Sunday, January 29, 2006

Help needed!

This is the first time I have used our blog to make an appeal for help - but it might not be the last!

Within the next two weeks, Blue Dragon will be opening a new building here in Hanoi so that we can expand our work with street kids. At the moment, our office is also the center for the kids - and with only one classroom there just isn't enough space. We've reached the limits!

World Vision is helping us to rent the new building (THANK YOU!) but we need some help to equip it.

I don't like using people's donations to buy equipment - unless it's given to us for that specific purpose. People normally give to us on the grounds that the money will help the children, so that's what we use it for.

Now I need to ask for people who'd like to help us set up the new center.

We need everything from mops and door mats to sofas and computers. We do have a complete list with estimated costs, and the total comes to about $3000 USD. That would give us all the classroom equipment, drop-in center facilities, renovations and office gear that we need to help the 100 plus street children who will be coming to us regularly after the Lunar New Year break.

The photo to the left is at our current building... the kids have to play on the floor for lack of space.

If you can help - contact me!

I'll gladly send the list of needs out to anyone who can pitch in.

Thanks, everybody!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Silent streets

Something strange has happened.

It's Saturday night, and the streets of Hanoi have fallen silent.

No beeping, no traffic jams, nobody riding their motorbike with their whole family and a month's supply of groceries on the back.

The Year of the Dog starts at midnight, and Vietnamese people have left Hanoi to return to their ancestral villages. Meantime, most expats have left Hanoi to go some place warm.

And what about the street kids?

Most of the kids who Blue Dragon works with have also left. A few kids actually travelled to Hanoi to see us and drop off small gifts, but they have already returned home. On Friday morning one little guy, Nam, came to see me at 6.30am to ask me to accompany him to the bus stop! I'm no morning person, but it was really nice to walk over to the Long Bien bus station and see him off.

Not all of our kids have gone, though, and that's why I'm staying in Hanoi this Tet. One or two have stayed because they work for foreign owned restuarants that need them through the holiday season, but others are here because - well, because they have no place else to go.

I've written before about one teenager named Hung with a lung disease. His case is a bit sensitive, so I can't go into specifics, but he's out of hospital now and we've found him a place to stay - with a retired doctor, as it turns out. Hung was the hero at last week's Awards Night - all of the Blue Dragon staff were a bit teary when he came on stage, walking unaccompanied, to receive his certificate - "For determination in the face of great adversity." When we found him on the streets a few months back, he was so close to dead that the doctors worried about whether he could possibly make a comeback.

But Hung has no family of his own, so he's here for Tet. Some of our kids are here with family members, who have no home to return to, even though they are not from Hanoi. There's one such family, with two daughters, two sons, and a mother - their dad died a few years back and they survive entirely on the mother's income from collecting scrap paper. At our Awards Night, we gave her an award for excellent parenting - she has absolutely refused to let her kids work on the streets, even though they are desperately poor.

Tomorrow morning Vietnam wakes up to a new year, with all the hopes of new beginnings, better luck, and another chance to make a go of things - 'another crack of the whip' in Australian vernacular.

In a few days, the city will return to its (sometimes) lovable chaos and noise, as people start returning to work and school. But for now, I'm going to enjoy the once-a-year peace that has fallen over the city.

Happy new year, everyone - or, as the Vietnamese say, Chuc mung nam moi!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Back to Bac Ninh

So close to Tet now... It's strange to think that back home in Australia, the new year is old news while here the Biggest Day of the Year is yet to happen. There's a sense of anticipation in the air so strong now that the only comparison I can make is to the final weeks of school in Grade 9. Except that the whole of Vietnam is on edge!

On Sunday a group of us from Blue Dragon, including some of the kids, piled into a truck and rumbled out to Bac Ninh, about 30kms from Hanoi where we sponsor disadvantaged children.

We had a very simple ceremony to give out Tet gifts to 230 children in a hall owned by the local People's Committee. Over the last month here in Hanoi, we've been spending so much of our energy dealing with crises such as muggings, runaways, and violence - it was a welcome change to spend the day in a quiet village.

