!

Back in May, Blue Dragon launched an important funding appeal. We needed to raise money to expand our outreach services for street kids.

For the last year or so we have had one Outreach worker, a young man who once worked as a shoeshine boy himself. His job has been to go out at night to the places where street kids hang around to look for anyone who needs help and make sure the kids know where to come if they have trouble.

In particular, he looks for the little kids and those who have newly arrived in the city, before they get caught up in the gangs and prostitution.

It's difficult and sometimes dangerous work, but I feel pretty strongly that it's also extremely important. And having a single staff member with all of that responsibility really isn't good enough. For every kid we meet, there are many more who we don't have the time to get to.

In Outreach, every case is urgent. Letting kids fall through the cracks can have severe consequences. This means that we need to have Outreach staff on call 24/7... Street kids don't normally stick to the 9-5 routine!

And so we conceived of holding an appeal to raise the money needed for expanding the service. The total goal was about $67,000: enough money to hire 2 new staff for 2 years; provide food, clothing and emergency care for the kids we find; offer a counseling service; and buy a 2nd hand car so that we can drive the kids back to their homes and reunite them with their families. (Nearly all of the kids on the streets of Hanoi have come from the countryside - often way up in mountainous regions).

I am HUGELY PLEASED to say this morning that we've made it. Our friends and sponsors around the world have agreed that this is important work, and sent the funds needed to double the number of street kids we reach every week.

We'll be contacting all of the donors in coming days to let them know. Donations have come in amounts from $5 to $15,000 - and every one of them has been greatly appreciated.

To our donors: Thank you. It's time now for the Blue Dragon team to get working on reaching more street kids and making good use of the support you've shown us.