Monday, July 21, 2008

The story of Hung

Ten years ago, Hung was a 13 year old boy tending buffalo in the mountains that form the border between Vietnam and China. He had never been to school, but lived a simple life with his mother and younger sister.

One morning, Hung's attention strayed long enough for the buffalo to wander off and demolish a neighbour's rice field. Terrified of the trouble he was about to find himself in, Hung decided to run away rather than face the inevitable spanking.

As tends to happen to runaway boys, one thing lead to another and before he knew it several months had passed. Hung returned home, deeply sorry for what he had done and hoping to find forgiveness. But something terrible had happened: his mother and little sister were gone. They had been trafficked to China and nobody knew how to contact them. Hung would later learn that his mother was sold as a bride. All these years later, he still does not know the fate of his sister.

Although he had some relatives in the countryside, Hung knew that there was no place for him without his mother. So he headed to Hanoi and became a street kid, shining shoes and selling trinkets on the streets. Eventually he met Blue Dragon through our weekly soccer games; his group of friends became quite close to us, in a fairly short time, and things were starting to look good for Hung.

But then he vanished.

He was picked up on the streets as a vagrant, and spent some months - maybe a year - in a detention center. I have never been clear about where he was taken, or why. But while there, he contracted tuberculosis, and as his condition became more and more severe, no treatment was made available. Finally, when Hung seemed ready to die, he was released - presumably so that the center wouldn't have to report a death.

One of Hung's good friends stumbled upon him at Hoan Kiem lake and rang our staff to come and help. What we saw was truly shocking: Hung was disoriented, weak, and skeletal. He recognised us, but he couldn't remember any details of leaving the detention center and getting to the lake. His lower legs were swollen, but the rest of his body was thin and covered in sores.

Hung was on the verge of death. We took him straight to Hanoi Family Medical Clinic, who realised that he had tuberculosis, and although they sent us to the Hanoi TB hospital, they were very clear that his chances of survival were slim, if not nil.

Hung did survive, though. He spent months in the hospital, and we hired a carer to sit by his side making sure he was fed and bathed. When he was well enough, he came to live in one of our houses: but some months later, the TB returned, this time with meningitis. Hung's health spiralled downward, and he returned to the hospital. Once again, the prognosis was bleak.

And once again he survived. Since then, Hung has been living in a Blue Dragon shelter, recovering gradually. His lungs have been OK, but his mind and body have been weak. He's 23 now, so he doesn't fit in well with a children's foundation. However, there has been nowhere else for him to go. He has just been hanging out at the drop-in center, getting involved in small projects, and learning basic literacy with our teacher.

Last week, we finally took the step of travelling with Hung back to his countryside to meet his relatives. Our staff drove up to the border and then walked for 2 hours up a mountain just to find the house.

Hung is now living with some uncles, and although Blue Dragon will keep supporting him financially for another year, he's learning to live more independently. Hung will never recover fully - he will never be the young man he was shaping up to be. But now, 10 years since running away because of a buffalo, he at last has a home and some family to care for him.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Nearly done

Some good news about the young guy, Tung, who I wrote about here.

Blue Dragon supports Tung to go to school in the countryside, and a few months back we discovered that the injuries done to his body when he fell into a fire at age 2 could largely be corrected, or at least improved.

Tung has been in a hospital in Hanoi for just over 3 weeks now. His father has been by his side the entire time. At first Tung had surgery on just one finger of his left hand, and the doctors then operated on the thumb on his right hand. We were expecting them to carry on with four more fingers, but instead the doctors decided to operate on Tung's right foot, to correct the toes. For each of Tung's fingers and toes, the doctors have to remove old, then straighten them out (and pin them into place) before adding fresh skin.

So now, both of Tung's hands, and his right foot, are bandaged up and causing him plenty of pain... But he's still smiling!

The hospital has suggested that the little guy is in enough pain for now; any further surgery should be delayed for at least 6 months.

This Friday, Blue Dragon staff will drive Tung and his father home - they live about 40kms out of the city. What a dreadful summer holiday Tung has had; but there is great hope that this surgery will be worthwhile in the long run. I sure hope so.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Sleeper

Tuan is a 13 year old boy who has been living on the streets of Hanoi for some time. I say 'some time' because I have no idea of his full story. The little bits that I do know are tragic, and for sure there's much more that he will tell me in the coming weeks.

One thing I know is that, in recent months, Tuan has had no home at all. He's been sleeping around Long Bien bridge, or on the island in the Red River, or in doorways of friends' homes. Since coming to Blue Dragon, he seems to spend about half of the time sound asleep, as though he has a lot to catch up on.

One of the boys in our Link program brought him to the Blue Dragon center about a week ago, and Tuan has been living in our Shelter since then. He seems so happy to be there - so pleased to have a comfortable bed and friends to play with - but it's early days yet. My experience is that some kids will wear a mask of happiness because they think that's what I need to see. Those are the kids who will be with us for a while, and then vanish.

Other kids - most kids - quickly learn they can let their defences down, and let us into their world. Those are the kids who stay with us, and grow up as part of the Blue Dragon family.