Our sponsored kids loved the gifts - everyone scored some Lucky Money ("Li Xi"), and we gave out personal items for the kids (crayons and umbrellas!) as well as tea, sweets and biscuits that the families would need for the New Year. Our usual mix of practical and playful. And of course some spontaneous singing by the kids...

After the distribution we headed around to see Hieu and Thao - the boys whose mother died after Christmas (see the posts "A Tribute to Mrs Tat" and "Walls Come Tumbling Down").

The older of the two, Thao, is simply extraordinary. He quit school in Grade 4 to earn money for his mother's health care, and now he is in charge of building the home for himself and his little bro. He's making decisions about using the land that they have, where to build the kitchen, which order all the work must be done in, what materials to use - the sort of thing that an experienced builder would do without second thoughts. Not a 17 year old kid.

Hieu is well, too - very happy to see us and smiling all the time, but also saddened to be facing his first Tet as an orphan. According to Vietnamese custom, he and Thao will not go visiting the relatives this New Year (which is what EVERYBODY does), but must wait for the relatives and friends to come to them. Sounds a bit rough to me, but apparently people fear that they would bring bad luck with them.

Their house won't be finished before Tet, and when work recommences the Blue Dragon staff plan to go back to Bac Ninh with some friends, and maybe some of the street kids too, so that we can help with more of the labour. Thao and Hieu still have work to do carting dirt to raise the land, and then paint the house, put a roof on the kitchen, and build some fences. It's a bit outside our regular jobs, but why not!?

One last thing for today's post about the kids. While we were at the boys' house, a small team of helpers was working with them on some pretty dirty jobs: shovelling sand and carting it in baskets on their heads. Nothing astonishing about this, except that all of the helpers were Hieu's school friends. Boys and girls. One of them is on the photo here - the boy in the hat is a friend, and Hieu is beside him.

It was actually a little saddening that no adults were there to lend a hand, but quite inspirational to see kids helping kids like that. There is hope in the world!

Friday, January 20, 2006

Night of Nights

Blue Dragon is reeling from a soft-drink induced hangover this morning following the First Annual Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation Tet Awards!

Blue Dragon is not very big on ceremony and formalities – nor are our kids! – so this was our first such ‘special occasion’ with the Hanoi kids.

The idea behind the Awards Night was to acknowledge the progress and achievements of the 90-or-so boys and girls who we’ve worked closely with over the past year. These are all kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, street children, and kids with disabilities.

We invited some special guests, but kept it low key and intimate. The Ambassadors of New Zealand and England, and their families, attended; along with the Deputy Head of Mission from the Netherlands Embassy, members of the International Women’s Club, a representative of Catholic Relief Services, and reps of our local government counterpart.

The real stars, of course, were the kids. In our planning, we intended this to look like a typical high school awards night. And it worked – although this was the first Awards night any of the kids had ever been to, and were so excited and noisy that our staff and volunteers spent the whole evening settling them down!

It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true – the kids are our biggest critics. And today they’re telling me “It was so fun!” and they’re all eager to look over the photos. So that’s a big thumbs up from the VIPs.

The Blue Dragon music group, The Chicken I Love performed songs, and a couple of the kids really took us by surprise. Some of the quietest and most introverted kids were transformed once they had a microphone in their hand.

The Dragon Drummers did their bit, one of our vols organised some girls to sing in Spanish, and we had some speeches by a couple of our kids.

Everyone received a Tet gift, and most were awarded certificates to recognise their progress in the past year. Our kids have tough lives – they’re in bad circumstances that they didn’t create but can’t escape on their own. But last night was about celebrating the good and affirming the positives.

It's a great thing to see our kids clutching certificates and standing on stage to receive applause. They were really proud - and we were proud of them. What a terrific way to finish the Lunar New Year.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

It's an 8!

Two posts in one day - I just can't help myself!

Our young friend, Ngoc, has come into the center today to tell us the results of his first ever school exams. He scored an 8! (Out of 10, that is).

