Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hien, now

Hien is an 18 year old girl who was in the original 'intake' of students who joined our Stay In School program back in 2004.

Stay In School supports kids in Grades 5-12 in a rural province just outside Hanoi. We identify those students who are at high risk of dropping out of school due to extreme poverty, and ensure they have the means to complete their education.

The most recent edition of Dragon Tales, our quarterly newsletter, featured the story below about Hien now finishing Grade 12 and preparing to enter university.

Now that her university entrance exams are over, Hien has been helping out at the Blue Dragon centre in Hanoi. That's Hien below, with 3 of the kids hanging out this afternoon.

Many days, Hien helps out with the drop-in centre, which has been very busy during the summer break. But she has also been assisting our staff with administration, and last week she was out in the countryside interviewing new families who have asked for Blue Dragon's support.

It's great to see her now so confident and capable. Sometimes it's hard to believe that she hasn't even started uni yet - she's such a reliable worker around the office!

In coming weeks, Hien will get her uni entrance results, which will determine which course she can take, and at which university. We're looking forward to supporting her through her tertiary studies... and , who knows? Maybe she'll be working for us full time in years to come...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Getting the families on side

I've just returned to Hanoi after spending a couple of days in Hue, visiting families of trafficked children.

I've written many times about Blue Dragon's work of rescuing kids who have been trafficked from central to southern Vietnam. It's a difficult and dangerous part of our work, but arguably the most valuable.

Once we get the kids home, though, we still have much to do. Helping the children return to school is never easy: most have been away from school for 2 years or more. Some of the kids, now in their early teens, have never been to school. We can't just take the to the school gates and drop them off, hoping that everything will be alright.

Across the three communes where we are currently helping families, some of the children have dropped out of the schools or training courses we helped to enrol them in. While this hasn't been a huge problem, it has been growing, so I decided to go to Hue and talk with the families about this directly.

In Hue, we have just 2 staff running our anti-trafficking program. They're out in the villages every day helping families to solve problems, and often overseeing the building of houses or the running of a youth centre we opened in one village. To deal with this issue of children giving up their studies, we decided to call 3 meetings - one in each commune - in which the staff and I would stand together with local government and Red Cross officials to talk about the importance of education. In short, we called for the parents to work with us to keep their kids in school.

We've never done anything like this before, but this is a new problem so we needed to think of a creative solution.

Each meeting was a little different. The very first meeting was attended almost exclusively by fathers and grandfathers; the second was attended only be mothers. Each village clearly has its own way of doing things!

In one village, the Red Cross leader told the families that education must be important - after all, Michael has come all the way from Australia to help your kids go to school, so surely you can make more of an effort to send them! I couldn't help but chuckle at that line. But, hey, whatever works!

Families were invited to give us their feedback and let us know if they had any problems we could help with. This was the part of the meetings where all the really interesting stuff happened.

One very elderly man spoke about his two grand daughters, both of whom we brought home from factories. Although the whole family wanted them home, he explained, the younger of the two just didn't want to go to school, so they took her to a fortune teller. The advice was that the girl was never going to be a doctor or a teacher, so there was no real need to force her to go to school. Instead, the mother took her back to Ho Chi Minh City to find another factory to work in.

While a story like this might just seem bizarre to anyone in the west, it's not unusual at all here in Vietnam for families to make a decision like this based on the words of a fortune teller. Even with the local officials urging the grandfather to bring the girl back and send her to school, it's unlikely that he will.

At another meeting, a group of parents had joined together to write a proposal to us. They needed help to improve their incomes, they said, so would we consider giving them a loan to buy fishing nets? I must have looked stunned for a moment, because I was just so impressed that the villagers had thought up a solution to their problem and had the foresight to put it in writing. Mistaking my expression for confusion, one mother spoke up: "If you can give us this loan, we'll be able to earn more money for our families and invest more in our children's education."

These are the words that charity workers dream of hearing. Yes, they'll be getting that loan for sure!

There's no doubt that these community meetings have made an impact on the parents. They all agreed that they should do their best to encourage their kids to go to school, and to let us know if there are any problems we can help with. School starts again in mid August: we'll soon know just how our strategy has worked!

Thursday, July 22, 2010


This morning Blue Dragon had a very special visitor - the spouse of Thailand's Foreign Minister, who is in Vietnam for an ASEAN meeting.

Mrs. Chintana Piromya, along with some colleagues from Thailand and the Royal Thai Embassy, spent this morning meeting our kids, touring our centre, and learning about street kids in Vietnam.

