Sunday, May 30, 2010

Busy times

The last 2 weeks have been busy times at Blue Dragon - I've hardly had a chance to update the blog.

Last week I spent 4 days in Hue, visiting families in our anti-trafficking program. We've rescued about 60 children who were trafficked from Hue to garment factories in Ho Chi Minh City, and we're in the early stages of preparing another trip. My trip, though, was mostly to see how our work there is progressing.

Once kids have been freed from the factories and returned home, Blue Dragon's work involves getting them back to school; building homes if needed; and helping parents learn to become self sufficient.

Many of the 'solutions' to child trafficking are in simple, practical approaches. For the past 6 months we've been running a pilot project teaching aquaculture to some parents to help them improve their incomes. It's been a great success, so now we're getting ready to extend it to 10 more families. In another village, we've identified that the poorest families are struggling because their access to the main road is limited, meaning they have to travel much further than everybody else to get to the markets to sell their produce. So we're hatching a plan to build a new road to link their village to the highway.

We've never built a road before, but if that's what they need then that's what we'll do.

Back to the north of Vietnam, and last weekend we held the Closing Ceremony of our Stay In School program. We gathered about 300 students together, from Grades 5 to 12, to celebrate their completion of another school year. These are kids who are from the poorest families in their district, and without some outside help are pretty unlikely to stay in school.

This year, 35 students in our program have completed Grade 12. That's 35 kids who otherwise would be working in factories and shops now, despite their academic ability.

Over the past week a lot of my attention has been taken with matters at our Hanoi HQ. We've started our first ever fundraising appeal, and I believe we're almost half way now to our goal of $30,000. Blue Dragon has also said farewell to some staff who are moving on from us - never a happy time.

To top it all off I've been struck down with a recurring muscle problem in my shoulder, but thankfully was still able to give a speech to the Hanoi International School Year 12 graduation ceremony.

So, a busy couple of weeks, but some great progress with our work. Summer holidays are starting now, which means our drop-in centre is about to get a whole lot busier.

More to come soon!


Monday, May 24, 2010

The Appeal

Blue Dragon's shelter for street kids in Hanoi is among our most important programs.

Seventeen boys are living at the Home at the moment. Some of these are kids who were rescued by our staff from child traffickers; some are orphans; some just don't have family they can live with.

All of the kids at the Shelter are trying to make a better life for themselves.

The Shelter is a rented building, and right now we have a chance to secure a long term lease on it: but we need to raise $60,000US, which is way out of our league.

Except... Planet Wheeler in Australia has made us an amazing offer. If we can raise $30,000 by July 31, they'll match every donation dollar for dollar. In other words, they'll double all donations so that we can be sure of keeping our street kids' shelter.

We've never made a public appeal like this before, but this is something really important to us. This is a chance for us to provide security and certainty to the kids who rely on us for their livelihood.

If this is something that you, or your school, company or church can help with, go to our donations page; and be sure to email us to let us know that your donation is intended for this appeal.

My colleague James is keeping a record of donations to see if we can reach the target - drop him a line at



Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Buffalo shirts

Buffalo Tours in Vietnam has created a set of kids-sized T shirts featuring artwork by Blue Dragon children. How cool are these!

Buffalo is selling them - for about $10 each (plus postage)! With all of the proceeds going to Blue Dragon! How many more exclamation-pointed-sentences can I write??!!

To get your hands on them, write to Rick at Buffalo Tours:


Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Every Sunday morning, the Blue Dragon football team gets together for an hour of soccer by the Red River. Anywhere from 40 to 80 kids attend, most of whom are street kids or from seriously disadvantaged families.

Last Sunday we organised a workshop for the under-15s on injury prevention and treatment. A total of 21 kids joined in, spending an hour with a brilliant young doctor (pictured in the white shirt) who gave the kids some really practical advice on staying safe while playing sport.

The kids learned lots and had a great time. This coming Sunday: a workshop for the over-15s!


Monday, May 17, 2010

Sorrow and adrenaline

I started last week by writing a well defined "To do" list. In hindsight, that was just tempting fate.

Two major events came to dominate the week; both involved the homes of Blue Dragon staff being attacked, in completely unrelated incidents.

One staff member had a couple of men turn up throwing rocks and calling out; shortly after, one of our program homes was also attacked, presumably by the same people. Eventually the men fled into the night, leaving everyone afraid but unharmed.

A few days later, another staff member started receiving threatening phone messages, only to find that a group of men armed with knives were waiting near his home to create an ambush. Fortunately, we were able to talk reason with the men, and finished up shaking hands and going separate ways. We still have no idea who they were or what they wanted, but it all seems to be resolved now.

These events have been stressful on everyone, but equally I have found them deeply saddening. The 2 staff involved are both great people; each has made many sacrifices to make life better for disadvantaged kids, and neither deserves to be made to fear for their safety.

I'm pretty sure (or at least very hopeful) that both of these incidents have been more about creating fear than threatening real harm. If the attacks had been aimed at me - well, I could be more understanding about that. I've dealt with plenty of threats over the past few years, and while I'd rather not have any more, I'd still prefer to be the one taking the blows.

This week, I won't bother with the "To do" list - last week's version will most likely remain current for a while longer!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Swim time

Here's a frightening fact:

Today in Vietnam, 10 children will drown.

And tomorrow, 10 more.

