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."