Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Two old ladies

This blog gives readers the wrong impression about my life.

Being the leader of a small charity is certainly exciting, exhilarating, and rewarding, but I must point one thing out: most of my time is spent doing administration.

All the stories that I put up on the blog are true, but what the stories don't reveal is that in between all the exciting bits are hours, days, and sometimes weeks of admin.

On a quiet day, I get only 15 - 20 emails; on hectic days I will have 30 or even 50 to reply to.

And it's quite normal for me to spend a day sitting in my office while there's a line at the door of people needing to talk to me about all sorts of things: the staff ("why haven't you paid me yet?"); the kids ("I need help!"); and sometimes complete oddballs ("I'm here to check that your fire extinguishers are hanging in the correct place").

Yesterday was a bit like that. Since coming back from the trip to rescue trafficked children, I've been running on a pretty low battery and the admin seems to be piling up around my ears.

But then, right at the very end of the day, a wonderful thing happened. Two old ladies dropped in to see me.

These women really were at the opposite end of the age spectrum to the people I usually talk to! And it turned out that they had walked here from their homes about 2 kilometers away.

One of them, I learned, is the grandmother of "Binh", our boy who has gone south for drug rehab. His grandmother has spent the last three months worrying about him; Binh didn't want his family to know where he was, and so his grandmother has been losing sleep night after night, wondering if he has been arrested, or if he has died...

Binh's grandmother and her friend are two of the most beautiful people I have met here in Hanoi. They were both so concerned, and yet also so polite and undemanding; they were even reluctant to accept an offer of a ride back to their homes when our meeting was over.

At the end of a long and tiring day, it was such a blessing to spend some time with the two old ladies. So good to know that when Binh returns, he will have such people caring for him.

Everybody needs a grandmother or two in their lives to dote on them and worry about them. If only all of the Blue Dragon kids had such people in their lives.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The low down

I've been keeping readers in suspense over the last week or so... I need to self-censor a little here, as many of you will understand. I'm treading the fine line between wanting to tell the world about what I've been doing, and knowing that it may be best to stay discreet.

So here it is: I finally got fed up with hoping that somebody would put a stop to the in-your-face child trafficking that goes on daily between Hue and Saigon. Hundreds of children are being taken to work 10-12 hours per night around the night clubs and bars of District One in Saigon. Many of these kids are illiterate; on Tuesday of this week I stood in a rural village surrounded by dozens of girls and boys who have never seen the inside of a school. Many of their friends have already been trafficked south, and all of the children I saw were potential victims of the traffickers.

If the problem is so obvious, why does nobody act? That's a good question, but there is no good answer. While I was in Saigon, I did see that some NGOs were involved, but their efforts were actually making things worse. One British organisation had 'helped' by giving the trafficked children a T-shirt with their logo. Terrific! Now when tourists see the kids, and recognise the logo of the charity, they will be inclined to give them more money... all of which goes directly to the traffickers.

Meanwhile, a well respected youth refuge in Saigon has been 'helping' by giving free English classes to the trafficked kids. The benefit? They can then talk more to the tourists, and so get more money out of them... And again, every cent goes immediately to the traffickers.

My own plan was twofold: get the children back to their families, and get the traffickers arrested. No fooling about with useless activities to impress the international community.

And did we succeed?

We won't know for a while just what impact our trip had. As a result of The Crying Day back in April, a big chunk of our work was already done. There are now about 20 trafficked boys and girls back with their families. They will never be trafficked again.

The other kids will be returned when the traffickers are arrested... and that part of the story isn't yet finished. It won't be long, though. Something's brewing, and there's no stopping it. But for now - more suspense and a few photos.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

I'm back!

A super-quick blog tonight... Just to let people know I have returned safely to Hanoi.

Since that last entry, so much has happened - all of it good - and I look forward to telling people in coming days about our success.

One thing I can say is this: the last time I was in the backpacker area of Saigon, there was not a single trafficked child from Hue at work, and not a trafficker to be seen.

It's still too early to know the final result, but so far it looks GOOD.

(And Elizabeth! Thanks for your comment!!)

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Phase 2

I have been unable to blog for the past few days, as I have been on the move and can't always get to the net.

I'm in Saigon now, with Phase 2 of our plan to free children from their traffickers. We've had a few setbacks along the way - the plan has not unfolded exactly as we had hoped - but we have very good reason to believe that the scum (that's what they are!) who are buying children in Hue and exploiting them on the streets of Saigon will soon be explaining themselves to the courts.

This is a demanding time... but the adrenaline keeps us going...

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Crazy schemes

The plans I described in yesterday's blog are taking on a life of their own - 'evolving', I call it.

In a blog some months back, I described The Crying Day in a village that had learnt the truth about the fate of their children: that the traffickers were using them as slave labour, in dangerous and vulnerable conditions.

Now we know that, following that terrible day, nine families confronted the traffickers to demand that their children be allowed home. They succeeded.

But we also know that yesterday, one more trafficker was in the same village, and rounded up eight more children. This morning, the trafficker and the kids went to Saigon.

It's not all bad news, though, because we have good reason to believe that the trafficker, a woman, will soon be in prison. I'm looking forward to making that announcement soon.

Meantime I am still in Hanoi, with lots on the go here. I've just returned from seeing Narnia at the cinema with 9 of the Blue Dragon kids (compliments of Rachel and Phil - THANKS!) and the next two days will be taken up with the Vietnam Innovation Day. Our staff and vols spent this afternoon decorating booths at the Horison Hotel in preparation for two days of competing for some funding grants.

