Friday, October 16, 2015

It's the end of the blog as we know it: 2/2

After making the world wait for this final blog (I forgot the password to log in - seriously...), here it is. The end of my 10 year blog. (And yes, I know that after 10 years of blogging I should be able to remember the password).

At the time I started blogging, Blue Dragon was mostly working with kids on the streets of Hanoi. We still do so, but by the end of 2005 we were starting to also get involved with kids who had been trafficked.

The initial issue that we faced was boys and girls trafficked within Vietnam to work on the streets as flower sellers. We brought those trafficking rings to a halt fairly quickly but found that children were also being trafficked into garment sweatshops. This is still a problem today, but on a much smaller scale and I am confident that we are close to seeing the end of child trafficking into garment factories in Vietnam. There are just a few people holding out, a few small business owners who think it's worth the risk, but their time really is limited now. When we know of any factory with child slaves, we will be there with the police to shut them down.

This aspect of our work then evolved into rescuing girls and young women who have been trafficked into China. I never thought we would do that; in fact, after our first rescue in 2007, we vowed to never do it again. But we've now rescued about 150 girls and women who have been trafficked from Vienam into brothels and forced marriages in China. The rescues are complicated and sometimes dangerous, but massively rewarding and impactful. Not only is a woman set free, but traffickers are arrested and families reunited. They really are life-changing operations.

As a charity dealing with a few very different social issues, it can be difficult to sum up all that we do. A look through our Facebook and Twitter accounts tells you that we sometimes have international rescues, art classes for kids with disabilities, self-help groups for parents, and house building projects all happening at the same time. This is quite different to the 'single issue' charities which might deal exclusively with, say, water projects or disability advocacy.

So what's the thread pulling all this together?

The issues may seem very different, but all that we do is aimed at getting kids out of crisis, and then providing the long-term after-care that they need. I am passionate about this. This is not just about issues: this is about people.

Our world has more problems than anyone can count, and we tend to look to politics or the economy or the media to either place the blame or find a solution. They all may have a part, but in the end people are both the problem and the solution. Do we want a better world? Then we need to be better people, and get alongside other people to make the change.

In the 12 or so years that Blue Dragon has been working, we've met thousands of kids and impacted thousands more. Some of those kids have had a life changing experience with us: there are teens we have met locked into brothels, or trapped within pedophile rings, or living with gangs on the street, but who are now free and living a great life. There are also those we have met but who have drifted away or chosen to leave. I can't say we have been successful with everyone, but I can say that we have tried our best every time.

The blog is ending, but Blue Dragon is not! Keep following the website and social media; and if in future the inspiration to write again returns, I will open a new blog for sure. Thank you to those who have taken the time to make contact and leave comments; let's keep working together for the street kids of Vietnam,

www.bluedragon.org

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

It's the end of the blog as we know it: 1/2

It's time to bring the Street Kids blog to an end.

I've been writing here for almost 10 years - this started in November 2005. That's a long time to be blogging, and it's also a long time to be reading!

Over these 10 years the nature of the blog has shifted gradually as Blue Dragon's work has developed and changed. In the last year or so I have found it difficult to keep on writing, and so at last I am bringing the blog to a close.

But first...

Before signing off, I want to finish with some thoughts on what Blue Dragon has achieved for Vietnam's street kids, as well as for the young people who have been trafficked and exploited. I'd also like to add my thoughts on how Vietnam has changed over the past decade; and so I will indulge in a two-part finale to say farewell.

Back in 2005, Blue Dragon was a young organisation finding its way. We started as a few friends wanting to help the street kids of Hanoi, and without having any rulebook on what to do or where to start, we simply did what we could see needed to be done. We met the kids on the streets, and helped them to return to their families or live in shelters and go to school.

After all these years, that part of our work hasn't changed. We have staff out on the city streets every night now, working in a team that is lead by a young man who happens to be one of the first street kids I met back in 2002.

The core of Blue Dragon continues to be caring for the children we meet every day. Although we have grown over the years, we have never 'outgrown' the fundamental heart of who we are.

Sadly, however, the context in which we live and work has changed. Hanoi's street kids face serious threats from paedophiles who target the lakes and parks where homeless children tend to congregate. In just one week of this month we met 4 boys who had been sexually abused while homeless. It's an outrageous situation.

I have written about this in several blog posts over the past year or so. What's hard to capture in words is the heartbreak of this terrible abuse. Over and over we have met kids who feel utterly worthless and see no future for themselves; some have chosen to remain in the cycle of abuse, submitting to the paedophile rings every night and then dulling the pain with methamphetamines and online games all day. The kids say to us that they hate the abuse, they hate the abusers, but they can see no other way of life. They refuse to believe in themselves, and they have given up.

But there is still reason for hope. While many kids, aged 13 and up, are trapped in these rings, many more have escaped. At the Blue Dragon centre we have a few teenage boys who we thought we could never help. They came to us for help, then left to return to the paedophile rings, then came back to us and then left again... And miraculously - because I don't know how else to describe it - they have come in to us, and stayed.

For some it has taken months before a spark of life has appeared in their eyes, but when it comes it is unstoppable. The great thing about the Blue Dragon centre is that when you meet the kids here, you have no idea what any of them have been through or where they have come from. They are just happy, cheeky, lively kids and teenagers who want to play and sing and dance like anyone else in the world.

And again, there is more reason for hope. Vietnam is developing, and so is people's understanding of children. Even just a year ago, this issue of boys being sexually exploited was completely unknown. Now it's all over the media, and the police are taking action.

Several people have been arrested and charged with 'indecency against minors', because the law still doesn't recognise that males can be victims of sexual abuse; but that is changing too. I continue to hope that the criminal code of the law will be revised later this year to include boys and men as potential victims.

Without that law in place, Vietnamese police have a tough time prosecuting paedophiles who abuse boys, but it is happening. Even a foreign man has been arrested and is awaiting trial: see the article here. So protection is slowly evolving, and with a review of the law there should be much more powerful intervention from the police and authorities to keep all kids safe.

