Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A wild ride

It's a beautiful winter day in Hanoi - the sun sparkles through the pollution and the morning looks absolutely amazing.

Riding my Vespa to breakfast, another rider came alongside and, rather than slowing down or going around me, rammed into my bike, hitting the leg of the teen pillion who was coming with me. The young guy lost his shoe, but was otherwise unharmed. And the rider who hit him? Not a hint of regret, not even the slightest look of apology. So, he just hit a kid - but so what?

Tarah, a young Canadian volunteer teaching art to street children, was riding her bike, on the way to meet us at breakfast. Stopped at a traffic light, a local woman caught her eye. Tarah flashed a smile, thinking the woman might be somebody she knew. The woman replied by calling out, in Vietnamese, "Your motorbike is ugly."

Good morning, Hanoi.

Life as an expat here is not easy. There are daily frustrations, cultural misunderstandings and crossed communications. Not so long ago, I wrote about our neighbourhood being on the verge of riot in anger over a homeless child in our care having a small accident on the street. Since then, two more incidents have occurred - the latest being a drunk man attacking one of our staff and warning that he planned to hire a hit-man to finish him off.

There are easier jobs than this, and easier paths to walk.

The lead up to Christmas and new year is always a time for reflection and self evaluation. What am I doing with my life? Have I done something worthwhile this year? How will I use my time and resources next year?

My own conclusion: 2006 has been a wild ride.

The year started with a spate of muggings - Blue Dragon kids were being robbed, sometimes at knife point, by local thugs. We put a stop to it eventually, but not before many tears were shed.

In February things settled down considerably: we moved our center into a new building and I travelled to Singapore with two former street kids, Vi and Minh. When I got back to Vietnam, I was faced with one of the most emotional cases of the year: one of our young guys made the huge decision to go into drug rehab, and he has been there since.

While I spent most of April in Australia, April to June saw the beginnings of our work to stop child trafficking from central regions to the south. That work is still in its early days, and definitely still a work in progress, but we have had a significant impact already and are well placed now to launch an official project in 2007. Battling with child traffickers was definitely one of the major events of the year.

The summer months had some rough patches: our office was burgled, and then we went through an extortion attempt that culminated in a bomb threat. We were all glad to see a resolution to that. Our swimming lessons for street kids are much happier memories of the summer months.

In August and September, I set off on my own adventure across the sea, sailing from San Fransisco to Hawaii. To summarise in two simple words: Never Again.

Since getting back to Vietnam in mid September, I have been concentrating on consolidating our growth in Hanoi, while also planning for an expansion of our work in Hue and Saigon. We opened both a residence and a Learning Center in the space of 10 days, while dealing with the hostility from our neighbours over their disapproval of street kids being given access to a chance at a better life.

A wild ride, indeed. Huge highs, and some lows that I would rather not have seen.

And now the big question: What about next year?

The low points of 2006 are not a reason for me to give up; actually, they are the inspiration for me to keep going. If people treated our kids well, and if the opportunities for them to get ahead in life were alredy there, what work would I have to do? The "lows" are not an obstacle: they are the very reason for me being here.

I couldn't have predicted most of the developments that occured this year, so I surely cannot predict how 2007 will turn out. Undoubtedly it will be another wild ride, with great joys and awful sorrows, as well as all the frustrations and difficulties in between.

Bring it on, I say.

Monday, December 18, 2006

In the Que

Since returning from Saigon, I have spent most of my time either in the countryside, or working with people who have come from the countryside to visit Blue Dragon.

Here in Vietnam, the local word for 'countryside' is 'que' - pronounced something like "where" with a "k" on the front. The word is also often used as an insult... When somebody has an accident, or does something silly, they might be put down as a "Nha Que", meaning their home is in the countryside.

But for a foreigner living in Hanoi, getting out into the que is a highlight of the week. Even, it seems, for Vietnamese people: a chance to escape the constant noise and rush of the city is a blessing!

A team of staff, volunteers, and street kids travelled together to Bac Ninh, about 30kms from Hanoi, to help paint a house. The family is very poor, and we support their children to attend school through the Stay In School sponsorship program. The kids and adults alike painted the entire house in just one day - quite a feat, I think!

A few days later, I travelled to Hung Yen to meet a boy named To. In recent weeks, To had run away from home and found himself on the doorstep of Blue Dragon Children's Foundation. He's a great kid, and his family loves him very much - in fact, it occured to me that if only ALL of our kids had such loving families, our jobs would be over! The family had organised a small feast, and we celebrated together over lunch. A very happy visit.

And then on Friday of last week, I travelled to Thanh Hoa province with our lawyer, Van, to visit some of the families we support in that province. It was a 4 hour drive each way, but only 130 kms or so.

We met with several kids, but in particular the family of Nghia, who I wrote about in my last blog. He's at home now with his folks, and much happier. He's thinking about doing some vocational training, but not sure just what yet. Before now, he's never really had the luxury of choice!

Over Christmas and new year, we expect to meet up with more of our 'old' kids - the girls and boys who have been and gone, but stay in touch and often still recieve our help, if they need it.

Some of the kids have also been making a journey of another kind to mark the passing of the year. Here at Blue Dragon, many kids have relatives in prison, and it's quite common that the prisons are far from the city. Getting there and getting in is something of an ordeal.

On Sunday, one of our Social Workers, Phuong, started to take the kids, one at a time, to visit their mums and dads in prison. It's such a sad thing to do, such a miserable task, and yet the kids are so happy to have this chance. Most of them keep the fact of their parents' imprisonment a secret: the children will often say that their mother is dead rather than admit to the truth. It's so painful for them, but seeing their parents or relatives for just one hour brings great joy. A difficult journey, with an invaluable result.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Big Secret

This evening I am writing from Saigon - I flew here on Thursday night for a quick holiday, and will head back to Hanoi on Sunday. Just a few days' escape.

Thursday finished on an awfully sad note; one of our kids and his mother were given some bad news from the children's hospital.

The boy, Duc, is about 14 and has a growth hormone deficiency. Mother and son have been to so many doctors, and had so many contradictory diagnoses, that their levels of hope for recovery have risen and fallen a hundred times over. One of our Australian volunteers, Skye, and a staff member, Lam, have been accompanying them to various hospitals and doctors, both foreign and local, in search of a definitive answer to their questions - can Duc be treated? What medicines does he need? How will his condition impact his health and future?

Simple questions, but no simple answers. Some doctors at Hanoi Family Medical Practice have become deeply involved - one doctor even accompanied Duc to a local hospital on Thursday. But the final verdict is that Duc cannot grow any more. There is no possibility of treatment.

Duc and his mother are pretty upset. They have been through so much - Duc's health is just one of many problems - and this is yet another blow to them both.

But... when I get back to Hanoi I believe I'll have some good news for them. It won't make up for all the suffering they have been through so far, but it will help. More on that during the week.

There have been some good developments, too, for some other kids. Another of our teens, who has a facial growth that keeps getting bigger, seems to have been accepted for surgery in Australia in March, and has just been issued with a passport. Now we must get him and his mum a visa, and find somewhere for them to stay in Brisbane.

And here in Saigon, a very sudden and unexpected development: a new street kid has joined us!

Blue Dragon has no official work in the south - not yet! - but there's an increasing number of street kids here with whom we have contact. Yesterday, I met a shoeshine boy named Nghia (That's him in the photo below). He's from Thanh Hoa, in the north, and has been working here for about two months.

He hates it; he's miserable and he misses his family. But poverty and some family breakdown have lead him to the south, where he earns money for his mother and send it home every couple of weeks.

Nghia is one of these kids who just breaks my heart. He's smart, kind, and honest - and shining shoes on the street. Such a waste of a great, valuable life.

I had one of the Blue Dragon staff help me talk to Nghia to see how we could help - what would I do without a mobile phone? - and Nghia says he wants to go home, finish Grade 9, then study a Vocational Training course. He refused to take any money, and told my staff over the phone that he has already saved enough money to buy a bus ticket back home. But he was very anxious to know that we will help him once he returns to the countryside: Can we really help him and his mother? Will we pay his school fees? Is there a way that we can send him to study a vocational course?

If only I could tell him: It's all so easy. The Big Secret of charity work is that it's ALL easy. It's just a matter of will.

Our growth-hormone deficient boy, Duc: We can't make him grow, but we can ensure a high quality of life at least until he gets through university. We've recently employed his mum, so she no longer has to sell fruit in the market from 5.30am until nightfall; now she's a carer during the weekdays, looking after a small group of homeless kids.

