Saturday, February 25, 2012

Terrible news

Yesterday in the early afternoon, our world lost one of its brightest stars.

Le Dinh Nghia (pictured in the grey jacket), an extraordinary young man from Thanh Hoa province, died in an apparent road accident. He was a few months short of his 21st birthday.

Nghia's funeral was held in his home town this morning, and at least 300 people were there. Everyone is just devastated.

I met Nghia on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City in 2006; I first wrote about him here. That photo of him shining shoes is a precious memory of my first encounter with Nghia. I knew immediately that he was somebody special. He was never a beneficiary of Blue Dragon; he was a friend and a little brother. He was a part of us.

Nghia brought sunshine and life. I have a vivid memory of hearing him one morning calling me with the words: "Mot ngay moi!" In English, he was saying: "It's a new day!" That was his bubbling, confident personality. I've never known anyone like him.

That same personality landed him in plenty of trouble over the years. He kept us busy bailing him out of a fight at school, or a run-in with the police... I had my own arguments with him from time to time. But he was so true to his name, which he once told me means: "Loyalty." No matter what conflict or argument he had with anyone, he was still their friend. Nghia would help anyone with anything - no matter the personal cost. I once asked him if he knew how to repair my CD player. He didn't, but he spent the next 3 months searching until he found someone who could. And then he refused to let me pay.

Nghia's sudden departure leaves a huge hole in many of us. So many people relied on him. After finishing some schooling, Nghia went on to study mobile phone repair, and he opened his own shop. Late last year we made this short film of Nghia for our website:

Nghia: In my own words

But there's so much he does not say in that short clip.

Like how he almost couldn't open a shop because he used all of his savings to help an older brother who was in trouble back in the countryside, so had to go into debt to start his business.

Or how he then grew the shop to employ 3 of his older brothers, and other friends who needed a job.

Or how he then started training other disadvantaged kids in mobile phone repair.

He doesn't say that he then went on to get a driver's licence and buy a taxi so he could work a second job at night; and that he paid for another brother to also get his licence so that they could work the taxi around the clock.

And he doesn't say that with all of that under his belt, he still wanted to do more, so he started studying to be a DJ.

Nghia had so many dreams, and they were never for him alone. All the money he earned was for his family; one of his brothers married just 2 weeks ago, and as far as I know Nghia paid for nearly everything.

He gave me one of my two dogs; a tiny pup I called Bear. I still have Bear, and I'm sure she senses that something is wrong.

Tonight I still find myself in disbelief that Nghia has gone. I cannot imagine a few days going by without seeing him at his shop, or sending him a text message, or having a quick drink with him at a cafe.

Nghia, you were a great person and you lived a good life. You left us far too soon, but we will do all we can to honour your beautiful memory.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Same problems, different solutions

Once upon a time - long, long, ago - I was a school teacher in Sydney. I taught in a pretty good school in a neighbourhood that is reputed to be rather rough.

One day, I was sitting in the school playground talking to the head of my department when an incident unfolded. A group of teens from another suburb had entered our school to attack one of the students, but were interrupted by a Science teacher (I'll call him "John"), who marched the kids out to the street to send them on their way. Something sparked a sudden fury in one of the boys, who leapt back over the fence, charged at John, and king-hit him. John was knocked to the ground, and later underwent serious facial surgery. I'm not sure that he ever fully recovered from the nerve damage.

The group then started running - they knew they were in trouble, and took off away from the school into an abandoned shopping centre. I happened to have a mobile with me (they weren't so common back then) and called emergency services, but the operator thought I was pranking her; she refused to take me seriously. So I set off down the street after the kids myself.

I may be quick off the mark, but I've never been very athletic. Fortunately for me, the school's Sports teachers joined in the pursuit, and they caught up to the group pretty quickly. (As an English teacher, I've never appreciated Sports teachers so much ever before!)

The police arrived, and it was all over. Back to school, and the bell rang straight away - and so I was off to my next class. A messenger promptly came to my classroom to read out a notice that was going throughout the school: Due to legal reasons, nobody is to talk about the incident that occurred at lunch today. My class, who happened to be a group of 'special needs' kids, thought that was the funniest thing they'd heard ever heard.