My deep regret is that even once the law has changed and Vietnam's street kids are substantially safer from abuse, there will always be those children we could not help. There are teens and young adults selling themselves on the streets of the city who I have cared for, eaten meals with, and shared laughter and tears with; but who are now so entangled in the world of sexual abuse that it's unlikely they will ever recover. No matter how good things get from here, there will always be that painful sorrow.


Next week's post will be my final blog entry. Come back next Saturday for a final story from the streets of Vietnam.


www.bluedragon.org


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

News Roundup: July-August 2015

An occasional roundup of news stories impacting kids in Vietnam and around the world.


Local News

The Vietnamese government takes aim at child labour in a new program.

Access to higher education in Vietnam remains a messy affair according to some families.




Across the region

The Philippines government commences a crackdown on the production of child pornography.

A joint Vietnamese-Cambodian operation results in the capture of traffickers (it can be done!).

Progress on trafficking in Cambodia - or maybe not?



Around the world

A provocative take on whether we are sincere in our opposition to slavery - worth a read.

The Guardian examines progress made by the UN's Millennium Development Goals.

A critique of the claim that less people in our world suffer from hunger.

The UK announces a new initiative putting the onus on big companies to end the use of child labour in their supply chains.

... and the US State Department's annual TIP Report is here.


www.bluedragon.org

Monday, August 10, 2015

A tribute to Jerry

A great friend of Blue Dragon has passed away: the performer and Creative Director Jerry Snell.

Over the years I have met countless people wanting to join in at our centre and lend a hand. Jerry was the best of the best. He had a boundless energy that I could never quite keep up with. He would be in Hanoi today, overseeing a hip hop club at the Blue Dragon centre, and tomorrow he would be off to Taiwan to direct a multi-million dollar show before heading to the Thai border where he worked with refugee children from Myanmar. The man just didn't stop, ever.



Jerry's gift to Blue Dragon was the creation of a Street Arts club at our centre in Hanoi. He came to us with a vision, offering to set up an after-hours group that would open a door for our kids to express themselves. And that's exactly what he did.

The kids took a particular shine to hip hop, and so the club quickly developed into a hip hop crew for both boys and girls. As someone with all the groove of a metal pole, I can only marvel at the talent in these kids. But before Jerry came along, this talent was hidden. The kids themselves had no idea of what they could do.

Jerry used to wear a hat with the saying: Hip Hop Saved My Life. Every time I see the Blue Dragon crew in action, I think of those words. Learning to dance and being part of something great has transformed their lives. It has taught them to be confident and to shine both inside and out. There are kids in the group who have never before shown commitment like this: to come on time, to try hard, to practice constantly, to follow instructions. There are kids who started with no knowledge at all and who now teach newcomers to the group - kids who I have never before seen helping others.



Just last week, a Blue Dragon "old boy" got married, and a group of us went to his wedding. As Vietnamese weddings usually are, it was a huge and elaborate affair. And when some dance music came on, two teenage girls who were with us headed straight for the stage and gave an impromptu performance. Both girls are members of the Blue Dragon crew; both were working on the streets when we met them a few years ago. When they first started coming to Blue Dragon, it was unimaginable that they would ever have the confidence to get up in front of a crowd of strangers and put on a show. This was simply impossible. But Jerry's vision has turned the impossible into the normal. Without hip hop, I fear for what would have become of those girls.

Today the kids are learning of Jerry's death, and around the world there is an outpouring of grief for this exceptional man. We will mourn his passing, but celebrate his life. Jerry lived his dream, bringing dance and creative arts to people across South East Asia. His legacy is in the connections he made: performers from Asia were connected with Cirque du Soleil and Cirque du Monde, and other artists from around the world. He didn't try to do everything himself, but rather he developed talent, brought great people together, and coached them as they grew. His success was in giving his power away. Instead of controlling and managing, he taught and inspired, and then he moved on to help where he was needed next.

We will all miss you, Jerry, but you will long live on in dance. Your hip hop has saved our lives.


www.bluedragon.org

Monday, July 27, 2015

Working boy

At age 11, "Binh" was working on the streets of Hanoi.

During the day he would go to school, but at night he would be out selling trinkets by Hoan Kiem Lake, along with his mother who kept a watchful eye over him. Binh enjoyed the freedom of working on the streets, but he wasn't there for fun: he was there to help his family pay the bills.

When Blue Dragon met Binh in 2011, he was eager to join our activities and grateful to receive financial help so that he didn't have to work any more. He was able to focus on his studies, and took up some sports such as kung fu and dance.

Anyone seeing Binh at the Blue Dragon centre would see a boy full of life and happiness. His smile dominates his face, and when he's dancing on stage or in front of a crowd he energises everyone in the room.



But something has been bothering Binh for a couple of years.

Underlying his happy demeanour has been a concern for his family. He has been worried that, while he is learning and having fun, he hasn't been sharing the burden of caring for his mother and sister. Even though he is still a teen - soon to turn 17 - he feels the need to start a career and begin earning a salary.

And so, at the start of July, Binh took up an apprenticeship in a local restaurant. The owners are well known to Blue Dragon and wanted to give Binh a chance, so we knew he was going in to a job where he would be well trained and well looked after.

A month on, Binh is still beaming that huge smile. He loves his job, he feels empowered to now be supporting his family, and he is still taking part in the dance and sports activities at Blue Dragon. He has found the path that he wants to be on.



Transitioning from being a 'street kid' to being a full time student and then on to an employee is never easy. It takes a lot of determination and a lot of hard work. But for Binh, so far all the signs are good that he is going to give this his best.

After his first day at work, he went home and wrote on Facebook: "From today, I will change." He wanted to tell the world that he is growing into a young man who cares for others, looks after his family, and makes a contribution to society.

And doesn't the world need more people like that?


www.bluedragon.org

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reunion

Over the weekend, I travelled with Blue Dragon staff to Lang Son, a northern province of Vietnam bordering China.

