Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The disappearance

Hanoi is eerily quiet in the post-Tet peace that sets in every year and lasts just a few days...

While all the staff are on holidays, I'm supervising the few kids who are left behind in our shelter, with no family to go home to. They're good kids, and don't need much in the way of supervision, so I have plenty of time to reflect on the past year and all that has happened.

Over the past 12 months, the saddest development on the streets has been the increase in the number of kids who get caught up in gangs and drug dealing. Mostly the gangs steal fruit from markets and re-sell it, then use the money to play games and eat through the next day. But more and more, they are breaking into houses, stealing car parts, and selling heroin. And then there's the fighting, which always involves knives.

There's a group of boys who live on the edges of these gangs; they have one foot on the streets, and one foot in Blue Dragon. Some have lived in our shelter, where I am now staying, then returned to the streets when the lure of fast money and the thrill of the chase became too strong.

Many of those same kids are now in prison or detention centres.

Each time one of our kids is arrested, my feelings are badly torn. I am filled with grief to see them start down the inevitable path of institutionalisation, and with fear for how they must feel in those first days and weeks of incarceration, before they find friends and small comforts in their new world. But I am also relieved, in a guilty kind of way, that the other Blue Dragon kids - those who are tempted to go back to the streets but have chosen not to do so - can see that they have made the right choice. Their envy of the teens with motorbikes and pockets full of cash soon evaporates when they hear of them landing in prison.

But then there are the kids who simply disappear. This does not happen often, but it worries me sick when it does. And it's just recently happened to a 15 year old named Hung.

I won't post a photo, but many volunteers and visitors will know Hung: he has an angelic face, he's shy, but he argues like a lawyer and seems to always be around when there's trouble. As one of our staff recently said: "He's just a typical teenager with a bad attitude."

I like Hung. I've met his family, who care for him but are unable to understand his needs and desires. He's bright, but leads from behind. He shuns the spotlight but ever since I met him 2 years ago I have learned that he knows what's going on and, 9 times out of 10, he's involved.

Hung did manage to come off the streets for a whole year, and he was doing really well but in September things started to go badly for him and he returned to the streets. We tried renting a small room for him, we tried sending him to school and training, but nothing seemed to work. Still, he'd come back to us every day for lunch, and sometimes come to hang out for dinner as well. Whenever he got picked up by the police our staff would go down to the station to sit by his side and talk things through with the officers.

About 2 weeks ago, though, something happened. Some of our kids saw Hung sitting in an internet cafe when a man came in, declaring himself a policeman, and handcuffed Hung. He lead him away, and nobody has seen him since.

Our local police know nothing about this. The district level police stations claim the same. Hung's family knows nothing either. We've been watching for Hung to log on to his chat service, but it's been silent. It's as though he has just disappeared into the winter fog, and no explanation makes any sense.

Maybe he's fine; maybe in coming weeks we'll find out where he is and what has happened. My past experience tells me not to panic. But deep down inside I fear that he's not OK.

Wherever Hung is, I hope that he knows someone is thinking of him.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

The match

Last weekend, Blue Dragon held a friendly match of soccer against trainees from KOTO, a hospitality training restaurant here in Hanoi.

Blue Dragon kids play soccer every Sunday morning, but a match or a tournament is always something extra special.

It was a great game (how could it not be?) and all the kids had a terrific time. Some pics below from the wonderful Amy...

Isn't this guy too little to be goalie?

Action! The Blue Dragon kids are wearing the blue shirts.
Nam, pictured in blue, was a shoeshine boy but is now
a chef at a fine restaurant.

Break time...

Some fruit to keep the bodies going...

The Blue Dragon staff really enjoyed the break!

... and the final score was 3-2 to Blue Dragon!


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

That time of year

Christmas and New Year raced by in a blur, but here in Vietnam the real festive season is only now underway: Tet, or Lunar New Year.

The last few weeks have been incredibly quiet on the email front (my inbox has slowed right down from the usual 30-40 emails I normally get each day) - so I am guessing that most of the world is blissfully in holiday mode. But here, preparations for Tet have been quite consuming - hence my silence in recent weeks!