And Quan, with the facial growth: In Australia, the operation that he needs is not such a big deal. It's no walk in the park, but it's fairly routine. There's no need for him to spend his whole life with the deformity.

Now for Nghia: Yes, we can get him home and back to school. Why not? All we have to do is talk to his school, visit his home, and organise to pay school fees and check his attendance.

It's so, so easy. Just a matter of will; and my staff and I have plenty of that.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Here's an article of interest: Study Finds Wealth Inequality Is Widening Worldwide

The key finding of the report is astonishing: the wealthiest 1% of the world owns 40% of the "world's net worth".

The poorest 50% own 1.1% of the world's wealth.


And that was in 2000...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Bazaar Days, Royal Nights

Hanoi’s International Women’s Club held its Christmas Bazaar on Sunday – always a huge affair, and one of the Big Days on the calendar for expats living here. It’s a day of mad shopping and meeting up with all the friends you haven’t seen for months, and 100% of the money goes to charities, like Blue Dragon. Christmas shopping without the commercialism!

Each year, Blue Dragon has a stall selling some of our wares – honey, jewelry made by the kids, greeting cards and shirts. This year, we went even further… We helped the Club out by managing the parking (1500 motorbikes!) and a troupe of the Dragon Drummers put on a terrific performance – the best they’ve done yet, I believe.

(So good, in fact, that the New Zealand Ambassador and his wife, James and Alison, shouted them all to NZ ice cream afterwards! Woo hoo!)

It was a big day for us, with almost every staff member volunteering at least half of their Sunday.

And on Tuesday night, a royal affair at the Melia Hotel… The celebration of the King of Thailand’s birthday. Long live the King!

The Thai Embassy has done something quite special. They have asked other embassies and international organisations to NOT send the usual bouquet of flowers; but instead, to make a contribution towards Blue Dragon.

We’ve committed to using this money for a nutrition program aimed specifically at the girls. At the time of writing, I don’t know how much money this has raised, but regardless of the final outcome, I am touched by the Ambassador’s generosity. I had only met him and his wife once before this!

As Director of Blue Dragon, one of my duties is raising funds for our work with street kids. I call it a ‘duty’ because that’s what it is – if I don’t raise the money, the kids don’t go to school. It’s something I have to do.

But it isn’t something I enjoy. If anything, I see it as a distraction from my ‘real’ work, of overseeing Blue Dragon’s programs and getting to know the kids. So when somebody like the Thai Ambassador, or the Head of Irish Aid (see my last post!) calls me to offer support, I am always deeply grateful.

It’s also very moving to be contacted by people around the world who know me only through the blog, and want to lend a hand. Of course, it’s not me they want to help – it’s our kids – but I can’t help but feel like a lucky guy to receive such support.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Catherine Hancock in Australia who, totally out of the blue, emailed to ask if she could donate the proceeds from her New Year’s Eve party to Blue Dragon. She’s calling the evening “A touch of Blue” and has invited all her friends.

In Singapore, the staff of Barclay’s Bank got together to send us a shipment of hygiene and toiletry products that we will use for the kids who visit our center every day. What they have sent amounts to a year’s supply for us!

And this week, we received a donation of shampoo, soap, OMO and toothpaste from the local staff of a Russian company here in Hanoi. Initially I was contacted by a woman named Phuong, who said that she had just received her first paycheck and wanted to make a contribution to charity. She then got her colleagues involved, and others at CBOSS joined in the collection. From Phuong and her friends, we have a year’s supply of toiletries for the kids at our residences. Thank you!

We are fortunate to have such good friends…

All of these events remind me, though, to never lose sight of what Blue Dragon is really here for: the kids. We spent the weekend and Monday working with another run away boy, To, who seems to have been in a fight with his school teacher, and fled in panic! His parents came to Hanoi and were delighted to see him again.

And we have been keeping in touch with Loc, who I wrote about earlier, and is back with his family in the countryside. A couple of photos of Loc’s home are below; you can see he kind of poverty he is living in. We’re looking for some ways to help the whole family out.

Finally… A salute to Our Man In Hanoi, aka Steve, an English volunteer who has been working in a Vocational Training restaurant the past couple of years. Steve is moving on – a difficult thing to do after being here so long – and I understand his next move is to work with another project for street kids in another country. Farewell, OMIH…

Monday, December 04, 2006

Blue Dragon's Irish Heritage

Another huge week at Blue Dragon, and another occasion for me to apologise that I have not been blogging more!

Last week - November 29 to be exact - we had a visit by a member of Ireland's parliament, Mr Noel Dempsey, along with the new Irish Ambassador to Vietnam and a team of staffers involved in setting up the Embassy and organising Mr Dempsey's trip.

The occasion was the launch of Blue Dragon's Learning Center, a facility with a computer lab, reading room, and psychology counselling space for the street kids in our project.

I have to boast for a moment about the Blue Dragon staff... we set the computer lab up in just a week, which included painting the room; getting the computers, desks and chairs; installing everything; and then preparing the rest of the house, which used to be a residence, and so was pretty dirty. Another minor miracle performed by the most amazing staff team in Vietnam.

The Irish delegation were great - they really connected with the kids, which took me by surprise at first. I later found out that the Minister used to be a school teacher and counsellor, so I quickly offered him a job with us, should he get tired of politics. I'm still waiting for his call...

Of course, there are some strong links between Blue Dragon and Ireland. One of our volunteers is the daughter of the man who founded Finnegan's Bar here in Hanoi. And somebody once translated Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as Young Man" into Vietnamese and then donated the proceeds from the launch to us. All of this is very impressive. But the real connection between us came through soccer games at the United Nations International School, where I often meet Sean Hoy, Head of Irish Aid, while his son and the Blue Dragon kids played.

All those early mornings at soccer have been worthwhile! The best thing about this new Learning Center is that it provides our kids with resources that are the very best available. There's no organisation or business in the country with a better computer lab than ours; even the teacher is one of the best in the country.

No wonder, then, that we've already had an attempted break-in... But thankfully, the Irish grant included funds for an alarm system.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A Happy Birthday Blog

Today my blog is one year old!

I started on November 25 last year, mostly with the aim of improving my chances of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Little did I realise that in 2006, the swimsuit section would have a much higher weighting. So some guy from India or somewhere won. Apparently he had a heads-up on the comp and had been preparing his bikini line since January. (Microlending! Blah. What's the good of that? Blue Dragon has a dog named Wheels - now THAT'S something to get excited about).

But still the blog has been worthwhile. Despite the occasional flippant / insulting / vitriolic post, I really have tried to present to the world some insight into what life is like for street kids in Vietnam. And it's been cool to see people from every corner of the world stopping by to read the blog.

Apart from celebrating the blog's birthday, this has been a huge week at Blue Dragon. Over the past few months, we've had an overcrowding problem in our residence for street kids. The idea of the residence is to provide a home for street kids who want to go back to school and have nowhere else to live. So we had a small house with six beds... but over time more and more children have needed a place to stay! At one point, we had 12 teenage boys there, and a young girl living with our chief psychologist because there were no other options. Not ideal!

We've been looking for funds to start a new, and larger house for some time. It's not just a building that we need, but staff to supervise 24 hours per day, plus food, supplies, equipment, furniture... And we figured that if we were going to do it, we should really do it properly.

So now the house is open, and 10 boys are living there. All are kids who were once street children, and are now no more. All go either to school or vocational training. All are on their way to a better life.

In the interests of their privacy, I won't post any photos. But I will thank Tony Foster and his law firm Freshfields; they have contributed the funds to rent the house and hire the staff. Without them - we'd have no new residence.

Another big contributor has been the local NGO Coup De Pouce, who have provided furniture and equipment; as have Padraic Fleming and Greet, two expat volunteers in Hanoi who raised some money through a photo exhibition. And finally, big thanks go to Vicki Teo in Singapore, who is providing a year's supply of hygiene products and a substantial quantity of food!

(I should point out that NONE of these people or groups asked for any publicity for their generosity - all the more reason for me to thank them).

So this is all big news. Meantime, we are preparing to launch a project next Wednesday, funded by the Irish Embassy... Busy times, but all with great results for the kids.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The APEC roadshow moves on

It's Saturday night - which means that APEC is just about over. Several million people are heaving a collective sigh of relief.

Not that APEC has gone badly - quite the opposite, so far as I can tell. Many people here were worried about road closures, traffic chaos, and business being disrupted... Not so. In fact, apart from the millions of APEC flags and a few fortresses-on-wheels with police convoys, it would be possible to not notice that some huge international event is taking place. Very smooth.