We were on a journey to reunite a teenage boy, "Quang", with his family. Quang had run away from home and the Blue Dragon Outreach Team had found him on the streets of Hanoi. Fortunately we met him within a day of his arrival in the city; street kids here are routinely approached by pedophiles and their pimps, sometimes within hours of getting off the bus. Our strategy is to keep a presence on the streets as far and wide as possible in order to find kids as soon as they arrive.

Quang had come to Hanoi because of problems at home. As a baby, he was given to another family to raise, and deep down he has always felt a resentment at being handed over like that. I guess that nobody has ever explained to him why it happened.

Although he was raised by a family who cares for him, he has never felt that he belongs. As teenagers do, he has been acting out and subsequently has been labelled as a troublemaker. In reality, all he wants is to be loved.

As he ran away from home, Quang took a motorbike owned by his adoptive family. He planned to ride it all the way to Hanoi, but was stopped by police in the very first town he reached. The police confiscated the bike, and Quang continued by bus to Hanoi, where he met Blue Dragon.

After a few days at our shelter, Quang agreed to go home, although he was pretty nervous. He lives in a very remote village, accessible by a dirt track which cannot be used when it rains. They have electricity, but the connection is feeble and blackouts are common. The level of education is extremely low: Quang himself has only finished Grade 4. As an ethnic minority village of the Dao tribe, many people do not even speak Vietnamese.


The road to Quang's village.
 

Along for the journey were 3 Blue Dragon teens who we took for a break from the city. All are high needs kids who have lived on the streets and are now in shelters but need a lot of care.

We had a 6 hour drive to get to Quang's home, but stopped for lunch on the way at the home of a young man named Minh. Minh was one of the original Blue Dragon kids back in late 2002; he was a shoe-shine boy on the streets of Hanoi, supporting his family financially, and he moved into our very first shelter, The Big Room. Now Minh is married with 2 beautiful children of his own, and runs a bakery in Lang Son province. His business is booming, and it was wonderful to see the new life he has created for himself.


Minh's bakery in Lang Son province.


Finally we made it to Quang's village, and the difficult journey was well worth it. Nestled in the mountains, Quang's home was extremely poor but with an astounding natural beauty. His adoptive family was glad to see him home and willing to work through the problems that they face. Blue Dragon offered to help recover the motorbike, which was still in the police station, and we'll stay in touch with Quang in coming months to make sure he's OK.


Quang's home, made of mud brick. His family runs the town's only store.



 
The view from Quang's front door.


By the time we left, everything was not resolved but the family was talking and committed to helping each other. And so we began the long journey back to Hanoi, leaving Quang with his family.

Along the road home, one of the Blue Dragon teens spoke up. He said that seeing a village like this, and a home so poor, reminded him that there are people less fortunate than himself. This is a powerful lesson for a boy who has grown up in an abusive and unloving family, and who at age 15 is already covered in scars from knife fights.

Blue Dragon Children's Foundation has so far reunited 256 runaway children with their families. Not all reunions have been so complex and remote as Quang's, but many have - indeed, many have been much harder than this one.

Getting a child safely home to their family, and out of the dangerous life on Hanoi's streets, is always worthwhile, no matter how difficult the journey may be.


www.bluedragon.org

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The courage to dream

Last week, Blue Dragon's Rescue Team completed their 100th rescue of a girl trafficked into China and sold to sex slavery. In today's blog, we look back at the story of one of the first young women we rescued. Names have been changed for confidentiality.


In 2011, Hanh was a first year university student and four months pregnant. With the prospect of becoming a single mother, she was anxious about the future and didn't know where to turn for help. When a kindly woman offered friendship and guidance, Hanh was most grateful.

But instead of helping Hanh, the woman trafficked her to China where she was sold to a brothel. Her dilemma of how to deal with being a pregnant uni student had become a nightmare of being held prisoner far from home, with no prospect of escape.

The brothel owners forced Hanh against her will to abort her baby. Three days later, she was put to work with her first 'clients'. Looking back, she still cannot talk much about the horror she experienced in those first days and weeks. She had never imagined that anything like this could happen.

She was kept as a sex slave for 11 months until Blue Dragon and Chinese police rescued her.

 
Hanh crossing back into Vietnam
following her rescue from the Chinese brothel


After bringing Hanh home to Vietnam, we provided her with counseling and support, including legal advice and medical treatment. Her university was reluctant to accept her back, so we visited them with some officials and persuaded them to let her return to her studies. According to the law Hanh should have lost her student status, but the school considered the exceptional circumstances and re-enrolled her.  

Life was starting to go well for Hanh, and she was doing her best to focus on her course when her old boyfriend got back in contact. She was reluctant to see him at first, with all that she had been through, but finally accepted him back.
 
A few months later Hanh made a shocking discovery. Her 'boyfriend' was actually married and had a family in the countryside. Everything he had told her was a lie. Hanh immediately told him that their relationship was over; his response was to threaten to kill her if she left him.

Blue Dragon and the police met with Hanh’s boyfriend and cautioned him to stay away from her. He had thought that she was weak and easy to frighten; but seeing the support she had behind her was enough to scare him away for good.
 
Facing yet another traumatic experience was too much for Hanh. She dropped out of university and returned to her village, finding a job in a local factory. She despaired that her life would never amount to anything; she had lost so much.
 
But through all this time, Blue Dragon stayed in touch and talked to Hanh regularly. When she told us a year later that she had always dreamt of being a teacher and wished she could go back to university, we again persuaded the university to let her return.


Hanh taking part in a 3-day therapy program organised by Blue Dragon
 

After three years of Blue Dragon’s financial, legal and psychological support Hanh is lnow about to enter her final year of study. A year from now, she will be looking for a job as a mathematics teacher.

Few of Hanh's friends have any idea of what she has been through. Seeing her on the street, or in class, or at the Blue Dragon centre, she looks like any other young woman and fits right in with the crowd.

But to face every day and to dream of the future takes incredible courage for Hanh. She may never receive any accolades, yet she surely is a hero for making so much of life despite everything she has endured.
 

