Monday, January 31, 2011

Tet fever!

Vietnam in now in the midst of Tet (lunar new year) fever. This is like Christmas and new year combined, and then put into overdrive.

Tet is so important here because, firstly, most people work 7 days per week, and Tet is the ONLY time they stop and relax; and secondly because there are many beliefs, superstitions, and traditions surrounding the lunar new year, such as the idea that if you are working on the first day then you'll have to work very hard for the entire year.

Here are some pics from the Hoi An Children's Home, where the kids and staff joined together for a terrific party late last week.

Getting everything clean is essential, and all the children pitched in to make the Home look beautiful - starting with the fence outside!

With preparations complete, the party could begin. There were games....

... and gifts...

... and the Home's Director, Mrs Diep, congratulated the kids on their studies and progress.

Lots of happy children. What else matters?

P.S. Some blogs which have been posting photos of Tet in Hanoi are here:

Our Man In Hanoi

Going with the pho

The city that never sleeps in

Monday, January 24, 2011


I have a terrific idea for schools around the world that will enable them to save MILLIONS of dollars every year: fire all of your teachers!

In their place, recruit enthusiastic young travelers from around the world. There are gap year students and people of all ages from every nation eager and willing to have a new experience as they backpack their way from country to country. Think of the fun your students will have as they meet their Brazilian math teacher, have a cultural exchange with their French English teacher, and learn new sports with this week's PE teacher from Scotland! Or Bavaria! Or somewhere. Every 2 or 3 weeks there'll be new teachers, with fresh ideas and perspectives to contribute.

Great idea, right?

OK, I'm being tongue in cheek. Clearly it would be a terrible idea. But this is how the 'voluntourism' industry works. They place travelers in positions of care and responsibility in orphanages, children's centres, and even schools in developing countries for a few weeks or months at a time, and argue that this will be of benefit to the poor, disadvantaged children.

If it's so good for Vietnam, why isn't it good for Australia or the US?

The answer: because we wouldn't have a bar of it. We know that our children need consistency in long term relationships, and professionals to care for and educate them.

Last week's blog post about volunteerism and the letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald has received a very mixed reaction. Several people have responded quite positively, while others have seen my comments as an attack on the universe as we know it. This advocate of voluntourism claims that my motivation in writing what I did was simply to attract the media. All I wanted to do was to urge caution in adopting the 'hands-on' approach to corporate social responsibility, but some of the many related issues (such as voluntourism, which is actually quite a different matter) have been brought in to the discussion.

In fact, the bigger issue that I'm concerned with is the question: What is appropriate care for street kids and disadvantaged children?

It's ultimately an issue of children's rights. Do children living in poverty have the same rights to privacy and a good education, or should those rights be limited simply because they are poor? (If kids who live in safe, secure families don't have to put up with foreign visitors coming into their homes and their bedrooms to play with them, then why should children in orphanages?)

This all reminds me of a line from a U2 song, Crumbs from your table:

Would you deny for others
What you demand for yourself?

How is that our world can insist that children living in poverty in Vietnam should be satisfied with improper care, when we demand the absolute best care possible for our own children?

Along the same vein is another issue that most charities in developing countries face: funding levels.

About 10 years ago, my father was seriously ill and in need of urgent heart surgery. He was in a rural hospital which didn't have the facilities for such an operation, so a specialised recovery team flew in by charter plane from a regional hospital, prepared my father (by then slipping into a coma) for the flight, and accompanied him back the 200 or so kilometers to a hospital north of Sydney. They completed the surgery that night, and for the next 10 days my father was in intensive care, with a nurse watching over him 24 hours a day. When he awoke from the coma, he went to another specialised unit for about 2 months until he had resumed most of his strength. I never saw a bill, thanks to Medicare (Americans - eat your hearts out!!) but I would imagine it would have been well over $200,000.

Now... imagine spending that amount of money on a person from a developing country. It would be unconscionable. Had my father been in Vietnam, he almost certainly would have died. That simply isn't fair. Back to U2 again:

Where you live should not decide
Whether you live or whether you die.

