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.
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.