The only big visit to Blue Dragon as part of APEC was a media crew from Australia. We finally made our television debut! I've been receiving lots of encouraging emails since the segments went to air on each of the five major channels... Which reminds me, I should be answering some of those messages rather than writing this blog...

Anyway, the journos were looking for a story on "the little people" as opposed to the heads of state who normally receive all the attention. Very tastefully handled, I thought. And our kids LOVED playing up for the cameras.

This morning I went to the airport to see off Doug Everett, who has been working in our finance department (which only has one staff member, mind you - but it's still a department) on improving our accounting systems. Doug's been with us through Australian Business Volunteers, and has just been brilliant. Anyway, we were both worried that the trip to the airport might not be so simple - but again, not a problem at all.

Still, though, people will be glad it's all over. For the last two months, every discussion and plan has involve the phrase, "...after APEC." I've been trying to meet up with some friends from other charities for months, but every time we try to set a date all we can conclude is "after APEC."

So now it's "after APEC." I expect to see a rainbow shining through my window.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Bush in the Han

It’s APEC time!

Vietnam has been gearing up for APEC – the Asia-Pacific Economic Committee meeting – for over a year now. The streets have been cleaned, trucks banned from entering the capital city, floral displays elaborately created on major roadways.

Strangely, my invitation to join the official proceedings has not yet arrived in the mail – is that the postman coming now? – so I’m just going to be an innocent bystander to all of this kaffufle.

Kind of, anyway. There is some level of Blue Dragon involvement… A few of our older teens have jobs in the fine restuarants that have been called on to provide catering and functions. As far as I know, one of our guys, Vi, will be serving drinks at a major event this week. And, as far as I know (info is a bit difficult to come by, as you can imagine), there’s a good chance of George Bush and my own PM, John Howard, being there.

Now, I ain’t no fan of politics, and I’m not the kind to enjoy bowing before VIPs. But there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that kids who were once shoe shiners and on the receiving end of some pretty overt hostility (like this, for example) will be rubbing shoulders with people who, well, won’t let the likes of me anywhere near them.

I’m feeling like one very proud daddy, despite being locked out!

You didn't let that Brosowski guy in, did you?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Another happy customer

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a little boy named Loc.

The story is here, but in short, Loc turned up at Blue Dragon one day with extensive wounds and multiple illnesses. We knew nothing of his past or of what had happened to him.

Over the last few days, Loc has reached a turning point. His health is back to normal, although he still needs to put on some weight of course. He's been very happy being with us, but it's finally dawned on him that he has a family and that he really does need to be with them.

On Monday, our lawyer, Van, accompanied Loc back to his countryside and witnessed the most emotional reunion he has ever been a part of.

Loc has been away from home for two years.

For two years, his family has searched far and wide, and had all but given up hope of seeing their eldest son ever again.

But now he's back. Tears flowed for hours. The family tried to thank Van by giving him some money; a month's worth of their household income. Van was deeply moved, as Loc's family is extremely poor, and a month's income for them is not enough to live comfortably on. But still they wanted him to have it. Van thanked them, but begged them to spend the money on food and school fees for Loc instead.

Van got back to Hanoi last night at about 8pm; another long day on the road. But wow, what a worthwhile day.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Rich children good, poor children baaaaad

This is not a happy post.

To be specific, this is an angry, angry post.

If I was to give this blog a newspaper headline, it would be: "Proud, wealthy neighbours succeed in making small children cry - Whole street celebrates victory".

The story goes like this:

A 12 year old orphan, who lives in a house we rent, was playing on the street in the evening, as do all of the children who live in Hanoi. He kicked a plastic ball, which totally by accident hit a 15 year old girl who was carrying a bowl. The girl, a servant/slave of one of the wealthy smugglers on the street, dropped the bowl and, in doing so, cut her hand quite badly.

In response, every household on the street rushed out, screaming abuse - not only at the terrified orphan, but at every Blue Dragon child, staff member, and poor person who might have a distant association with us.

Their argument: These children have no families. Nobody wants them. We don't want them. We hate them. They all take drugs, steal, cheat, lie, and they probably all, that's right ALL, were involved in the conspiracy to shoot JFK.

Two dozen screaming, hysterical adults hurling abuse at an orphan who kicked a ball in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There were some stunning hypocricies. One woman, who demanded that we leave the street and never come back, has been asking us to help find her 19 year old son a job - and we have been helping! Even in the days after this mass outbreak of disgusting hysteria, she has STILL been asking when we will take her son for an interview.

These children are bad, they screamed. And what they didn't scream, but certainly meant, was: They are bad, and we are good. We are good because we are rich.

In talking to the kids a few hours after this incident, I asked them why they thought the local community had said what they did. One of these 'horrible, unwanted' children said to me: "They were angry. People say things they don't mean when they are angry."

I am sure that nobody else in the community could possibly have the sense, empathy, and forgiving nature of that child. So... who is better than who?

The next day, the servant's boss came to demand money, of course, and after that everyone and everything was back to normal. Just as though nothing had happened.

But our kids remember. And not only our kids, but also all of the poor families on our street who heard those words screamed maniacally - they are now totally clear on what the community thinks of them.

Last night, one of our youngest boys cried uncontrollably for over an hour. He misses his mother, he said. We didn't ask, but we know what he was thinking: Am I really unwanted? Does everybody really hate me so much?

The greatest irony of all is that the girl who was injured has not been given even a day off work. Her masters were furious that somebody in their household was injured - but apparently this is not out of concern for her well being. It seems that their rage stems from the fact that an orphan dared to damage their property. One of my staff went to see the girl today with some Betadine to try to stop an infection.

Her masters don't want to waste any money on medicine - after all, she's just poor trash from the countryside herself.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

On the road

It's been a full week!

On Monday I travelled to Bac Ninh, about 30kms out of Hanoi, with Marc Gold, whose organisation 100 Friends is sponsoring 20 rural children. This was Marc's first trip to Vietnam, so we spent some time looking around the countryside, meeting families and some of the school staff who Blue Dragon is working with.

Then on Wednesday, the Blue Dragon lawyer, Van, and I headed to Saigon to catch up with some important friends. So, for a few brief introductions...

This is Dung, who works as a cook in Saigon. Dung was one of the first street kids we worked with, back in late 2002 / early 2003, and he went on to study at KOTO, a vocational training restaurant for disadvantaged youth.

This is part of a family of two sisters and a brother; the 3 kids have been working on the street at night to pay for their school fees. Their parents also work on the street, and are determined to get their kids through school. The room they rent is tiny, barely big enough for 2 people. When we visited, there was no electricity.

This group of shoe shine boys has been travelling around Vietnam looking for the best shoe shine location... Ha Long Bay, Hanoi, Nha Trang, and now Saigon!

This is another Dung, who I first met when I was living in Saigon over 4 years. He and his mother live on the street; Dung has just recently left school to start a job delivering vegetables.

This is Hoang! He's an orphan who used to shine shoes in Hanoi, and now studies at college in Saigon to be a map maker.

As well as catching up with lots of kids, we visited a drug rehab center and met with some journalists who have been covering stories about internal trafficking. There's an article up at the moment - look here. It's in Vietnamese, but the photos are telling. This story is about the trafficking ring that takes children (maximum age 14) to Saigon from rural areas to work in garment factories.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Getting the boot

Friday afternoon brought us one of the saddest cases I have seen in a while.

A 14 year old boy named Loc turned up on our doorstep, brought to us by another street kid who knows about our center. My first glance at Loc told me he's been through something terrible. His thin body is covered in scabies. His arms have been slashed with cut glass. There are serious burns on his toes, scabbing wounds up and down both of his legs... and he was filthy, hungry, and tired.

It's kids like Loc who inspire me to keep going when everything else just seems too difficult. My last two posts, I realise, have been quite negative - looking over them tonight, I sound like a real whiner! Things have been tough, but sitting next to Loc and seeing the wounds all over his body, I know that I have nothing to complain about.

Apart from all the scars and bruises, perhaps the saddest feature of this little guy was the look of fear on his face. This boy has been through some awful trauma, and last night there was no chance of him giving us a smile. He was overwhelmed just by being in our building and having somebody be nice to him. But that look of terrible suspicion lingered in his eyes - will these people, too, beat me? Am I going to be tortured all over again?

Loc has been kicked about pretty badly - but this morning brought a huge change. Some kicking of a very different sort...

The New Zealand soccer team is in town, and the Embassy had organised with UNIS school to have a morning of coaching for some of their students. UNIS was EXTREMELY generous in inviting us along (thanks, Julian!) so about 20 of our boys - including Loc - spent some time on beautiful grass fields learning a few skills and playing some games.