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

News Roundup: June-July 2015

An occasional roundup of news stories about the issues impacting kids in Vietnam and around the world. 


Local news

UNICEF discusses the ongoing need to help children in Vietnam, beyond the Millenium Development Goals.

Children are being recruited for "Vocational Training" only to be used as slave labour.

Many families in Vietnam believe that sending children to work is more useful than sending them to school.


Across the region

Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia announce a crack-down on human trafficking.

Cambodia continues to take a strong stand against child sex tourism.

The disparity between male and female births in China is driving the trafficking of women from other countries.


International

The UK continues to be a major destination for children trafficked by crime gangs.

A bleak view of the impact the Trans-Pacific Partnership will have on slavery.

Nepal worries about a potential rise in human trafficking following the recent earthquakes.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Devious

When "Hien" was trafficked in early June, her family in central Vietnam was devastated.

Aged 19, Hien fell into a trap set by another young woman who took her across the border of China with promises of a good job, but instead sold her to a brothel.

Hien's mother had no idea what to do; she reported the case to the police, but with no knowledge of where Hien might be, there was little they could do.

Just 2 weeks later, the trafficker rang Hien's family with an offer: for a payment of 15 million Dong (about $750 USD), Hien would be returned to her family.

Hien's mother immediately set off to the north with all the money she could find and borrow. She believed that this was her one chance to get Hien home.

Before reaching the border, Hien's mother rang a relative who happened to be a journalist who has worked with Blue Dragon on the issue of human trafficking in the past. The relative encouraged her to contact us, and once we were in contact we were able to investigate quickly.

It became clear to us that the trafficker had no intention of returning Hien; instead, she would take the money and lure the mother into another trap, to be sold as a bride to a Chinese husband.

Working with both Vietnamese and Chinese police, we caught the trafficker in the act of receiving the money and then trying to trap Hien's mother. It was a dramatic afternoon, but with a good result: Hien's mother was safe, and the trafficker was in handcuffs.

But where was Hien?

The trafficker quickly confessed to everything and told what she knew of Hien's location. The Chinese police immediately began a search, but it was 3 days before she could be found. They were 3 very tense days, particularly for Hien's family. However, the police located her and got her out of the brothel that had enslaved her.

Hien is now back in Vietnam, with the horrific ordeal behind her but a long road to recovery ahead. Blue Dragon's Psychologist has already started working with her, and the Legal team has helped her to give statements to the police.

Hien's rescue, and that of her mother, has ended well; but this story could have had a disastrous ending, had the mother fallen into the trafficker's devious trap.


www.bluedragon.org

Monday, June 15, 2015

The difference between bravery and stupidity

Just by chance, I was sitting on a boat when the call came.

The 'boat' was a café moored in Hanoi's West Lake. I was on the top deck with some friends on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and when my phone rang I was surprised to see it was an international call.

Hugh, a close friend who had left Hanoi a few years earlier, was living in Fiji now. His call came out of the blue, but as it turned out he had an offer that I immediately accepted.

Hugh had bought a boat in San Fransisco - a 42 foot Peterson - and needed to get it to his home in Fiji. Would I be willing to help him take it on the journey home?

Having never been sailing before, my immediate thought was of blue skies and smooth seas. How could I say no!? And so, two weeks later, Hugh and I set sail from San Fransisco, bound for Fiji.

Usually when I tell people the story of my one-and-only sailing adventure, the immediate response is: "You were brave to do that!" I quite like the compliment, but it's not true. I wasn't brave at all, because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Had I known, I might not have boarded the flight to the US. My enthusiasm to go wasn't bravery. It was stupidity - I went into something with my eyes closed.

Having said that, I am glad I went. Parts of the trip were frightening, and it took me a full 5 days to overcome sea sickness - but in hindsight it was one of the best things I have ever done. Never have I learned so much about myself and tested my own limits. (And, for the record, I didn't make it to Fiji - I only reached Hawaii).

It's easy to mistake stupidity for bravery . The results are often the same, or at least similar. But bravery is knowing what you're up against, and yet going in to a difficult and dangerous situation anyway. Stupidity is going in with your eyes closed, not knowing or maybe not caring what the consequences could be.

Every day at Blue Dragon, I am surrounded by people who act with extraordinary bravery. I often think that, back in my home country of Australia, these people would be showered with awards for what they do.

I see boys who dare to make statements to police about sexual abuse they have endured, knowing that their friends and family may think less of them or they may be exposed to public shame.

I see girls and young women who have been held against their will in brothels or in family homes deep inside China, constantly threatened with violence and beaten into submission, who dare to beg or steal a mobile phone so they can call for help and so begin the arduous process of being rescued.

I see mothers and fathers who will give up all they have just to find their missing children and get them safely home, regardless of community perception or the personal risks they face in searching for their sons and daughters.

And I see my own team at Blue Dragon - the Social Workers, lawyers, and even the cleaners and administrators - risking their personal safety day after day for the kids who walk through our doors or who call for help.

Just 2 weeks ago, a little boy turned up at our centre with a shackle on his ankle - a police handcuff had been used by a violent family relative to lock the little guy up. He had broken free, and found his way to us with the cuff and a long chain dangling from his foot. And so one of our cleaners grabbed some tools and started cutting the boy free, knowing full well that the enraged relative could come in at any moment, but also knowing that this boy needed to be set free. The wrath of the family was not as important as the care of the child.

Our rescue work in China is another case in point. We receive calls for help from girls locked in to homes or brothels in unknown cities scattered throughout China. In responding to those calls, we know that every rescue operation carries a risk of us being found out by the traffickers, who lose substantial money - and their freedom - every time we succeed. But we go anyway, because we believe that the need to intervene outweighs the fear of the traffickers' vengeance.

Yesterday I was texting with one of the Blue Dragon staff about a particularly murky situation we are involved in; gangs of pimps here in Hanoi are recruiting underage boys to sell to pedophiles. My staff replied to one message with the observation: The world is getting worse.