Vi was one of those kids who came to trust me and the Blue Dragon team back in our early days, 5 years ago. I met him shining shoes outside my house, and invited him in. Six months later, Vi was among the first kids to move in to a Blue Dragon residence (The Big Room), and now he's senior captain of a bar in a fine restaurant, has travelled South East Asia, and is starting to think about the day he'll open his own fine restaurant. He's come such a long way from his days as a shoeshine boy earning money to send his younger sister to school.

Vi is 21 now, and one of my best friends. We hang out whenever he has spare time, which isn't often. But this evening we met up and had a meal, and then Vi came with me back to the Shelter to talk to the kids.

A group of the boys were playing on the floor, making enough noise to drown out a jet plane. Tuan was right there beside them - sound asleep. He looked so serene, and even seemed to be smiling in his slumber, despite the riot going on around him.

Vi noticed this too, and we both found it most amusing.

"How can he sleep with so much happening here?" I laughed to Vi, who gave me the most profound answer: "He feels safe here."

I hadn't even thought of that before. But Vi would know - he too went from surviving on the streets to living in a safe home in the care of Blue Dragon.

"He feels safe here." Of course he does. He doesn't have to worry about where his next meal will come from; he doesn't have to hide from the police and the gangs at night. No wonder he can finally catch up on all that missing sleep.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

This is not goodbye

One of Blue Dragon’s longest serving staff members is leaving!

Tung was volunteering with Blue Dragon even before we were Blue Dragon. Back in early 2003, when the idea of forming a charity to help street kids was just beginning, Tung was a friend who was available to help with absolutely anything.

Two years later, he joined us full time as a social worker (when we finally had some money to hire social workers!) and has been with us ever since.

Tung has been with Blue Dragon through all the ups and downs: the start of the Big Room; urgent trips to rescue staff who were stranded while rescuing trafficked kids; the opening of each of our drop in centers; and every single week through all this he has been a referee at our Sunday soccer games.

Tung has been more than a staff member; he’s been a one-man institution. Other organisations have recognized this, and tried to steal him from us… but failed. Tung’s heart has long been in returning to university and completing a masters degree in economics.

That’s a far cry from being a social worker – but Tung really is a versatile kind of guy.

So we’ve had a farewell, we’ve given him some gifts, and won’t be in at the drop in centre on Monday. But this is not goodbye. Tung still plans to join in the weekly soccer, and has already put his hand up to help with our summer swimming classes.

Tung oi, you’ll always be a part of our family. Good luck with your studies, but don’t forget to come and hang out at Blue Dragon from time to time!
Pictured below: Tung is wearing the white shirt.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Hard at work

At least once or twice a month, those who profess to be "experts" in development or poverty or something obscure-but-impressive tell me that charities like Blue Dragon run the terrible risk of creating dependence.

Their argument, which sounds reasonable enough, is that if Blue Dragon was not working in Vietnam, our beneficiaries would have to be self reliant, or rely on their local community. Hence, Blue Dragon is creating a need, rather than fulfilling a need, and it might be better off if we weren't here.

I can answer that criticism in many ways. The first response that comes to my mind is: "Is it really a good thing to force 6 year olds to be self reliant?" (And a related question to the critic could be: "And have you put your belief into practice by sending your own children onto the streets to earn their school fees, so that they don't become reliant on your help?")

But rather than argue the point, an easier response is for me to explain that we do, in fact, encourage independence - when the kids are at an appropriate age and level of health.

We all know the saying, "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." Fair enough, but it would be nice to give him a fish to eat while he learns to catch them himself.

This is the case with the Blue Dragon kids: they're not ready to be independent. They need time, care, and teaching to get them there, and that can take many years.

Two of our girls, Thuy and Trang, exemplify this process of moving from dependence to independence. These are great kids; they do well at school, they get involved in community service, and they make the most of every opportunity they can find. On separate occasions in recent months, they approached our staff to ask for help in finding part time jobs. They want to start supporting themselves even though they haven't yet finished high school.

Blue Dragon's role in helping teens get jobs is to help set up interviews and liaise with employers. The kids have to earn the jobs themselves - we never ask businesses to hire anyone as a favour. And we also have a 'one-time-only' rule: we help kids get their first job only. If they leave for any reason at all, they have to find their next job themselves.

So it's essential that we find good employers, and Thuy and Trang were fortunate to get jobs at a famous Italian restaurant where the bosses are committed to training and demand high standards, but also care about their employees' welfare. The girls are earning good incomes, and still have time to study.

Having a job doesn't mean they no longer need support from Blue Dragon. But it does mean they are on the road to independence, with an end in sight.

And surely, while the development experts talk about their theories and policies over a long lunch at a fine Italian restaurant, they've got to be happy about that.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Online Auction

A quick promo...

Francaustralia Education is holding an ebay auction to sell the winning entries in a photography competition - and the money raised goes to sending Blue Dragon kids to school!

The 3 photos up for auction can be found here. But the winning bids receive more than the photos - they also receive a certificate and either a photographic image or anthology of pictures taken in Vietnam.

Give it a go - auction ends Saturday!