The New Zealanders were just amazing. I'm sure they have no idea what an impact they had on our kids. They were HUGE by comparison to our little guys, but not in the least bit scary. They joked about, they bubbled with enthusiasm, they applauded our kids... and I have a feeling that their goalies might have let one or two of those goals in on purpose. I'm seriously hoping that the whole team decides to relocate to Vietnam permanently.

All of our kids had a great time - but it was the look on Loc's face that was the most precious of all. He spent most of the session chasing a ball around, half in his own little world. He was just so happy. For a little while, all of his aches, pains, and itches were totally forgotten.

And this afternoon, he's still smiling.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Keep it down

It has to be said: Vietnam is a noisy place. Maybe one of the noisiest places in the world.

It's 9pm on Thursday night, and one of my next-door neighbours is cutting metal inside his house. Another neighbour is just arriving home from dinner, and instead of ringing the doorbell she is sitting on her motorbike beeping the horn, over and over, until one of her under-age servants runs and opens the door. Soon, I know, another of the neighbours will send 4 or 5 of his servants to the rooftop - directly facing my bedroom - to start washing the clothes he has smuggled in from China. They will be talking, and laughing, and singing at the top of their voices until they are finished in a few hours' time.

Once you've lived here for a while, you either get used to it, or it drives you crazy. Or, like me, your tolerance level rises and falls depending on how much sleep you've had recently.

One of the peculiar things is how infrequently local people complain about the noise. I am sure that the vast majority of Hanoi's population have hearing impairments, but that cannot explain why they tolerate karaoke at midnight, or large parties gathering on the street at 5am.

But lately I have learned something new: locals DO complain about noise. Depending on who is making it.

The Blue Dragon center is spread out over our street, occupying parts of four houses in total. And we are increasingly receiving complaints by the neighbours about our noise.

One of the staff explained it this way: In a village, the richest person might make a lot of noise, play his CDs at full volume, and hold parties long into the night, and nobody will say anything. But if the poorest person in the village makes some noise, everybody will tell him to shut up.

And that's exactly what's happening on Blue Dragon street.

Of all of the houses in our neighbourhood, our center is almost certainly the quietest. We have strict rules about the kids when they are coming to and going from our center: No playing on the street... no calling from the houses to the street (and vise versa)... and no beeping of horns, ever!

Today some neighbours complained about the noise from our center after 10pm every night. Only problem is, we have a 'lights-out' rule at 9.30! The kids are asleep by 10!

Yesterday, a neighbour complained about the noise made by children as they come to visit us. The same neighbour beeps his horn every time he comes home - getting off the motorbike and ringing the doorbell is soooooo last season! - and, of course, our kids come and go by foot or bicycle. How on earth can they see us as the noisy neighbour!?

If there's any bright side to this predicament, it must be the opportunity we now have to teach the kids to stand up for themselves. We can show them that they do not have to accept unfair criticism just because they are poor. We can show them that they do not have to be punished just because they have no family to defend them.

It really is to our wealthy neighbour's shame that they are being so mean and hypocritical. Our kids don't deserve it!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

It is finished! I think.

A small drama that's been unfolding over recent weeks and months has finally come to an end... At least, I hope it has.

A few weeks back I wrote about a pretty poor attempt at blackmail / extortion that's been directed at Blue Dragon, and at me in particular (being such a fabulously wealthy guy and all! Will somebody bring me my Aston Martin please?)

The whole story is long and complex, and for several reasons I can't give all the details on the blog. But the extortionist is someone known to the staff and kids of Blue Dragon - he used to be very close to us all - and demanding money out of me "or else" isn't the only thing he's done to cause trouble.

Some months ago, the same guy robbed Blue Dragon while I was in Australia. We got back the most important gear, but it took a lot of work and left a nasty taste in all of our mouths!

And since his attempt at blackmail failed so hopelessly, he went out and bought himself a home made bomb. Apparently he was walking around with this thing in his pocket, so he's lucky to still have both legs. He was just trying to scare us, it seems, but we did have to take some precautions and close the center very early one Friday!

It's been a stressful time - not only because of the demands and the bomb threat, but also because this has all come about at the hand of somebody we have helped and cared for. That really hurts.

And the conclusion? Not quite satisfactory... But then, we were all going to be losers in this case.

The young man was caught by the police this week, and spent some time shackled by the leg in the nearby police station. But he's not going to prison; instead he has to pay compensation and then stay far away from us. We have been assured that he'll spend about 20 years in prison if he causes any more trouble.

But is it really over? I'm not so sure. His father has already been ringing me to complain that the family can't afford to pay compensation. I've suggested that they try selling their house, but I don't think they liked that idea.

Life goes on, though - nothing has slowed down at Blue Dragon, even though we've been looking over our shoulders for such a long time. Yesterday 5 runaway boys from a remote village stumbled into our center, bringing the total number of runaways we have seen this month to 10! And of course there's plenty more happening, even though I have been staying quiet on the blog of late.

With this mess behind me, I promise to write more updates!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Got to have FRIENDS...

Here 'tis... The latest Blue Dragon newsletter.

And below are some photos of families we are working with in central Vietnam. All of these families have children who have been trafficked to the south, or have been approached recently by traffickers wanting to buy their kids.

I don't think I need to add any captions...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Ups and downs

It feels like weeks since I last wrote, but I see it was just 5 days ago. So much is going on!

There are some exciting things that I would LIKE to write about, but have to wait a few more days... To be honest, there have been major ups and downs in recent times and it's sometimes hard to get things into perspective.

A few of our staff have been in Hue, visiting children who were previously trafficked to Saigon and have since been reunited with their families. Van, Bich and Phuong travelled together to meet a group called the Hue Committee for the Protection of Children and Families, who were inspired to tackle this issue after hearing about our role in bringing trafficked kids home.

The whole issue of trafficking is a sensitive issue in Vietnam (as in every other country), so I was not at all optimistic about the possibility of us having an official project in Hue any time soon. But suddenly, the Hue Committee is ASKING us to do something. We are actually being INVITED in, on the basis that our work so far has been so successful. (And just so you know: our total budget to date has been less than $3500US. I'm boasting about this, because NGOs usually spend hundreds of thousands of dollars just buying stationery and business cards).

While the team was away, I took over the job that Van does de-facto in the evenings... supervising the 11 kids who live on "Blue Dragon Street." It's pretty tiring - and I am much stricter than other staff - but I can't complain about the swimming trips and the football matches at UNIS and the dinners as we sat around together talking about school and homework and the usual daily crises. I guess it's like being a parent, only with rather more mouths to feed.

So that's all the good bits, and it's the darker stuff that I have to leave out of the blog for the time being - suffice to say that there have been some explosive developments with the blackmailer I wrote about earlier, and an unrelated string of incidents around our center involving drug dealers and thugs. But there's always a happy ending, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


My last post appealed for help to put the roof back on a street kids' center in Hoi An, in central Vietnam.

A BIG THANKS to Hugh Perrottet, Bob Purdie and Leonore de Visser for your donations. All up, Blue Dragon has received about $400US so far - and I know some more is on the way - so we have sent this cash down already. I'm told the work has already started.

Loads happening here in Hanoi, as usual. We met two runaway kids on Sunday, and had them home with their families by Monday afternoon. But today we have another five! I love a good challenge...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Blown away

Most of the world has heard about the typhoon that swept through Asia recently. In case you haven't, click here.

Many of the families we support live in areas that were hit quite hard, and we are still trying to assess the damage.

Today I received an email from a good friend who works in Hoi An at a street children's center. The following photo says it all:

Right at the moment, Blue Dragon does NOT have a 'formal relationship' with the center, but I understand that their roof blowing off is just the latest financial blow to hit them.

Any wonderful people out there who want to help them - please let me know. If you make a donation to Blue Dragon on their behalf, I'll pass the whole amount on and won't keep any admin expenses. Send me an email if you want to put that roof back on!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Blackmail for Dummies

Sometimes life is just so bizarre that it's hard to know whether I should laugh or cry.

Over the last fourteen days, I have been the subject of an attempted blackmail. Somebody I have known for a few years has decided that, rather than working, they should simply sit back and wait for me to hand over all of my money, by making a series of threats.

Has it been frightening? No. Worrying? Try again. Disconcerting? Nope, that ain't it either.

Try - Amusing. Hilarious. Comical.

Of course, there is a serious side to it all, and I have had excellent support from my local policeman. But this blackmailer has done such an awful job of trying to get money out of me, that I feel it is my duty, as an international aid worker, to make a few suggestions.

So here it is: Blackmail for Dummies.

