Monday, February 28, 2011

Street Myths #2: Vocational training is good for street kids

Following on from my earlier blog entry about the myth of 'street kids have no families', today I want to write about another comment that I often hear, particularly from other charities in Vietnam.

In itself, it sounds fair and reasonable. Vocational training is good for street street kids. Who could disagree with that?

The problem is that this myth works on two assumptions.

First, it assumes that street kids are basically all the same, and equally, street kids are different to everyone else. And yet, street kids are as varied and different as any other group of young people in the world.

Second, and worse, is the assumption that street kids are not interested in academics. Vocational training tends to be hands-on study leading to work in hospitality or a trade. In believing that this is what all street kids want to do, it ignores those who are actually good at their studies and would like to go on to university, for example.

Since we started, Blue Dragon has worked with over 2000 kids. Each is as individual as any child in any family or school anywhere.

One of the kids we worked with, a boy, has gone on to work for the government as a garbage collector. He has a stable job, he loves the team he works in, and he has saved up enough money to build a small house for himself.

Another of our kids, a girl now aged 18, is studying civil engineering at university. She is having a terrific time, coming close to the top of her classes, and thrives on the challenges of the academic pursuit she's taken on.

We also have plenty of kids who have indeed gone on to vocational training - including at VIP Bikes and KOTO, two training enterprises in Hanoi.

The point is that you can't say "vocational training is good for street kids" any more than you can say "vocational training is good for all kids." And it's not. It's perfect for some, ok for others, and inadequate for the rest.

In other words, street kids need the same options and opportunities as the rest of us.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Some great news this morning.

Vietnamese police have caught a trafficker who has been kidnapping girls and selling them to Chinese brothels. The article mentions 7 girls - but their investigation indicates that there are many, many more.

This is the guy who abducted the girls we rescued last March, in a joint operation with Vietnamese authorities into China. His sister, also involved, is yet to be caught, but that should happen soon.

I'm so relieved that they finally caught him!

‘VIP’ arrested for selling 7 girls to China brothels

Tuoi Tre News

Updated : Mon, February 14, 2011,4:04 PM (GMT+0700)


Dao Van Duong at police station

Photo: VnExpress

Claiming himself as a big businessman, Dao Van Duong lured 7 girls aged 17-23 to China on long holidays only to sell them to brothels there.

Hanoi police arrested Duong, 27, last Friday when he was visiting his ex-girlfriend in Lang Son northern province bordering China and planning to sell her.

Duong would introduce himself as owner of a big coffee shop in Hanoi and a businessman trading in clothes and electronic items imported from China.

In fact he is only a local porter at a border region.

A 23-year-old girl who escaped sexual slavery several days after being sold in China told Vietnamese police that she was tricked by his charisma and extravagance.

At the end of last March, Duong invited her, a then promotional girl at a bar in Hanoi, to go on a business trip with him to China to import clothes.

But he sold her shortly after.

According to police, Duong has sold around 7 young women aged 17 – 23. For each woman sold, he would receive VND100 million (US$5,000).

At present, 4 out of the 7 victims have been rescued from brothels in China.

Police are hunting down his accomplices.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Getting kids off the street

Here's a link to an online article which another agency, Catholic Relief Services, has written about street kids in Vietnam:

Getting Vietnam's kids off the street

Much of the information came from Blue Dragon, and the kids interviewed were at our centre.

My favorite quote: "I feel very happy here. Everyone respects me and loves me."

Monday, February 14, 2011

A football tournament

The Blue Dragon United team had the pleasure of joining in a soccer tournament over the weekend - and had a chance to play on grass fields!

Some of our kids with hearing impairments are learning basic photography, so they joined in the outing and captured some shots of the players. A few of their snaps are below...

Monday, February 07, 2011

Family and friends

Tet (Lunar New Year) in Vietnam is a very important time of year for all people. The poorest child, the most powerful banker - all celebrate Tet by returning to their 'homeland' in the countryside and spending time eating and drinking together.

Family first, but friends come a close second. Especially on the 2nd and 3rd days of the new year, everyone goes visiting their distant relatives and best friends. It's a reasonably formal occasion; suddenly all the men in Vietnam are wearing ties and suits, even some of the teenagers!

My own Tet was very quiet. I am bound to stay at home in Hanoi over the holiday because of my 4-legged children (don't you think they look like me?).

I did my own fair share of visiting / receiving visitors, although I didn't go so far as to donning a tie. Some of the staff invited me to their homes to eat with their families (it's aaaaall about eating), and some of our older kids, who now live independently, came to visit me at my house. These are the simple yet profound moments that make Tet in Vietnam so memorable.