But sadly, it does. Every day around the world 16,000 children die of hunger... and yet, there's more than enough food to go around. This makes no sense.

Sometimes people say to me that when they visit countries like Vietnam and see poverty first hand, they feel guilty to think of their house or apartment and all the little luxuries that they take for granted.

However, they shouldn't feel guilty. My hope is that the Blue Dragon kids can also have a home and a comfortable life. I don't envy those who already have those things; instead, I want all people to have those things.

Our world is full of imperfections and injustices. It always has been, and always will be. My work at Blue Dragon gives me a chance to get it right with at least a few of the world's disadvantaged kids. I'll continue to advocate for volunteerism that doesn't impinge on the rights of the poor, and for funding that's fair and equitable.

Kids in Vietnam deserve more than just the crumbs from the world's table.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The volunteer dilemma

Blue Dragon was founded by a handful of volunteers - myself included - back in early 2003. Since then, we've had dozens of volunteers, including Vietnamese and people from all around the world.

Volunteers are vitally important to us. So much so that I'll be speaking at a conference in Singapore next week on the topic of volunteerism.

Despite all that, I've had a letter published in an Australian newspaper this week raising a warning about volunteering. I was writing in response to this article, and my letter said this:

Jon Blackwell is right to encourage Australian companies to be ''socially responsible'' by offering support to charities (''Do good deeds because you can'', January 17). But the example he builds his argument on is fraught with problems which need to be at least acknowledged.

When groups travel to developing nations to undertake projects, it may be that the ''givers'' are benefiting more than the ''receivers''.

With practical tasks such as house building, there is the likelihood that local people are being displaced from jobs when foreigners fly in to volunteer. Meantime, the cost of each air ticket could have paid for another new house to be built by local labour.

Charities receiving such groups need to employ co-ordinators and translators to look after them. These resources and funds could well be spent on the needs of the program beneficiaries rather than on the volunteers.

Many charities around the world provide human services such as social work and trauma counselling. Such organisations rarely have the capacity to take groups of volunteers, who will visit for a short time, be unable to speak the language, and cannot possibly substitute for a local staff member.

When companies insist that their financial donations to charities must be tied with the sort of volunteer visits that Blackwell describes, then service organisations are forced to choose between much needed funds and the integrity of their programs.

By all means, companies and individuals should find ways to support the needy both in Australia and around the world. But please stop to consider whether the donor or the beneficiary is benefiting most.

The issue at stake here is not whether volunteering is good or bad, right or wrong. The issue is how people in developed countries can most fruitfully help people in Vietnam and other developing nations.

My letter appears to have struck a nerve with some. Yesterday morning I was interviewed by a Sydney radio station which will broadcast the discussion next Wednesday at 7pm. (I'll aim to have a link to the podcast as soon as it's available). And today a follow-up letter has been printed in the Sydney Morning Herald to rebut the views I've expressed.

The follow-up letter, printed here, starts off:

I was very disappointed to read Michael Brosowski’s letter (January 18), which seemed to discourage charitable giving if it is linked to a hands-on experience for the donor.

The writer goes on to make some perfectly reasonable points about the benefits of traveling to another country to build houses for charity, but doesn't address the shortcomings of this 'hands-on' model for charitable organisations such as orphanages and counselling programs.

In general, charities do a fairly poor job of self reflection; or at least, when we do, we like to keep our shortcomings to ourselves. So it's not surprising that this whole issue of volunteering hasn't been well discussed in the public domain. I think that many charities are afraid of saying anything that might 'disappoint' people - what if it results in fewer donations? What if someone reading my letter to the editor decides that they won't support me now?

It would certainly be easier to just stay quiet.

However, I think that this does deserve some discussion. I'm happy to see that others are starting to talk about the need for 'proper' volunteering, such as this article in The Guardian (and I see that the Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum has made the article a sticky).

