Friday, August 29, 2008

Round Up

Lots of great stuff happening over the past couple of weeks, and not enough time to blog! So here's a quick round up of the news...

Blue Dragon launched the school year last Sunday in Bac Ninh province, where we are supporting 350 students from Grades 5 to 12. The annual Opening Ceremony is a bit of fun for the kids, and they all get their school gear as well as some encouragement to do their best.

The 8 trafficked children we rescued from Ho Chi Minh City are all going well; I traveled to their village in Hue Province on Tuesday and was able to meet some of their families. One of the boys, aged 15, is living in a tent on the beach with his parents and a younger brother; it was heartbreaking to see. No wonder the traffickers targeted this family. I need to work out how we can get them out of that tent and into a house.

And finally, some great news from our older teens. Now that Blue Dragon has been working for 5 years, some of our kids are finishing high school and looking to enter tertiary education. This is quite a development for us - it's a sign of our success, but not something that we have been expecting! One of the kids who has been accepted into college is a boy named Linh, who we first met on the streets over 3 years ago.

I met Linh when he was shining shoes on the streets of Hanoi to survive. Linh and his mother were living in extreme poverty: every day was a struggle, and every night the family went to sleep hungry. Eventually the pain and tension were too much for Linh, so he headed off to the big city to try to escape it all. Our volunteers were able to take him home and sort things out with his mother, who was worried sick about what might have happened to her son. Since then, we've been supporting him to go to school and keeping the family supplied with rice. Next week, Linh starts a 2 year course in IT at Aptech College. He's been selected to join the top class, which means he'll study morning and night, with all classes in English. With a bit of help, Linh has gone from being a street kid to being a college student in a selective class. What a change, and what a chance for him to make something of his life.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A new home, a new chance

About a year ago, Blue Dragon took over the day to day running of the Hoi An Children's Home, also known as Cahors.

For some years, the Home had been struggling to care for the 30 girls and boys who lived there - the passionate long term director, Mrs Diep, was all but alone there, with no carers or social workers to look after the kids. There was rarely enough food to go around, and on many nights and weekends there was simply no staff at all at the Home.

August marks not only the 12-month anniversary of Blue Dragon's work, but also the new intake of children to fll the places vacated by those older teens who have finished school and are heading off now to university or jobs. School starts in September, so the 'new kids' are starting to arrive and get settled in.

The program manager, an amazing volunteer named Nicole, spent a good chunk of her July traveling around the countryside interviewing families who had applied for their children or relatives to move into the Home. We couldn't accept all of them, but we did make a commitment that any child who wanted to join the Home, but didn't really fit the criteria, still received some form of ongoing support to make sure they'd be OK.

And so the Home filled up to its maximum of 30 children, and everything was set out for the coming year.


We received a call from Robyn Morley, who runs a medical-focused charity called CHIA. Robyn had come across an 8 year old boy named Nam who was in desperate trouble. He's never been to school, his home is no more than a shack, and his family situation is... well, it's appalling. It's the sort of situation that no kid ever, ever, deserves to grow up in.

Robyn and her staff were worried about Nam, and asked if we could accept him into the Home. The short answer was "no": The Home is already full, and Nam is too young anyway. Normally the youngest child at the Home is 10, and even that's in exceptional circumstances only.

However, there really was no other choice for Nam. Either he would live at the Home, or he would have to stay living in a rotten situation. Nobody wanted to refuse him.

So Nicole called together the 30 residents of the Home, as well as the staff, and put the problem to them: Nam needs a place to live. He needs to go to school. He needs someone to look after him. Are we going to help him, or are we going to say 'no'?

This was one of those occasions when we just had to roll the dice and see if our number came up. Everyone in management wanted to say yes, including Nicole and Mrs Diep; I wanted to accept him, and Robyn wanted us to do this. But if the staff and children were unwilling to help, it just wouldn't work. Having nam at the Home would undoubtedly mean more work, extra responsibility - and, ultimately, a stretching of our already limited resources.

But here's the incredible thing: absolutely EVERYONE agreed. If Nam needed us, then what were we even waiting for!? Bring him in!!

Nam moved in within days. The kids at the Home have taken him under their collective wing; everybody wants to help!

There's a long road ahead, though. How will Nam fare at school? Can Nicole and the team help Nam get a birth certificate, and jump through all the legal hoops required to register him as a citizen? Will Nam really be happy living at the Home for the next 10 years? And what then??

The signs are good, though. Nam is smiling from ear to ear, and so far there hasn't been a single problem. This is Nam's new chance. Whatever has happened before, the future is a different place now.

Anything is possible.

Let me help! All the kids want to do their bit for Nam.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Home free

Blue Dragon's lawyer-extraordinnaire, Van, has returned to Hanoi, so at last I have some info about his trip to rescue trafficked children in Ho Chi Minh City. Van's on the left in this photo; Mr Phat from the Hue Red Cross is in there as well; and 7 of the 8 kids are pictured. (The 8th kid, a boy, wanted to get his hair dyed before returning home to Hue!)

All of the children were working in small factories or in home-based factories, cutting out cloth for garments. The youngest of the kids Van rescued is an 11 year old girl; the oldest is a 15 year old boy.

Not all of the factory owners were agreeable to losing their free labour, but they didn't have much choice and maybe will think twice before recruiting children next time.

