Sunday, September 30, 2007

Get a haircut, son

My minor outrage, as well as a rather more significant victory, for the week happen to both be concerned with hair.

One of our boys, Cuong, has gone back to school for the first time in 4 years.

Cuong is a wonderful kid: even though he’s 15, and has spent 4 years as a street kid, he has a childlike joy in life that makes him adorable. When he’s really happy, he bounces up and down! And his smile takes over his whole face.

But his life to date has not been so joyful. Cuong’s parents left him when he was just a few years old; they decided to move on and so gave him to an aunt and uncle, who are nice people but didn’t particularly want somebody else’s son to raises. So as Cuong got older, he dropped out of school at age 10, and ended up living with his mother in southern Vietnam for a year or two.

But that didn’t work out well, so he returned to the north and lived on the streets of Hanoi. One of his friends suggested that they go to work in China – and so they did! Cuong and his friend traveled across the border and spent over a year selling things on the streets.

When Cuong came back to Vietnam, he once again worked on the streets, shining shoes and sometimes stealing to survive. Since we met him just a few months ago, he has gladly given up life on the streets once and for all – and he’s gone back to school.

What a great achievement! Yet, what a disappointment for me to hear this week that he’s in trouble at school because of the colour of his hair. Cuong has died some of his hair a copper colour, and his teacher has decided that it’s a major issue that will destroy not only Cuong, but also the entire school. The only solution is that he must cut out the died bits as quickly as possible, in order to save the universe.

Give me a break! How on earth can the colour of his hair be even remotely important?

Meanwhile, another one of our kids has achieved a major milestone in his life, and has marked it by getting a haircut.

Son is also 14 and has been living on the streets for a couple of years. He first came here as a runaway, and we were able ro reunite him with his mother but their relationship is too far gone to be saved - for now.

I count Son as a good friend; he comes by the office to see me all the time; he hangs out and has dinner with me most evenings; and he even brings other street kids to us so that we can help them.

But by night, Son takes to the streets to steal fruit from Long Bien market. He’s a gang leader, and many of the kids respect him. Even many adults in our area treat him like a priest and confide in him! You’ve really got to meet him to understand this guy.

We've had some tough times in our relationship, too. Like the time Son turned up drunk at my house at 6am, yelling abuse at the neighbours.

Recently, though, Son has been thinking about making a change. Blue Dragon has started preparing to launch a new program which will offer life skills education to kids like Son – kid who are never going back to mainstream schooling, no matter what we say or do. And Son is really keen on this idea.

If you see Son, you’d instantly recognise him as a street kid: long straggly hair, bare feet (it’s easier to run away from the police in bare feet); filthy rags for clothes.

Except… Today, Son went and had a haircut. He bought some flip flops. And some nice shirts. And tomorrow he’ll go and buy some trousers.

Son doesn’t want to be, or to look like, a street kid any more. He wants to do something with his life, even though he isn’t sure exactly what that is.

On Monday, when he goes to the Blue Dragon center, many people will be shocked by Son’s transformation. He looks like a new person. Like an ordinary kid.

It’s amazing the difference a haircut can make. And if he colours his hair, I won't be complaining.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Back from Singapore

I have been silent for over a week now, which usually either means that something really big is happening, or I am away from Hanoi and trying to avoid a break-in at my home by keeping quiet about it.

For the last week, I have been in Singapore talking about Blue Dragon with schools and groups who are interested in our work. Some of the older 'kids' came with me - three boys who used to shine shoes, but now have good jobs and are doing well for themselves.

We received a warm reception everywhere we went; this is not the first time we have been to Singapore, and it sure won't be the last. It's great to spend time in a place where everything works and is so clean!

We stayed at the Betel Box hostel again - and again, the owner Tony Tan gave us free board for the whole week. Apart from the great service and facilities, the Betel Box is fascinating for its location. Despite all the highrises of Orchard Road and endless building developments in the city, parts of the country have preserved heritage buildings and quaint villages where families have lived for generations. Joo Chiat Road, where the Betel Box is located, happens to be one of those areas.