I want to believe that that is not the case, but sometimes the evidence certainly seems to point in that direction. Either way, this situation demands that we face up to the dangers and stand in the way of the pimps and pedophiles; not rushing in blindly, but preparing for what's to come and standing our ground.

In comparison to all this, my boat trip a few years back seems easy. I could almost wish again for some weeks on the open seas. But there's much more to be done here, and facing the traffickers and the abusers will take great courage - not only from me, but from the whole Blue Dragon team and, most importantly, the kids.


 www.bluedragon.com

Monday, June 08, 2015

News Roundup: May-June 2015

An occasional roundup of news stories about the issues impacting kids in Vietnam and around the world.


The trafficking of Vietnamese kids to the UK grabs the headlines in both countries.

The Guardian - and in video

Tuoi Tre News


Yours truly talks to ITV about the growth in bride trafficking to China.


Vietnamese police bring down a ring trafficking Vietnamese people to China.


And the Vietnamese media has been reporting extensively on the pedophile rings targeting boys in Hanoi.

Some background info here in an earlier blog post.

In Vietnamese, a selection of recent articles:

Nhan Dan Newspaper

Cong An Nhan Dan Online

An Ninh Thu Do

Phap Luat So



www.bluedragon.org

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Courage

We met Minh in February, alone and cold on a park bench at night.

He was 15 years old, but tiny for his age; he could easily pass for 12 or 13. He'd been sleeping rough on the streets of Hanoi for just a couple of nights, and was relieved when he came across Blue Dragon's Outreach workers. The streets of Hanoi are dangerous places for homeless children.

Minh was a likable boy, quiet and unassuming but with a dazzling smile. We were shocked when he disappeared just a few days later, slipping away unnoticed from the shelter... with a laptop he decided to steal from us.

We weren't thrilled about the laptop, of course, but our deeper concern was for Minh. We feared what would become of him out on the streets. Hanoi is currently in the grip of a plague of pedophiles preying on homeless boys; the chances of him staying out of trouble were slim.

But last week, we met Minh once again. He was very embarrassed to see us, having both left and robbed us, and he was stunned that we were concerned for his welfare. I guess he thought he was in for a beating, or that we would call the police. In fact, we just wanted to make sure he was safe.

Minh came back to the Blue Dragon shelter, half in disbelief that we really weren't planning to take him to a police station, and over the coming days he told us what had happened. He explained that he feared we would force him to return to his family (which we don't do - we don't do anything without the kids' consent), so he ran away and took the laptop as something he could sell.

In the months that he was out on the streets, he was approached by pimps and pedophiles repeatedly, but he didn't give in. He was able to beg for money and he met some kind people who would give him food. Still, life was incredibly difficult and he was always hungry.

Minh had left home in the countryside because of some problems in his family, and he was afraid to go back. But after some days with Blue Dragon, seeing that we were not going to punish him for the missing computer and that we really did have his welfare as our only concern, he agreed to go back to his family home on two conditions.

First, he wanted one of the Blue Dragon staff to go with him. And second, if things didn't work out, he wanted to return to Hanoi with us.

And so on Tuesday, one of the Blue Dragon Social Workers, Huong, travelled over 200km from Hanoi, up into the mountains, to reunite Minh with his family. There was absolutely nothing to worry about: they were all so worried for the missing child that whatever wrongs had been done, they were just glad to have their son back. Many tears were shed, and finally Minh turned to Huong to tell her he would stay at home. He didn't need to go back to Hanoi again.



This was the happy ending we had hoped for, but didn't dare expect.

Minh is home now, and has sent us messages over Facebook telling us how happy he is. I can't help but think, though, that he should also acknowledge how brave he has been.

Returning to Blue Dragon when he was unsure what we might do... and then going back to face his family after months away... what courage this must have taken. Minh told me that he was scared, but that he needed and wanted to do this. He knew that going home was the right thing to do, and so even in the face of his fears he decided that he must do it.

Yesterday, Blue Dragon launched its annual appeal for donations. Every year at this time we ask ourselves: What is it that our kids really need? What is the pressing need for the coming 12 months, that we will have to go out and ask for?

This year, the answer came back to us in a single word: Courage. Our kids need courage. Whether it's a boy running away from home who has to face his greatest fears, or a girl trafficked into China who needs the pluck to call for help and attempt an escape... the Blue Dragon kids need courage.

Minh's story well illustrates the fears and dangers faced by kids here in Vietnam. We've updated the Blue Dragon website with stories from a few of the kids who wanted to share their own thoughts on what courage is - go and have a look at the site, it may well be the most inspiring 5 minutes of your day.

I don't often use my blog to ask for donations. But right now, I'd be remiss not to. I am seeing kids every day who face terrible situations that very few of us have to ever confront; they need, and deserve, our help.

They need courage to conquer their situations; and they will have courage if the world can stand beside them. We all have a part to play.

www.bluedragon.org



Wednesday, May 13, 2015

News Roundup: May 2015

An occasional roundup of news stories about the issues impacting kids in Vietnam and around the world.


In Vietnam

Man claims to be selling sperm in Vietnamese hospital as a cover to sell babies.

Vietnam strengthens its commit to fight human trafficking...

... at a time that trafficking appears to be on the rise.

Reports in English and Vietnamese on the issue of boys being sexually abused and the fear of an increase in sex tourism.


Across the region

Refugees being killed by traffickers as they cross the Bay of Bengal.

Nothing to see here.

300 men enslaved and held on an island in Indonesia.

Some thoughts on why South East Asia still struggles with slavery and trafficking.


Around the world

Wanting to work in international development? A new book details all the ins and outs - including a section quoting Blue Dragon's founder, Michael Brosowski.


www.bluedragon.org

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Strength to share

One of my deepest personal joys is seeing Blue Dragon kids take an interest in caring for others.

In some ways I wish that all of the kids we raise would go on to become carers and advocates, but I maintain that the motivation has to come from within, and not be a requirement for receiving our help.

