Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The source of the problem

I often write on this blog about the work that Blue Dragon Children's Foundation does to rescue kids who have been trafficked within Vietnam. Typically, they are taken from rural provinces under false pretenses (usually for "training") and end up as unpaid workers in home-based garment factories.

Finding trafficked kids, and getting them away from their "employers" is an exciting and rewarding part of our work.

However, it is only a part of our work. Once the kids are free from the traffickers, our job is to ensure the kids are safe, and can return to their communities and schools.

This part of our work is even more difficult than getting the kids out of factories. It involves finding out why the children were trafficked in the first place - getting to the source of the problem, and then developing the cure.

One of the common causes is a lack of community awareness of the dangers of children going to work far from home.

Another is a family's inability to pay school fees, which causes the children to drop out and then have nothing to do.

And sometimes, families let their kids be trafficked because the family home is simply inadequate.

When we take the trafficked kids home, we have to quickly evaluate the child's living conditions. If the physical building is obviously run down, too small, or (as sometimes happens) non-existent, our top priority is to build a new house.

Here are 2 houses which we have just built for kids who we rescued from factories last December.



... and another:



Apart from fulfilling the very important role of providing a safe roof over the heads of the children, the construction of a new house tells the families that they were right to bring their kids home; that their life is now getting better and they needn't fear the future.

You might notice that we don't put a plaque on the new houses, which is the standard practice for "charity houses." We don't want the families to feel indebted to us - this is their house, which they need and deserve, so we don't need to put the Blue Dragon name on it.

In coming months, we plan to build some more houses in Hue, but there's one that stands out as particularly urgent. This is for one of the boys, named Xiu, who we brought home just a couple of weeks ago. His house is in a perilous state and I can't imagine that it will survive the coming typhoon season.

Anyone with a $2000 - $2500 who wants to change the life of a family - drop me a line at!


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Changing minds

I spent yesterday in Yen Phong district of Bac Ninh province, about 40km outside of Hanoi.

There were two important events going on.

First, we had the official start of a building project in a school. Thanks to a private donor from England, we are about to start constructing a library inside the grounds of Yen Trung Secondary School. This will be our second library.

Our role is to fund the construction of the library, but the local community also has some involvement. One local building expert, Mr Quy, has donated his time for free to oversee the construction. The local government is paying for all of the furniture and equipment to go inside the library. And we expect that some families of the students will be helping with some of the work. So - an all-round team effort.

After we had a short ceremony to mark the start of construction, I traveled with our program coordinator, Tuyen, to visit the home of a girl named Thoa who lives with her mother and a little sister. She's just finished Grade 7, and her school results were so good that she was invited to Hanoi to receive an award from the Prime Minister! Chatting with her for just a few minutes was enough to see that this girl has a real spark - not only brilliant academically, but she has a real character... there's just something about her that tells me she's got an amazing future ahead of her. (There she is with her award, outside her new house).

However, when Tuyen first met Thoa last year, the family was living in dreadful conditions. They had taken up residence in one third of a relative's open-fronted barn. Looking at it today, I can't imagine how they survived the freezing winters in there. I don't think they even had electricity.

Today was the "Opening Ceremony" of a new house for Thoa and her family. With a grant from St Elizabeth's University in Slovakia, Blue Dragon has built a new house for the family - and it's a great house if I do say so myself! The shower, toilet and kitchen are all separate facilities, and there's even insulation in the ceiling.

As with the library, though, we called on the community to make a contribution too. The most valuable contribution was the donation of land by a relative - who initially refused to help the family in any way. In fact, when Tuyen was first talking to the community about helping the family, everyone refused. Nobody wanted to help at all. In the end, though, they not only donated the land, but they went further to help with the construction. The final result was one of the best houses we've built yet - and all for about $2000US!

After these ceremonies, Tuyen and I went to visit a primary school that is asking us for help. The deputy principal met us and showed us around - he didn't care one bit that it's summer holidays. He really cares about his kids and he was super keen to know if Blue Dragon might be able to support local kids from poor families to go to school, so they don't have to drop out.

Of course we are going to help with that - how could we not? - but it was the deputy principal's reasoning that really blew me away.

To paraphrase, he was saying: Please help us. If you can just help a little bit, I can then use that to encourage the local community to do their bit, too. Right now there are people around who could help, but they don't want to. If I can show them that you are helping, I can make them change their mind and see that they also have a responsibility to help.

I've never heard it expressed so succinctly before. But how true it is: whether it's building a library, building a home, or supporting kids to go to school, part of our impact is in getting the broader community to step up and start helping out.

We've been doing this for years, but until yesterday I'd never realised it!

(And just on a side note, Blue Dragon funds much of its work in Bac Ninh province through a child sponsorship system. THANK YOU to our wonderful sponsors around the world. If you're not a sponsor but would like to be, email James - - or check out our website).


Monday, June 21, 2010

The wrong side

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been writing a lot about the good things that our kids have done - and there's much more that I could say!