Tip 1: When blackmailing somebody you know, avoid using your personal email account.

This is especially pertinent when, for example, your name is "John Smith" and your email address is "".

Tip 2: Keep personal information out of your emails.

Remember, the police might be able to use that personal information to track you down. In particular, giving your bank account number is highly likely to give them some clues as to your identity - if they didn't already have enough.

Tip 3: If you really MUST use your personal email account, and you really MUST fill the emails with your personal information, then make sure you do NOT confess to other crimes that you have committed.

If you have been involved in drug dealing and organised crime, for instance, you probably should not mention this. Or go into detail with dates and places. Again - look at this from the point of view of the police!

Tip 4: If you are going to blackmail somebody by threatening to slander them, at least make the accusation something that is illegal.

The ol' blackmail line: "Give me money or I will tell everybody that you..." can be effective, but you have to think in advance how to finish that sentence. Some BAD ideas are:

- "... that you eat too many sausages."

- "... that you wear your underpants for a whole week without washing."

- "... that you didn't send your mother a gift last Christmas."

You see, these are all bad things, but, to be frank, none of them is actually illegal. So I'm not going to send you any money to avoid you telling people this kind of thing, am I?

Tip 5: And this is an important one - when you embark on a career in blackmailing, choose victims who have money. As a general rule of thumb, the Director of Blue Dragon Children's Foundation usually has to borrow money at the end of the month in order to eat. Therefore, he is not a wise target.

Perhaps I should add another tip about "don't try to blackmail people who enjoy blogging."

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Twists and turns

The weekend was supposed to go like this:

On Saturday morning, I would fly to the south to meet Van, my staff member, and "Binh", the young guy who finished drug rehab and was released on Friday afternoon. I would discuss and negotiate a plan for "Binh's" return to Hanoi, then the three of us would fly back together on Sunday at lunch, in time for me to attend a meeting at our center with some of the nice folk from the Australian Embassy. All perfectly planned!

It's now Saturday night. What has actually happened is this:

On Friday night, "Binh" decided that he is not yet ready to return to Hanoi; although he had already been released, he requested another month of study in the Center and the Director agreed to re-accept him. So at 10.30pm, Van called me to say there was no need to fly down.

This morning, "Binh" returned to the Center - what a mature and brave thing to do! - and Van prepared to fly back to Hanoi early. Except... Saigon is having a typhoon, or hurricane, or something, and no flights can depart! He's trapped! And I would be, too, if I had gone.

Instead I have spent the day drinking too much coffee, swimming with the kids, and dealing with some twit who wants to blackmail me. More on that another day.

The best laid plans of mice and men...

But who cares. I am stunned at how courageous "Binh" is, and how wise, in choosing to return to a Center that limits his freedoms and makes him wear pink pyjamas 24 hours a day, because he can see that he is not yet ready to come home. He is no longer dependant on drugs.

A special THANKS to those of you who have been supportive and have expressed your concern for "Binh". I have high hopes for this kid.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Excitement, adventure, and really wild things

That heading doesn't build up your hopes, does it?

It has been an exciting week, though.

Last Sunday, a troupe of our girls put on 6 short performances in front of an audience of about 60 Blue Dragon kids, staff and friends. Drama is not commonly taught in Vietnam, so the girls had never done anything like this before... But WOW what a great show they put on. Their skits were on themes of school, home life, abuse, and so on - and all of the ideas and scripts came from the girls themselves. (Our staff member, Hanh, Khanh and Skye deserve a big clap too, though. Well done!)

Some photos below by Adam Hurley.

Anyone wearing pink and yellow together needs to be arrested

A skit about family relationships: Aww, please mum...

Hey! I'm in this picture!

The body language says it all: Get your act together, old man

On Tuesday we had the launch of a small project. This is actually a Disability Forum project, but Blue Dragon will have a role in developing a resource booklet for families of kids with disabilities. The Ambassador for New Zealand, James Kember, attended, as the NZ Embassy is funding the project, which was initially put to the World Bank for funding but failed to attract support. Thanks again, New Zealand!

And this weekend... A very big event. Six months ago I was writing about a 16 year old Blue Dragon boy who went to Saigon for drug rehab. Now he's coming back, and we hope to have him home either on Sunday or Monday. He has done well, he's off the drugs, and we can't wait to see him again.

Monday, September 25, 2006

He's home

It's been a challenging week, but the little guy pictured below is now safely at home with his family.

His name is The (prounounced 'tare'), and he's been sleeping on the streets of Hanoi, after a dispute with his family about computer games that lead to him running away from home for three months!

The's mother has been so stressed and worried that she's been hospitalised. His father has also been unable to sleep - to the point that he had an accident and broke his arm. One of our staff accompanied The home this morning, a two hour bus trip from Hanoi.

He's been through a lot, and had some difficult times... but I feel that he must be counted among the luckier of our kids for having a family that cares for him so very much.

We won't forget you, The...

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Yesterday's blog mentioned, in passing, that I have a dog named Wheels... and, fair enough, I have received a few emails asking what the story is!

Wheels is the most gorgeous dog I have ever owned! She's great with the kids and, apart from people with beards and sunglasses, she loves everybody. I'm sure she was delighted at having somebody to play with that time the office was robbed.

But anyway - why "Wheels"? Well... one of our neighbours is a disabled woman named Thanh, who sells chewing gum from her wheelchair around town. But her wheelchair is a special vehicle with three wheels, operated by a lever that is pumped up and down.

When Thanh heard that I wanted a dog, she went out and found a tiny pup, and brought it to me on her wheelchair. Hence the name "Wheels".

These days, when visitors come to Blue Dragon for the first time, I introduce Wheels as the Deputy Director, or the Entertainment Coordinator, which isn't far from the truth. If ever we have a dull day, we can always rely on Wheels to keep things exciting.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Anger, fear and laughter

I'm still in my post-oceanic euphoria. As much as I loved the sailing journey - and I DID love it - it's great great great to be home.

I am still finding myself riding some emotional waves, though. We're dealing with some powerful cases this week, and I think that all of the staff are feeling the heat.

On many occasions, I have mentioned our work in the area of helping kids who have been trafficked for child labour. Apart from reuniting children with their families, the most effective thing we can do is to educate people about the dangers of selling their kids to the traffickers.

Now, I happen to think we have done a pretty good job of this so far. But we were greatly shocked on Monday to learn of a mother who has just sold her 12 year old daughter, in spite of us having rescued her son once from a very serious situation. This mother knows better than anybody that her daughter is now in great danger; but it seems she wanted the money more than she wanted the daughter. This is VERY unlike Vietnamese families, which are normally so strong and caring. Family is everything.

The woman's son, who is now 13, is confused and angry about what his mother has done. In most cases, I would encourage kids to not be angry with their parents... But, well, I happen to think he's right about this. And I think it shows great strength of character for someone so young to be prepared to take a stand on such an important issue. Anger isn't always a negative emotion.

In a completely separate case... On Saturday night we received a call from a good friend who works in Vietnam, named Kees, who had seen a small boy sleeping on the streets and was hoping we could help. Kees knows us well, and also knows a lot of our kids.

We found the boy on Sunday night, wandering about near a massive apartment complex on Hai Ba Trung street. The boy, Hieu, is tiny: he says that he is 15, but if I posted a photo, nobody would believe me. He looks like a 12 year old who is way too small for his age. At best.

Van and I spoke with Hieu for about an hour. He absolutely would not consent to come with us. His clothes were filthy, he clearly hadn't eaten well in weeks, and his huge brown eyes made him look so incredibly vulnerable - but there was no way he would trust us. He finally agreed to walk with us to a cafe, where we all had a drink. Even then, I could see how frightened he was that we would hurt him.

We did our best. We gave him some money and said that, if he came with us and did not like our center, he could leave immediately. We promised that we would not force him to do anything, would not make him call his parents. We suggested that he could stay just one night, and then leave the next morning if that's what he wanted.

Nope. No. Forget it.

So we rode home, unsuccessful. Not a good feeling.

Before we left, though, we promised we would come back the next day. And so, on Monday night we returned, this time with a secret weapon: Vi. I first met Vi about 4 years ago when he was shining shoes on the streets. Today he is a senior barman in a fine restaurant; he speaks fluent English, and has traveled to Singapore, Thailand, and China. (He would have gone to the US for the summer if only they would give him a visa! C'mon, Bush, I KNOW you're reading this.)

We found Hieu, in deep sleep on a stone slab beside the street. It took me so long to wake him that I started to fear something was wrong. But when he did wake, he seemed - well, not pleased, but certainly less hostile than the night before.

