Tuesday, January 30, 2007

World peace achieved; but so what?

Forget world peace. Something much bigger happened today at Blue Dragon.

Two things, in fact. And I swear I am not exaggerating.

FIRST: Quan and his mum got a visa to go to Australia!

Quan is a wonderful, bright 15 year old boy who lives with a large tumour on one side of his face that grows visibly every month. He's been braver and bolder than most teenagers I have met, but the deformity has certainly held him back from achieving his potential. One school even refused to accept him last year.

In March, however, the tumour will be permanently removed by some BRILLIANT doctors in Brisbane. The final hurdle in this incredibly challenging marathon was obtaining a visa; today, that obstacle has been cleared.

Quan is on his way to a whole new life.

AND SECOND: Blue Dragon's lawyer, Van, travelled to the countryside to reunite a boy with his family, after FOUR YEARS on the run.

The little guy, named Dzung, says he's 14, but he can't be much older than 12. He's tiny, and has spent the past four years sleeping on the streets, in trees, and under bridges. Plus about 13 months in prison.

Tonight, he's sleeping with his family.

And Van is still in the countryside - seems the journey from Hanoi took a bit longer than expected. Or maybe the real reason is in his text message: "It's so hard to say goodbye..."

This has to be the best job on earth.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

I can't believe it IS butter!

An important part of our philosophy at Blue Dragon is that family members should be involved in our work with their children - if possible. Often it isn't.

Some kids have no family, of course; and some do have family, but they are uninterested in their own kids, and so don't want any involvement.

Still others have families in the countryside, and while we communicate as much as possible with them, it isn't possible for us to go and visit all of the families of the kids in our programs.

About a year ago, we started working with a teenage girl named Tuoi; she's bright and has a heart of gold, but was trapped in a domestic labour position, working 10 or 12 hours a day for $10 a month. A local community center, called Mai Am, alerted us to the situation and we helped Tuoi to get out of her situation and go back to school.

As usual, our work was multi-faceted. We helped Tuoi's mother in the countryside get medical help (Tuoi was working so that she could send her mother medicine). We helped Tuoi find accommodation, gave her a bicycle, enrolled her in a school, and we continue to supply her with food and clothing. During last year's summer holiday period, she joined a 3 month vocational training course in cooking, as she wanted to learn some extra skills instead of taking a break.

All good - and all pretty normal for the Blue Dragon staff to cover such a broad range of needs for one child.

This week, one of Tuoi's aunties came in from the countryside, a four hour bus ride to Hanoi. She not only wanted to see Tuoi; she also needed to see us.

Her neighbours, she said, had urged her to come and check us out. Why? Because they had never heard of a program that would do so much for one young girl. They were suspicious of us, because they couldn't imagine anything quite that good!

So she came to the center, had a look around, talked to the staff... and went home satisfied. We are real, after all!

I receive a lot of compliments, and they don't go to my head because I get an equal number of insults. But this is one compliment that I truly am proud of.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Anyone for dinner?

Time for a promo!

Some of my good friends in Sydney, Australia, are organising a dinner for March 23rd to raise funds for Blue Dragon. Last year's event was huge - a massive cultural experience, with Vietnamese food, dancers, and music. This year will be even bigger!

Contact Mr Minh if you want to go, or if you can lend him some support: bringonthesmile@hotmail.com

(Click for full size)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A day of openings

Tuesday was an unusual day at Blue Dragon. I spent most of the day in Bac Ninh province, north of Hanoi, attending opening ceremonies for two buildings that we have funded.

Our first stop was Tram Lo Primary School, where the principal has been hoping for years to have a library that her students can use. Libraries are rare in this part of the world, although Vietnamese people in general LOVE to read. Somebody once had the audacity to tell me that libraries are an unnecessary extravagance in Vietnam. I won’t tell you what I said in reply.

The principal organized a big party, with a cutting of the ribbon and lots of dignitaries. She wasn’t the only one bubbling with excitement – if only you could have seen the way the kids raced in to get hold of the brand new books that were on display.

