Thursday, May 28, 2009

Drama in Hue

Blue Dragon's work with trafficked children in Hue has taken a dramatic new turn, but this time it's a turn for good.

We now work closely with about 50 families whose children were taken to Ho Chi Minh City but have returned to their villages by the beach. With the summer holidays starting - the very time the kids are most vulnerable to traffickers - we have created a drama and theatre program with a grant by the ArtAction foundation in Singapore.

First and foremost, the kids are learning to express themselves. Our hope is that through drama the children will be able to safely 'tell their story' to let their families and communities better understand their experiences. But so far the drama groups have been about fun, games, and even some dancing to get the children into the swing of things.

These villages have never seen anything like this before, so attracting an audience won't be a problem. Everyone is so excited and the kids are having a great time after just a few days.

Traffickers, you don't stand a chance any more!


Monday, May 25, 2009


Another big day of football on Sunday - 79 kids this week, plus some staff from Dutch Lady (who have started donating milk for the kids). Here's a snapshot of the youngest kids playing...


Sunday, May 17, 2009

A blog about a blog

A whole week without blogging! Apologies to the masses.

Just a quick one today about a really cool project that we've got running at the moment. This is a 'kill two birds with one stone' project (but don't worry, no birds have even been injured - we swear!)

Some of the Blue Dragon kids at our centre wanted to learn about blogging... and they're all older teens who have also signed up to get involved in Career Planning and Development activities. So we've combined the two ideas by creating a class to teach about blogging, and the content is to be based on site visits to various employers and companies.

So far the kids have been to a web design company, a film studio and a kitchen in the Intercontinental Hotel (West Lake). Next week they're off to meet a tourist guide and learn about the travel industry. At each visit they can tour a workplace, meet employees, and find out what it's like to work there.

Really cool stuff!

A couple of pics below from the Intercontinental Hotel. When our kids actually start writing their blog I'll be sure to post the link.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Dragons and bears

On Thursday, some of the Blue Dragon children attended a special event: the opening of a bear rescue centre about an hour's drive out of Hanoi.

Vietnamese people commonly believe that bear bile contains powerful medicinal qualities, so the bile and other 'bear products' are extremely valuable. As a result, bears are considered precious commodities, and kept in tiny cages so that their bile can be extracted daily. Their conditions are invariably atrocious.

In Hanoi alone, there are about 600 moon bears kept in cages in people's houses. As unbelievable as that sounds, it's true. So one NGO, called AnimalsAsia, has set up a rescue centre and is working on getting bears out of cages and into safer environments.

Blue Dragon kids were interested to find out more, so they went along with and spent the day learning all about moon bears. A very worthwhile outing for them all!

Maggie Q flew in to Vietnam especially for the opening.
(Maggie, you were in town and you forgot to call me!?)

The bears are living in large open spaces
for the first time in their lives.

One of our volunteers, Skye, and two of the Blue Dragon kids.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sneak preview

I wrote last week about an upcoming novel, Dragon House, set in Vietnam; the author (John Shors) has posted this clip on YouTube.

Around the 6 minute mark, there are scenes from here in Hanoi, including some shots taken inside the Blue Dragon centre. Have a look!


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Show me the papers

No matter which country you're in, 'bureacracy' is a dirty word. Long lines to wait in... being sent from one office to another... getting the right signature or stamp... losing your file and starting all over again... This is a part of life we've all experienced.

Here in Vietnam is no different, except that things can be a little more complicated. Vietnamese bureacracy is not yet computerised, which comes as a great shock to westerners who are used to having all their records kept on databases that can be accessed in a flash.

At Blue Dragon, we regularly meet families who need help with what appear to be simple bureacratic matters: teenagers without birth certificates is a common one. Parents, often poor and illiterate, might not bother with the fuss of obtaining a birth certificate, and 15 years later suddenly find that now their child cannot obtain an ID card, which is essentil for going to high school, getting a driver's licence, applying for a job, qualifying for government benefits, and so on.

But once a child is in their teens, the process of getting a birth certificate is no simple matter. In every case we've encountered, the family has moved away from where the child was born, or the parents have died, or other official family documents have been misplaced - all of which mean that a birth certificate cannot be issued.

This is why we hire two lawyers!

In the last few years, our two lawyers, both fresh out of uni, have helped 132 families get their paperwork and legal documents. Considering that it can take weeks of investigative work and gathering evidence, 132 is quite an incredible feat.

And last week, the number reached 133. This was perhaps the most difficult case we've so far encountered, because the family in question had absolutely no evidence at all of who they were or where they were from. Their oldest daughter Quyen is now 18, and her school has been very flexible in allowing her to enrol and study - but to get her final mark and then apply for university, Quyen must have her papers in order.

Final Grade 12 exams are just weeks away, and university entrance exams will follow in July. Our lawyer Hong has been working feverishly to get the papers in time - and with a huge sigh of relief, last week Hong could declare 'case closed.' Quyen, along with her mother, brother and sister, now has all the official paperwork she needs. Her birth has been registered, she has an ID card, and her mother even has registration back in the village where she was born.