My own view is that volunteers should mostly be playing roles that are in short supply in developing countries. For example, social work is a relatively new concept in Vietnam, and especially in Hanoi, so Blue Dragon has had several international social workers over the years help to train our staff and develop programs.

As an organisation, we've benefited enormously from that, and the net effect has been better services for the kids.

We've also had volunteers help us set up an accounting system. Some have helped with fundraising. One expat volunteer helped create the database we use for our sponsorship program. Many have taught English (and French) to our children.

Volunteers are invaluable - there's no questioning that. But charities, companies which send volunteers, and the volunteers themselves need to think carefully about all the 'grey areas'. I strongly believe that this needs to be an open discussion, without anger and emotion clouding good judgment.

The dilemma that I raised in my letter comes down to this: What should an orphanage do if it is offered a donation of, say, $10,000, but with the condition that 20 foreign volunteers come and stay for a month?

On one hand, how could a local orphanage say no to such a donation? But on the other... an orphanage needs to be staffed by local social workers, and the kids need to feel safe in the same way that kids living in any family, in any country, need to feel safe at home. A big group of foreign strangers will be fun for a little while, but eventually they'll just be getting in the way of everyday life. Kids need stability, and a constant stream of visitors through your home is exactly the opposite of stability.

To raise much needed funds, an orphanage may feel pressed to accept such a deal. But to preserve its integrity as a safe place for children, it would have to decline such a deal.

Blue Dragon is here to serve street kids and trafficked children as best we can. We have to be sure that all parts of our organisation, volunteers included, are helping us reach that goal.

For those who made it to the end of this very long post, comments and feedback are welcome!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Finding strength

The terrible death of 10 year old Toby Hai is still very raw for us at Blue Dragon; each day there is a new memory, a new reminder of the little guy we have lost. Photos of Hai at the 2011 Tet Awards, just a few days before he died, are now incredibly precious to us.

As an organisation, I think it's important for us to grieve, and to let this loss deepen our commitment to the children in our care. Toby Hai's sudden departure from our lives must remind us of the need for us to keep on fighting for Vietnam's disenfranchised, empoverished, and homeless children. We must take every opportunity to make their lives better.

And because of that, in these last few days I have been finding that I have to tell myself that I cannot feel guilty for taking care of regular daily tasks... or for feeling good and happy. I'm sure many of my staff are struggling with this same dilemma. Is it really OK to feel normal after an event like this?

In some ways, we don't have much choice. The nature of our work is pretty demanding. The needs of street kids don't take a break for anything, and with Tet (Lunar New Year) looming so close there are countless events and activities demanding my attention.

On Sunday I flew to Hue to join in a Tet celebration with the children we've rescued from trafficking in Ho Chi Minh City factories. Last year's party was at a swimming pool, but this year Hue is cold and wet, so we moved indoors (or at least undercover) to watch a water puppets show and visit a museum.

This was my first chance to meet the 6 kids we got out of factories just a couple of weeks ago, and also to catch up with the 11 youngsters we helped get home last October. It really was very refreshing to spend the day with them. Some of the children had never even been to Hue City before; their only trip out of their village had been the very long bus ride to the south where they were put to work in factories. So the day was a real treat.

I'm heading back to Hanoi tonight, having spent time visiting villages and meeting with a school principal who is re-enrolling some of the trafficked children even though they technically don't qualify to get back into mainstream school at this time of year. It was touching to see the lengths that the local institutions are going to in order to make these children, mostly girls, feel welcome and supported now that they are home.

Some challenges await me back in Hanoi, not the least of which is the continuing need to provide comfort and assurance to the Blue Dragon kids and staff who have been affected by Toby Hai's death.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Farewell to our friend, Toby Hai

Today I write with the deeply sad news that one of the Blue Dragon children has passed away.

Nguyen Van Hai - or "Toby Hai" as we all called him - died on Wednesday night in a fire on his grandmother's boat. His grandmother perished alongside him. The cause of the fire is not yet known.