Keep in mind that for many of these kids, without our support they would end up in garment factories in Saigon working 18 hours a day. Instead, they are reading, studying, and playing in a brand library. Beautiful. BIG THANKS to the Schmitz Stiftung for footing the bill!

My team and I then went to the opening of a new house. Thinh is one of our sponsored children; he lives with his mother and 87 year old grandmother. When I first visited them, their house was a brick hut held up with bamboo poles. The sun shone right through the cracks in the roof and walls. It was dark and, frankly, uninhabitable.

A donation from some of our friends in Australia, Doug and Carolynn, has resulted in a new, huge home with large windows, a high ceiling, and a safe electrical system. Thinh’s mother was in tears; she couldn’t believe the change in her fortune.

It was especially nice to see that the local community contributed to the costs of the house, and a builder from another province helped us with the design and supervision of the building – totally for free. He was there on Tuesday, with a gift that he had bought for the family.

Before we headed back home, our contact in the Red Cross took us to visit one more family. They had heard about our work, and wanted to know if we could help them, too… Another case in urgent need of a new house. The father of the household lost an arm and a foot in a work accident, and now lives with his wife, three daughters and one son in yet another dark, dangerous hut that will certainly fall down before too long.

Time now to go looking for some more funds…

Meantime, back in Hanoi, we are facing a few new and challenging runaway cases – more on those in coming days.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Greetings from Sozo

Once again I am blogging from steamy Saigon. Blue Dragon's work here in the south is growing each month; for the past two days I have been meeting street kids from all over Vietnam, talking to them about why they are here and what they want to do with their lives. As always, I am finding everybody friendly and helpful. I really love this work.

Last night I had dinner with Hoang, who was a shoeshine boy when I first met him and now studies in a college. He's such an inspiration.

I also got talking to some girls from Hue, one aged 11 and the other 15. They have both been trafficked to Saigon to sell flowers and chewing gum. The smaller girl, Huong, told me sadly how she would be beaten if she could not sell all of the flowers she had in her bag. If only that trafficker had been close by...

But today what I most want to mention is another charitable endeavour I have stumbled across: a cafe / centre called Sozo. I am writing this blog as I sit in their cafe, sipping dynamite coffee and breaking my vow to cut back on cakes.

Sozo employs families from disadvantaged backgrounds and trains them in baking, serving and running the business. Simple and brilliant.

I am often asked why Blue Dragon does not create a self-sustaining business, along the lines of the Sozo model. But for us it's a bit different. Most of our kids are - well, kids. They should be in school, and playing, rather than running a shop or a restaurant.

Sozo is different, though: it's working with families, young adults, and people with disabilities. And they're doing a really professional job.

I've got to get back to the streets! But for visitors to Saigon: go have a coffee in Sozo. I've only been to their Pham Ngo Lao centre (address: 176 Bui Vien Street) but they also have one at 844 Su Van Hanh.

Update: from 2016, Sozo is located at No. 51, 24A Street, Area 5, An Phu Ward, District 2.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Nghia goes to school

Tuesday was a big day at Blue Dragon: one of the boys we recently met as a shoeshine boy in Saigon returned to school.

I first wrote about Nghia here, and almost immediately a good friend (who I have never met, mind you) sent money from Canada to ensure we could give Nghia the support he needs. (Thanks, Nadja).

What Nghia really wants is to go back to high school; but he's missed out on too much and it's half way through the school year here in Vietnam. He still plans to go back to Grade 9, but will wait until the new school year in September.

Meantime, yesterday he started a part-time course in repairing mobile phones, and he's learning English and computers at our center in the morning. One of our staff, a young man named Minh, is helping him to revise his school work in preparation for September.

A pretty good, all-round result, I think!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Calling Brisbane

18 months of working and hoping have paid off... One of our young guys, a 14 year old boy with a tumour growing on his face, has been accepted for surgery in a hospital in Brisbane, Australia.

Last year, the boy - Quan - was refused access to a school because the tumour would 'be a distraction to other students'.

Operation Smile has organised the surgery. Quan arrives in Brisbane around March 10, and leaves 4 weeks later. If all goes according to plan, he will return to Vietnam with a whole new appearance, and the discrimination and taunts will be just a bad memory.