Vi, Van and I took him for another drink. We chatted, talked about computer games, joked about, listened to Vi tell his own life story... and finally, FINALLY, Hieu gave us a smile. The impenetrable barrier was breaking down. (Confession: I had to tell him that I am married to my dog, Wheels, and that we love each other very much in order to get this smile out of him. But it was worth it).

Hieu agreed to come back with us. He spent the night sleeping with several other kids at our center, and the whole of today was taken up with reading comic books and sleeping. And laughing. I swear, his smile is the most beautiful sight on earth.

He's still afraid, and there is so much that we don't know about him yet. He is telling us that his parents have died, which might be true... But it's also what 99% of runaway kids tell us when we first meet them.

It's going to take a lot of time to build up some trust before we can find a way to help Hieu. For now, I'm just glad that he's not sleeping on the street tonight.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

All new episodes

I'm back.

For the past month, Skye Maconachie has been blogging about Blue Dragon kids while I have been sailing across the Pacific Ocean.

My good friend, Hugh Adams, bought a 46 foot sail boat in San Fransisco and needed some help to sail it to his home in Fiji. I thought it would be a great experience to travel with him - having never been on a boat before in my life.

So I went. I didn't make it to Fiji, though; we had some delays and so I could only get as far as Hawaii before I had to head back to Vietnam. Hugh is continuing the rest of the way with another sailor, and should arrive in Fiji in about three weeks.

Everybody wants to know, of course, how my trip was. But what can I say? I have delayed writing on the blog since we landed in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii last week. I am still not sure how to explain the joys and terrors of our journey.

We set out on this...

The clearest thing I can say is this: I feel like a character in a TV show, at the start of a new series.

We arrived on this

A new series always comes after the dramatic season finale; and there are always changes, twists, and new threads as the next series commences.

It's been a long time since I saw much TV, but I still remember the excitement of end of season / start of season action on over-the-top shows like Melrose and X-Files, when you'd be left hanging over the Christmas break to find out how all the crises would resolve, which they invariably would.

So here’s the story, and I’m expecting Aaron Spelling to call any minute now.

The basic plot: Michael and Hugh spend a week in San Fransisco preparing to sail across the ocean. The two finally set out, only to discover that Michael really does get sea sick, after all. Once he has stopped vomiting over the side of the boat, he starts to enjoy the trip – until things start going wrong. The travelers land in Hawaii 18 days later, in a row boat, and Michael returns home to an emotional reunion with Blue Dragon kids and staff.

The action: Out at sea, the sail boat strikes trouble during a storm, when the boom tears away from the mast, leaving the boat without the main sail. Other minor problems compound the drama: water pumps fail; the radar dies; and the engine becomes incapacitated, making it impossible to reach shore. Meanwhile, back at Blue Dragon, a team of doctors investigate the cases of four disabled children, and deliver a mixed bag of verdicts. The Blue Dragon lawyer, Van, once again avoids arrest while fighting for trafficked children in Hue. Everybody in Hanoi gets pink eye, but this appears to be unrelated to everything else that’s going on.

The romance: Back at Blue Dragon, Social Worker Giang announces that she’s getting married! And everybody is invited!

The comedy: For the first time in his life, Michael goes sleep walking. Unfortunately, the hotel manager is not amused at having some guy walking about in his underwear asking which room he is staying in.

The character changes: Two key volunteers, Eric and Noemie, pack their bags and head home, following emotional farewells. Kids and staff alike are devastated. However, at least four new children arrive, all with beautiful hearts and desperate for a helping hand.

The conclusion: Back at home after all the drama and excitement of the 3000km sailing trip, Michael realises that he wants nothing more than to be with the Blue Dragon family. On his first day back, he meets a 13 year old boy named Dat, who cries as he tells of how he and his mother are sleeping on the street because they cannot pay their rent. And so the new season begins…


Friday, September 08, 2006

A Blessed Opinion

We are not medical experts here at Blue Dragon- Education and Wholistic well being are our stengths. However we do know how to handle fevers, small cuts, Betadine and bandaid applications, and RUBELLA ( ask me about that later). But there are a handful of Special cases amongst our kids that are difficult to get a good opinion on and to find the best medical plan for their lives.

This week we have been blessed with Doctor Jan from America who works with PROJECT VIETNAM. James Brennan, a friend of Blue Dragon's was able to organise this consultation for us. She came to visit our centre to give us a third opinion for five of our children. This was a very moving experience for me.

Duc, a little boy with major hormone deficiencies, came with his Mother. Duc has been to see many doctors, and I can't imagine how much it must bare on him having to listen to adults talking about his health, future or lack of. The reality of the situation is that there is no miraculous drug which will make him normal height, strength,etc as he is now 15 and his bones are already starting to fuse.
Seeing Duc and his mothers reaction to all of this information really broke my heart. I can understand his mothers stress, especially in a culture where your only son holds such great importance for your families future. Ducs mother is such a loving woman, and has tried her whole life to help her son. There is hope though!
If we can get him to see a GOOD Specialist at an SOS clinic who can do the proper hormone tests on him to see exactly what his body needs and to work out a medical plan for him. Maybe they could improve his testosterone levels which would help him to develop in a more 'manly' way , which would in turn boost his confidence. If we can increase Duc's confidence and self esteem it will help him to enjoy the life he has been given. He just wants to be like the other kids, to be normal. Bless his little heart. We won't give up, and we have just found out that there is an alternative to the drug which Duc needs,(crucial if he gets sick) which is cheap and readily available in Vietnam. Slowly, Slowly the right path is being shown to us with the help of wonderful people.

I think living in the bubble of our own lives we really forget to put ourselves in other peoples shoes. When I got home last night i thought of the kids who had seen the doctor and how their lives have or haven't changed, what do they worry about, how are they feeling, what strength they need to get through every day? I won't turn this blog into a novel about each individual case, but I just wanted to share with you this experience. Basically, for those whose "medical condition" does not effect their everyday life, ie. they can still play, run, walk, have fun, have friends, study and have energy, they will be able to live a full normal life regardless.

Unfortunately for one of the boys, Thien, 9 years old, who is disabled, the access to professional carers who are experts in education for children with learning disabilities is not available here, hence putting so much extra stress on the mother who is already struggling to survive. BUT if we can find a specialist Optometrist for disabled children, we may be able to get him the RIGHT pair of glasses which would increase his ability to learn by 80%. I couldn't imagine trying to learn how to read and write when I can't even see the paper in front of me clearly, Could you?

And so our work continues, to find the best solutions for these amazing children and their precious carers.

For those of you like me, who are blessed with good health and a strong body, give thanks because there are many people who go home everyday and worry about what their future holds or can't go to school because their face is a funny shape, or can't make new friends because of their Cerebal Palsy even though their are the smartest kid in class. We must give thanks for our blessings, and share them with all.

I hope you all have a beautiful weekend


Friday, September 01, 2006

Trafficked children return to School

Toan recieves a bag of goods for his family

Last weekend Van, our Lawyer and Diep our trainee Social Worker headed off to Hue to help the 16 trafficked children (who were recently returned to their homes in Hue from Ho Chi Minh City) to enrol in school. A total of 24 children were enrolled, including a few siblings of the trafficked kids. Van and Diep provided each child with schoolbags and stationery to study and a bag of supplies for their family - shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and 1kg of OMO.

These kids have been on quite the journey since they were initially trafficked to Ho Chi Minh City. They are only one sixth of the kids who were trafficked from this village, that we are aware of. They now are enjoying their right to education and their right to a childhood. We intend to support these children for the duration of their education and also support their families. The poverty which these families are living in is extreme; most houses are patchworks of wood, plastic, and bamboo scraps, many with only 2 walls and exposed to the elements.

This is the home of 6 people.
One of the daughters is now attending school.

Van also discovered in this area that so many of the children were illiterate and had never been to school before. These children are at high risk of being trafficked as the traffickers bring promises of education..which of course never come true. (One of our kids was working from 7pm - 12pm the following day selling flowers - no time for school at all!)Van was able to interview 45 of these children ( there are many more ) and we are working on finding ways to get these children free education.

Van collecting information and giving gifts

Whilst Van and Diep were in Hue, they met two children and one adult in need of Eye surgery and as our lucky stars were shining, there was a group of Australian Vietnamese Eye Doctors in a nearby district. It was a VIETNAM VISION PROJECT sponsored by Australian Vietnamese Health Professionals NSW and Rotary.

Lanh, 17 years old.
Enjoying good sight after his successful eye operation.

