Thursday, July 30, 2009

Excellent results!

The little guy in the photo above is named Loi; he's about 12 years old and lives in a village in Hue. He has a moderate form of cerebral palsy, and because of this he had never been to school before Blue Dragon staff met him and provided him with the support and encouragement to go study.

He's just finished Grade 1, and he's the only person in his class to receive a certificate of excellence! This is great news for him, and also suggests that he's extremely bright: kids who start school so late rarely achieve outstanding results.

Some more great results today from our older teens who have been taking part in a cooking class organised by Mr Ha, the owner of Matchbox restaurant. He's been teaching about 6 of our kids through the summer; today, the group traveled over to his restaurant for a 'final exam', which was fairly serious but also a lot of fun.

Two girls, Phuong and Phuong Anh, received a prize for achieving the best overall results. I'll post some pics of the cooking exam tomorrow!


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Son of a gold miner

Blue Dragon has recently been joined by a new teenage boy, Huy, whose life is off to a pretty rotten start.

Huy is aged about 15, and he was orphaned by HIV a couple of years ago. His story sounds extraordinary, but the circumstances that lead to the death of his parents aren't so unusual.

About 5 years back, his father was taken to work in a gold mine. I say "taken," although I am not sure of the exact circumstances - it's unclear if he chose to go to the mine, or he was somehow tricked or abducted.

Once there, though, the mining "company" doesn't have an employment contract; instead, they have heroin. They shoot heroin up the arms of all the miners, to get them hooked so that they cannot escape. The mines are isolated, and the workers have no money, so once they are addicted they are essentially prisoners, but the shackles are white powder injected through a needle.

And in the interest of saving money, there's just one needle. Everyone shares.

Eventually, every miner succumbs to HIV. They are then sent away - fired, in essence, and sent home. With no idea of why they are so ill, and no knowledge of HIV or safe sex, they slowly die at home and chances are they will pass the infection on to their wife.

So it was with Huy's family. First his father died, and then his mother.

And then, the village gossip begins.

As other families start talking and speculating, the taunting starts - on the streets, and then at school.

For Huy, the discrimination at school lead him to drop out. He was not only being teased, but also set apart from his classmates and left out of games and sports.

So Huy has found his way to Blue Dragon, and is enjoying the new freedom he has. He'll be starting at school soon, and this time nobody will know about his past.

There's no way we can make up for all that has happened, but at least Huy can have a new chance to make something of his life.

And meantime, I am left wondering... how many more families have been devastated by this barbaric practice? How many more orphans are out there because of this awful system of gold mining?


Friday, July 24, 2009

Our Kathryn

Here's an article in a Sydney newspaper about Kathryn Freeman, a Blue Dragon volunteer who recently returned home:


Saturday, July 18, 2009

The comeback kids

Social enterprises are the latest craze in the world of development... and for once, it's a 'craze' that seems to be helpful and worthwhile.

The idea of a social enterprise is this: it's a profit making business that also has social, or environmental, goals. In Vietnam, there are several such enterprises that provide training to disadvantaged youth, particularly in the hospitality field. Blue Dragon has ventured this way with one enterprise called VIP Bikes, and many similar business are popping up all over the place.

While I support the idea of a social enterprise, the model has its limits. Recently someone was advising me that Blue Dragon should work more like a social enterprise, with a greater emphasis on training and job placement. The theory sounds good, but in practice it has its drawbacks.

Most of the kids Blue Dragon works with have been damaged by neglect and abuse. Some have been addicted to heroin; many have lived on the streets with nobody other than a gang to protect and care for them. Getting young people from such harsh backgrounds into training and jobs, and keeping them there, is quite a challenge.

So here's the dilemma that we face: if we chose to work with only those kids who are highly motivated, well behaved, and eager to learn, we could have a terrific success rate for all the world to see. But doing so means turning our backs on kids who have lived on the streets for years, run away from abusive families, and find relief in addiction and crime.

A social enterprise simply cannot work with kids from the latter group. How can a training restaurant operate with waiters who are in the habit of violently attacking anyone who criticises them, or with cooks who have never followed rules before in their lives?