Van accompanied the 8 children home on the train - that's a trip of about 700kms - and experienced the joy or reuniting them with their families. The children, of their own volition, spoke out about the terrible time they've had - working up to 16 hours a day in squalid conditions with barely enough food - so we hope that the word is spreading through the community.

But we have more work to do!

First, we need to support these 8 children, and the 35-or-so others who we have taken home in the past, to return to school and get involved in their communities again. Our dream right now is to create a Youth Center for the children in their village so they can have a safe place to hang out, play and seek help.

But second, we have to go back to Ho Chi Minh City... the 10 year old pictured below is just one of the many, many kids we are yet to rescue...


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Free from slavery

It's done: 8 trafficked children have been returned to their families.

This news is still 'hot off the press' - so hot that I don't have all the details just yet - but late this week a couple of Blue Dragon staff traveled to Ho Chi Minh City in search of 7 children from central Vietnam who were taken to work in garment factories. There were some kids who they couldn't find, and others who they didn't expect to find... so 8 in total, and lots more to come.

All of the kids are from Hue province by the beach; all from extremely poor families; and all were tricked into going to the south with the promise of 'free job training'. Instead, they've been working 12-15 hours per day making cheap clothes, and all for no pay.

More details in a day or 2 when I can find out exactly what happened!


Thursday, August 07, 2008

Watch this space...

... because some great things are happening, in the vein of this.

Ton goes home

Since we started our Link program late last year, Blue Dragon has had some success in working with kids who have been living rough on the streets for many years.

The idea behind the program was reaching out to teenage boys who are 'chronically homeless' and unlikely to ever have a regular home, education, or job. It hasn't all been roses - 2 of the original 7 are in reform school now. Others have come and gone, though, and despite the rough patches there have been some inspiring outcomes.

One of the 'newcomers' to the program is a 16 year old named Ton. He's been on the streets for 6 years - with one extended break in a detention facility. Ton came to us early in 2008; although I had never met him before, he simply said that he wanted to get off the street and go back to school, so would I mind if he stayed at our shelter? It's quite common for kids to tell us what they think we want to hear; so on that first day when Ton came to see me, I really didn't know if he was serious or not. But since then, he has not spent a single night on the streets, or gone back to the gangs that he once roamed with.

Ton's story, like most others, is tragic. First his mother abandoned him, then his father walked out. In the earliest years of his life, Ton was left in the care of an aunty, who looked after him because there was nobody else who cared. Ton's aunty was loving and treated him like a son; but at age 10, Ton felt that he was being a burden, so he left home and headed to Hanoi.

For 6 years Ton looked after himself, occasionally getting into trouble with the authorities. His aunty and grandparents had no idea where he was, and feared the worst; but they never forgot him.

When Ton went hom earlier this week, for the first time in 6 years, many tears were shed. Ton's family was overjoyed - they never thought they would see him again - and they took him to see a small plot of land that belongs to him. For all the hardships he has been through, Ton is quite a lucky guy to still have a family who cares so much.

Today Ton returned to Hanoi, this time with his grandparents, who wanted to see the home he is living in and thank the staff of Blue Dragon for looking after their only grandson.

In coming weeks Ton will return to school - he's been out of the system for quite a while now, but he has a goal and intends to make the best of his opportunities.

This is one kid who really has a bright future in the making.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

On the run

One of the many aspects of our work with street kids is finding and befriending runaways, and hopefully reuniting them with their families.

We've only ever failed in two cases so far - although I know I should be a bit more careful not to jinx myself...

When Blue Dragon works with runaway kids, our aim is to 'close the case' within 2 weeks. Some runaway kids end up living with us for the long term - we have at least 5 such teenage boys in our residential homes right now - but as far as possible we try to get them back with their parents.

Over the last 2 weeks, we have hit a problem with runaways that we haven't had to deal with for over 5 years: runaways with intellectual impairments. And just to make life interesting, we have come into contact with 3 such kids, including one set of identical twins.

The twins, Hai and Hung, are lovely kids. They're 17, and for some reason they decided to run away to Hanoi to find a job. Only problem was that they had never been out of their village in the mountains before. They made it to the city, but when I found them sitting under a tree outside the Horison Hotel they looked like frightened puppies with nowhere to go.

Hai and Hung spent about a week at our Shelter before agreeing to go home. During that week, their family was worried sick about them, fearing the worst of course but not knowing what to do to find their sons. When our staff accompanied the twins home, their parents wept with genuine joy and relief.

So a happy ending..? Almost. The twins, emboldened by having found their way to Hanoi, decided to try it again, and turned up at our Shelter the next Saturday morning. When I asked why they had come back, they told me in all sincerity that they needed some money - the equivalent of just over $300,000US, it turned out. They simply didn't understand what that amount of money really is; so I was able to bargain them down to $30,000 before the staff called their mother to come to Hanoi and pick them up. Reunion No. 2 was also a success, but I'm hoping that this time it might be a longer term success...

Meantime, we have a third runaway at our Shelter who also appears to have some intellectual impairment. He was brought to us by one of our other kids - a former runaway who now lives with us, as it happens. This new boy (let's call him Nam) was covered in scabies and skin infections, which thankfully now seem to be clearing up... many thanks to our good friends at Hanoi Family Medical Practice for their treatment...

At this stage, we know nothing about Nam other than that he's been living very rough for at least a few weeks. Building trust and getting information from a teenager with an intellectual impairment is quite a different scenario to doing exactly the same work with an average-ability teenager. This is yet another challenge... but hey, just another mountain to climb, right?

Stay tuned to see how this case works out...