Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The train is rolling south

My last blog mentioned a young boy addicted to heroin, “Binh,” who has made the decision to go into rehab. We’ve worked with him for a long time now, and seen him through the highs and the lows. Knowing that Binh is trying to make a real change to his life has got to be the greatest news we’ve had so far this year.

As I write this, Binh is on a train with one of our staff members, heading south to the best treatment facility we could find in Vietnam.

However – this will be my last entry about him for a while. I don’t want to make his rehabilitation a public spectacle, and as much as I want to share with the world the joys and sorrows of what we do, I do feel a responsibility to keep this matter private. I look forward, though, to making some occasional updates with good news…

I need to ask for financial support to make this a success. We are currently committed to a treatment program that will include psychological counselling, medical intervention (Binh’s liver is shot to pieces) and ongoing support from our Hanoi staff – even though the treatment is to take place in Ho Chi Minh City!

We are looking at a cost of about $300 US per month for the next 6 months. Any of our regular readers who have a particular interest in drug rehab – this is your chance to get involved! Please do email me if you’d like to help us out in this case… bluedragon@bdcf.org

And as always, thanks to all of you out there in Blogland. I do appreciate your support.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The cris-ortunity of a lifetime

In an early episode of The Simpsons, little Lisa explained to Homer that the Japanese have one word that means both CRISIS and OPPORTUNITY.

Believing that his daughter couldn't possibly know what she was talking about, Homer consdescendingly patted her head, saying, "Yes, Lisa, cris-ortunity."

This week just gone has been a full seven days of cris-ortunities at Blue Dragon. I'm not even sure how to explain... or where to begin...

We're all exhausted now; that much is certain! And lots of good things have either happened, or are in the making. To summarise:

- As my last blog mentioned, the nine cases of runaway boys have all been resolved - and all but one has had a happy ending. This has taken up hundreds of "man (and woman) hours" and a lot of emotional energy, and we are all very happy to see the kids in much better conditions. No more sleeping under bridges!

- We had about four robberies last week - I say "about" because there may be more than I don't yet know of! Two of them were by a young man named Tien, who we caught; and two were by one of our own boys. This boy - I'll call him "Binh" - is a drug addict, and I have written about him before. He's very special to me, and has had the most awful life you can imagine. I would probably try to kill the pain with drugs, too, if I was in his position. But he's never stolen from us before - this was very odd behaviour for him. It turns out he has plummeted to depths he's never been to before, and was desperate for money. Realising what he had down, however, he first tried to hide from us but we wouldn't let him; so he has come clean and wants to join a rehab program. We are in the process of making that happen... I think we need the entire blog world to cross their fingers and toes that this will happen, and succeed.

- We had 13 - yes, 13! - student visitors from United World College in Singapore throughout the week. They spent their days cleaning walls, painting, playing with kids, teaching photography and IT, having parties... It was so much fun for our kids, and I know the students had a ball too. Back to a (slightly) quieter center tomorrow...

- On the fun and games side: Our kids were also treated to Laser World on Monday, thanks to UNIS; and bowling on Friday, thanks to Rachel Wardle and Phil Vargas. Then this evening, we started a new activity with the kids - a Hip Hop dance club! Big thanks to volunteer Jen and the Big Toe dance group.

The coming week already promises to be demanding. If "Binh" really does want to join a rehab program, we'll need to get that happening on Monday or Tuesday. And some of our kids have already told me that they have met some more runaway children, and have invited them to come see us.

Demanding or not, I wouldn't have it any other way...

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Home free

For the past few weeks, I have been writing about the nine runaway boys Blue Dragon has been working with.

This afternoon, the last two of the nine have been reunited with their family. Their case was a particularly complex one: they are step brothers, and claimed that their father had been violently abusing them. We finally negotiated an agreement that they would live with an aunty - their father agreed, apparently buoyed by a fortune teller's recommendation, and the aunty was delighted to have the boys come to live with her.

The little boy I wrote about in my last blog, Tuan, doesn't want to live in an orphanage, even though we located a pretty good place for him to live. So he's taken to the streets again - clearly not a good outcome, but he is the one making the choices...