But surely kids from such backgrounds also need some kind of program to at least offer them a chance at change.

This is what Blue Dragon does. Any young person who wants some help can come and talk to us, and have the chance to get back to school or find a job. Even those who have failed, again and again.

Over time, we have seen kids succeed when nobody thought they could. We've also seen kids who appeared to be doing really well suddenly fall away, lured by fast money or the excitement of the streets.

During the past week, we had to make the very difficult decision to send away two teenage boys who have been living in our Hanoi residence. Both have been with us for some years, and although they both made good progress in the past, neither has been working or studying for the past few months, despite their many promises and commitments to make a better effort. They've been having a great time in our house, but they haven't been keeping up their end of the bargain - to study, to learn, to prepare to be independent of us.

Friday night was their first night away from Blue Dragon for a very long time. And I think it came as a huge shock to them.

But for each of them, this is not the end. They were both at the rollerskating rink on Saturday afternoon, knowing that they'd see the other kids and me there. As I was leaving, one rolled up to me and asked to see me on Sunday morning. We'll see how that goes.

It hurts terribly to have to send kids away, to tell them that we can't help any more. I'm just hoping it will cause both of them to realise that they, too, have a duty and that they need to be making an effort.

We've seen plenty of young people in the past turnaround when nobody thought it possible. This is the strength of the way Blue Dragon works with street kids. There's always another chance; we just need the kids to make a comeback on their own, and we'll be right there waiting for them.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Dead man swimming

I'm going to have to revise the comment in my last blog, in which I said that the week finished up much better than it started. There was a rather sudden and unusual turn of events on Sunday afternoon, when I took the kids from our residential home to the swimming pool.

We take the kids swimming a lot - not only as recreation, but also to teach them the skill of swimming. Drowning is a major cause of death here in Vietnam, and on top of that very few people know CPR. Because of this, we have invested a lot of time in teaching our kids and staff some first aid, and just a couple of months back we also ran a CPR course over a weekend.

On Sunday we were at the pool as usual, and one of our older kids noticed a man floating face down in the water - so he dived in, realised the guy wasn't kidding around, and pulled him out. Lifeguards were called, but they didn't seem to know any CPR, and the attempt at resuscitation that followed was fairly futile. A foreign man who was also swimming there knew a bit more than the pool staff, but I think the man had had a heart attack, and CPR probably wasn't much help anyway. An ambulance was called, but they didn't arrive until I was leaving, about half an hour later.

So our weekend frolic at the pool ended in our kids watching a man die. His wife and their young child were with him, so there were some traumatic scenes.

Given this awful situation to be in, I was really proud of the Blue Dragon kids. Because of the tough lives that they have lived, the local community often stereotypes them and can be extraordinarily harsh on them. Our kids get blamed for pretty much anything that happens, but the reality is that they stand head and shoulders above their peers as well as their elders.

The Blue Dragon boy who saw this man in the water was the one to dive in to see if he was OK; he was also the one to call for help and start the CPR process. And while another group of teens at the pool were laughing and joking about the great excitement of it all, our kids stood back quietly, worried to see this unfold about them, looking to me in the hope that I could help.

In the end all I could do was round our kids up and get them back to their home. Another of our staff came to meet us, to talk through what had happened and make sure they weren't traumatised by what had happened. Vietnamese people are big believers in ghosts and superstition, so I wasn't sure what the kids would be thinking - or fearing - after this. Two of the boys who were there lost their own younger brother in a drowning incident a few years ago.

But despite it all they seemed fine: shocked to see how easily and quickly life can be extinguished, as was I, but that's only to be expected. Another tough life lesson, but once again I have reason to be proud of the Blue Dragon children.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Look into my eyes

While the summer holidays roll on, we've taken the chance to get our kids down to the local eye hospital for check ups. (Summer is FUN at Blue Dragon!) The kids with disabilities who we support are usually at their special schools all day every day, so the summer break is the only time to do things like this.

A few people wrote to me through the week to say "hope things get better" after my less-than-cheerful blog on Monday. Actually things got worse before they got better - but they did get better and I'm really enjoying the weekend. Saturdays and Sundays are great for hanging out with the kids at the soccer, rollerskating, and swimming pool, so it doesn't at all feel like work and I get to see some sunshine!