Just a few doors down, a family makes Singapore's best popiah - a traditional food resembling a spring roll. They've been there for decades and have even been visited by Mother Theresa! There's a beautiful mosque down the street, and because of Ramadan one whole end of Joo Chiat Road turned into a huge festival every night.

But I got a real surprise to also see a seedier side to Singapore. Considering the kind of work that I am involved in here in Vietnam, seeing prostitutes working the streets isn't particularly shocking. What blew me away, though, was to see it so openly in a country as conservative as Singapore seems to be.

And what got me really interested was seeing the very large number of Vietnamese women working the streets around Joo Chiat Road. For Vietnamese, a trip to Singapore is fairly cheap and easy: no visa is required, and flights are being sold for as little as $50 each way.

For a country reputed to be so strict, it was strange to see parts of the city where the streets were lined with women - and sometimes men - outside residential apartments, along busy roads and side streets, and all around budget hotels that were springing up everywhere.

Along Joo Chiat Road, which has such a rich history, room-by-the-hour hotels have sprung up since I was last there 2 years ago, and all the good restuarants are being pushed aside by nightclubs and 'coffee shops' where the women went from table to table, even when the tables were out on the footpath.

Local residents and long-term businesspeople are in despair to see their community being turned into a red-light district. As a visitor to the area, I couldn't understand how this rapid change in the area has been allowed to happen.

Sometimes, even the most beautiful places are not as they seem to be...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Some action at Blue

Wednesday was one of those amazing days in which everything seems to happen at once.

The day kicked off with a runaway boy named Cuong coming to the Blue Dragon center. He was brought by the leader of one of the street gangs, who has a heart of gold and often helps us out. Cuong was a nice kid; he had been in Hanoi for about a week after running away from home in the countryside. A story we've heard dozens of times before.

Cuong wanted to return home, but was frightened that he'd get into trouble. So one of our staff, Van, offered to accompany him back on a trip that should have taken no more than 3 hours to get there and back.

Unluckily for Van, Cuong was so worried that he kept giving the bus drivers and motorbike taxi drivers false directions! They travelled to the wrong province, then had to take a ferry to get them onto the right road... then they rode in circles on the back of a motorbike... then walked for 4 kilometers... and then Cuong announced that he didn't want to go home after all!

It was a happy ending, though. Van finally reassured Cuong that everything would be OK. And it was. The family was hugely relieved to have their son back. They are extremely poor, and love their son. So we will support Cuong to go to Grade 9 at his local school, and maybe help out with a bicycle for the family.
That's Cuong in the blue shirt; his mum and dad are wearing white.

Van's 3 hour trip finished 8 hours later...

Back in Hanoi, our social workers Diep and Giang organised another community service day, in which some of the kids from our center were invited to help renovate the home of a family with a disabled child.

We've done this before, but this time we took a bit of a risk: the kids who came to help were mostly from the gangs that roam the streets at night. But they rose to the occasion, and spent the day scrubbing and painting walls. They returned to the center late, tired, and covered in paint... but exhilarated to have done such a selfless thing.


And at the Blue Dragon center itself, we had a day of visitors: first from the Young Falcons in the morning, and then from the World Vision Singapore team in the afternoon.

World Vision Singapore has been the main supporter of our work with street children over the past couple of years. This was our first meeting, though; and it was a blast! About a dozen of their staff came to the center, loaded up with games to play, music to dance to, and prizes for the kids. It was a riot!

They even organised a fashion show, in which some of our kids (and staff!) dressed up in balloons, toilet paper, and streamers, and paraded down a catwalk.

Our kids howled with laughter for hours. For me, there's no better sound. Anyone who brings such happiness to our boys and girls is warmly welcome ANY time.

What a great day.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

House building in Hue

At the end of last week, Blue Dragon's lawyer, Van, headed back to Hue to visit the families we are working with there.

Most of the families there have had children trafficked to the south. Since helping the kids to return last year, we've continued to work with the community to address their poverty and keep the kids in school. For every family, the issues are different. And they're always complex.

Two particular families are receiving some special attention right now.