Blue Dragon is working in 4 locations in Vietnam, so this year we organised 4 parties: 1 each in Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An and Bac Ninh.

The Hanoi Tet Awards Night is our biggest celebration, as we recognise the children's individual achievements. This year, about 230 kids were invited to the night, which was held in the ballroom of the Sofitel Plaza. (No, we didn't win the lottery - the Hotel Manager, Antoine Lhuguenot, offered it to us free of charge! Amazing!) All of the children received a gift and a certificate congratulating them on their most outstanding achievements of the year, be it in schooling, social activities, or behaviour.

Chinh and Uyen gave the opening speeches at Tet Awards...

Food time!

... and of course, everybody wanted their photo taken.

It's hard to put into words, but this is a very special event: an outside observer would never know the incredible hardships that these children have been through over the past year. My blog only contains a fraction of the stories that could be told... but Tet Awards is the night to say farewell to the difficulties of the past, and welcome the new year with dancing, singing, and lots and lots of presents.

Hoi An, in Central Vietnam, celebrates "Tat Nien," which roughly means "end of year." The kids at the Hoi An Children's Home joined in a special Tat Nien party over the weekend, with gifts and singing and loads of food.

Up in Hue, we held our first ever Tet party for the 45 children we support there. These are kids who have previously been trafficked to work in garment factories or to sell flowers on the streets, as I've been writing about in recent posts. We brought all the children in to Hue City for the day (all the kids live far from town) and spent the morning visiting ancient sites. The kids joined in a lunch celebration before going home, but the final farewells were really sad... nobody wanted to say goodbye!

The kids gathered outside the ancient Hue Citadel

Lunch included a quick game with pipe cleaners!

And finally, the 350 children we send to school in Bac Ninh province, north of Hanoi, got together for their annual Tet celebration, complete with gifts and games. Organising games for 350 children is no mean feat, so this year we arranged some hilarious competitions that involved blindfolding pairs of kids and getting them to feed yoghurt to each other... you get the idea. It was a riot.

So what's the point of all this? Isn't this just fun for the sake of fun? Yeah, it is. Blue Dragon has a statement of beliefs that starts off with the words: "All children have the right to be children." This really struck me at the Hue celebration in particular, where I toured the city with children who I had met in factories or on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, but who were now, somehow, younger than when I first met them. They were just - well, children. The pressure of producing garments, or making enough money to prevent the traffickers from beating them, was gone. They could laugh and tease each other, they could fool about and simply be themselves.

What could be more worthwhile than that?


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A link

Here's a link to an article that's been written about our work getting kids out of factories in Ho Chi Minh City:

Thanh Nien article

And yes, it calls us Green Dragon - a small translation error...


Sunday, January 04, 2009

A great ending followed by a terrible beginning

The final weeks of 2008 marked a major milestone in our work with the victims of child trafficking. Until now, we have been taking kids a few at a time off the streets and out of factories and reuniting them with their families. This has been powerful work: often moving, sometimes frustrating, but always worthwhile.

At the same time, though, we've been trying to land a punch at the belly of the trafficking rings. We have been aiming to put this topic of trafficking and exploitation into the public arena, where Vietnamese people and their government representatives can have their say about what's going on.

Finally, we've done it. The leading newspaper in Vietnam, Tuoi Tre, has run a series of 6 articles, as well as publishing reader's comments and some editorial pieces. Each article in the series has taken a different angle, but each has basically been about the very same issues that we've been working on since 2005.

The icing on the cake is that the minister for Social Affairs has met with the newspaper's chief editors to discuss their articles, and also instructed the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs to get involved and to put a stop to child labour in garment factories.

Things are suddenly looking a whole lot better for thousands of children...

But in a reminder that laurels are not for resting on, our return to work at Blue Dragon after the new year holiday has been pretty awful. Four kids we know and work with have been arrested over 2 separate incidents, both of which are fairly serious. Another of the boys from our main home in Hanoi started off the new year in hospital with an apparent case of pneumonia AND measles.

Not a promising start to 2009 - but then again, that's why we're here...