Towards the end of the visit, there was a lovely moment when the Blue Dragon kids brought the craft items they had been making as gifts to our visitors. This wasn't something we had planned, but the children wanted to say thanks for the donations that the Thai visitors had brought to us.

Mrs. Piromya is in the centre, wearing a black top

We don't often have foreign dignitaries turn up at our centre, so this morning was really special for all of us!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


This week at the Hoi An Children's Home, 7 new kids have moved in!

Older residents and staff have been busy showing their new brothers and sisters around the Home, and also around the town, as all of the newcomers are from rural areas far from Hoi An.

Coming to the Home means a new chance at life - the chance to go to school and have a roof over their head.

Welcome, kids!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Blue Dragon has been working in Vietnam for about 8 years now. We started out as a couple of guys with good intentions but absolutely nothing else, and we've built up an organisation that's now helping about 900 kids around the country.

Some of the very first street kids who we helped work for us now. It's fantastic to see young people from tough backgrounds wanting to give back to others.

Last month, I wrote about our latest rescue trip to Saigon to retrieve rural children who have taken by traffickers. One thing that I didn't mention was that, apart from me and one Blue Dragon staff member, another person who came along was Nghia, a young man who we first met working on the streets of Saigon back in 2006 (click here for the original story - that's Nghia in the photo) and who now has a mobile phone shop in Hanoi. Nghia's job on the trip was to work alongside me in looking after the kids who we took away from the factories until they could start the journey home by train.

While we were in Saigon, we went to visit the Caravelle Hotel, which Nghia has always seen as a symbol of the life he has been denied: luxury, comfort, wealth. Despite the protestations of a security guard (he seemed to know that Nghia used to be a street kid!) we went into the Hotel to have a drink in a restaurant. We'd have had a meal, too, except that there's no way in the world I could afford to eat there! Sitting by the huge glass windows, sipping outrageously overpriced drinks and watching the city buzz by, Nghia came to the realisation that he'd be just as happy sitting on a plastic stool on the side of the street... He wasn't missing out on anything after all! So we had some laughs and got out of there pretty quickly - and the next morning, started meeting trafficked kids as they came out of the factories. Much more satisfying than the airconditioned paradise of a 5 star hotel.

Another of our kids who has featured on this blog in the past has also been helping out. In late 2007, a terrible event took place in Blue Dragon: one of our teens was stabbed repeatedly and left for dead in a case of mistaken identity. The story started here, and it was an awful time, but the boy, named Ngoc, made a full recovery and is now studying accounting at college.

Now that it's summer holidays, and Ngoc has completed his first year of study, he's traveled to Hue with one of our staff named Binh to teach dance and computing to trafficked children - including some of the same children who we brought back home to Hue just last month.

Binh and Ngoc are working in Hue for 3 weeks, living at our Youth Centre in a village on the coast where the electricity is off more frequently than it's on, and where unemployment, illiteracy, and poverty are rife. Through their workshops, they are rewarding the kids who have come back from the factories and are now in school, encouraging them to stay on in the villages and not be tempted by the traffickers who promise excitement and bright lights in the big cities.

Apart from his own awful experience a few years back, Ngoc (pictured above in the white shorts) has had plenty of hardships in life, and we are hoping that the kids will see him as a positive role model to emulate. Yes, life can be difficult, but stick with education, aim high, and things can get better.

As the founder of Blue Dragon, I am particularly proud to see young people like Nghia and Ngoc doing their bit to help others. I could go on with many more stories, too; such as the girls and boys from our street kids' program who volunteer to help children with disabilities go swimming each week. There are many more stories to be told.

I'm sure that around the world many more organisations also involve their 'beneficiaries' in community service like this - if any readers have a story to tell, feel free to say something in the Comments section below!

Friday, July 09, 2010

A week at Blue: Friday

And so to Friday!

Earlier this week I compared our drop-in centre to an ants' nest. Here's how it looked at 2pm this afternoon:

I think we need a bigger centre!

There are a few particular games that the kids are just crazy about: Connect 4; Uno; and a game involving stringing up an elastic way above everyone's head and trying to leap onto it with one foot. Our kids may be small, but they're extremely agile.

To keep the kids occupied, there was once again a great range of things to do - and once again, swimming topped the list.

I wrote some time ago about the need for children in Vietnam to learn to swim. It's certainly fun for the kids to go to the pool, but there's also a very important reason for them to come and practice their swimming with us. Ten children drown daily in this country.