BUT - we need to find a Vietnamese-speaking host family in Brisbane, who can provide accommodation and some support to Quan and his mother for a month! If any blog readers have contacts in Brisbane, please pass the message along...

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Minh's story

Death anniversaries are important events in Vietnamese culture. Many of our kids do not know their own birthdates, but all remember the date that their mother, or brother, or uncle died. These dates are held sacred, and important rites observed.

Yesterday was the third death anniversary of the mother of one of our boys, Minh (not his real name).

Minh's mother died after an agonising three year illness, that dragged the family from happiness and prosperity into misery and poverty. Minh told me yesterday about how his father had sold all of their belongings to pay for medicine and treatment over three years, hoping that one day they could buy everything back when their mother was well again. It wasn't to be.

Three years ago, Minh and his younger sister came home from school to see their mother laying on the bed, cold. Their older sister was sitting beside her weeping. Minh was 15 years old.

But Minh's decline into poverty, and the loss of his mother, isn't the end of his suffering. After just a year, his father remarried, and the step mother decided she didn't want the kids of the 'old' marriage. So, out they went. Aged 16, Minh moved from his rural paradise in Nam Dinh province to the hostile, filthy streets of Hanoi. He worked as a shoeshine, dodging gangs and avoiding arrest until I met him and found him a home and a school.

And then, another blow: Minh's father and step mother had another child. Minh still does not know if this child is a boy or a girl. If it is a boy, then Minh has lost all inheritance rights. His father's home, the house in which his mother died, will go to this new brother, 18 years younger than Minh. Insult upon insult upon injury.

Yesterday, Minh did not return to the countryside to observe the rites of the death ceremony. He just couldn't bring himself to visit his home and see the family who lives there now - his father, who kicked him out, and his stepmother who is bent on disinheriting him.

In the evening, Minh and I went to a cafe on a boat, indulged in some cake and italian soda, and watched the sun sink into West Lake. There's no happy ending to Minh's story - not yet, anyway. In a few years, he'll go to university, and then he'll find a good job and live a comfortable life. I only wish I could erase the pain of the past that he will always have to live with.

Monday, January 01, 2007

I'm back

I have been out of contact even more than usual these last few weeks... Apologies to people who have been (and still are!) waiting for email replies. This time it isn't just the usual busy-ness, but also a lack of internet connection in Vietnam.

So a quick summary:

CHRISTMAS was wonderful. On Sunday 24th we gave out gifts to 66 street kids at soccer, and held a party for kids living in our residence in the afternoon. We also had a HIV/AIDS workshop scheduled for the day, so the morning tea turned into something of a party too. And then on the 25th... Blue Dragon was sorta-kinda closed, except for a huge party in the Botannical Park. The staff had organised a great morning - it was so much fun - but just went too, too quickly.

Some of our staff have been organising PRISON VISITS for our kids. Many of the children in our Hanoi program have relatives in prison; some have both parents behind bars. The prisons are often far from Hanoi (as most of our kids are not originally from Hanoi anyway) so the children only get to visit once a year. So far the visits have gone well; a mix of joy and trauma, so it's great that our staff are there to help.

And I have just been in HUE working on our ANTI-TRAFFICKING program. So many heart breaking stories. One of the boys we reunited with his family has a younger sister named Cam. She's about 10, and wears a permanent grin on her face. But when I started to speak to her, everyone in the room immediately cut in - "She cannot speak! She's dumb!" and used sign language to tell her to back off and leave me alone.


For a "dumb" girl, she ended up having a fairly decent conversation with me! She most certainly can speak, but has some speech impediment that is probably physical and probably can be improved.

But this lack of education, and the poverty that has prevented the family ever taking their daughter to a doctor, is the fuel for the child traffickers. These are the issues to be confronted. And they will be...

I am back in Hanoi now, vigorously resisting the temptation to write a blog with my new year resolutions.

To all of you out there in the land of Blog... Have a glorious year. Take some risks, buy less, and do something for your neighbour.