Saturday, October 30, 2010

The price of gold

Spot the difference:

The Super Rich Are Buying Gold


Runaway prompts police probe into gold mine slavery

Yes, "gold mine slavery". I've written about this once before, just over a year ago - the link is here - and it's clearly still a common and widespread practice here in Vietnam.

That article is worth reading. The photo below, taken from Thanh Nien News, is of a 15 year old boy who fled a brutal gold mine and spent a month lost in the mountains.

In another news item, billionaire George Soros suggests that the surge in gold prices won't last because gold "is costly to dig up."

Not in Vietnam, Mr Soros.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

That time already?

Blue Dragon has launched its annual Christmas campaign!

This year we're trying something new. I haven't seen other charities doing anything like this, so we thought we'd take a different approach.

On our website, there are 13 photos to choose from. You can receive any of the photos by giving a donation to our Christmas campaign. Some photos are taken by the kids, and some by professional photographers who have donated their images to us.

And here's the deal: You get to choose how much you will donate for each of the photos. There are set amounts to choose from, corresponding to specific needs of our kids.

For example: a $10 donation will buy a set of text books for a school kid.

$25 will buy a huge bag of gifts for a child at Lunar New year.

$100 will provide medical care for a very sick child.

... and so on.

There are more details on the web site, of course - click here to see. Donations of under $50 will get you a 12cm x 15cm photo, slotted into a blank card - so it can be used as a Christmas card for friends and family. A donation of over $50 will get you a 20cm x 30cm print, which can be framed and hung.

We've kicked off the campaign early so we have plenty of time for postage. The website does have all the details, but email James - - with any questions.

Special thanks to the photographers who have let us use their images!

Particularly as this is something so new, we're happy to hear some feedback from you on what you think of the concept...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Wrap up

I'm back in Hanoi now, and the 11 kids plus 2 staff have just arrived in Hue on the train. On Wednesday morning, their local People's Committees - roughly equivalent to village councils - will have an official 'welcome back' party, and each of the kids' families will receive gifts.

Blue Dragon's 2 staff in Hue will then start their job of finding out more about each of the children and working out what needs to be done to keep them safely at home.

Three of the 11 are from a commune we've never worked in before; rescuing them from the factories was the first step in us ending trafficking in an area called Vinh Hung. With a population of over 7800, government estimates are that there are 50 children working in southern factories at any given time. I'm hoping we can verify that figure - collecting data and gathering accurate statistics are among the myriad challenges we face in this work.

Two other great challenges stand out at the moment.

First, the issue of collecting evidence of conditions in the factories. I have posted some images and video clips in the past to give an indication of what it's like for the kids, but it seems that this latest trip has yielded nothing in the way of 'visual evidence'. There's still a chance there are some photos that haven't been handed over to me yet, but so far what we have is really uninformative.

It's very difficult to capture such evidence. Naturally, the factory owner and his family and colleagues will do everything they can to prevent us from taking video and photos. Sometimes they do this by surrounding the staff, which can be rather intimidating. Unless you have considerable experience, it's not easy to take photos while you are feeling physically threatened.

But the conditions that the kids live and work in are dreadful. Here's a typical example:

The 2 boys pictured below are aged 14 (yellow shirt) and 15 (red shirt). They are among the 11 who have just returned home. The woman beside them is a Blue Dragon staff member; the man in the middle is Mr Sa, an official from Hue; the man in blue is the factory owner; and the man on the end is a Red Cross worker.

For these boys, the working day in the factory started at 6am. They sat on the concrete floor cutting out cloth until 12pm, at which time they had a 2 hour break for lunch and a nap. From 2pm to 6pm - back to work, then an hour for dinner. Finally, they worked from 7pm to midnight.

Sunday was their "day of rest:" they worked as normal, but finished at 6pm instead of midnight.

They were paid, sort of... at Lunar New Year, the factory owner will (or says he will) send money to their parents, as originally agreed. It will come to about $200 in total, if they are lucky.

So they've been working 100 hours per week, and their families will receive the equivalent of less than $20 per month.

You see why I worry about how we can collect better evidence about this?

The second challenge we face is one that starts now: how to best help the kids once they get back to their villages.

All of the 11 are aged 13-15, and each has been out of school for too long. Very few are likely to want to, or be able to, return to school. They each have the idea of "hoc nghe", or vocational training, but none is old enough to study a trade. And who's to say they are suited to vocational training anyway?

Back in their villages, the kids are likely to be bored. If they do return to school, they'll be in classes with much younger students - and not only much younger, but vastly less 'worldly wise.' The kids might have trouble fitting in.

