Wednesday, October 31, 2007


A significant part of Blue Dragon's work involves advocacy: sticking up for kids when they get into trouble. Some days, our advocacy work is urgent and pressing.

On Monday afternoon I recieved a phone call from one of our boys, Nghia, who I originally met as a shoeshine boy in Saigon. Nghia studies at a local school in Hanoi now, and although his grades aren't brilliant he does stand out among the Blue Dragon kids for his happy disposition and his willingness to help anyone in need. He's a great kid.

But on Monday, he was in trouble. Four boys from school had ganged up on him and attacked; two of them had knives. As soon as school was out, the four guys got together, and when Nghia realised what was happening, the only thing he could do was run for his life. He ran through the streets, and at one point slipped in some mud but was able to get back up and keep running. Nobody helped, of course: nobody ever helps in Hanoi. This kid was on his own.

When he finally got away, he called me to come and help him get home safely. Van, Blue Dragon's lawyer, went over too. Nghia was covered in dirt, his clothes were ruined, and he was pretty upset - as you can imagine.

The next morning, Van and I took Nghia back to the school to speak to the principal. She was kind and sympathetic, and organised a meeting in the afternoon with the 4 bullies and their parents. Van and Nghia attended - I figured it would be better if the foreigner stayed out of it!

After spending some time denying everything, the 4 boys confessed to what they had done. Their parents and their teachers were furious with them, and soon they were crying and apologising. (I really regret not bring there for that).

From the principal, the conclusion was clear: the boys were to be expelled immediately, and the matter was to be referred to the police.

Then Nghia spoke up. Yes, he was angry with them, and they deserved punishment. But he asked the principal to give them another chance. Their families would punish them enough, he reasoned; no need to expel them and call the police.

Despite the terror of the previous day, Nghia forgave the bullies, and so saved their skin. They must still pay for his new school clothes, and the school may still impose some punishment for what they did. But when they return to school today, they go back knowing that they are there only because of the extraordinary graciousness of the boy they tried to kill.

Friday, October 19, 2007


One of the biggest culture clashes that I have as a westerner living in Vietnam is to do with the issue of blame.

In Australia - as in many western countries - when something goes wrong, one of the first questions to be raised is: Whose fault is this?

Here in Vietnam, it's quite common for people to see a problem or some kind of wrong, and to accept it as part of fate.

As we walked downstairs from lunch on Wednesday, a 10 year old girl named Nga suddenly collapsed and started shaking violently. It was pretty obvious she was having a seizure.

One of our newest staff, a social worker named Huong, happened to be right there, and knew exactly what to do. Within a minute, Nga was laying on the staffroom floor with a cushion under her head and her throat cleared to prevent her swallowing her tongue.

Our plan was to wait for the seizure to end - epileptic fits are normally over in about 5 minutes - and to then take her to the hospital. Nga's brother Minh, who is about 14, was in our drop in center at the time, so came over to help.

As the seizure dragged on and on, we started to worry. This wasn't like anything we had heard of before. And then Minh came forward to tell us that this was, in fact, Nga's third seizure since last night.

Time to call the ambulance.

As we waited for the ambulance to arrive, Nga and Minh's older sister came. We haven't known this family very long; they have only been in Hanoi for a few weeks. All we knew up until now was that the two kids have serious problems with their eyesight and don't go to school.

But with the arrival of the sister, some more information came to light.

Nga and Minh have never been to school. And the parents? They're both in prison. I didn't ask why, but it's almost always drug related.

And, no, Nga hasn't been to hospital before. Can't afford it. But when she has her seizures, she sees a free doctor who gives Panadol and tells the family to turn the fans off when she's sick.

Looking through my western eyes, I want to know who has let these kids down so badly. All the problems that they face - and the best help they can get is a suggestion to turn the fans off. Why has nobody ever helped them go to school? Why haven't they had their eyes tested before? Why hasn't Nga been to hospital?

Who's to blame for this mess?

But the kids aren't asking these questions. They see it as their fate. They are far more accepting of their circumstances than I am.