There's one particular family that I visit each Tet. As Blue Dragon has grown larger over the years, I can't know all of the families personally, but this is one I've known for almost 7 years.

It's a family of 7 sons raised by their Grandmother near the Red River in a slum area known for its drugs and crime. The youngest of the 7 sons drowned in the river shortly before I came into contact with the family; at that time, the oldest son had already been sent to prison, then aged 17. He's 24 years old now.

He's just been released - I met him for the first time a few days ago - and 3 of the other brothers are currently in drug rehab centres. We helped them in the past to attend a very good rehabilitation service, but on their release they found it too easy to drift back into smoking heroin to dull their pains. They're wonderful people, and I deeply regret that I couldn't help them straighten their lives out. It's probably my greatest failure since starting Blue Dragon in 2003.

That leaves just 2 surviving brothers out of 7 who have never been imprisoned and addicted to heroin. Their lives have been incredibly difficult. Their mother is in prison - I've never met her, she's been away such a long time - and their father, also addicted to heroin, died in 2007.

The brothers have mostly been raised by their beautiful grandmother, who deserves an award for all she's done. I cannot imagine how she must perceive the change in Vietnam over the years; having lost nearly all of her family to drugs must be the most alien concept, but she keeps on doing all she can. She loves her grandsons dearly.

And so the best meal of my year was with Grandma and the 3 brothers, sitting on a straw mat on their floor. I took a photo of the meal before we started. Grandma had obviously spent the whole morning preparing it, and throughout lunch she was devoted to making sure I ate as much of it as humanly possible.

After lunch, Grandma pulled out some folders of family photos and we looked through together - at images of the youngest brother, now gone; at pictures of weddings, birthdays, and happy times; and at relatives now imprisoned or passed away.

I think that Grandma simply wanted to reminisce; and for me it was an honour to be 'let in' to so much of her family history.

For the 2 younger brothers, Blue Dragon will keep on helping them with their schooling, and I hope that in a few years time they'll be in good jobs and well able to look after themselves. Their oldest brother will need some help now to come to grips with living back at home - Hanoi has changed an awful lot in 7 years - and then some assistance to find a job.

And although Grandma doesn't quite fit in so neatly to our goals as a Children's Foundation, I'm pretty sure we'll keep finding ways to support her, too.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Street Myths #1: Street kids have no families

Over the coming month I will be writing from time to time about some of the common myths relating to street children, starting with the myth that street kids have no families. I'm hoping to help people gain a greater understanding of who street kids are, and why Blue Dragon does what it does! All feedback and comments are welcome.

I've heard this one many times - and I used to subscribe to this belief too. Surely children living and working on the streets must all be orphans, with no family and nobody to care for them?

Quite often when we meet street children for the first time, they'll tell Blue Dragon staff the same story: "I have no family." The most common story we hear is "My parents have died and my aunts and uncles kicked me out."

But in the past 8 years of working with street kids in Hanoi, there have been just a handful of cases in which this was true. Nearly everyone has family - whether it's parents, siblings, grandparents, or aunts and uncles.

So why do the kids tell us otherwise?

This is simply a defense mechanism. When we first meet street kids, they have no idea who we are, or if they can trust us. So they have a ready-made story that they've been telling everyone who asks them who they are. It's actually quite a sensible thing for them to do.

(In the same way, the kids very often tell us false names - another defense strategy. Some of the kids who have given us false names are with us for such a long time before we find out the truth that we keep on using the 'nickname' even when we know the real name).

The kids do have families, so as a charity aiming to help kids get their lives back on track, one of our biggest challenges is to see if we can 'heal the rift' between the child and their family, if indeed there is one.

It's Tet now, and the streets of Hanoi are suddenly quiet. Just about everyone has left the city to visit their homeland.

Normally, Blue Dragon would have at least half a dozen kids who have nowhere to go - because they are unable, or unwilling, to spend this important time with their families.

This year, however, we have none. All of the kids, including those who stayed with us over Tet last year, have gone home.

This is not exactly a story that will make it into the newspapers, but it's an incredible development for the kids. There are children who had no family to go to last year, but who do this year.

How has that happened?

To be frank - lots of hard work.

At times, our staff have had to do 'detective work' to trace family members who have moved or disappeared, and that can take months, or even years. Recently I wrote this entry about us finding the family of a boy named Tam who hasn't been home for 5 years; it wasn't a happy ending, but the boy does now know where his family is, and in fact is with them right now.

It's taken us close to a year to reach that conclusion.

With just a few rare exceptions, street kids do have families. For Blue Dragon - or any organisation - to effectively help the children, we have to do more than help the individual child; we have to find out how to help the whole family.