Our street has been very safe since Tet, when a spate of muggings had us working overtime to help our kids who were being robbed, sometimes at knife-point, for the few possessions they own.

Two days ago, however, another young man was hanging about the area to rob kids who came out of our building. The man, named Tien, had just been released from prison and apparently decided that robbing children was more lucrative than getting a job.

It didn't take us long to work out who he was, and where he lived... and last night we paid a visit to Tien's family. Today Tien has come to make amends and offer an apology (of sorts) - along with a promise never to do it again!

What a crazy life this is...

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Get out of my house

Our saga with the nine runaway boys had a light at the end of the tunnel yesterday. All but three of the nine have already gone back to their families and had a "happy ever after" reunion.

The smallest of the boys, a very timid 12 year old named Tuan, had been steadfastly refusing to give us any information that would enable us to contact his family. We certainly don't insist that the kids tell us - if they don't want to, we just wait until they do.

Yesterday, Tuan came to tell us that he wanted to go home. He's an orphan, but he was missing his step-father who lives in Lang Son, a rural province sharing the border with China.

We got all the important stuff out of the way - a haircut, some photos at Hoan Kiem Lake - and our lawyer, Van, hopped on a bus to accompany Tuan to Lang Son.

These trips that Van makes are incredibly difficult; every time he turns up in a village with a missing child, any number of problems and complications can arise.

But this trip is the first time that the child's family refused to accept their child back.

Tuan's story is complex. His father died when he was a baby. His mother remarried a blind man who already had a son; and then, some years later, Tuan's mother died.

The step father simply doesn't want Tuan. His exact words were: "I have only one son, and that's not him."

When Tuan did live with the step father, he had to quit school to look after a buffalo, and also to take the blind man to a temple to beg. The step father doesn't seem even slightly appreciative of that.

And so... Van has returned to Hanoi this morning, with Tuan. Blue Dragon doesn't have the facility or staff to raise a child so young, so we will spend our Saturday afternoon contacting charitable homes that might be able to take Tuan in and raise him.

More twists in this tale are certain to come...

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The chicken I love

It's Wednesday night, and Blue Dragon's music group has just finished.

The group was started by Julian Carey, an Aussie friend and supporter of Blue Dragon, and funded by the International Women's Club.

The group's name usually raises some eyebrows: The Chicken I Love. Naturally everybody wants to know why we called it this... and the best answer is "Why not?"

The Chicken I Love was the name dreamed up by one of the group members. Sure, it's totally out of left field - but then, most of what we do here at Blue Dragon is pretty unconventional.

The group has sixteen members - about half and half boys and girls. They're all street kids, all with awful stories behind them. One boy was trafficked to the south to work on the streets. One of the girls has just run away from her uncle's home; her parents are both in prison and her uncle has been beating her and her little brother. But one other thing the kids have in common is their love of music.

For the first few months, the kids mainly went on outings - sometimes to see a band rehearse, sometimes to karaoke, sometimes to watch displays of traditional music.

Since then, the kids have focused on practising guitar or singing; they can choose which they prefer, and they study with Vietnamese teachers. It's been really nice for the past few weeks listening to the sound of kids practising the guitar on their own upstairs from the office. They might not be perfect, but their enthusiasm more than makes up for that.

Blue Dragon's stated aim is to enable kids and families to break the poverty cycle. And how do we do that? Of course we help kids get back to school and training, and sometimes help them to find jobs.

But breaking the culture of poverty is just as important. The culture of poverty says that you have no hope; that dreaming is futile and the only thing that matters is making money to get you through the day.

I don't know if any members of The Chicken I Love will ever form a rock band and tour the world. That's not the point.

What matters is that 16 girls and boys are daring to try something new and to indulge in music lessons, instead of drowning in the many problems that have swamped them.

Rock on, The Chicken I Love.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Visitors and growth hormones

Blue Dragon's street kid center had a change of pace today, with visits from guests both in the morning and afternoon.

This morning we had a visit from the Aussie Ambassador to Vietnam, Bill Tweddell, and his wife Chris. It was great to see their interest not just in our program structire but in the lives of the kids who were there. They then invited me and a Blue Dragon volunteer, Candice, back to their residence for lunch.