So when our girls and boys do choose to pursue a career in Social Work, or volunteer at the Blue Dragon centre on the weekends, or repay their university scholarship to us early so we can use it to help somebody else, I know that their compassion really comes from the heart, and not just a sense of obligation.

'Cuong' is one Blue Dragon boy who has discovered a deep concern for other children, and who looks for ways to help. Despite the many difficulties of his own life, he has an instinct to protect those around him who are in need.

His part time job in the evenings is teaching rollerskating to children at a local park. As he takes the smaller kids by the hand and skates out onto the rink, his face shines with real joy. He has helped another person to stand tall and learn something new.


Teaching rollerskating: 'Cuong' is at the back

Last week, Cuong travelled out of Hanoi with other Blue Dragon kids and staff to spend the holiday week in a rural village. There they visited an orphanage, taking time to help others and to reflect on their own lives.

Cuong was right in there, picking up any crying babies and playing with the toddlers as though they were his own brothers and sisters.

 
Visiting an orphanage 

A telling moment was when he turned to staff and said: It makes me realise how much I have in life.

Such an insight is not easy for a teenage boy to have. It would be easy for him to wallow in self pity at all the hardships life has thrown his way - none of which he has deserved.

In caring for others, Cuong is overcoming his own difficulties.

But more than that: he has a heart to share, and he has learned that he can share it in spite of his hardships.

And if Cuong can do it...



www.bluedragon.org


Names have been changed for privacy.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The long haul

Blue Dragon works from a centre in Hanoi, where most of our team is based. A few years ago we also established a centre in central Vietnam to support the several hundred kids and families we help there in the fight against human trafficking.

But our work takes us far and wide throughout the country. Not a day goes by that we're not out on the road, often in isolated and remote areas, reuniting a homeless child with their family or investigating a case of missing children.

Over the past week, we've been working on a case that has been even more extreme than usual. The Rescue Team been travelling through central China, more than 2000km from the border of Vietnam, to find a trafficked 13 year old girl, "Quy". As the case isn't yet over, we can't share too many details, but this has been an urgent and tense case with quite a lot at stake.

Quy is safe now, but of course deeply traumatised by what's happened and desperate to get home. She was evidently taken and sold as a bride, but the information is not yet totally clear and I'm sure we'll know more later in the week. For now, all that matters is that she is on the way back to Vietnam.

The Blue Dragon Rescue Team has been in contact with Quy via text messaging for several weeks, but the case was brought to a head about a week ago and Quy needed to escape her situation. She ended up in a police station, where she has been until today.

It will be a few more days until Quy is back to Vietnam, and some more days still before she sees her family again. Once she's OK, we know of another 13 year old girl trafficked into China who needs our help, so the team may be back on the road even before the week is out.

To some it may seem like a lot of effort to help just one child. Apart from the fact that our rescues also result in trafficking rings being arrested - and thereby prevent future trafficking from taking place - I have to say that travelling a 4000km round trip to save a child's life is a worthy mission in itself. None of us would hesitate if it was our own child.

Rescue work is a long haul, both chronologically and geographically. When the moment comes that Quy is back in the arms of her mother and father, there will be no question that this has been worthwhile.

www.bluedragon.org

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Momentum

Blue Dragon's Street Outreach team meets new homeless children in Hanoi every week, and sometimes every day.

Kids come to the city for a great variety of reasons: neglect and abuse at home... a fight at school... poverty and hunger... or maybe just a search for adventure.

They're drawn to Hanoi in the hope of a better life, but in reality the city is a dangerous place for homeless children. We've now come to the conclusion that every child, boy and girl, who comes to the city as a 'street kid' is either sexually abused or at the very least approached by a pedophile offering money in return for sex.

One day last summer I met two boys, aged 13 and 14, who had come to the city looking for a summer job. They spent only one night on the street but were approached by 6 pedophiles. By the next morning, they were terrified and just wanted to go home.

How has this situation developed in a conservative capital city where tradition and family values reign supreme?

A very large part of the problem is that Vietnamese laws on child protection have been written in such a way that definitions of sexual abuse apply only to girls. In short, boys are not protected from sexual abuse by the law.

Over the past two years, the number of boys we have met on the streets who have been abused by pedophiles has grown, and continued to grow. We've worked closely with police to turn this situation around, but have only seen 2 of these men arrested.

However, there's some good news on the horizon: there is a building momentum to revise the law so that the abuse of both girls and boys is considered a criminal offense.

On Friday last week, Blue Dragon Children's Foundation and the People's Police Academy led a workshop that brought together police, lawmakers, academics, and officials. The single topic of discussion was the need to reform those articles of the criminal code which apply only to females, but should apply equally to males.


Research papers were presented, professional experience discussed, anecdotes shared, and ideas were exchanged.

During a break, one senior policeman approached me to say that we had met before. I couldn't recall how or where, until he told me the story.

Back in 2007, his own nephew had run away from home in the countryside and come to Hanoi. We had met him and taken him in, and as is our usual way of working he stayed in our care some days until he revealed to us where he was from. When we contacted his parents, this policeman came to our centre to pick him up.

The encounter was a poignant reminder that the children in danger of abuse are not only stereotypical street kids from broken families; they are any kids at all, no matter what kind of family or background they are from.



Everybody agrees that the law needs to change. It's now just a matter of when.

www.bluedragon.org

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Farewell, young Quoc

Today I share the sad news of the passing of a little boy named Quoc.


Quoc was 12 years old and living in rural Bac Ninh province, 2 hours north of Hanoi. He had a difficult life, growing up in poverty with a very ill mother. Quoc appeared to be a normal, healthy child but he had suffered a brain aneurysm in Grade 2 and never fully recovered.

He passed away in a local hospital having had a stroke in his sleep.

Despite his poor health and difficult family circumstances, Quoc did well at school, even receiving certificates of excellence for his studies, and he loved football. He was studying Grade 7 with support from Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, dreaming of a better life ahead.

