Sunday, August 28, 2011

The big day - 1000 games!

Today was a big, big day for Blue Dragon...

Our soccer team, Blue Dragon United, has now played its 1000th game!

We organised a tournament through the morning, and although it was very hot the kids had a fantastic time. We were joined by teams from the Hanoi Youth Football League, which has been great to us over the last couple of years so we invited them to join in and make our big day even more exciting.

Staff and kids alike joined in...

We had a warm up...

... but most kids were warm enough and were looking for some shade...

Everyone had a great time...

... and the U13s finished with a penalty shoot out:

(I promise to set up a Flickr account some time this coming week to make it easier to see photos on my blog).

... and here's the radio interview from Thursday, in which Blue Dragon's Outreach Worker Vi and I were interviewed by Howard Sattler on 6PR.

It really was a great morning. More pics to follow soon.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The story of Blue Dragon United

This is a big week at Blue Dragon. We started with the rescue of 8 children from factories, and on Sunday we'll play our 1000th game of soccer with street kids.

1000 games! That's quite an achievement.

Our football started early in 2003, before we even had formed Blue Dragon Children's Foundation. At the time, there were just a few of us, all volunteers, finding ways to help Hanoi's street kids. Spearheading the movement to help the kids were Chung Pham, Gonzalo Serrano, and myself.

We were teaching English and holding weekly classes in art, maths and yoga, while also providing occasional meals and healthcare. With no money and no space to meet, we could see that we were very limited in the number of street kids we were able to reach out to.

One day, Gonzalo - a Spaniard with a passion for soccer - suggested that we could help a whole lot more kids if we took to the field. That would solve the problem of space, and with football being the unofficial religion of Vietnam we were sure that the kids would be interested.

And so we found a dirt field that we could rent and spent a few days riding around the city on our motorbikes handing out flyers to street kids.

Every kid we spoke to was interested and promised to come. We were off to a huge start! And then, on that first Sunday, we arrived at the field... and just 3 boys turned up.

Regardless, we had a great game and committed to playing again the next week.

Each week, the number of kids coming grew. Within a month, there was a steady core of 15 street kids turning up... and then 30... and then 50. These days, up to 80 kids come along each week to play.

We needed a name for the team, and so Gonzalo suggested we adopt his old team's name: Real Betis. We thus became Real Betis Vietnam, and even received an official letter from the Real Betis Club in Spain allowing us to do so (thankfully!). The picture below featured in the Vietnam News in 2003.

Later, we switched to a blue uniform:

... and today we have an orange / blue uniform, which can be seen on the Blue Dragon United website.

Just a couple of years ago, we decided to change our team name to Blue Dragon United, as the kids didn't have a strong affinity to the Real Betis name any more, and we wanted to relaunch the team to give it a new energy.

Our 1000 games includes tournaments we've joined, such as those at the United Nations school and the Hanoi Youth Football League. Although our kids are much smaller than most of their peers, we've won a few awards over time, and the trophy we won in 2010 has pride of place in the Blue Dragon office.

We've had some special guests turn up at the field...

... and over time, we've watched many kids from football grow up, become young adults, and some have even become Blue Dragon staff.

The soccer is great fun for the kids, but it's also a chance for us to reach out to kids who we otherwise wouldn't know. Some of the kids we meet are worried about coming inside the Blue Dragon centre until they know us well. Nobody's afraid to turn up to a football field, though.

And so this Sunday at 8am we'll be having a very big game, with plenty of food and drinks, a few awards, and a whole lot of fun. I'll post some photos on Monday. Let's just hope for great weather!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

8 kids out of the factories

I'm happy to report that we're now finishing up a rescue trip to Ho Chi Minh City with some good results.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Blue Dragon's plan to end the trafficking of children from central to southern Vietnam to work in garment factories. This week's trip was a part of that plan - to keep on getting kids out of factories and back to their homes, where they belong.

Before taking the kids home, we first need the support and permission of their families, who are in Hue province. We do this by talking to them in their communities with representatives of their local government and Red Cross. A typical "meeting" looks like this:

Not all parents agree, unfortunately; and some initially think their children are fine in the factories but change their minds when they see the kids who we rescue and bring home. In the early stages of planning this trip we were hoping to bring home at least 12 kids. But we couldn't get the permission of all of the parents, so had to be satisfied to bring home 8.

Once we have the parents' permission, we head to the south to the industrial areas where children are often put to work in appalling conditions. The images below were taken yesterday on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.

And so we have enabled 8 children, aged 13 to 15, to leave these factories behind and return home.

Now for the next stage of our work: ensuring the kids can stay with their families, return to school, and live in safety with their communities.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The lost brothers

Last week, one of Vietnam's national newspapers ran a compelling story about a young man in Hai Phong City who begs in public places for money.