Despite being a nation inundated with water, very few people here know how to swim. Add to that the general belief in luck / fortune ("No need to supervise the kids down at the lake, nothing is likely to go wrong") and you have a recipe for disaster.

And 10 kids drowning every day is a disaster.

In a country with 85 million people, this is a tricky problem to solve. That's a lot of people who need to learn how to swim - but who can teach, if so few people have the skills?

One 'easy' answer is to run awareness campaigns. Blue Dragon once ran such a campaign for the kids in one of our programs; but awareness is nowhere near enough. Even the UN and the Vietnamese government seem to be stuck on this - telling people that they should fence off houses near water is woefully inadequate. Action, not words, are need.

Vietnamese kids need to learn how to swim.

With summer coming on, Blue Dragon is preparing to start up it's annual swimming program. Foreign volunteers taught our Vietnamese staff to swim back in 2005; those staff have now taught all our other staff, and each year we teach the kids from our Hanoi centre basic water survival and swimming techniques.

The kids love it, of course, and there are a handful of teens at our centre who have lost family members to drowning accidents, so they also appreciate the opportunity to learn.

We've just had some good news, too, that the German European School in Singapore is holding a swim gala this month, and all the money they raise will be for us to run our 2010 swimming program.

We won't be able to teach thousands of kids to swim, but every child who learns will be better able to survive in the water. And in years to come, they'll be teaching their own children how to swim.

Friday, May 07, 2010

... and another, not quite so.

After our success at reuniting 15 year old Son with his family on Tuesday, we've had a more difficult time with the 14 year old boy, Hoang, who we've also been working with.

On Wednesday afternoon, Hoang agreed to go home to his family - and it turned out that our fears of his safety at home had been a little overstated. There were (and are) definitely some issues, but nothing that should really prevent Hoang from being with his folks.

Two of the staff accompanied Hoang back to the countryside, and spent some hours talking to his family. Our experience with runaways - all of whom are from rural areas - tells us that kids often leave home because there's a tremendous gulf between them and their parents. It's more than just a 'gap'.

Vietnamese teens are exposed to the world through TV and the internet; they see hip hop culture, city life, and fast money. It all seems so exciting and attractive, and a small problem at home (an argument with dad, a rude comment from a teacher) becomes the spark to cause the child to run away to Hanoi.

The parents, meantime, have no way of understanding such behaviour. Their own teenage years were spent in hardship and deprivation. Having lived in Vietnam for 8 years, I am yet to meet anybody aged 25 or over who does NOT have memories of going hungry. But to the kids, that might as well be a story from ancient history. There's so much more to the world now! Concerns about this are regularly raised in local papers, too, like this story.

Little Hoang is in exactly this position. His parents are strict and want him to do well at school; they don't understand his obsession with computer games. Every chance he has, Hoang is at the internet shop. He's been skipping school, borrowing money, and focusing entirely on games. Not knowing how to deal with that, his parents and teachers have simply tried being stricter and stricter - until he ran away some weeks ago.

Finally, though, we got him home and we thought everything would be fine - but Hoang only lasted one night. He ran away the next morning, and headed straight back to the internet cafes of Hanoi.

So... we still have some work to do. I think the next step will be to bring Hoang's parents to Hanoi and try to get both Hoang and his parents to attend some counselling.

Looks like this little guy is going to need some ongoing help to get through these difficult times.


Tuesday, May 04, 2010

One happy ending...

This text message just came through my phone:

Son is with his family now. Everyone is happy.

Of the two runway boys we've been caring for, we now have a great result for one. Son, the older of the 2, is now back with his parents. Two of the Blue Dragon staff accompanied him to his village, after helping him to see that he does need to be back at home instead of living on the streets.

The staff have also just spent a couple of hours talking with Son's family - they too need some ideas and strategies for looking after their kids to prevent this from happening again. Apparently Son has run away many times before! But it appears that the family's problems are not insurmountable.

Son is pictured below, outside his house. Tomorrow we will spend time with the other runaway boy, whose situation seems much more complex. Here's hoping for some more good news soon.


Monday, May 03, 2010

Runaways for the long weekend

I returned to Vietnam on Wednesday night, and after just one day at the centre, Vietnam has been on holidays - a 4 day long weekend!

Although the centre has been closed, there have been 2 tiny runaway boys, aged 14 and 15, in our care. A couple of the staff - both former street kids themselves - have been helping me to look after them. The 2 boys (from different provinces) have apparently run away many times before, and it's clear that they both have some serious issues at home. Our only progress so far is that we've been able to find out their real names, and make contact with their families over the phone. At this point, though, there's no sign of them agreeing to us visiting their homes.

Dealing with runaways can be very complicated for Blue Dragon. Our first priority is to protect the kids, but we don't have any legal authority to support children or let them live in our homes without their parents' permission. Which means that in cases where we are sure there's some kind of abuse taking place, we still have a legal obligation to either reunite the child with the family, or refuse the child any ongoing support from our organisation.

To date, we've mostly been able to work out compromises. Some of the 56 runaway children we have helped so far have gone to live with a relative, such as an aunt or grandparent, instead of going back to an abusive home life. Others have eventually moved in to Blue Dragon homes, with the permission (or at least the knowledge) of their parents.

For these 2 new kids, I'm really not sure how we're going to find a safe, long term solution!