The truth that I have known for many years is now official.
Van Ta, Blue Dragon's own Chief Lawyer, is a Hero - with a capital "H."
On Friday morning in Washington DC, Secretary of State John Kerry awarded Van the prestigious Trafficking In Persons Hero Award from the United States government.
Many people know of Van's work, but few know of Van himself. He spearheads Blue Dragon's anti-trafficking work; he finds and rescues children and young women taken for exploitative labour and sex work against their will; and he defends victims in court, ensuring justice according to the law.
Among all his other work defending victims of crime and registering citizens who have never been officially registered with the government, Van has rescued 331 children and young women from trafficking. That's 331 people who have been taken from home and held captive; and Van has located them and found a way to set them free. His rescue work sometimes involves raiding the places of slavery, and sometimes involves assisting victims to escape and, without exaggeration, make a run for their lives.
But Van is not a household name, both out of a genuine humility and out of a need for safety. To be blunt, Van's work is dangerous, yet he has never hesitated or put himself first. Nor has he ever sought the spotlight.
I first met him at a party for blind children in September 2003. Van was a bright eyed law student intent on changing the world, and I was in the early days of creating Blue Dragon Children's Foundation. Immediately on meeting me, Van declared that he wanted to volunteer for Blue Dragon, and that he would like to work for us for a couple of years after graduating from law school. It was as though he could foresee both the challenges and the victories that lay ahead.
In the early years, Van's work was largely with homeless children and unregistered citizens. One of his first great successes was reuniting a runaway teenage boy with his mother in the countryside. Van was welcomed as a hero by the entire village; they had feared that the missing teen was dead and would never be heard of again.
That teenage boy went on to complete school, go through tertiary studies, and is now the IT Coordinator at Blue Dragon HQ.
Van's first encounter with human trafficking was a couple of years later, in 2005, when I met a trafficked boy on the streets of Saigon. Van and I worked out a plan to rescue the boy, and in getting him home to central Vietnam we were shocked to learn of the extent of trafficking in the region. So we embarked on a process of finding and rescuing trafficked children, bringing them home from the streets and sweatshops of Saigon, and reuniting them with their families.
As of today, we have rescued a total of 260 girls and boys who have been trafficked for forced labour within Vietnam.
Two years later, Van conducted his first rescue of girls trafficked to China. A teen girl we knew from Hanoi had gone missing, and she made a call for help in July 2007. All we knew was that she was in China; she didn't know which town she was in, or how close it was to Vietnam. But she was desperate for help. Not knowing what else to do, Van headed to China, found her, and rescued her - along with 6 other girls being held in the same brothel. All had been deceived and entrapped; all lived in fear for their lives. Today, thanks to Van, all are free.
But that first rescue trip was exceptionally dangerous. Van was lucky to make it back alive, and for a few hours I had no idea where he was or what had happened. When he finally did re-emerge, we agreed that this China rescue was to be a one-off. No more rescue missions in China!
Well... except that by now he has rescued a total of 71 girls and young women from brothels and forced marriages in China.
This award from the US government is richly deserved. Van and his family have given themselves totally to the service of others; there is not a day that Van does not help another person. The only other person who is anything like Van is his wife, who is also an exceptional legal advocate.
The formality of the ceremony, and the associated visits to the White House and other government institutions, is quite a contrast to the normal pace of Van's life. Van's rescues and legal work are fast-paced, intense, and relentless. It's unusual for Van to have a few hours of peace; around Blue Dragon HQ we joke about how hard it is to get 5 minutes with him. Secretary Kerry doesn't realise how privileged he is to have Van in one place for a 30 minute ceremony!
I am incredibly proud of Van. This blog isn't a place for formalities, but it must be said: Van, on behalf of all the children, families, and young adults you have rescued from slavery and whose lives you have changed... Congratulations. Stand tall and proud, for you are truly a hero to many.
And most of all, Van, you are a hero to me.