Hai and his grandmother have been a part of Blue Dragon since 2007. They came to Hanoi to escape their poverty in the countryside, and took up residence on one of the boats moored to the banks of the Red River. For a while they lived on the land - we rented them a house in 2008 - but eventually they drifted back to the river. Sadly, we were in the process of renting them another house when this tragedy occurred.

Hai was about 10 years old, but like so many of the Blue Dragon kids, there was no accurate record of his birth. Nobody even knows where he was born.

He was a lively and very intelligent boy who dealt with his difficult life in an unusually matter-of-fact way for such a little guy. I often thought he was old beyond his age.

One day, in early 2009, I was visiting Hai and his grandmother at their rented house. Hai's grandmother insisted on buying beer for me, and sent Hai off to buy half a dozen bottles of Hanoi Beer. Watching tiny Hai, then only about 8 years old, struggle up the steps laden with beer, which I honestly didn't want, is one of those "only in Vietnam" memories that still brings a smile to my face.

Hai loved football and sports, and his favorite shirt was a second hand sports shirt with the name "Toby" printed on the back, donated to us by an international school here in Hanoi. As long as he could fit into it, he was wearing it; hence the nickname that even the Blue Dragon children know him by.

We'll be holding a memorial ceremony at our centre on Friday to say goodbye to Hai and his grandmother. The staff and children alike are shocked and saddened to have lost someone who we cared for so much.

Postscript: Friday's memorial went well. It was a simple ceremony held in our centre; at one point, someone counted 112 people present, including children, staff, and people from the community. We spoke about Hai and his grandmother; shared our memories of their lives; and everyone was invited to sign a soccer ball which we'll keep at the centre to remember our friend and brother.

Thank you everyone who has expressed their sympathies, both through this blog and through email. Your thoughts are a great comfort to us.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

A little magic, and everything's OK

Recent weeks - and perhaps months - have not been easy.

My last few blog posts have highlighted some very complex cases we're involved in, including some kids who are in very difficult circumstances, and then there was the blog late last year about a strange and difficult situation that our organisation has been in, regarding a robbery at our shelter.

During all of this we've also been preparing for the one big event we hold each year in Hanoi: the Tet Awards, which brings together all of the children receiving our support, past and present, to celebrate their achievements over the last year.

Tet Awards is a big deal for us. This year's was held today at the Hilton Hotel, which straight away tells you that this is a pretty special affair. The Blue Dragon kids are rarely treated to such luxury.

The whole point of the event is to give our kids 3 messages: You are someone special, you are important, and you are cared for. Planning an event that imparts such ideas takes a bit of thought.

Of course, there was lots of singing and dancing. The ceremony kicked off with a dance to "Waving Flag," the anthem of the 2010 World Cup. Our own trophy, for winning the U14's division in the Hanoi Youth Football League, might not be quite as big as the World Cup, but I can tell you that among our kids it's been just as much celebrated.

Our kids then organised a fashion show, woven together using fairy tales from around the world...

an Indian dance...

...and a ballet about a disabled girl wanting to go to school.

One of our kids read a poem that he wrote about his mother, and we finished with a Vietnamese song - "Toi Yeu" (I love).

Being an awards ceremony, there were also a few speeches. Two former beneficiaries who now have jobs helping others (including one who works at Blue Dragon) spoke to the children about hope for the future.

Mrs Lan, whose association for children with disabilities partners with Blue Dragon, praised the kids for their amazing achievements. And 4 of our older 'kids' who no longer need support from Blue Dragon spoke briefly about their lives, telling us all what they're doing now and reminding us how far they've come.

And then there was the Special Awards - 10 award categories in which we recognise the kids who have made an outstanding effort in areas ranging from "Academic Excellence" to "Creativity" and "Strength in Adversity."

Tet Awards is just a 2 hour event, but for our organisation it's the highlight of the year. Along with 320 or so kids, there were dozens of parents and grandparents; there were some Ambassadors and representatives of embassies and NGOs; and there were Blue Dragon staff, former staff, and volunteers.