Ideally, I can imagine creating an informal school that might be seen as 'pre-vocational training,' without necessarily leading on to vocational training. But some hands on, child-appropriate learning of a range of disciplines to give the 'returnees' a taste of several different fields of study and employment - IT, mechanics, beauty, hospitality, languages. Sadly, that's just a dream for now.

Without diminishing our joy at having 11 kids out of the factories and back with their families, I acknowledge that there continue to be some grave challenges ahead.

This work really is for the long term, and not something we can finish off neatly with a single trip to the south.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Eleven, and done

We're finished!

In complete contradiction to my blog this morning, we've had the smoothest and quickest rescue trip yet.

Six boys and 5 girls, aged 13 to 15. Lots of tears were shed - tears of relief.

Homeward bound we go!

Making waves

A quick update from Saigon...

We've had terrific progress this morning - we already have 7 kids out of factories, and it's only midday here in Vietnam. The team is working like a steamroller, going from factory to factory. The traffickers have been taken by surprise.

Hoping to post a photo tonight...

It's on!

This morning I am blogging from Saigon, where a team from Blue Dragon and Hue government officials have come to look for kids trafficked into garment factories.

We have a window of 30 hours. Even by now, word will be out that we're in town, and traffickers will be starting to hide the kids away so that we can't find them.

For a few reasons, this is a logistically difficult rescue trip, so we're not expecting to take home a great many kids. However, getting just one child out of slavery is worthwhile, so we know our time and resources won't be wasted.

I'll post another update within the next 12 hours - but be aware that I don't have constant access to internet for the next day or so. Apologies in advance if I'm slow to respond to messages.

Hoping to have good news VERY soon...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A day out

Last week, I received a text message in Vietnamese which said, roughly translated: "Michael oi, do you have free time? I want to spend a day with you before I go away."

The message was from a 16 year old whom I'll call Han. He used to live at the Blue Dragon shelter; at age 14, he'd never been to school before so he lived with us for over a year while he studied and learned basic literacy. But then he moved out to live with his mother again, and sadly he didn't seem interested in either continuing to study or finding a job.

Like teenagers anywhere, having nothing to do inevitably meant that he ended up getting in to trouble - and lots of it.

In January this year, a few months before his 16th birthday, Han was out with a group of friends looking to make some fast money. They robbed a young man on the street, injuring him quite badly, and made off with his cash.

Brash and brazen, but not well planned. They were caught pretty soon afterwards and before long found themselves in court.

Blue Dragon employs 2 Child Rights Advocates - supporting and defending kids in trouble with the law is a major part of what we do. But Han told us nothing of this; it was only after the court case that we found out he'd been in trouble.

The court verdict: 3 years in an adult prison.

I have no doubt that Han deserves a strong punishment. He used a knife in the robbery. He attacked someone on the street. He has no excuse for any of that.

However, the severity of the sentence seemed shocking.

Han and the co-defendants indicated that they would appeal, and so they were not sent immediately to prison; in an act of leniency, the court allowed them to go out on bail until the appeal was heard.

At this point one of our lawyers, a young woman named Hong, became involved, but we held out little hope. Some research and meetings with court officials indicated that the most likely outcome of an appeal would be a 6 month reduction. We were told that Han could try offering compensation to the victim, but the suggested amount was well over what most staff at Blue Dragon earn in a year. Han doesn't have that kind of money, and nor did we think it was morally right for us to pay it on his behalf; it would be like we were helping him avoid punishment. That's not why donors give us money!

So when the court case finally came around, we were expecting the very worst. A sentence to an adult prison for a 16 year boy who looks quite young for his age would be disastrous.

But the result of the appeal: 2 years in reform school!

Now, I have to admit that I'm usually sad to see the kids go to reform school. In Han's case, though, I'm thrilled! Reform school is a much more suitable punishment; it's not going to be an easy ride, but it's more appropriate to his age and he'll still be deprived his freedoms for long enough to think seriously about what he's done.

And then the icing on the cake: Hong asked the court to delay sending Han to reform school in order to allow him to attend his brother's wedding a couple of weeks later. They agreed!

I don't think I should say that there's a happy ending to this story; I will only be able to say that in a couple of years if Han comes out of reform school and has had a genuine change of heart. Here's to hoping.

For now, it was nice to spend some time riding about Hanoi with Han, drinking coffee by the Opera House and visiting another young man, a former gang leader who is opening his own business.

The police will be coming soon to detain Han - he doesn't know when, but the brother's wedding is over so it won't be long now. And in 2 years, or less with good behaviour, he'll be back with a chance to make something of his life.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A 17th, a first

Monday night was one of those occasions that remind me of how special our work here at Blue Dragon really is.