My November 26 blog told Ngoc's story in brief - he was trafficked to Ho Chi Minh City but with our help has left the streets behind and at age 13 is now in school, where he should be.

The school year started in September, but Ngoc commenced study in November - which makes his score of 8 an even bigger achievement.

Congrats, Ngoc! You're a champion.

Racing toward Tet

Vietnamese New Year - Tet - is looming like a storm cloud. The streets are crazier than usual (yes, it is possible!) as everyone rushes to get ready for The Event of the year.

For Blue Dragon kids, Tet has a particularly pertinent meaning. Will the Year of the Dog bring luck, success, employment, or hope? Will things get better or worse?

The fortunes of the new year begin with the passing of the old. Right now is the time to give and receive gifts such as new clothing, and also to hand out Li Xi - lucky money. A child who does not receive any of these gifts in the coming weeks will start the new lunar year with little reason to hope for happiness or prosperity.

Over the coming week, the staff here at Blue Dragon are preparing two Tet parties: one for the kids in our Hanoi program, and one for the 250 or so girls and boys sponsored in rural areas, through our Stay In School program. Both events should be a lot of fun, but for the moment they are a lot of hard work! I hope to post news and photos of the parties next week.

Since my last post, the center has been in overdrive preparing for Tet and dealing with lots of urgent kids' issues. If I was superstitious I would be wondering of this was related to Friday 13... But it wasn't all bad, of course! Lots of good news too.

-> We have made good progress in dealing with the attacks on some of our kids. During last week, we found where some of the thugs lived and were able to take the police around to visit them. Looks like at least one of the kids who was robbed and beaten will be receiving compensation - and the attacks have definitely stopped for the time being.

-> Another of our boys had a run-in with a standover man, who has made a career out of lending money to homeless children and then making them steal and sell drugs to pay back the loan. Much to his credit, this one kid refused to break the law, but is now in danger for his life. We hope to have this problem sorted out in a day or so.

-> The second Antipodeans team returned from their community service in Bac Ninh on Thursday. The team was made up entirely of Australian school girls, and they spent four days painting a primary school and working on Hieu and Thao's new house (see the January 8 post). The house is coming along really well - all that Aussie labour has made a big difference. This second team dug out a lime pit (man, what a shame I missed that!) and cleaned the used bricks from the old house in order to start building the toilet and kitchen for the new house. The group returned to Hanoi absolutley BUZZING with excitement, but they must have slept for the next 30 or 40 hours!

-> Another Hanoi blogger,, has added a link to vietnamstreets, so I've been getting some extra traffic and a few offers of support from people around the world. A big THANK YOU to OMIH (aka Steve) and for his readers who have been checking in. Steve works with KOTO, a training restaurant for disadvantaged youth here in Hanoi - another great cause that's good for the kids.

-> Our chief psychologist, Khanh, was approached last week by a school that has a student in need of help. This isn't the first time we've had such a request, but it is one of the more extreme cases. The school has one student (we'll call her Huong) who is doing really well, getting brilliant results in all her classes, and going home after school to work 14 hours or so for her boss, who pays her the miserly sum of $10 a month. $10! The dividing line between employment and slavery in such a case is pretty hard to see. 'Huong' is 16 now, and has been out of school for a few years because of her mother's chronic illness: Huong has to earn the money to pay for the medicine. The boss justifies the ridiculous pay on the grounds that she so kindly lets Huong attend school. And once she knew that Blue Dragon was involved, Huong's boss made moves to make her quit school immediately. But we've reached a compromise - Huong will continue to work until the end of the month, then take a Tet holiday and return to school full time, with Blue Dragon's support, in February. No more slave labour, and one very annoyed boss who might have to pay staff a reasonable amount in future.

-> The hair cuts continue! Vu Doo salon gave the Big Snip to some more of our kids last week, with more to go today and tomorrow. It's such a treat for the children, and beautiful to watch Vu's professional staff treat these street kids to exactly the same level of service as they would any customer. (Thank you, Vu!)