There is always an inherent sense of unfairness when a child dies, in any circumstance. Knowing of Quoc's hard life and sudden death, it's impossible to not feel sorrow and grief; he had so much ahead, and was determined to make the most of his life.

But equally, Quoc's life was not in vain. He did make the most of his short years, caring for his little brother and his parents, and enjoying every moment. He didn't live with self pity, and he didn't use his difficulties as an excuse for not trying.

So we say farewell to our little brother, and we grieve his passing, but we remember the good he brought to our world and will let our happier memories of his life be his legacy.

Farewell, young Quoc.

www.bluedragon.org

Monday, April 06, 2015

Safe / not safe

After 3 weeks on the road in Australia, it's great to be back in Vietnam, back at home, and catching up with everyone and everything.

One of those 'things' that I have been catching up: the last few episodes of The Walking Dead.

For those who don't watch the show (seriously? There are people who don't watch TWD!?), our rugged band of zombie apocalypse survivors has been lurching from disaster to disaster, losing friends and sustaining plenty of damage along the way. But now they have made it to the safest and most peaceful place they have yet been: Alexandria.

They have high walls to keep them safe; electricity; dinner parties; cookies; rocking chairs on porches.

And it's driving them all insane.

Never in all 5 seasons of the show have they been this safe, and yet they are now divided against each other and acting completely irrationally.

Any psychologist would quickly put a label on this: PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I, meantime, am watching this and thinking how much it all reminds me of many kids here at Blue Dragon.

When we first meet children, they are normally in the midst of a crisis. They might be locked into a brothel in China; or caught up in a pedophile ring in Hanoi; or trapped in a sweatshop in Ho Chi Minh City.

They may have been in this situation for weeks, or months, or years. They may have survived by adapting to a violent and hostile environment, or by learning to manipulate people around them as a defence mechanism. They may have become violent themselves.

When they finally can escape their crisis, that doesn't mean everything is fine now. Just because they are in a safe place doesn't automatically mean their problems are over.

At Blue Dragon, we see young people deal with their trauma in many different ways, and we are extremely fortunate to have two outstanding Vietnamese Psychologists working with us. Just recently I wrote about the incredible resilience we see in the young people we encounter; but of course not all of the Blue Dragon kids make quick recoveries.

For the kids we meet who have been through particularly tough times, such as sexual abuse, it's normal to see them struggle for up to a year: they'll stay with Blue Dragon for a while, then regress and go back to the streets before coming in again. Sometimes they repeat this several times before calming down.

Going back to school is particularly hard for many. Sitting in a room with strangers who have never been through the same life experiences; listening to a teacher who knows nothing of the horrors they have faced; learning about subjects that seem so abstract and useless against the recurring nightmares.

Anyone who has suffered through ongoing trauma can have a whole range of symptoms of stress that live on with them long after the crisis is over. A scent or sound can bring back a forgotten moment of terror. An innocent question or comment can result in sudden anger. Often there is no rhyme or reason to the way they will react to their new surrounds.

Healing is a process that needs time, professional help, and care. And then some more time.

Leaving behind the crisis is not the end of trauma. The scars to be dealt with are often invisible, but they are real.

As The Walking Dead reminds us, getting to a safe place is only the start of healing; the journey to real safety goes on much longer.

www.bluedragon.org

Friday, March 27, 2015

News Roundup: March 2015

An occasional roundup of news stories about the issues impacting kids in Vietnam and around the world. This month, slavery has received significant media attention.

- Babies are advertised for sale online in China...


- ... and a film maker reflects on his own experience of human trafficking there.

- The rescue of a Vietnamese woman trafficked to China is described in this report.

- A British crackdown on human trafficking leads to the discovery of young Vietnamese women trafficked into beauty parlours.

- The Modern Slavery Bill is close to being passed as law in the UK.

- Cambodia continues to struggle with trafficking for forced labour and the sex trade.

- The Economist takes a look at slavery in supply chains.

- And this article explores the use of slavery in the fishing industry.

www.bluedragon.org

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Comeback

"Hong" grew up in a small town on a high mountain in north-west Vietnam. She had never travelled far from home until the day one of her friends - a woman who lived just down the road - told her about a high-paying job as a mushroom farmer in China.

Hong was excited to have a job opportunity for the first time in her life. But much to her horror, there was no farming job at all: her "friend" had arranged to sell her to a Chinese family, where both the father and the son used her as their bride.

As difficult and terrifying as this life was for Hong, she succumbed to it until something even worse happened. She fell pregnant to one of the 2 men, and the family announced that they wanted her to abort the unborn child.

After all the pain and anguish that Hong had been through, this was too much; she decided that she wanted to have this baby, that her son or daughter should have a chance at life. In desperation, Hong cried out for help; the Blue Dragon Rescue Team went in to China, found Hong, and brought her home.

"Tuan" grew up in very different circumstances, but also with great hardship. He's now just 14 years old, but was orphaned as a child, grew up in central Vietnam in extreme poverty, and in 2013 went to work over 600km from home in a factory. He went because he thought he had no other choice.

Life was bleak at home, but it was worse in the factory, where he worked up to 18 hours a day in dreadful conditions. But then in 2014, Blue Dragon visited the factory where Tuan was working, learned his story, and brought him home.


How do young people like Tuan and Hong ever get their lives back on track? Is it even realistic to think that they might have a normal life again after experiences like these?

In all the time I have been in Vietnam, one of the constant surprises has been the resilience of the young people we meet. Despite the extraordinary hardships that they may be in at the time we first encounter them, many of the girls and boys make the most unlikely comebacks, and find a way to carry on with life.

Hong is living in her village once again, and is now the proud mother of a little boy. Her son, conceived in the worst of circumstances, has the most loving mother that any child could have. Blue Dragon has just built a house for Hong, as her own house was in great disrepair, and we are in contact with her just about every week. She's working from home, thanks to an inexpensive sewing machine, and has the support of her community. A visitor to her village would never guess the horror that Hong has lived through.