But Blue Dragon is not an organisation that only helps the kids who are well behaved. There are some charities here in Hanoi that work that way. If a kid stuffs up, she or he gets kicked out. There's one group I can think of that boasts a 100% success rate for its 'graduates'; but they only achieve that by kicking out any kids who are difficult to help.

Our kids, by contrast, are a mixed bunch. Some of our children really are the angels that I make them out to be, while others spend much of their time on the wrong side of the law.

This morning, one of our boys here in Hanoi was in court on a charge of aggravated robbery. He's 15 years old now, but was 14 when he and a group of 5 others attacked and robbed another 14 year old on the street. Our boy - let's call him "Nam" - received a suspended sentence for his role in the crime, in part because his father recently died, and in part because he is with Blue Dragon and our lawyers could testify that he's been trying really hard lately to get his life back on track. The other teens involved in the robbery were sent to prison - one of the boys got 3 years.

There's one other Blue Dragon kid in detention at the moment, awaiting trial for burning down his school. One boy is in prison on a serious drug charge. Two more were picked up by police for sleeping on the streets and are now in a "social protection" centre, while 3 more are in reform school. Another three are in drug rehab.

So what does all this mean? Are we doing a bad job? Should we really be helping kids who are getting into trouble and disobeying the law?

Are we making the problem worse by supporting them?

These are tough questions, and we do face them from time to time. The police aren't very happy when they arrest a young person on the street who says "I'm from Blue Dragon." It does make them wonder what on earth we are doing.

But it would be simplistic to say that the problems would disappear if we withdrew our support from kids who are getting in to trouble. With young Nam who was in court this morning, we know for sure that he would have been involved in that crime whether or not he was coming to Blue Dragon. The difference is that, by having an association, we are able to influence and guide him down a better path.

There are also plenty of kids in our programs who used to lead lives of crime, but now have jobs or attend school and live in stable homes. We could never have predicted which kids would choose to change, and which would not. Of those who have made a change, none made it very quickly. They all took time, patience, and (in many cases) a whole lot of 'second chances'.

Now that Nam's court case is over, he too has another chance to make some good choices. Our job will continue to be to offer support, some role models, and guidance. Whether or not we 'succeed' is almost beside the point. We've got to try.

Who's going to believe in these kids if we don't?


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Text me

OK, I confess: I'm a texter.

I guess it's the introvert side of my nature that much prefers to send text messages from my phone than to ring. It drives some people crazy, so it's always nice to meet others who also prefers to text than to talk.

Over the 7 years or so that Blue Dragon has been in operation, I can't imagine how many messages I've sent and received. The irony is that when I left Australia, back in March 2002, one of my quiet joys was packing away my mobile phone, thinking: I won't be needing that again.

I was wrong!

Many of my days are shaped by the messages that reach me. Sometimes I need to keep my messages recorded (or at least transcribed) for the sake of keeping evidence!

This morning started off with this one: Can you buy me some rice or something to eat? I want to be safe. Last night someone tried to kill me.

Going back a few years, I was having what we Australians call "a shocker" of a day. Among countless other messages going back and forth, one of my staff sent me this: I am with her in the brothel now. An hour and a half later, in response to my message asking Are you OK? the reply was: Not yet. Can you ask someone to contact the police? (This was one of our rescue trips to retrieve trafficked girls - and everything turned out fine in the end).

At times the messages which reach my phone can be quite emotional. In January this year, I met a street kid in Ho Chi Minh City who had apparently never had somebody show any real concern for him before. I was in town for just a few days, and spent a lot of time with him and his relatives, who saw him as being nothing more than a worker for their family business. When I left to return to Hanoi, the boy sent me this message: Em khoc sap het nuoc mat roi, which roughly translates as: I've nearly cried away all my tears already. Looking back at that message still leaves me feel a pit in the bottom of my stomach.

Other messages bring me real happiness. After our China trip in March this year, one of my staff accompanied the three girls back to their villages to reunite them with their families. This was the message I received: I just came back from the village. It was great. The girls were very happy. Wish you could hear a thousand thankful words.

And then there are the abusive messages - I get some of those, too! Not everyone appreciates the work I do, it seems. But I won't repeat any of them here...


Thursday, June 17, 2010

We made it!

I'm really happy to announce that Blue Dragon's special appeal for our street children's shelter in Hanoi has reached the $30,000 mark!

This means that Planet Wheeler in Australia will donate a matching amount - giving us about enough rent money to ensure we can stay there for 5 years.

Phew. Thank you, everyone.

We are still able to accept donations for the appeal - more funding means greater security - but please be aware that further contributions cannot be 'matched'.

To all who donated - big smiles from the Blue Dragon team!


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Such things

The Vietnamese journalist who wrote this article put the question to me during our discussions: Do you agree with the experts who say that Vietnam can not stamp out child labour and trafficking?

Vietnam has a problem with child trafficking and exploitation. There's no question about that. Yesterday, my team removed a 10 year old girl from a factory in Saigon.

She was 1 of 11 kids we rescued altogether. The oldest was about 15 - but of the 11, only one knew their date of birth, so precise ages are a bit hard to determine. What I can say is that they were all tiny, and none should have been working in a garment factory.