I went home that night knowing that I wouldn't be teaching much longer. The thought going through my head was: I can't believe that was how my day turned out.

It struck me this weekend, though, that plenty of my days turn out like that now, and I don't mind.

Admittedly it's been a while since I chased anyone down the street - about 4 years, I think. During that last incident, I cornered a guy who had assaulted a boy entering one of our shelters and called for the police to come get him. I didn't realise at the time that he was carrying a machete, or I might have thought twice about it.

With Blue Dragon now getting more involved in the rescue of young people who have been trafficked, the dangers go beyond kids with cutlery. And equally, our response has to be a little more sophisticated.

We recently met a bright and bubbly 12 year old girl, "Quy," who was living in a terrible situation. Her mother had left the family many years ago, so Quy had been raised by her father, who loved her very much. They lived together in a guest house, and when Quy's father died of an illness, the guest house owner simply took ownership of the girl.

Quy was put to work in the owner's business. If she didn't work hard enough, she was beaten. If the owner was in a bad mood, she was beaten. If she tried to run away - well, you get the picture.

Normally in Vietnamese culture, neighbours are unlikely to speak out against such abuse, seeing it more as a "domestic situation" that they shouldn't get involved in. But when our staff met Quy and started to investigate, one of the neighbours couldn't tell us all the details quickly enough. He was horrified by what was happening, and begged us to do something.

Such situations are highly sensitive for us. Blue Dragon has no right to take children away from their carers; we could easily be accused of trafficking or kidnapping ourselves. And in this case, Quy's new "foster mother" happened to be linked to a gang running illegal businesses all around town. Our interference would almost certainly lead to a retaliation: probably against my staff and almost certainly against Quy.

This was a case that needed quick action, but also great care. Back in Australia, such a case would be dealt with promptly by a black-and-white child protection system... but this isn't Australia. It's a different system, requiring a lot more innovation.

Our solution was to call on a very senior policeman we know to come with us for a "friendly chat" with the woman. Nothing official, just a conversation to express concern. And to inquire into the nature of the woman's businesses. She got the message, and Quy hasn't been mistreated since. Blue Dragon staff are now working on getting official ID papers for Quy so that she can come and live in our care.

Dealing with unreasonable violence like this back in Australia gave me cause for despair. The official message after the school attack said it all: Nobody may speak of this! In the following days, our school received a notice from the government chiding us for giving chase. And the punishment for the attackers? This was the real insult: a short term suspension from their school. It was only when pressure was put on the Minister for Education that a decision was made to follow up with charges, but the decision was made purely to prevent political embarrassment.

Here in Vietnam, I could see reason for despair every day, but instead I find great hope. Because just like with little Quy, I see that change is possible. I can do something today that makes a real, lasting change to her life. All it takes is a little bit of determination and some strategic thinking. Somehow this is more "real," because even though the social safety net leaves so much to be desired, it can be compensated for with real, human, action.

Last week, one of the young women Blue Dragon works with had a nasty break-up with her boyfriend. To get revenge, he rang my staff and delivered an ultimatum: we should immediately cease our support of her, or he would do something to cause her tremendous public humiliation.

After all we've seen and done in the past decade, this guy's threats were almost laughable. My staff responded with: "Seriously? Do you have any idea what the consequences would be for you if you tried something like that?" She went on to explain the work of our legal team, and that was the end of that.

There are still plenty of days when I go home shaking my head, but at least now I know that my presence is making some difference, no matter how small it may be.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Calling all Brisbanites!

A good friend of Blue Dragon, Robyn Ramsay, is launching her book on Monday 13 in Brisbane: Finding Duong, Finding Myself.

On a journey through this part of the world a few years ago, Robyn befriended a young man named Duong begging on the streets of Hanoi and set about helping him make a change... but instead Duong met a tragic ending. That's all I'll say here - go along, meet Robyn, and buy the book!