We were on alert for a possible attempt at theft this morning, as one of the teens noticed a thief from the nearby market scoping out our premises. I think the young guy got spooked and disappeared pretty quickly once he saw all of us watching him.

A much more enjoyable moment was eating treats made by kids with disabilities in the Blue Dragon kitchen. I've written before about Mummy Dish Day, but this was the first time that I've been in the office when the kids (and one beaming mummy) carried their dishes downstairs to share with everyone. Man, were those kids proud as the staff team demolished their dishes!

Apart from all this fun and action, much of my day was taken (as usual) with emailing, planning, and the more formal side of running a charity. These days I receive about 40 emails per day - and I do try to answer them all before I get to bed. (Not that I am going to succeed tonight!) It was really nice this afternoon to meet up with Seb, who works here in Hanoi in an Embassy but in his own spare time organised a football tournament last month which raised funds for Blue Dragon and a local pagoda. Seb came by today to deposit the funds - about 50,000,000 VND! - which will go toward our Outreach work. Much appreciated!

With our chief lawyer and Child Rights Advocate, Van, about to leave the country for a year of study, tonight we met up for a farewell drink. It's sad to be saying goodbye - he's an amazing man, as long term friends of Blue Dragon know. But the important thing is that he will be back! And to that end, my farewell gift for him tonight was a boomerang...

This will be my final in my "Week at Blue" blogs. From tonight I'll get back to my regular routine of writing a couple of times each week about special stories and events. And yes yes, I realise I only counted 6 days in this week! I'm hoping that Saturday's blog would read "Woke up really late and went swimming with the kids from our Shelter." If anything more exciting than that happens, I'll post a story about it! I do hope these entries have helped our friends around the world gain some more insight into a typical week at Blue Dragon in Hanoi.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

A week at Blue: Thursday

This morning had a rotten start: my first duty of the day was to be a disciplinarian. Fortunately, though, the rest of the day just got better.

Last night, 2 of the kids from our Shelter came home waaaay past curfew, and in doing so broke their word to try harder at following the rules. With a couple of the more senior social work staff away, it fell to me to be the bad guy.

It's a role I don't enjoy at all.

But by the end of the day, both of the boys were able to sit with me to talk about what they'd done and why it was wrong, and we had a chat about the concept of trust. Let's see if they can rise to the challenge.

The Blue Dragon centre was full of life and activity. Today kids could join in rollerskating and swimming (not at our centre, of course! It's a bit smaller than that!), and one of the staff took some children with disabilities to see a movie in a cinema.

It was also Haircut Day, which is always a lot of fun. Once a month, we invite some hairdressers to our centre to offer free haircuts to kids and staff; someone always ends up with a mohawk or shaved head. But there's no surprise in that - take a look at the guy in charge of the haircuts!

That's him standing, with the black shirt and the... well, how can I describe that hairdo?

His name is Kien, and our kids think he's the greatest! I'm just glad he's no longer sporting the orange mullet he had last time he came to the centre!

Upstairs, a volunteer was running a workshop for kids on animals, with a focus on extinction. They watched Jurassic Park and then learned about Vietnamese native animals which are on the verge of extinction. This is a very hot topic right now, with the recent revelation that an extremely rare rhino killed by poachers in central Vietnam was probably the last of its kind in the country. The kids were really interested in learning about this and enjoyed the hands-on lesson.

Our centre also held the monthly gathering ('sinh hoat') in which we acknowledge all the kids' birthdays and achievements. Unfortunately I missed the whole thing! I was off at a hospital visiting one of our kids from outside Hanoi.

The little boy, named Tung, is having surgery to reconstruct his left hand. When he was just a toddler, he had a terrible accident which burned his hands and feet. Because his family never had the money to have him treated, he's grown up with awful deformities and limited use of his limbs. Two years ago, we brought Tung to hospital to have some corrective surgery - I wrote about it here - but there's still some more to be done.

Today I visited him with Tuyen, who coordinates one of our rural programs, and it's clear that apart from being in great pain following last week's surgery, Tung is also bored out of his brain. And he has 3 weeks left to go before he can return home! Tuyen will go back to the hospital in the morning with a supply of comic books for Tung, and some newspapers for his equally-frustrated grandfather who is staying with him in the hospital.