One of the children was able to receive immediate eye surgery and is now enjoying clear bright sight, the other two people have appointments next Tuesday. Van was truly touched when the doctors gave priority to those without identity papers. When a Vietnamese doctor questioned this action the response was "because they have no papers they have always been turned away so many times at other hospitals, not here".

There is so much work to be done in Hue, and I guess for those of you in other parts of the world you could say the same about the countries you are living in. We have to do the best we can where we are, so we intend on doing all in our power to lift the standard of life for these people living in extreme poverty in villages in Hue.

On a lighter note today is our last day before a long weekend. Which we are all looking forward too. As much as I absolutely love life here at Blue Dragon you also need to take some time out for yourself and out of the CITY!!! I am off to the cool mountains of Sapa up on the Chinese border. Have a fantastic weekend!


Friday, August 25, 2006

Children teaching children

It has been two weeks...or maybe three since Michael left. He only set sail from San Francisco two days ago so we don't expect him home any time soon. We are working hard to compensate for his absence especially with the kids. There is extra love flying around everywhere here. This week I have been blown away by the care and responsibily of our kids.

Michael has mentioned before our Internal swimming program, teaching Blue Dragon children how to swim. We are now on our second program and currently teaching 16 kids. On Tuesday I took one of my students, Nhan, to the pool along with an extra child, Thuy, as my other student, La, had to stay home and look after his baby nephew. I have been here 5 months and my Vietnamese is pretty basic even though I practise very day with the kids, a language with 6 tones ain't the easiest language to learn. I am sure you can imagine my swimming lessons now!!!

My heart was so warmed when Thuy began to help me teach Nhan how to do freestyle breathing. Thuy showed so much patience and compassion, gently correcting Nhan to improve his stroke. I am so impressed with the children over the last couple of months, a real sense of brotherhood and unconditional love has grown amongst every one.

Here is a little background on 14 year old Thuy to help you paint a picture in your mind. Thuy's father abandoned him and his mother when he was one year old. Thuy quit school many times due to lack of money and used to work around the Old Quarter of Hanoi, his mother selling postcards to tourists and Thuy selling lottery ticket results. Thuy's mother died from a drug overdose over one year ago. Thuy then came to live with his 72 year old Grandmother who sells tea all night at one of the busiest markets in Hanoi. He and his Grandmother used to live in very poor accomodation with only one bag of possessions and a small light.

Blue Dragon met Thuy a month after his mother passed away as he stayed with his Grandmother on the same street as our centre. Thuys grandmother is unable to care for Thuy anymore as the burden of providing for two mouths is too much for this 72 year old woman. Thuy has been living in one of our Residency houses with 5 other boys for three months now and is provided with daily meals. He is now studying grade 2 at school and participates in various extra classes at our centre; drama, drumming, swimming and Music Club. He is a ray of sunshine and always brings laughter with his natural sense of humour and acting abilities.

Another incident this week was in our second Drama class. Two of the older girls who had participated the day before came again...must be because I design SUCH WONDERFUL CLASSES!!! he he he. We encouraged the girls to co- facilitate the class with us, and they did such a wonderful job. It is so powerful to see children lead and help other children. And this genuine care and mentorship seems to be happening everywhere around me at the moment. And so the family grows!

Last Saturday we had a very successful opening ceremony for our "Stay in School" kids School in Bac Ninh Province. A team of staff have been working very hard over the past three weeks preparing school books, bags and stationery, planning logistics of transporting 350 school bags laiden with stationery, counting and re-counting to make sure they had the right number "was that 211 or 215??? Oh count again". The ceremony ran smoothly and all the kids were so well behaved and very happy to receive their schoolbags and books. They began their school year last Monday.

All in all, Blue Dragon life is flowing along with full strength. This Sunday some of the kids from the Product Design team are heading out to the pottery village to learn how to make pottery. We never stop learning!

Have a great weekend

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The ship hasn't sunk...yet

Well we are all still alive in Hanoi. Michael has been gone a week and things are still as busy as usual, even without him around to give us new projects to manifest and implement. On the weekend a few of us were fortunate enough to attend the first guitar recital of three of our kids; Ha, Nam and Ngoc. These three boys have been taking Classical guitar lessons since my arrival here in March. The guitar lessons were a part of our weekly music program which finished 2 months ago. However we decided to continue the lessons for our budding guitar players.

Ha, Nam, Ngoc, myself and two other volunteers all met beforehand, huddled in the dry of our house while the summer storm passed. We then rode together to the venue, the boys on bicycles and the three of us putting along behind them on our Minsks (big smoky Russian motorbikes that lots of foreigners ride in Hanoi). Our boys were the first to perform. We were so proud and they played so well together.

(Ha, Nam, girl, Ngoc)

We also had the pleasure of celebrating Diep's 18th Birthday this week. A Special day! Some of you may have already heard of Diep. Diep is one of the reasons why Blue Dragon is here today. Michael met Diep when he was a shoe shine boy 4 years ago, befriended him and Vi and began sharing breakfast with them daily. Watching Diep grow up has been a pleasure for all that have know him. Diep has been working as a trainee social worker for Blue Dragon for over six months now. The kids all love him, his soft nature and huge smile warms everyones hearts.

Michael was very sorry he was missing his baby boys 18th birthday so we prepared a filmed message before Michael left. The film featured a motorbike which was supposed to be Dieps gift which is then stolen by our local Xeom driver ( all staged of course) whilst Michael is talking to the camera ( the kids were hysterical when watching it). After the bike was "stolen" Michael was left with a white envelope in his hands with Diep's name on it which I was able to give him after watching the film. The contents of that envelope will buy Diep a bicycle so he can get around alot easier.

(Diep enjoying his Blue Dragon Party)

We had a lovely party at the Blue Dragon Centre with alot of the kids and all the staff. Later three of us joined Diep, the other Boys who live in the BIG ROOM and some more older Blue Dragon kids ( all 18 and older ) to sing Karaoke and share a couple of beers in true Birthday style. Tarah, Eric and I were so impressed with how considerate and respectful all of the boys are, and full of such positive, fun energy. Once again we were so proud of the boys, they are growing into such wonderful young men!

Michael mentioned in his last update that Chinh, Can and Hue were starting at a new school, well they have been studying there for a week and a half now and they are LOVING IT!!! Chinh and Can live in Blue Dragon houses and they are always beaming when they return from School.

Well friends, its over and out for this Wednesday afternoon. Tomorrow we have another fantastic morning of Drumming!!! Hopefully the sun is shining.


Saturday, August 12, 2006

From the streets of San Fransisco

Today I am in another world.

San Fransisco - the weather is gorgeous, the streets are wide and the shops open at lunch time.

The flight over here was interrupted because of the latest conspiracy out of England... I lost my toothpaste in Hong Kong, lest that Colgate be used for evil.

I am now with two of my best friends: Hugh Adams, who invited me on this trip, and Pham Sy Chung from Vietnam. Back in the very earliest days of Blue Dragon, Chung was working with me - before there was even an intention to start an NGO (Non-Government Organisation), Chung was working alongside me to help street kids in Hanoi. (That's Chung in the photo. He won't be happy when he sees I've stolen his university photo).

And, by coincidence, it was Chung who introduced me to Hugh. Since then, Hugh has relocated to Fiji, and Chung has moved to Santa Monica where he studies at Rand. But today we are together again. Just like before, except in a different country. And the street kids here have MP3 players.

Back in Vietnam, as I sat waiting for the taxi to pick me up from our street kids' center, a new development arose that is playing on my mind.

Anyone who knows Blue Dragon - anyone who reads this blog - will know that our kids go through a lot. They are at the bottom of the social ladder. Everyone is out to get them.

We've been working hard to change that, though. Our local policeman, Mr Thang, is even about to start coming around to the center to have some informal workshops with the kids on how to stay out of trouble with the law. That kind of thing is extremely rare in Vietnam.

But on Wednesday, as I was about to leave, I learned something truly shocking. A new, all-time low, I think.

Some of our kids have reported being locked in a room and beaten, quite savagely, and they have the bruises, scars, and witnesses to prove it.

Why were they beaten? Somebody had been robbed, and they were beating the children in the hope that one of them would know who had stolen the money, and would confess the information.

So, the big question: Who was this? The police? No.

A local householder, a private citizen? No.

It was another NGO. That's right, another charity. A charity that's fully foreign funded, and claims to help street children.

Now, the NGO community tends to stay closed-lipped about each other's dirty laundry. Some pretty awful deeds are done in the name of charity, but usually nobody says anything.

But this action goes right against everything I believe in, and everything my staff and I have worked for over the past few years.

We won't stay quiet about this.