No sooner were we back than a team of visitors from the US dropped by - about 12 men and women visiting programs run by Giving It Back To Kids. The founders of GIBTK, Robert and Dorothea, have been friends of Blue Dragon for about 2 years now, and they've recently supported us to buy equipment for the center.

Our kids had a ball with so many visitors to impress. And so many cameras to pose before!

The day was quite a contrast to last night, when the people ringing our doorbell were a boy who had been beaten up and the drug addict responsible....

Blue Dragon is facing some tough issues at the moment regarding services for kids. One young guy we've been working with, named Duc, has a hormone deficiency that has severely stunted his growth. Worse than that, though, Duc lives with chronic pain because of his condition, and his doctors don't expect that he can live to the age of 30. He's 14 now.

We have recently learned that there is a cure - but at a cost of $20,000 over 3 years. I remember back in 2001 when my own father was desperately ill with a multi resistant organism attacking his heart. The weeks in ICU... the emergency air evacuation from Armidale to Newcastle... the heart surgery... the months of receovery... All of this must have cost at least $150,000, paid for by Medicare.

But here in Vietnam, spending $20,000 to save a life seems different… Because the same amount of money could save 20 lives. This raises so many ethical and philosophical issues, but as it is we don’t have $20,000 anyway.

If we can raise the money for Duc, we will offer him the treatment – right now, though, that figure seems impossible. Anybody who wants to know more, just contact me (bluedragon@bdcf.org).

And a quick update on the runaway kids we have been helping… Four have now been reunited with their families, and we expect that one more is close to deciding to go back home. He’s already been ringing his mother and talking to her about why he ran away, so fingers crossed for a happy ending.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

9 kgs happier

Back in November I wrote about a boy named Ngoc, who was trafficked from his home in the countryside to Ho Chi Minh City. Blue Dragon helped him to escape the trafficker and he's now progressing through school.

Today Ngoc hopped on a pair of bathroom scales... and we learned that he has put on 9 kilograms since November!

It's a Weight Watcher's nightmare, but for Ngoc this is excellent news. While he was working for the trafficker, he never had enough to eat and was always worried about the future... and so was always underweight.

Now that life is back on track and his worries are over, Ngoc is getting close to his ideal weight. He's still such a little guy, though! Hard to see where he's packing the 9 bricks...

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Saturday soccer and travel

Ten of our street kids joined a soccer tournament today, organised by UNIS - the United Nations International School in Hanoi.

Our Sunday soccer games are played on dirt fields, often with 20-30 players per field. A proper game on the beautiful grass fields of UNIS is a real treat for our kids!

We lost more games than we won, but the kids had a great time - which was the whole point of the morning. BIG THANKS to Julian, Phi, and the UNIS staff who organised this.

Meanwhile, our lawyer, Van, was on a train heading south. Not on a holiday, though - he was accompanying a boy named Hai, who had run away from his home and was living under a bridge here in Hanoi.

The photo on the right shows Hai in the hole he lived in before we met him.

I met Hai just a few weeks ago; he and another child were collecting scrap by the roadside, and were covered in filth. Assisting runaway children is very difficult and sometimes dangerous for us. If we do help, we might be helping a child who has loving parents desperately hoping they will come home. If we don't help, any range of crises can (and do) befall the kids.

So our approach is to equip the kids with some sensible decision-making skills, and help them if they decide to return home. We've had a 100% success rate so far; but right now we are in contact with many more runaway boys, and have to hope that we can continue to achieve good results.

It's a lot of work: Van is spending close to 40 hours this weekend travelling by train, bus and motorbike to Hai's house just to ensure the reunion goes well. Probably another 20 hours have been spent with Hai these last few weeks, counselling, talking, encouraging, and helping him to call his parents.

A lot of work - but time well spent, I'd say.

There's been a lot of buzz recently around the Gary Glitter case, and I've been receiving plenty of calls from journalists around the world asking for my opinion on events. The big question is always about the Vietnamese government: Are they doing enough? Do they care?

For the record - you bet they do. Sex tourism and child prostitution are just not acceptable in Vietnam, and my gut feeling is that they authorities were pleased to have a chance to show the world that offenders caught here will be processed through the courts just like anywhere in the world. Mr Glitter now has three years in prison to think about this fact.