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Mummy dish day

While the school holidays are on, Blue Dragon staff are organising lots of extra activities for the kids who are coming to hang out at our centre.

The challenge is to not just organise fun games, but to make sure the kids are learning along the way... and that's not just 'school learning', but also life skills, and learning about nutrition and health.

One of the coolest activities running at the moment is "Mummy dish day," which is being held every Friday afternoon. One of our social workers, Phuong, has been organising this: it's an event just for the kids with disabilities, who we don't see much of during the school year as they're all off at special schools and facilities.

"Mummy dish day" is a chance for one parent each week to come along and teach the children how to make one or two dishes. Last Friday the kids were making che when I walked in - a sweet liquid dessert famous in Vietnam - and without a doubt, the eating was at least as much fun as the cooking.

The pictures below show some of the kids learning with a mum (in the black shirt). Such a simple activity, but a great way to help the disabled kids develop some skills while also giving their parents a chance to shine!


Monday, July 06, 2009

Hard to blog

After a flurry of blogging a few months back, I've fallen into a lull - so much to write about, but no idea where to start!

When I set out to create this blog back in 2005, my idea was to create a direct and immediate line of communication between me here in Hanoi, and the supporters and friends of Blue Dragon all around the world. I wanted to let them know what was going on in our big family of street kids.

It's turned out that the process of writing each blog has become a kind of therapy for me. I'm forced to ask what I really think and believe; and quite often the very act of writing helps me to understand myself a little better.

At other times, though, I am so lost that I don't even know where to start.

For any foreigner living in Vietnam, life can be a little on the crazy side every day; but working with street kids, and being involved in the lives of people who've been trafficked / abused / arrested / tortured... well, that takes the craziness to a whole new level.

I often feel that life is out of control: anything can happen, at any time. Sure, that's roughly true everywhere in the world; but here, the range of 'anything can happen' is a little broader. Here are some insights into events just in the past 7 days:

- a complete stranger rides his motorbike up to me outside the Blue Dragon residence (where up to 17 very needy teenagers live) and says: "Hi, I just bought this building so I'm the new landlord. Now I'd like to see your rental contract." We didn't even know the building was for sale, and now we don't know if our 5 year contract on the house will be honoured, or if we need to start looking for a new home!

- I receive a phone call that one of the teens from Blue Dragon has been in a motorbike accident, and he's either dead or in hospital. (Two people were involved in the accident, and one had died; but the police were not sure who was who). Would I mind going down to the hospital to work out if the Blue Dragon kid is dead or alive? (He was alive).

- a staff member rings in to announce that she's quitting, and she's never coming back. The next day, she rings in to apologise and ask if she can come back to work.

- a 14 year old boy calls me to say he plans to go to the Chinese border, as he's been invited to join a gang of thieves that promises to help him earn at least $1000 within a few months. Despite my warnings, he goes - but he's back within 36 hours as his best friend has been arrested. Oh, and would I help with some money for the friend to pay a fine?

- the Thai Embassy in Hanoi invites us to nominate two of our older kids to travel to Thailand for a study tour; we select two teens, a boy and a girl, who are excited beyond belief at the chance! But completely out of nowhere, the father of the boy - who I can honestly say has done nothing for his son in the 4 years that I have known him - decides that Thailand is far too dangerous a destination, and forbids his son from going. The boy is devastated, as are we.

I could go on... but you get the picture. Life here is anything but boring, but sometimes the constant curve balls from left field become overwhelming.

In the midst of all these events (which, I should add, are considered pretty ordinary around the Blue Dragon HQ) we're preparing budgets for the coming 12 months, developing program and fundraising plans, and analysing our finances from the past year. It strikes me that there appears to be a massive disconnect between the 'formal' side of my work as the Director of an NGO, and the blow-by-blow reality of my life.

But is there really a huge gap between the two - or are they just different faces of the one coin?

I think it's the latter, but with my head still spinning from the events of the day I don't think I can reach any logical conclusions. I'll just wait for the world to slow down and get back to blogging about something that I can get my mind around.