Sitting on the carpet of the Hilton ballroom, watching our kids shine in so many ways, it occurred to me the challenges we face are nothing when compared to the strength of all the people in that room.

The magic of Tet Awards somehow made everything so much simpler than it has seemed in recent months.

I know we'll get through - and there will be more challenges to come, and we'll get through them, too.

Friday, January 07, 2011

6 and out

I have a few more details to add about yesterday's rescue trip in Ho Chi Minh City.

In total, 6 children were rescued - bringing Blue Dragon's total number of children rescued from trafficking to 100.

Blue Dragon's staff, Van, and a government official from Hue in central Vietnam have just completed a quick trip to find trafficked children in garment factories.

These children are from an area of the province that is new to us; we are just becoming known in this commune, so although dozens of children have been trafficked, the parents don't yet trust us enough to want us to bring their kids home. That should be changing now, though.

Of the 6 kids, there were 3 girls and 3 boys. All are aged 13 and 14.

All were working in terrible conditions, 100 hours per week, despite having been promised vocational training and better lives. The little guy in the photo at the top couldn't get out of the factory fast enough; as soon as he knew someone had come to get him, he was out the door. He was terrified that we would change our mind, and leave him there.

The pictures tell the story - click on them to see in a larger size.

The factory owner was pushing the photographer away while he took this photo - hence the poor quality.

Working conditions like this are illegal - and very common.

This ain't no vocational training...

The kids are currently on a train heading back to Hue. Once they are there, we'll meet them and arrange a 'welcome home' ceremony - and then start figuring out what help they and their families need for the long term.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

A difficult mission, a major milestone

I'm pleased to announce that today Blue Dragon has helped 6 children from central Vietnam escape from garment factories in Ho Chi Minh City.

I don't yet have all the details or even photos - some time late tomorrow I'll have all the info, once our staff are back in Hanoi and have had a debrief. So far all I know is that it was extremely difficult, with traffickers doing their best to interfere and hide kids from us.

With these 6 children set free, we've reached a new milestone: 100 children released from trafficking!

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Not the ending we hoped for

We've started the year with some very complex cases; one of those is now resolved, but I'm afraid we've reached a very sad conclusion.

14 year old Tam, who has spent his life on the streets and staying with various families, has finally found his relatives in the southern city of Dalat. It's been such a long time that nobody recognised him - he's been gone for over 5 years.

Tam's hope in returning home was to find his grandmother, who raised him, and his father. Tam has no memory of his father, other than a distant recollection of a conversation in a field many years earlier. His mother abandoned him as an infant and left to remarry, so we knew that we would not find her, but we still had hopes of finding the father and his family.

Sadly, it is not to be. Tam's grandmother died in November; his father died just a week ago.

Tam has found his family too late to be reunited with those he most wanted to find. However, he now knows his personal history; he knows when and where he was born, and he has found relatives who still care for him and are glad to know that he is safe and doing well.

Tam will stay with his relatives until lunar new year (in February), and then will head back to Hanoi to live in the Blue Dragon shelter and continue at school. His remaining relatives are very poor, and although they care for Tam he has no strong connection to them.

Our hope for Tam now is that he can rise above this and find in himself a sense of purpose and identity. No matter how much we care for him at Blue Dragon, I'm afraid it can never be the same as having the love of his own parents or grandparents.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

First steps

Yesterday I wrote about Blue Dragon staff starting to prepare for our next rescue trip to find kids who have been taken from central Vietnam to work in garment factories.

Below is a photo of Nam, one of the staff (in the middle), talking with some parents about their children. Nam's job is to explain that their son or daughter is not undertaking vocational training, as the traffickers promised, but is instead working as unpaid labour in a dangerous factory, learning nothing, and with no chance of getting a decent job when the 'contract' is finished.

If the parents agree that their children should come home, they will give us written permission (a thumbprint is enough) so that the traffickers have no grounds to stop us.

This is the very first step in rescuing trafficked children.

