Monday, April 24, 2006

The Crying Day

Today's blog starts with some excellent, excellent news:

The young boy Viet, pictured in the previous post, is home.

His older sister travelled from her village down to Saigon, where Viet has been working for a child trafficker. Viet's family had no idea what was happening to him; they thought he was going to school and living in a youth center. Instead, he was selling flowers in the tourist district until 4am every day. Every cent he made was going to the trafficker.

But he's home. Blue Dragon's lawyer, Van, travelled to Viet's village to make sure the return home would go smoothly - and it did. Viet is a slave no more.

Viet's school principal has even agreed to make an exception, and allow Viet to rejoin the class, after four months away!

With the good news, almost inevitably, comes the sad. From Viet's village, at least another dozen children have been taken south to work. And none of the parents knew that their children were being exploited: they all thought that they had sent their sons and daughters off to a better life.

Today the village is filled with weeping parents, sad and ashamed of what they have inadvertently done; unable to sleep, knowing that their kids are being forced to work through the night.

However, a process has started, and it isn't over yet. Lots more will be happening in coming days and weeks. There are many more kids who need to get back home...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Greetings, from Down Under

This morning I write from Sydney, Australia. I have returned "home" for a few weeks to take care of some Blue Dragon business, including some work with the Australian committee and some fundraising.

Leaving Hanoi was very painful... I just hope these next few weeks fly by. I'm missing the center and the kids already.

Even though I am far away, I'm still working with the staff team via email (how did any organisation operate effectively before the internet??).

In a recent blog, I levelled some criticisms against the big NGOs that work in the anti-human-trafficking field. Since then, a few people have made comments - but have asked that they not be added to the blog site. Seems to be quite a sensitive issue.

What really gets me mad is the simplicity of helping kids who have been trafficked. I accept that it is not always simple, but if I can walk down a street and talk to a child who has been trafficked, then why is it so difficult to help that child go home? Why does an international NGO have to spend millions of dollars, and yet these kids are still on the streets?

The Blue Dragon lawyer, Van, is currently talking to the parents of two children from Hue, who have both been trafficked to sell flowers in southern Vietnam. This involves working from 8pm until 4am, around night clubs where foreigners hang out. They earn a small fortune, all of which they give to the trafficker. Typically, the trafficker pays their family about $70US for the child, and earns in excess of $100 per month. Each trafficker might have 10 or more children working for them. And the traffickers are both male and female.

Why do the parents let this happen? Because they are desperately poor, have no education, and are deceived by the trafficker.

(The boy above is Viet, whose parents were tricked into letting him be trafficked)

When Van spoke to the parents of these 2 kids on the telephone, they were genuinely shocked to hear that their children are working all night. The trafficker promised that their kids would go to school, and just do some simple part-time work, while living in the luxurious conditions of the Thao Dan youth refuge.

Now that the parents know, they are determined to get their children back. We are watching closely to see if the trafficker allows the children to leave. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Did that really happen?

At the end of a long and tiring day, I have been searching through some old ("old" as in "January") photos of a visit by some Aussie teenagers to Bac Ninh province in northern Vietnam.
The teens, mostly girls, were involved in various projects such as building a house and painting local schools. Some time, some how, someone has snapped the photo below... and I really did think it should be shared with the world. Click on it to get a better sense of the scene.

Good on you, girls...

Sunday, April 09, 2006

I Do Miss Saigon

A whirlwind weekend comes to an end... On Friday evening I flew to Saigon and have just returned to Hanoi. It's good to be home, but I really do have a soft spot for the south.

When I moved to Vietnam four years ago, it was to live in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) where I had fallen in love with the thriving culture and the gorgeous peace of the surrounding countryside. I had never been north, until late in 2002 when I moved to the capital to work in a university. It took a long time to adjust - the northern and southern cities ar every different places. And now, although Hanoi is where I hang my hat (or my helmet, to be more accurate) the south still draws me in.

The main reason for this trip was to visit one of our kids who is staying in a rehab center there. But it was also a chance to catch up with a cohort of street kids who I have known over the years - some of whom are making progress, others who are not doing so well.

Around the tourist district are many kids who have been trafficked from a village in central Vietnam to sell flowers and chewing gum. This is an extremely lucrative business, and the best thing about it for the traffickers is that they don't have to do anything! In fact, the hardest work they have to do each day is sit and watch their slaves earn them money.

In the world of international NGOs, there is a tried and tested approach to dealing with the issue of trafficking. It is this: get a grant of half a million dollars, and hold a conference (somewhere like Thailand is always good) where 'experts' can talk about what a terrific job they are doing. Between conferences, the experts go back to their homes and prepare papers to deliver at the next conference. It's great work if you can get it. Even more lucrative than trafficking.

My own line of work is with Hanoi's street kids and children with disabilities, but I have helped one boy escape the trafficker who took him to Saigon. On this trip, I met up with some of the others from Ngoc's village and believe that there is a good chance I can get some more away from their situation.

Helping the kids on a case-by-case situation like this is not ideal for trafficked children: arguably, every child I help will simply be replaced by another. But for now, there seems to be no other way. Vietnam has lots of big foreign NGOs, although none want to get involved in the case of the Hue kids being trafficked south.

So hopefully I'll be heading south again in a month or so, and will be able to get two more children away from the men and women who have enslaved them. Another trip to Ho Chi Minh City... Not such a bad thing to have to do.. .

Friday, April 07, 2006

A little bit red in the face

OK, OK, so I've had about five messages asking why it has been over a week since I last blogged... sorry, folks! I do try to be more regular than this.

But the blog heading isn't because I am red-faced over this - it's the kids... One of our little guys, Doan, has turned up with rubella, no less, and it looks like we might be standing on the brink of an outbreak. We have Doan isolated now, but it seems that the infectious period began long before he started to feel ill.

We're in an odd situation, in that we are certain our foreign volunteers (me included) are immune to rubella, but not so sure about the local staff and vols. So the job of caring for Doan to see him through the next few days has been taken up by a few of us expats, taking turns to sit with him and keep his temperature down.

It's been a bad week for the kids' health - we've had stomach bugs, cut feet, throat infections, lung infections, fevers, and of course rubella as well. The doctors at Hanoi Family Medical Practice have been amazing - thank you one and all!

The legendary Dr Bruno gave me a bit of a wake up call, though - when we took him one tiny 14 year old for some tests, Dr Bruno was stunned at the child's height and weight. I have to admit that I am no longer shocked when I see malnourished kids - we see them literally every day.

Anyway, Blue Dragon has been thinking for a while about offering a daily lunch to kids who really need it, but we've been hoping for some funding to come through. I think it's time to just start the lunches, hire a cook, and get on with it - we really can not wait any longer.

I'm off to Ho Chi Minh City this weekend to see Binh, who is doing exceptionally well with his treatment, and I'll use the opportunity to catch up with some other street kids who I know there.