Hanging out at five star hotels competing for donations isn't quite how I like to spend my time... but fingers crossed for a good result. (If we succeed, we will receive grants to improve our services for girls, and to train our staff in awareness of disability issues).

So while my time is fully occupied here at the center, my mind is torn between here and the action surrounding the trafficked children. I am extremely fortunate, at times like this, to be working with such an amazing team here at Blue Dragon - everyone from the social workers to the accountant are on board with all the crazy schemes currently on the boil. I could never do all this on my own.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Something big

For a long time now, I have been writing and talking about the issue of children being trafficked from central Vietnam to Saigon in the south. (See here and here for some earlier posts).

Blue Dragon has so far helped just a few of these kids, and I have long been grumbling about the need to do something more.

So now I am.

A plan has been devised and has already swung into action.

Phase 1 is underway; two people are on a train, on their way to meet some villagers.

I'm going to be Mr Mystery for the next week or so, and not reveal too much about what's happening. That's partly so that nobody can anticipate our next moves and block us; it's also partly because the plan is not set in concrete... It will evolve, and it would be arrogant of me to boldly announce what's going on when, in fact, I am not so sure myself.

But something is happening. Something big, and potentially outrageous. Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The girls go home

They're home!

The five girls in the photo are from Thanh Hoa province, about three hours drive from Hanoi. They've been sleeping on the streets of Hanoi - and I cannot stress what an extraordinarily dangerous thing that is to do, for any minor, and especially for girls.

But no more... Today, Blue Dragon's chief psychologist, Khanh, and our lawyer, Van, drove with them back to their families.

How do we know they can stay with their parents now? Won't they just come back again to earn more money?

Maybe they will. But we signed a contract with their parents, promising ongoing support in return for the girls staying with their families and going to school. The parents were so greatly relieved. They didn't want their daughters to leave home in the first place - but they were desperate, and some of the girls had previously been trafficked to Hanoi to work, so they knew how much money could be made.

Hey, this looks like a happy ending...

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


I spent the weekend and Monday in Saigon, visiting our young guy in rehab, and meeting up with children from central Vietnam who have been trafficked to the south to work on the streets. It's such a frustrating experience to see the children, to see the traffickers, and to be so restricted in what I can do...

There was some good progress, though, with a few of the children who were keen to go home. So sad to see their long faces as they walk about the street, unenthusiastically trying to sell flowers and gum to tourists who just see the kids as trash. So many wasted childhoods.

Just by chance, I ran into some friends, Miriam and Robyn, who were en-route to Hoi An after being back in Australia. Robyn is starting up her own charitable organisation called CHIA - Children's Hope In Action - which will work with families of dieing children, as well as kids in need of urgent surgery and medical care. It was inspiring to see them, because I KNOW they are going to have a big impact. It isn't a question of IF they will be successful, just a question of HOW successful. Go girls!

And then today I met with Corey and Rose from an American NGO called HSCV, which stands for (deeeep breath) Humanitarian Services for the Children of Vietnam. Corey and Rose have been seeing street kids on the other side of Hanoi to us for quite a while, and last night they came across a crew of girls who have been sleeping, quite literally, on the street. I can't imagine a more dangerous scenario for 14-15 year old girls...

So we had a big meeting with three of the kids today, and two accepted our offer of some short term accommodation while we work out a longer term solution. For the rest of the week, our Social Worker Giang and the chief Psychologist will see what they can do to help these girls get out of their predicaments. Every case we deal with is unique, and this case is certainly different to any other we have faced. We'll work something out, though. Because we have to...

Friday, June 02, 2006

To Be

This morning I just have to boast of another Blue Dragon miracle.

Our volunteer lawyer, Van, has started a very important branch of work with us: obtaining birth certifates for the kids in our programs.

Why they don't have certificates is a bit unclear. Sometimes, their parents just didn't bother. At other times, their certificates have been lost (eg during floods) or the parents themselves never had birth certificates, and so could not obtain them for their children.

But without a birth certificate, how do you prove that you exist? This is certainly not a problem unique to Vietnam: anyone in Australia will know how difficult it is to prove their own existence when opening a bank account or getting a driver's licence renewed.

What our kids do find is that, the older they grow, the more difficult life becomes. Primary and junior secondary schools are quite flexible, but it becomes more complicated for kids who want to attend school beyond Grade 9, and sit for official exams. Getting an ID card is all but impossible - and without one, you can't get a real job, you can't open a bank account, you can't get a licence to ride a motorbike... You are, officially, nobody.

Today, three of our kids from one family have their certificates in hand. Two girls and one boy have, for the first time in their lives, official evidence that they exist.

This case was very important, as the oldest of the siblings, a girl named Quyen, was running into a lot of trouble with her school. She was being constantly asked for her identification papers, and had been told that she would have to leave school this month if she could not produce them. That would have been the end of Quyen's studies, and the 'lifetime poverty guarantee' that quitting school entails.

We are very proud to have helped this family; their mother is overjoyed. Just a week ago, she was crying into Van's shoulder, feeling powerless and worried that she could not help her daughter with something so simple.

In fact, the Vietnamese laws on birth registration are not complicated at all; if they have any drawback, it is that they are not well known. So the people responsible for issuing the certificates might not be fully aware of their responsibilities. But if this case is anything to go by, there is certainly hope that we can help the several dozen children we know who need to get their certificates urgently.

Another important step in the fight against poverty: Helping street kids to exist, officially.