Nghia's shop is getting close to opening; I dropped in on him as I rode home tonight, in the midst of a huge rainstorm. Well, now he knows which bits of the roof leak, and I guess it's best that he finds that out sooner rather than later....

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A week at Blue: Wednesday

Hanoi's heatwave is here to stay: there's been no let-up all week. Our drop-in centre remained full all day, but by this afternoon the kids were so quiet that from the offices upstairs you could hardly hear a sound.

Each day for the last few weeks our social workers have organised activities - mostly involving swimming! - but today there was a real sense of "lets just lay here under the fans." Our centre is intended as a safe place for the kids to hang out, as most don't have very decent places to stay; so we're happy for them to just come, have a shower, and relax.

In the afternoon, a social worker named Chau ran a 'life skills' workshop on co-operation. The kids chatted and played games, all on the theme of how working together makes things easier. They were also pretty pleased when the plates of fruit came out at the end!

One of the games the kids played: 2 children sat back to back, linked arms, and had to stand up.

Here's the group attending the workshop. The girl in the foreground is translating the class to her friends who are deaf.

Away from our centre, we have heard that the boy who was arrested on the weekend has been released and has returned to his countryside with his mother. Seems to me that that's about the happiest ending we could have hoped for. Now if he can just learn from this...

The young guy with the prison sentence hanging over his head hasn't come back to see us! It's a bit strange, considering the gravity of his situation, but he knows where to find us if he wants to. Our philosophy has always been to offer the best possible service we can, and it's there for those who want and need it. I still think he'll be back in coming days, but I'm a bit confused as to why he's taking so long, and why his mother doesn't seem interested at all in getting some legal advice.

I mentioned yesterday that one of our teens, named Nghia, is preparing to open a new mobile phone shop. He spent today working along with some Blue Dragon friends to get the new premises ready, and as I write he's moving all the equipment and furniture from his old shop.

A very happy Nghia!

One of the Blue Dragon staff, a cleaner named Cuong (pictured below) helped out too, especially with fixing up the VERY shonky electrical system.

Apart from all these activities, a good chunk of my day involved preparing to take three of our older teens to New Zealand. The National Technology Institute in Auckland has offered them full scholarships, and Jetstar is donating free flights - so we really feel like we've won the lottery. The kids don't go until September, but there are many arrangements to take care of in advance.

And I haven't mentioned this previously, but I usually finish off my days at the Blue Dragon shelter, just a few doors down from our centre. Sometimes I eat there with the kids, or else just take part in the daily meeting that they have. It's a nice way to end the day, and to stay in touch with the kids despite the mountain of admin that usually piles up on my desk!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A week at Blue: Tuesday

Given the worrying events that took place yesterday morning, it would be fair to expect that today would have been fraught with fears and challenges. But Vietnam is much too random for that. Tomorrow there might be a hurricane, or maybe a snowstorm, but today was pretty calm.

About the Chinese traffickers: no news or developments. The teenage boy in lock-up: no news. The 16 year old who (thinks he) has been sentenced to prison: his mother didn't come to meet us yesterday or this morning because, woe betide, she has a headache.

So of all the big dramas that we were dealing with on Monday, not one so much as poked me in the ribs today. Maybe tomorrow?

Much of my day was occupied with catching up with people: coffee with Jim from Language Link, who has been a huge help to Blue Dragon over the years (as well as a fantastic friend); a meeting with our Communications department; and a very long chat with an ABV volunteer, John, who is here in Hanoi helping us to review and develop our IT department. Back in 2006, the Irish Embassy helped us to set up an IT room, and since then we've had a couple of amazing IT guys working with us. It's time now for us to figure out the direction of IT in Blue Dragon, and how to best use our resources for the street kids and children with disabilities who visit our centre. We have lots of decisions to make, so today was just the start of discussions.

And throughout all this chatter, a few notable events marked the day.

First, one of our teens who used to work as a shoeshine boy in Ho Chi Minh City is preparing to open a mobile phone shop near the Blue Dragon centre. We helped him to open a small business late last year, but for various reasons he needs to move and fortunately he's found a little place for rent not too far from where we are. Today he and some of the other kids scrubbed down the walls and repainted the interior - in just a few more days he should be ready to start his new shop!