-> Blue Dragon's Permit to Operate has just been renewed, and we are preparing to receive our first official volunteer through VIDA - a new program operated by Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD). Both of these events are big deals for us as we grow from a little operation struggling to survive into a sustainable and effective organisation. We're here to stay!

And to finish up... A moment of beauty in a hectic week. One of our guys here is a 16 year old street kid who has been struggling with drugs for a few years, and has had a miserable start to life. Everyone in his family is dead, or in prison, or on their way to prison - nobody has cared for this boy except the dealers on the street who seem in him the opportunity to exploit somebody weaker than themselves.

There is a photo in our 2006 calendar of this boy, and as he was looking over it last week, he turned to one of our social workers to ask what the numbers and symbols on a calendar mean. At age 16, he listened carefully as, for the first time in his life, somebody explained to him what a calendar is.

Such a simple moment, yet somehow so powerful.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Cutting the kids down with voodoo

Sorry, but it's not every day I get to write a headline like that.

We didn't really cut the kids down - just took them for a haircut.

And not using voodoo, either - but a hair salon named Vu Doo.

Vu is one of the top hair stylists in Hanoi - still in his 20s, he has started his own business and serves the upper-end of the local community and expats.

He also volunteered to give the Blue Dragon kids a free hair wash and style before Vietnamese New Year!

Blue Dragon staff started taking the kids yesterday - Tuesday Jan 10 - and we'll keep taking a few at a time until the end of the month.

New Year falls on January 29 - the Year of the Dog! - and that's an extremely important time for all Vietnamese people. It's about the only time of year that I get to use the word 'propitious'. Lunar New Year, or Tet, is like Christmas, New Year, Thanksgiving, and your birthday rolled into one and dished up with a serving of local cuisine, Li Xi (lucky money), and gifts to celebrate the start of a new year.

For the Vietnamese, the first days of the new year are of greatest importance. They signal how the rest of the year will be: so it's essential to have new clothes, new (unused) money, and other symbols of 'newness' and good fortune.

Hence the new haircuts!

In the grand scheme of things, a haircut at a high class salon might not seem so significant. But to Blue Dragon's kids, it is a big deal.

Our kids lead hard lives. The typical Blue Dragon child lives with just one parent or with other relatives - usually, at least one parent is dead or in prison. The kids are totally powerless, living right at the bottom of the social ladder. They are frequently subject to a level abuse, robbery, and violence that seems absurd.

To start off the Vu Doo haircuts, we took 4 boys yesterday (see photo above). One of those boys - and for the sake of privacy I won't say which one - turned up at the Blue Dragon office late last night, having been robbed at knife point by a gang of thugs who wanted his money and his trousers.

The boy was hysterical, terrified that such a thing could happen out in the open. In fact, he's the third of our kids in the last five days to be robbed on the street. One of the social workers and I jumped onto a motorbike and went through the streets looking for the thieves, but they were long gone. We'll go looking again tonight, though, because for sure they'll be back to try their luck on some other poor child.

So a new hairstyle and a shampoo might not wash away all of our kids' fears and problems. But at least the kids can feel a bit better about themselves and start the new year with something new that they can be proud of.

BIG THANKS to Vu and his staff (go get your hair cut there! 32c Cao Ba Quat - phone 733-8329). And thanks also to Glenn, who has found his true calling in life as a hair photographer.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Walls come tumbling down

As crazy as it now seems, I moved from Australia to Vietnam back in 2002 to live a quiet life. It worked for about 6 months, and then I started to get to know some street kids... The life of quiet went right out the window.

Hanoi is a bustling, noisy city, polluted by the hundreds of thousands of honking motorbikes and trucks that race in utter anarchy through the narrow streets, pushing pedestrians and bicycles out of their way in obedience to the only apparent road rule - "Right of Weight".

To top it off, since I arrived (and undoubtedly for several years before that), Hanoi has been one giant construction zone. Everybody is knocking down a house to build a new one, and no matter what kind of construction work they are doing, it involves belting things with hammers from 6.00am until 10.00pm.