It's difficult to be torn between these two contrasting views of the world. I know I can't resolve this conflict; but I can do something better. I can make sure that the circumstances of Nga and Minh change immediately. Starting today, they can have a new fate.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Without a doubt, the best thing about working in Blue Dragon is that I can see, on a daily basis, the progress that our kids make. Boys who once worked on the streets shining shoes now go to college, have jobs in fine restaurants, or study at school. Girls who once worked as domestic servants now lead normal lives, playing and studying, rather than working around the clock for a few cents a day.

But there's a heartbreaking side to my work, too. Because not everybody is able to make it out of the trap they're in.

Since late 2005, Blue Dragon has been working with a young man named Hung who we met as a street kid, who contracted tuberculosis while in a rehab centre. He was so close to death when we met him that the doctors were sure he could not survive. He did, but later developed meningitis and now his mind has deteriorated significantly. In May this year we helped Hung to find work in a center for people with disabilities, but he has taken to wandering the streets, eating scrap, and living in a world of his own. Whenever I see him in the evenings, I bring him in to my home to eat and give him a place to sleep; but there's nothing more that I can do for Hung. And I don't know of any homes or shelters that will care for him.

HIV/AIDS is a trap that is becoming too common here in Vietnam. It's devastating to see it claim its young victims. One of our girls learned yesterday that she is infected; and one of our boys has recently found out that his brother is infected, and may soon die. There seems to be no hope at all.

For my staff, these are tough issues. How do you counsel these kids? What comfort can you give someone who is trapped and may never be able to lead a full and healthy life? We wish we had all the answers, but sometimes we don't have any answers at all.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Goodbye, Adrie

This week has ended on a sad note, with the death of one of Blue Dragon's good friends - Adrie van Gelderen.

Adrie has lived in Vietnam for over a decade, as head of the Affiliate Foundation, which works on education projects and once built a school in Hue. When Blue Dragon was still just an idea, Adrie offered for us to work under the auspices of his foundation until we were properly registered. He made that offer to me on the first day that I met him. That's the kind of guy he was.

In the past 2 years, Adrie's dream has been to establish a communal pepper plantation for homeless families in Cambodia.

Last time I saw Adrie, he showed me the plans and some new photos he had taken. But Adrie's health wasn't good, and he knew he might not see the project through. Adrie has been fighting cancer, and I thought he was winning, but I was wrong.

Adrie left Vietnam just a few weeks ago, to go back to Holland for medical care. He died on Thursday night in his cottage in France.

Anyone who knew Adrie must know that he wouldn't want any sentimentality because of his death. Adrie was always too upbeat and alive for that. But we'll miss you, Adrie.

The world is a better place because you were here. I hope you knew that.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Link

Blue Dragon has started a new program for street kids - The Link.

Over the last few months, we have been in contact with more and more kids who are out of school and aren't at all likely to go back. Most of these kids end up joining gangs that roam the streets at night, stealing and having fun.

These kids are all boys, and all from families that have been damaged one way or another. And some of them - I am tempted to say 'most of them' - are interested in getting back into a more regular kind of life, but all the doors are shut for them.

School is just not suitable for these kids. They're too restless, and need to be doing something hands on, with plenty of positive attention. Nobody wants these kids around - my neighbours glare at me daily just to remind me that they wish these kids would vanish off the face of the earth.

So, we've created The Link. It's a program of classes that are active, fun, and hands on; and most of all, the kids have ownership of what they're doing. So far there have been up to 7 boys each afternoon, and they've been doing art, mechanics, English, and cooking.

We don't have any money for this, so we're sharing the resources from our other activities at the drop in center. Lam, our education coordinator, is organising the teachers and the schedule; while Andrew, our amazing VIDA volunteer from Australia, is involved in most of the classes.

No big problems so far, although there are probably only 3 kids who so far 'own' this program. The others are still testing the waters, and have yet to make up their mind.

I'm optimistic, though. You just wouldn't believe the transformation they go through each afternoon, from being noisy and boisterous in the drop in center, to giving their full attention to the class when they head upstairs to study...

Some pics to show you what they've been up to!