First is the family of Vien and Viet. Vien is a 10 year old girl who has a significant hearing impairment. She's a bright girl, but has never been to school and is treated pretty badly by the local people. Once when I was talking to her family, a neighbour came into Vien's house and told her to get out! (I promptly threw the guy out and gave Vien a seat next to me. That'll learn ya).

Here's Vien with her cutest smile...

Vien's older brother Viet (pictured below) was trafficked to Saigon a couple of years back to sell flowers on the streets. He's very bright, too, and doing well now that he's back in school.

This family owns a decent block of land, but their house is made of metal and full of holes. It's unbearably hot in summer; impossible to keep dry in the rainy season; and half the house blows away every time there's a strong wind. So we are helping the family build a new house - one that won't blow away!

The second is the family of Hung, another trafficked boy living in a nearby village.

Hung's family is much poorer than Vien and Viet's. His parents don't own, and have never owned, any land. They just live in a thatched hut that they have built on the sand beside the beach. The touching thing about this family is how neat and tidy they keep their home. This is not an easy task to accomplish, but to me it shows their pride and their dignity.

For Hung's family, we have found a block of land to buy in the name of Hung. Once it's been bought, the next step will be to build a house.

Hung is pictured here with his father and two younger sisters, who are too shy to ever speak to me!

It would be easy to help these families buy and build their homes, and then for us to walk away proclaiming what a great job we have done. I've seen it done countless times before - and of course the new house must have the organisation's logo! But for us, providing a home is just one part of the overall picture. It takes a lot more than bricks and mortar to ensure a child an grow up without poverty.

Oh, and we won't be putting our logo on their houses, either.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A success for Ngoc

Some weeks ago, I blogged about a boy named Ngoc from Hue, in central Vietnam. (See here and here for the last entries in which I wrote about Ngoc).

At age 13, Ngoc had never been taken to hospital to have his cleft lip healed. His family and community have considered him to be stupid, and he's never been to school simply because of the lip.
About a week ago, our social worker Hai took Ngoc to a hospital here in Hanoi to have the surgery done. We actually went around to a few hospitals, and selected the one that seemed most confident and knowledgeable. Cleft lip operations are pretty common and run-of-the-mill, but they're usually for kids aged 2 or 3, not 13...
Ngoc's surgery has been a HUGE success. We are all stunned at how well his lip has sealed up. From a few metres away, it's easy to miss seeing the tiny scar that gives away the fact that Ngoc has had cleft lip.
Here's Ngoc at his home in May 2007:

And here he is in my office today:

Ngoc's future suddenly looks a whole lot better.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The New Blue

We've done it!

Blue Dragon has moved into a new center!

We are no longer spread out over 4 buildings along on street. Finally we have moved into a newly renovated center, with room for everything we do in 4 storeys.

Our first day, Tuesday, saw the center filled with happy sounds of laughter and games and cheering. The kids now have space to spread out, make some noise, play lego, and do whatever they want! The place is even bigger than it seemed when we first came to look at it some months ago.

Up until now, we have squeezed up to 25 kids at a time into a tiny lunch room that shouldn't have held more than 15 people. But now our kids have a huge covered balconey, with views over the Red River and a (sometimes) cool breeze. We can easily fit 30 or more kids, and up to 40 if we need to.

We have a small library, and a much larger computer lab than before. There's a dedicated art room attached to the drop in center, as well as shower facilities for kids who live on the streets.

Even the kitchen is something to be proud of: We found some second hand stainless steel benches, and use shelving out of our old buildings, to create a huge room with a professional kitchen that can be used not only for cooking meals, but also for teaching the kids about how to cook in our various nutrition and cooking clubs.

The new center means we have much better facilities for the kids, and a far safer place for them to seek help. But I think that our house is still fairly humble and homely.
Hats off to the Blue Dragon staff, kids and volunteers who did all the packing, moving, and scrubbing for the past two weeks. Everyone is still pretty exhausted... We all went the extra mile, but WOW has it been worth it!
Now for some photos...
This is looking down from the stairs; you can see the art room on the left and the entrance on the right.

A view inside the drop-in center. We still need to get some art up on the walls!

The rooftop, which is where we have lunch, drama, games, and other activities.