Once you escape the city, however, the contrast is stark. OK, I admit that the traffic is still anarchic, but rural areas are quiet and move along at a much more sane pace.

On Saturday I headed off to Bac Ninh province, where Blue Dragon sponsors over 200 children. I went with Tung, a social worker, and we met up with two other staff - Huong and Tarah - who are spending 8 days in the province.

Through an Australian company called Antipodeans, there are 2 teams of Aussie school kids doing service projects in the communities that Blue Dragon works with. For the last few days they have been working in a secondary school - painting fences and gates and working on the school's coutryard. But yesterday the team we met up with had switched to shoveling dirt and knocking down walls.

I wrote on December 27 about Mrs Tat's death; she's been ill for years so Blue Dragon raised the money to build a new home for Tat and her sons, Thao (17) and Hieu (14). The house is well on its way to being finished now, but of course the death of the owner does complicate matters. There are now many different agendas coming in to play, as various family members - mostly distant family - are eyeing the almost-finished house and hinting in pretty excplicit terms that they think they have some right to the property.

They don't, and they're not going to get it. The property must now go to the two children. But it's creating a lot of stress for the boys.

The local Red Cross official, Mr Phong, is looking over the building project and advocating for the kids - he's great, and we have really come to rely on his support. The police and local government are helping out, too, so Thao and Hieu are definitely not alone.

But back to the Aussie kids. Tung and I arrived in the early afternoon, and watched as the team of volunteers transformed the property. (Hey, we helped too, of course... a little...)

The back yard was a mud pit. Every time it rains, the yard fills up with water - this was one reason that Mrs Tat was so ill. She lived in permanent dampness.

No more. The 10 Australian girls and 2 guys shoveled dirt for hours, raising the property and filling in the pits. There's more work to be done yet, but I estimate that they saved Hieu and Thao at least one full week of work.

Then came a more sensitive issue - the old house. We have built the new house on a spot beside the old house, so the home that Thao and Hieu grew up in was still standing. It had to go - it was decrepit, and the boys need the land to build some pig pens. But some family members wanted to keep the old building, and of course the sons had some mixed feelings about knocking it down.

But down it came - and what an event it turned out to be. Instead of being a sensitive and solemn occasion, there was laughter and happiness; friends and neighbours of the two boys also pitched in, climbing up on the roof to dissemble it piece by piece, and then joining in with the Australians to knock the walls over until almost nothing was left.

Thao and Hieu were visibly relieved that the old place was gone. Hieu, normally so quiet and reserved, became animated and started playing about. Even one of the group leaders - Jo, a teacher from Brigidine in St Ives - remarked at the change in Hieu.

Tung and I got back to Hanoi after 9pm, exhausted but elated. To see how a team of Aussie school kids could build bridges between two cultures, and make such a tangible impact on Mrs Tat's house in just one day, was quite moving. And such a great outcome for the kids and families of Bac Ninh.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Off the Streets, Back to School

Today Blue Dragon celebrated a momentous occasion in the life of a street kid: the return to school.

Quy has been shining shoes in Hanoi for more than two years; he left home in his native village after his father died and his mother could no longer afford to support him.

Life on the streets has been hazardous, but Quy's journey finally brought him to the Blue Dragon soccer team, Real Betis Vietnam. This is our outreach program, and Quy's own story testifies to its success.

It's been just one month since we first met Quy at the soccer, but now his life as a street kid is over. He's now a school kid!

Quy is 16 years old, but has only studied up to Grade 6 level. Here in Hanoi, there are some special schools to accommodate young people like Quy: streamlined courses for people of literally any age to continue their education. So even though he's much older than the regular sixth grader, he fits right in at his new school.

Today is a great day for Quy, marking a new start in life. But Blue Dragon's work does not end here: it just begins. I hope that future posts can comment on Quy's progress... maybe even up to university!

This is Quy, back at the Blue Dragon center after his first day at school.