Second, I was thrilled to get a call from Paul, the Country Director of Saigon Children's Charity, telling me that his staff have had something of a breakthrough with a street kid I contacted them about last month. Since January 1 this year I have been in contact with a family working on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Each time I'm in the south, I spend time with them at their motorbike-helmet stall by the side of a filthy road, and Blue Dragon has been helping out with some money to support a newborn baby in the family. However, one of the kids in the family really needs help to get back to school, so I called on Paul to see if his organisation could be involved. Originally I was just after some advice and introductions, but he's gone much further than that, and it now looks like the teenage son will be starting school next month! That's fantastic news.

And third, one of our longest serving staff members has been granted a visa to study in the US for a year! Van, who is well known to readers of this blog, leaves on Saturday. I'm thrilled for him, and I know he deserves this opportunity; but selfishly, I also hope the coming year goes VERY quickly. Van is one of our two lawyers, and has been involved in just about every major event / development / crisis since I met him in 2003. I'm not sure how we're going to survive without him!

Monday, July 05, 2010

A week at Blue: Monday

When the first person to speak to you at the office in the morning is a lawyer saying "We need to talk," you get the impression that the day is going to be 'colourful'. And it was.

The Blue Dragon boy who was detained by the police over the weekend spent last night in lock up, while the authorities work out what to do with him. He hasn't been charged with any crime - he was picked up for loitering and some suspicious behaviour - but the boy's mother has told the police that she wants him sent to reform school. I don't think that's the right thing to do, but Blue Dragon doesn't have any right to intervene; we can only wait to see if he will be released.

Next was the news that the child traffickers who kidnapped 3 girls and took them to China back in March have sent some of their colleagues to Vietnam to gather information about how the girls were able to escape. This is fairly ominous, and we are working closely with the police to ensure that the girls, and our staff, will be safe.

And to make it "an even three", one of the Blue Dragon boys who used to live in our shelter, and now lives with his mum, turned up to say that he's been sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. We have hardly seen him this year, and he didn't let us know that he was even going to court, so this is rather shocking news. He has a couple of weeks to appeal, but at this stage it looks like he might have misunderstood the court verdict - we're certainly hoping that's the case. He's only just turned 16; a stretch in prison will be shattering for him.

So after a pretty heavy dose of bad news this morning, it was nice to head down to Hanoi's Old Quarter in the afternoon to meet up with a couple of friends from Australia who are passing through Vietnam. My mobile phone didn't ring or buzz even once during lunch - a record!

Throughout the whole day, our drop in centre was like an ants nest, with kids coming and going non stop. Because of the summer holidays, we have at least triple the usual number of children coming to see us, and to cope we have a whole range of activities organised, with everything from flower arranging to roller skating. But the social workers are right on top of it all, and somehow things flowed smoothly.

Before heading home for the day, I spent some time at our street kids' shelter to talk to them about the two former residents who are in some trouble with the law at the moment. None of them had heard this news about their friends, so they were a little surprised. We finished up by talking about what each of them can do to prevent getting into trouble like this themselves in the future. Hopefully, hopefully, they'll take that seriously.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

A week at Blue: Sunday

This week - something different for the Blue Dragon blog!

To give readers some more insight into what life is like here at Blue Dragon in Hanoi, I'm planning to write an entry each day this week about what I've been doing and what's been happening in our charity.

While I usually try to write a couple of stories each week, there's so much that does not get said... so here goes an attempt at filling in some of the gaps!


I skipped football this morning because... well, ok, because it's really hot and I wanted to sleep in. And seeing as my only job there is unpacking drinks, the staff are fine without me! So on to a morning catching up with friends, including a farewell lunch with an old friend, Adam Gordon, who is heading home to Europe in a few days.

This morning I did get to chat briefly with some of the parents of kids in our program who have kids with disabilities. One Sunday each month they gather at the Blue Dragon centre with our staff member, Phuong, to take part in a 'self help' group. The parents love this group - they run it themselves, with a proper agenda each month, but much of it is about sharing ideas and experiences with other parents in similar situations. They were all smiles when I saw them!

And then in the evening I headed off to Noi Bai airport to meet Nam (not his real name), the Blue Dragon teenager who has been studying in Singapore on a scholarship. School's out, so Nam is home for the summer hols. A couple of the kids came with me and we had a terrific taxi ride back into the city, laughing and joking and looking over Nam's report card. (Pretty good- in fact, Nam earned a certificate of commendation from the principal!)

While I was at the airport I received a call from Giang, our Social Work Coordinator: one of the Blue Dragon kids has been arrested and the police have called us to come down to the station. Our Child Rights Advocates are dealing with this as I write, so I'm not yet sure why the boy was arrested.

Overall, a relatively quiet Sunday!