And young Tuan is also back on track. He's in Grade 5 now, living back in his village with an aunty, and he tells us that he loves studying art, IT and English. A couple of  weeks ago, he received a certificate from his provincial government for his graphic design work. How amazing is that!



Not every young person like Tuan or Hong is able to make such a comeback - some take many years to repair the damage that has been done to them, and some might never fully recover. But there is hope, strong hope, that kids who have been through the worst of the worst can still turn their lives around.

And if there is hope, then aren't we obliged to give them that chance?

www.bluedragon.org

Sunday, March 22, 2015

What can be done

Just a month ago, I wrote about my own sense of despair in some of the situations that Blue Dragon faces with street kids in Vietnam: in particular, the aggressive pedophile rings that are targeting homeless boys in the cities.

The last couple of weeks, though, have been greatly encouraging.

Our success in several significant rescues is a terrific sign that it's all worthwhile. First we brought back a 16 year old boy from a 'massage parlour'; then we stopped 4 buses taking a total of 56 ethnic minority people to be sold into slavery across the border; and then we rescued a 7 year old girl who had been kidnapped - the first time we have come across such a case.

In each of these cases, the traffickers have been identified and arrested. That translates to a whole lot of future trafficking victims who are now safe.

I'm in Australia at the moment, here to attend several important events including a trivia night in Sydney and a major function in Melbourne organised by Roll'd, the Vietnamese food chain. Both of these events - and another coming up in Brisbane on Friday March 27 - are to raise money for Blue Dragon's work in Vietnam. The Roll'd event last week had the specific goal of funding the construction of a boarding home in remote Dien Bien province, so that rural ethnic minority kids have somewhere to live while they study and don't have to drop out of school. (Roll'd will be raising more money for this at their outlets during May - stay tuned!)

All of this helps me to remember that, as terrible as things can be, there is always hope. It would be easy to feel overwhelmed by all the trafficking cases in Vietnam and around the region: in reality, there is so much human trafficking that nobody has any idea of how widespread the problem is.

But the events of these past few weeks serve as a reminder of what can be done. We don't have to sit back and accept these terrible events and situations. There really is something we can do, if only we make the effort.

www.bluedragon.org

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Kidnapped, aged 7

7 year old "Thi" has had a terrifying 2 weeks.

Thi is a H'mong girl from Dien Bien province; her home is a tiny village, nearby the one pictured below, way off the beaten track in the mountains close to China.



A village in the commune from which Thi was taken

Two weeks ago, Thi was playing in the fields when a friendly neighbour approached her with sweets. Thi knew the woman well; she lived just a few houses away and was well known in the village.

But the neighbour had been offered money to kidnap a girl and take her into China, where a H'mong Chinese family was waiting. Many details are yet to be revealed: we don't yet know how much money she was sold for, or what the family intended to do with this girl.

News of the kidnap only reached us on Monday afternoon; the family lives far from police and, with no formal education, didn't know what to do. But by Tuesday morning we had a plan in place, and late on Tuesday the girl was back in Vietnam with us.

Working with police, we set a trap in which we pretended to buy back the child. There are some details we can't yet disclose, as more arrests will be made, but the trafficker from the village is already in custody.

And most importantly: Thi is home.

She arrived back in her family home in the early hours of this morning, for an extremely emotional reunion.


Thi walking home with her father


This case may be our most important yet: so much was at stake, and the delay of 2 weeks before any action was taken reduced our chances of bring little Thi home.

We're all glad to have brought Thi back; but we are nowhere near as pleased as her family is. As for Thi herself, she's exhausted and frightened, and still doesn't understand much of what has happened. Hopefully she doesn't realise how badly this story could have ended.

www.bluedragon.org

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The note

Usually when we talk about Vietnamese kids being trafficked to China, we're talking about girls and young women who have been taken by deception and sold to brothels or into forced marriages.

But today we dealt with a totally new situation that we have never seen before: a Vietnamese boy who appears to have been trafficked into China for sex.

Some details are still unclear, but what we know is this:

Sixteen year old Sung is an ethnic minority boy from northern Vietnam. Until last week, he had never been more than 20km from his village in the mountains; he had never seen a city or the sea. But some people came to visit his village and talked about the great job opportunities that lay just over the mountain. Dreaming of adventure, Sung and 6 other males from his village went along.

Sung is a bright boy studying in Grade 10; he can speak a little English and gets good results at school. But he had no idea that he was being taken to China, and once he got there he was shocked to realise how far he was from home.

He and another boy were taken to work in the city, while the older males were told that they would go to work in a forest.

Sung and his friend were - apparently - taken to a male massage parlour. I say 'apparently' because Sung is so innocent to the world that he doesn't even know the Vietnamese word for 'massage'. He hasn't yet told us the full story, but he says that what he saw there terrified him, and within a day he had found a way to escape.

Not knowing where he was, Sung walked for 2 days through China. With no money or food, he was increasingly fearful and desperate. Nobody could understand him, so he found a notepad and pen and wrote out his message in Vietnamese and English:



I am Vietnamese
I [want to] go to Vietnam
My name is Sung
I am 17* year old

Sung then approached a friendly-looking Chinese woman on the street and handed her the note. She took him to the police, who called their superiors, who in turn called Blue Dragon Children's Foundation in Vietnam.

Today we travelled in to China to meet Sung and bring him home. The team has just crossed back in to Vietnam, and we hope to have Sung back with his family by Saturday night.

Sung is furiously hungry, and thrilled to be safe. He needs some time to think about what he has been through, and we are confident he will tell us in his own time, but it does seem that he is physically unharmed.

While we are not certain that Sung was being trafficked for sex, there is no other likely explanation for what has happened. This is a disturbing development, if true, and will add another layer of complexity to the fight against human trafficking. It also means that we need to find his friends as soon as possible; for that we will work with the Chinese police.

Sung has been through a terrible ordeal, and may take some time to recover from this experience.
The one saving grace is knowing how far, far worse this could have turned out for this boy.

* While Sung says he is 17, he is still only 16. Vietnamese people often calculate their age with an extra year.