Getting some papers just seems so unimportant, but Quyen's mother was crying with joy when she returned to our centre after traveling with Hong to the village. I really felt embarrassed receiving her profuse thanks, but I could see how important this was to her. They weren't just papers, they were the family's legal existence and their right to take part in society.

And with that done, here's hoping Quyen's final exams give her the result she's hoping for!


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Dragon House

One day last year, completely out of the blue, I received an email from an author named John Shors.

Having lived under a rock for the past 7 years, I hadn't read John Shors' novels, even though he's had a couple of best sellers. But John was working on a new project: a story about street kids in Vietnam. Would I mind having a look at the manuscript and perhaps giving some feedback, John asked?

As someone who plans to publish a best seller one day, but has yet to write it, I was excited to take this on... and I was curious to see how this writer would portray the world of Vietnamese street children. What I was most interested to see was if John would fall into the trap of cliches and stereotypes that plague most literature on the subject - both fiction and non fiction. Even many big NGOs produce material that merely perpetuates the myths of either the 'poor helpless victim' or the 'prince-in-paupers-clothing'. The truth, as always, is far more complex than any stereotype.

But in John Shors' novel, soon to be published, these cliches are nowhere to be seen. I was sometimes stunned to see the depth of the characters, and the understanding of reality that is portrayed across the pages. An example: early in the novel, there's a scene in which the 2 main street children are hussling tourists in a restaurant area of a hotel. As they leave, the staff demand a 'cut' of their takings. This is the sort of thing you never read about, yet it's typical of how street kids here are treated.

And the title? Dragon House. Too amazing.

Anyway, I don't want to give too much away. But I can say that there is no scene at the end where one person turns to another and says, "Luke, I'm your father." For anything more than that, though, you'll have to get your hands onto the book. It's really worth it.

John Shors already has a website up - Go check it out, and pass the word along.

In a few weeks, I'll add a page to the Blue Dragon website. John has offered that anybody who donates $100 to our Dragon House page can receive a signed copy of the novel. All the money raised will go towards running our centre for street kids.

I'm really excited by this! I feel that it's a huge honour to have a novelist lend his support to our work; and I know that readers will gain a much greater understanding of life on the streets of Vietnam.

More updates on this to come...


Monday, May 04, 2009

She's in!

One of our teen girls, Linh, has just received the GREAT news that she's been accepted into the KOTO training program here in Hanoi. She's thrilled, but also aware of the 2 years of hard work that lies ahead.

KOTO is a hospitality training organisation that prepares disadvantaged youth for jobs in restaurants, hotels, and tourism. Getting in to the program isn't easy - they are regularly flooded with applicants but can only accept about 30 kids per intake. So Linh has had to work really hard to get this placement.

Linh deserves this chance, and she really needs it. This could be her 'lucky break'... KOTO graduates really do go on to great jobs with bright futures.

We all wish you well, Linh; we know you can do this!

Friday, May 01, 2009

Farewell for now

Blue Dragon has been caring for the 30 kids at the Hoi An Children's Home since 2007, but our history with the Home goes back a few years earlier than that.

As early as 2003, when I was living in Hanoi and spending my free time in Hoi An, I would drop in to the Home to see the Director, Mrs Diep, and catch up with the children. There are 30 girls and boys there, all from extremely poor families in remote rural areas, who otherwise would not have the chance to go to school. The Home itself is a very humble place, in need of demolition and a complete rebuild, but there's always been a tremendous spirit of hope and happiness there.

On one of my occasional visits in 2004, I met a new volunteer who had turned up to teach English and run activities for a few weeks. Nicole Woods, from Australia, was a young lawyer taking some time off and wanting to get involved in a worthwhile project.

Just for a few weeks.

Five years later, Nicole is finally getting ready to leave Hoi An and return to Australia.

Quite a few things have happened in the past 5 years! When I first met Nicole, Blue Dragon had no formal involvement with the Home at all; but as the weeks turned into months and then years, it was clear that Nicole was passionate about these kids and determined to improve their conditions. The Home needed some help, and Nicole was ready to do it (and capable): so at that time we made the decision that Blue Dragon would get involved.

With Nicole supported through the VIDA organisation, Blue Dragon assumed management of the Home and within months the Home had staff, social workers, and administrative systems in place.

Nicole has been an extraordinary manager. It's unusual to find someone so thorough and competent with administration, while also so completely in tune with the children.

Yesterday was Nicole's last day at the Home. As it was a public holiday, she gave the staff team the day off and stood in as the supervisor to spend some time with the kids.

She's not just leaving, though - Nicole is going back to Australia to have a baby. After years of caring for the children of others, she's decided it's time to start her own family.

Nicole will fly off soon, but will be back before the end of the year and is likely to return to the Home. We'll miss her while she's away, and she'll be missing the kids terribly; but we're already thinking of her return.

Take care, Nicole, and may your own child bring as much joy to you as you have to so many.

Where's Wally? Nicole is hidden away among
the crowd of past and present residents of
the Hoi An Children's Home