Of the 11, 3 are completely illiterate. Only one has completed Grade 6. Another 4 have an education level below Grade 4.

Yes, this is a problem. But it is not unique to Vietnam, and it is not insurmountable.

A few hundred years ago, the poet William Blake was writing about the awful atrocities inflicted upon children in England. Kids were being stuffed down chimneys as a way of clearing soot - and this was considered a legitimate job for a child!

"Are such things done on Albion's shore?" he asked. Yes they were; but not for much longer. Such things would today lead to lengthy prison sentences and a massive public outcry.

Vietnam is now headed down the same road. In taking those 11 kids out of factories on Monday and Tuesday, Blue Dragon Children's Foundation - along with the Hue Red Cross and government officials - were not just restoring freedom to a few disadvantaged children. We were hurting the traffickers and factory owners who have invested their time and money into recruiting these slaves. We were also drawing public attention to the crime of exploitative child labour.

This is exactly what needs to be done for Vietnam to shake off the shackles of child trafficking.

I'm not sure if there really are any experts who say Vietnam can't get past this problem. If there are - well, I'm not sure that they should be called "experts."

I believe completely that child trafficking and exploitation in Vietnam can be brought pretty close to an end. (I qualify that, because every country in the world has this problem; it's just a matter of scale).

I also believe that the end may be in our lifetime. Such things cannot be tolerated much longer.

The 11 kids freed from factories on June 14 and 15, 2010

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Lost and found

Blue Dragon staff are working in Ho Chi Minh City at the moment looking for trafficked children from central Vietnam.

So far, from among the garment factories of the industrial districts, we have retrieved 6 kids - 5 girls and one boy.

As the search goes in, it becomes harder, as we lose the element of surprise and word gets around the factories that we're in the city.

I'll give a full report in the next day or so, when we've wrapped up and the children are on their way home.

A related matter - this article appeared in Thanh Nien newspaper over the weekend, discussing the issue of child trafficking and exploitation within Vietnam.


Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Appeal - Part 2

Just a couple of weeks ago, we launched an important appeal to help Blue Dragon secure a residence for street kids in Hanoi.

The goal is $30,000 US, which will be matched dollar for dollar by Planet Wheeler.

We're almost there - we have so far raised $27,385!

At this stage, we're excited by the possibility that we might even go beyond our target, which will help us even more with securing the home.

Friends and supporters around the world have done their bit to help. Schools, companies, and individuals have contributed whatever they can... It's been truly inspiring!

Below are some photos sent by the Girl Guides of Wyong in NSW Australia. They raised $502.10 by having a garage sale one weekend! Thanks, girls!!



Today, some pics of Blue Dragon kids in central Vietnam celebrating...

In Hue, a family has a new house:

The old...

And now the new.

The son of this family, a boy named Tri, was trafficked to work in a garment factory but returned with our help over a year ago. The family home was falling apart and leaking every time it rained... so we built a new house!

Also in Hue, the official opening of our Safe and Sound Community Centre:

This centre, in Hai Tien village, is a place for kids and family members to come and learn, or play, or just hang out. It's part of our overall strategy to end child trafficking from this area.

And in Hoi An, a Children's Day celebration:

The kids and staff of the Home had a brilliant time; first at the Home and then at the beach.

Happiness all around today!


Saturday, June 05, 2010

Paper days

In my last blog entry, I wrote that Blue Dragon staff were in central Vietnam helping families to register their existence with the government.

They're done now - with a total of 90 individuals and families now having paperwork!

These 'papers' include birth certificates, marriage certificates, and household registration books - all essential for anyone to have a job, go to school, or have access to health care.

Our staff even managed to fit in some training for local government officials so that they can keep doing this in future without any further help from us.

Of all the people who were helped, one particular story stands out.

Blue Dragon staff met one elderly woman - nobody has any idea of her age - but she's a grandmother, so presumably she's in her 60s or 70s. She has lived her entire life on a boat; not once has she lived on land.

Because she never had any paper work - her birth was never registered - she's never been to school. Her own children also could not have paperwork; nor could their children. So in a single day, three generations of one family has suddenly acquired legal recognition, and all that that entails.

Definitely worthwhile!

Some pics below of families registering with government officials....

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Pieces of paper

As I write, Blue Dragon staff are working in the countryside around Hue - in central Vietnam - in communities where dozens of families live without any form of official registration.

No birth certificates, no marriage certificates, no ID cards, no driver's licence, no land ownership papers.

I'm the first to admit that this is the 'less sexy' aspect of our work. It's hard to get people excited about registering families to receive official recognition from the government. But you just can't fight poverty if that basic first step has not been taken.

The staff are way out of town, along rivers and in beach areas, so I don't have a whole lot of info yet. All I know is that they've turned the usual procedure on its head. Instead of families having to travel to the nearest government office to apply, the government officials are out in the communities going from house to house with Blue Dragon staff to arrange the paperwork there and then. And on Day One, they registered about 40 families this way.

Pretty exciting stuff, if you ask me.