Hung (pictured - in the red shirt) invited a few of us to celebrate his 17th birthday with him. Alongside Hung in the photo below are Giang, our Social Work coordinator; Vi, a volunteer who has been teaching Hung; and yours truly.

Being asked to join in this party was special for a few reasons.

Above all: this was Hung's first ever birthday party. He's never celebrated his 'special day' before; never had a cake and people singing "Happy birthday" for him.

Personally, I find some sorrow in that. I feel a bit guilty. I've known Hung for about 4 years - and I've never known his birthday.

But I've come to realise that Hung has never before told us about his birthday; he's never wanted us to celebrate with him. It's been his own secret, and only now does he want to share his birthday with others.

Hung's birthday was also special because of where he's come from.

All of the Blue Dragon kids have a powerful story; there's always pain and sadness. That's why they're with us. On a public forum such as this blog, though, I cannot always go into the details. For Hung, suffice to say that he's had a rocky ride, and it's just in the past few months that he's really started getting his life together.

He's working in one of Hanoi's best restaurants... he's living in our shelter again... he's studying at the centre after work... and I've never seen him with a more positive outlook on life.

After dinner (pizza!) as we headed out into the autumn night, Hung couldn't stop thanking us for taking him out to dinner. And yet, each of us felt that we should be thanking Hung for letting us join in his special day.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


... it's the new favourite game at Blue Dragon!

Sunday, October 10, 2010


The past was marked by a very sad event: the death of one of the Blue Dragon grandmothers, Ba Thi.

Many of the kids at our centre live with grandparents; typically, the older generation is looking after grandkids who have been abandoned by their own parents, and sadly this is often because of drugs. The grandparents who are in this situation, raising infants, children and teens, strike me as being true heroes: sacrificing everything to help the kids.

Ba Thi was one of those heroes. Aged 72, she was caring for 3 grandchildren, aged 2 to 12, and supported this makeshift family by selling tea at Hanoi's famous Hoan Kiem Lake. Earlier this year, as I watched the Lunar New Year fireworks at the lake, Ba Thi spotted me there and plied me with green mango and sweets, asking nothing in return.

Blue Dragon's main involvement with Ba Thi has been to support her eldest grandson, Hiep. He's a very serious little boy, too old and wise for his age and tiny demeanour - he's already seen way too much of this world. When he was a bit smaller, his grandmother would ride her bicycle to Blue Dragon in the mornings with Hiep dangling on the back, then she'd ride back in the afternoon to pick him up. She always had a smile and wanted to chat. Just from seeing her, you'd never know the hardship that she lived in.

On Tuesday, Ba Thi was riding her bicycle over Long Bien bridge with her 2 year old grandchild on the back when a passing motorbike hit her from behind. She was thrown onto the road and hit her head, knocking her immediately into unconsciousness. The young man on the motorbike called for help and made sure Ba Thi was rushed to hospital - but after a day or so in a coma, she passed away. The grandchild, fortunately, was uninjured.

Thursday's funeral was a strange event: the whole thing was run by the father of the motorbike rider and Blue Dragon's newest and youngest staff member. I figured that half of the mourners were either high or drunk, and most stood around in clusters angrily damning the young man who had hit Ba Thi. None of them seemed to be paying any attention to little Hiep or his brothers, who comforted each other and looked just like sad little men, all alone.

It was pretty clear that the one person who truly loved and cared for Hiep has now died. And Hiep is well aware of that.

(Incidentally, the man who caused the accident is in police custody, and I can't help but feel terrible pity for him. He's only 21 himself, and as far as I can tell he wasn't doing anything particularly dangerous or malevolent).

For now, Hiep is staying at the Blue Dragon shelter. We're not sure yet if a family member will want him to live with them, or if his move to our Home will be permanent.

He's more than welcome to stay with us - he's a terrific little guy, and would fit in well. But I'd like to think that some family members will want to put up a fight to look after him themselves.

(I have changed the names in this story to protect Hiep's identity. This article, in Vietnamese, also reports on the incident but has maintained anonymity. The child pictured was with Ba Thi at the time of the accident).

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Heading back

After 2 weeks away from Vietnam, I'm finally en route home!

It's been an exciting 2 weeks - for various reasons. The time in New Zealand and Melbourne has been great, with some terrific offers of support and some great time spent with friends. The 3 boys are seetled into their courses at NTEC and loving Auckland!

There's also been some excitement back in Hanoi - but the sort of excitement related to break-ins, gangs, and an attempted stabbing. Not quite the excitement we like, but unfortunately that's the nature of our work! The Blue Dragon staff have been amazing in how well they have dealt with everything, and I'm looking forward to getting back to the centre on Monday to support them.

I've said it before, but a HUGE thanks is due to Jetstar for covering all the flights on this trip...