Van, our lawyer, has started talking to the kids to find out the details and verify if this is all true. While my first instinct is to believe the kids - or at least believe that there is SOME element of truth in what they say - we do need to confirm, to be sure, before we take action.

Of course, I am about to get on a boat and sail to Hawaii, so I won't be writing any more about this for a while. But if these kids are telling the truth, then there will certainly be some follow up to come.

As always, stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

It's time

... Time to go!

I plan to pack my bags this afternoon, at the last minute as usual, while the taxi is outside beeping for me.

Tonight I go to Saigon, and then on to San Fransisco. And then on to the sail boat!

While I am away, Blue Dragon's Arts and Theatre coordinator, Skye, will keep this blog alive by posting news of the kids. It may be a couple of weeks before I have internet access again.

Saying farewell to all the kids is incredibly difficult, but it's a selfish sorrow that I am feeling. Right now the kids at our center are doing amazingly well. And they will continue to do well while I am away - it's just that I won't be there to see them...

We've had some good news about funding in the last week or so.

World Vision is looking quite likely to continue the support of our Step Ahead program, and they have also offered a small grant to pay for school text books for over 300 kids.

And the New Zealand Embassy has offered to support our legal advocacy work - which means we can really make our work more professional and organised, and so reach many more children in need.

The NZ Embassy has also confirmed that it will fund a proposal by the Disability Forum to develop training packages and resources for staff involved with disabled youth. Blue Dragon will work with the Forum on the implementation of some parts of that proposal, as we have a HUGE need to develop our abilities in that area.

This is all exciting news, but there's more...

On Monday of this week, three of our kids started at a new school.

Most Blue Dragon kids attend a local charity school, which is OK, but as time goes by more and more of the children are aspiring to go to university. The charity school just doesn't have a high enough standard to get them there.

So Chinh, Hue and Can have started studying at a private school, a few kilometers away but only 20 minutes by bus.

Chinh and Hue are brother and sister; they were both forced to leave home in the countryside after their mother died and their father remarried. Chinh was shining shoes when we met him. He's one of the smartest, funniest, most likable kids I have met... And his sister, although much more shy, is a beautiful soul too.

Can is only 12 years old, and he is one of the kids we rescued from child traffickers a few months back. He's another very bright boy - after just a few days, he's thriving in his new school environment already.

Every now and then I meet somebody who tells me that I am wasting my time with Blue Dragon: street kids are lazy, dishonest, sneaky, stupid.

But as I set off on my sailing adventure I am already thinking about my return to Vietnam, and to the children's center. I am already filled with excited anticipation - what news will await me?

What progress will Hue, Chinh, and Can have made?

Which university will Hoang be enrolled in?

How many more children will have their births registered, so they can be officially recognised by the government?

But first, I have an ocean to cross.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Trailer Trash sets sail

From time to time, people (including my own sister!) tell me that I should include more personal info on my blog and in the Blue Dragon newsletters.

I don't write about myself, because - well, I don't aspire to being a celebrity. I am here for the kids, not for my own glorification.

But today I will tell you something that not many people have known up until now:

I used to live in a caravan. On a vacant block of land on a dirt road. With no electricity, telephone, or running water.

That's right - I'm trailer trash!

This was back when I was a teenager, and my family thought it would be a great idea to leave the city behind (I lived in Sydney for my first 12 years) and go rural.

They were tough times. Teenagers like to have - well, electricity and telephones, for example.

So why this sudden outburst of personal revelation?

In a way, I offer this insight into my own history as something of an apology, or at least an explanation. Because I am about to do something that, by my own standards, is incredibly self indulgent. Yes, I would say that I even feel a little guilty about it.

I am going sailing.

On Thursday morning, I will fly to America to meet Hugh Adams, a very good friend who used to live in Hanoi, along with his wife Susan. Hugh and Susan were among the very first supporters of Blue Dragon - even before we officially existed.

Hugh has bought a sailing boat, moored in San Fransisco, and must sail it to his home in Fiji, travelling via Hawaii.

He has asked me to accompany him on this journey.

I have never done anything like this before - unless you count a day trip on Halong Bay. I am under no illusion that this will be an easy trip, but I do expect it to be amazing.

The Pacific Ocean... peace and quiet... the sound of the waves slapping against the boat...

(To those of you thinking "Seasickness... storms... sharks..." CUT IT OUT).

Artist's impression

Believe it or not, this is not a simple decision for me to make. I'll be away from the kids for at least 2 or 3 weeks! We're a family now, how can I leave them like this?

And what about Wheels, my dog? She hates it when I go away!

And what about all the admin that I have to take care of? (Oh wait, that was one of the reasons I decided to take the trip).

But I am going. I've never done anything like this before, and most likely I never will have this chance again.

I'm going. I'm going. But I will be back.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The kids are taking over

Another week, another change at Blue Dragon.

Many of our friends will know our staff member Huong, coordinator of the Stay In School program. This week, Huong finished up with Blue Dragon, to move on to a teaching career in a university.

Stay In School is a fantastically successful program. From next month, there will be 350 children in rural districts supported through the program to (as the name suggests) stay in school. Our success rate is huge - in the past 2 years, only 2 or 3 kids have dropped out of school.

But staff-wise, SIS has not been so successful. Huong was our 4th coordinator in two years!

The problem is that Blue Dragon hires young people - mostly due to budget - and once they are with us, they learn so much that they are quickly snapped up by other organisations.

So I am not hiring another coordinator - four is enough!

I'm handing the job over to the kids.

Here in Hanoi, we work with well over 100 street kids, and a few are perfectly capable of learning the basics of the Stay In School administration.

The kids tend to be here for years, too. Many of the kids in the program have been around longer than any staff member (excluding myself).

We have already started the process of teaming up kids with admin staff to work together on Stay In School. Of course, the kids can't do all of the job themselves...

Not yet, anyway.


A brief post to let everybody know that the Blue Dragon newsletter, Friends, is finished and can be downloaded here.

And while you're downloading...

The whole Blue Dragon website has been refurbished - take a look!

The new site has been designed by a volunteer, Iain Purdie. We owe you big time, Iain.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Mothers, swimmers, and dragons

It's midday Friday, and I am sitting in my office at the Blue Dragon center.

The last 24 hours have been quite full, and I am still processing what I have seen and done.

Thursday morning started in Hue, in Central Vietnam, where Blue Dragon has helped about 25 families whose children were trafficked to Saigon. Our lawyer, Van, met me there (I travelled north from my holiday in Hoi An, he travelled south from Hanoi) so that we could see the families and make sure they were able to enrol their kids for the coming school year.

As we travelled about, we came across a quite exceptional family living on the beach.

Their house was tiny and cramped, made of scrap and lacking electricity. We only saw the mother, as the father was out working as a fisherman.

The four children were home - including the youngest two, who were infant twins, born by caesarean.

Van and I were drawn to this home by an unusual sight: a huge frame, hanging near the door, filled with certificates of excellence from the school of the two older children - 10 certificates in all.

This mother was so proud of her children's achievements that she had given their certificates pride of place in the home. Her son and daughter study at night by tiny oil lamps - undoubtedly to the detriment of their vision - but despite all of their hardships, they are succeeding.

And that's not all. Here's the real twist to the tale: A trafficker named Phuc has come to buy the children, offering nearly $200 each. The trafficker has come five times to try to convince the mother.

Five times.

The family could use the money to pay off most of their debt.

Or they could get the electricity connected.

Or they could repair their tiny house.

But this mother wants her kids in school, and she refuses to succumb to the trafficker's pleas.

What a beautiful mum.

Now that I am back at work, I have a mountain of paperwork to see to - so I did the only sensible thing this morning, and went swimming.

While I was on holiday, our staff started swimming lessons for street kids. Each adult is responsible for teaching just 2 or 3 kids.

What a great thing to see: children who love the water actually learning how to swim, how to survive.

I had expected that the kids would be most interested in playing about rather than learning, but what I saw this morning was terrific - they were really putting an effort into practising their breathing, or strokes, and asking the teachers questions about technique. Well done, kids! You've given me a way to avoid my work while feeling that I am doing something good.

(Swimming photos by Adam Hurley - thanks Adam!)

And finally - some Aussie dragons. Sophie from the Shout! group at North Sydney High recently sent me a CD of photos of her school mates dragon dancing earlier this year to raise funds for Blue Dragon.

Dragon dancing is a common activity in Vietnam and China, loaded with symbolism and tradition.

The girls at North Sydney might not have captured all of that symbolism and meaning - but more than made up for it with enthusiasm and laughs!

Thanks, girls.