Monday, January 03, 2011

It's complicated

2010 kicked off to a powerful start.

On January 1 last year, I was in Ho Chi Minh City on holiday but a chance encounter with a street kid named Vu sparked off a wonderful series of events which I wrote about in August. On the same day, Blue Dragon's chief lawyer, Van, spent the day teaching government officials in remote communities about preventing child trafficking. This paved the way for a year of great progress in our fight against the trafficking rings which take children as young as 10 from their rural homes to work in garment factories.

2011 has kicked off with some complexities. Nothing that we can't handle, but if this sets the scene for the coming year then we'll have plenty to think about for the next 12 months.

There are 3 big cases underway, all involving some important issues for children.

The first is the case of a runaway teenager named Thuong, which is made that little more complicated by his having an intellectual impairment. Kids with such conditions are much more vulnerable on the streets, while also much more difficult to assist. When Blue Dragon staff meet runaway children, we work fast to find out the whole story - why they've run away, where they're from, and so on - so that we can then start working out what intervention is needed to get the child home or (if necessary) how to sort out a safe, long term solution. Kids with intellectual impairments are less likely to understand the dangers that they face on the streets, and are very likely to have run away from home because of bullying and violence.

Thuong has been around for a couple of weeks now, and our outreach worker Vi has been working closely with him. We've finally had a breakthrough of sorts, and most of January 1 was spent arranging a meeting between Thuong and a relative who happens to live in Hanoi. Some teachers from Thuong's school - which is 4 hours out of Hanoi - also turned up on Saturday, having heard that Thuong was with us, and desperately wanted to meet him, but he refused. He was also quite unhappy about meeting his relative.

This is a very odd turn of events; until now we've reunited 67 runaway children with their families, but never once has school staff turned up in Hanoi to help. Clearly there's more going on here than we know, and Thuong's absolute refusal to see the teachers or return home is also surprising. It looks certain that Thuong will need a great deal of support and counseling before we can hope to see him reunited with his mother.

The second case is one that has been brewing for most of 2010, but an end might finally be in sight.

Early in the year, we came across a very small boy who was living on the streets having moved from family to family around the countryside. Originally from Dalat, Tam had made his way by chance and coincidence to Hanoi, where he lived at a privately run local shelter for some months before returning to the streets. It seems that he's either given up on, or been given up by, just about everyone he's ever met.

The curious thing about Tam's case is how little he knows about his past. Contrary to what most people believe, street children do have families. There are just a few kids I've met over the years who have absolutely no family, or have no way of knowing where their family is. Tam is one of them.

But since we have gotten to know Tam, and he's been living in our shelter, our staff have been putting together the pieces of the puzzle, trying to find out all we can about Tam's life and personal history.

Today, our lawyer Van (who is studying in the US but is back in Vietnam for Christmas) will accompany Tam to Dalat. We believe that we now have enough information to find Tam's family, and we believe that the reunion will be a happy one. Here's to hoping it all works out!

And finally, we're starting the year with a rescue trip to Ho Chi Minh City to find children working in garment factories. That's going to happen some day soon - more info once it's started - but again, there's a twist in this tale.

Although we have conducted many rescue trips in the past, this time we are looking for children from a whole new area, where we aren't so well known yet. This may mean the children will be initially more reluctant to come with us, but we'll have some officials from their home town alongside us so hopefully that won't be much of a problem.

The greater problem will be that the traffickers will be more determined than usual to stop us. Last time we rescued a group of kids, we found that they were working 100 hour weeks to produce garments. With lunar new year now only a month away, the factories are likely to be pushing their 'workers' even harder; and the loss of these unpaid servants will cause the factory owners significant problems. Hey, they might even have to think about employing adults in their place! So some confrontation is likely, but we really need to get these kids out of the factories and back to their homes.

These are the big 3 cases facing us as 2011 commences. All are complex, and to be honest I'm looking forward to the challenge of finding solutions and achieving some great results. But I sure hope that some simpler cases will come our way, too!