The man, "Dinh", was aged 23, but in the photos looked no older than 14 or 15. The article told the shocking story of how Dinh's older sister had introduced him to heroin 9 years previously - when he really was aged 14 - and how he had been separated from his family, reduced to begging from strangers, ever since. By all accounts, he'd had a terribly difficult life.

Shortly after the article was published, Blue Dragon staff received a telephone call... from the journalist who had written the article. She had tracked down one of Dinh's distant uncles, who told her that he knew where Dinh's younger brother was living: The Blue Dragon Shelter.

It turned out that Dinh is the older brother of a 16 year old Blue Dragon boy: an orphan (who I will call "Ton") who we first met living on the streets back in 2006.

Ton had brought himself up on the streets, living with gangs and finding shelter under bridges and in abandoned houses. His parents had died, but he knew little about them - or about himself. When it came time for him to make a birth certificate, he had no idea of his actual date of birth, so he rang me to ask if he could use mine. Every birthday I have had since then has been much more meaningful!

For the first few years that Ton was with Blue Dragon, his behaviour was impulsive and often wild. He could be heard throughout the entire building - sometimes you could hear his booming voice down the street. Learning to live in a house, and follow simple domestic rules, was a massive challenge. There were countless setbacks, as well as tremendous steps forward, but we never knew which direction Ton would take.

To his credit, while almost all of his old friends have ended up in prison, or on heroin, or both, Ton has stayed out of trouble... Or, at least, avoided being caught! School never worked out for him, but he's been learning hairdressing and in the last couple of years has calmed down to the point that nobody could ever guess his troubled past without being told.

But a constant burden for Ton has been the issue of his family.

In 2009, we found an uncle and started unraveling some of the details of Ton's life. He'd been severely neglected as a child, abandoned by just about everyone, and left to fend for himself. There's still so much that we don't know.

Regardless, Ton has longed to find his family members. He has memories of brothers and sisters, but despite our best efforts he's only ever heard rumours of where they might be and what they are doing.

Until this telephone call.

On Sunday, we finally had some concrete information that Ton's brother Dinh has been begging at a particular bus station in Hai Phong, which is a few hours drive out of Hanoi. One of our staff headed straight to Hai Phong with Ton to look, but 6 hours of waiting and asking around yielded nothing. Ton was deeply upset, thinking that perhaps there was no hope after all.

On Monday lunchtime, though, the journalist called back: she was with Dinh, on a bus, heading to Hanoi.

Ton and Dinh have not seen each other for 9 years. So much has happened in those intervening years that cannot be said in any words. Ton is elated at having finally found a brother he loves and has worried about endlessly; but also confused and frightened at the burden of his brother's heroin addiction. He just doesn't know what to make of it.

Added to this is the news that their own sister introduced Dinh to heroin. Ton has no idea how to feel about that. He's been desperately hoping to find his sister, now in her mid 20s, since I first met him - so what is he to think of her now?

Ton has been with Blue Dragon for so long that Monday's reunion has impacted all of us. The staff share Ton's confusion and sorrow, as well as his joy.

In the next few days, we will work out what to do next. Dinh seems like a lovely young guy, and in talking to him in the afternoon it was instantly clear that he's never had people care for him before. Will he want to enter a rehab program? Will we be able to get him in to one? (He has absolutely no personal registration papers, which are essential). And how will Dinh's sudden appearance impact on Ton's own dream of finishing a hairdressing course and getting a job?

There are many questions now, but no answers just yet.

Sometimes we spend our lives for searching in vain for something that appears out of nowhere, long after we have given up hope. Ton and Dinh cannot believe they've found each other; but after so long apart, they're each now wondering what their future will hold.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Now for the good news

I came across this info recently on another blog - see here for more info.

Amidst all the bad news we see every day, here is a list of what's getting better in our world.

Let's hope their 2020 projections hold true!

Caught in the net

If you're on Blue Dragon's mailing list, you'll have received a message this morning with some very good news.

In short, we've been involved in helping 2 teenage girls who were trafficked from Vietnam to China and sold to brothels. Our support has enabled them to return to their homes and start getting on with their lives... and we've also been able to bring most of the trafficking ring to justice. The one remaining person involved appears to have fled the country, so is now on an Interpol watchlist.

We're really pleased to have been able to achieve all this, and it's tremendously satisfying to see the girls starting to resume a normal life.

A fascinating 'sideline' to this story is the role of the internet in human trafficking.

Most cases we have dealt with involving the trafficking of girls to China has involved the internet in some way or another. Typically, the traffickers are meeting girls online and becoming their 'friends' via chat rooms. They then arrange to meet in person, show some generosity, and eventually take them on a holiday or shopping trip near the Chinese border. The final step is to say "Let's go shopping over the border," or "I have a really good friend who lives just on the other side of the border," and the girl is kidnapped.

In this most recent case, though, the internet also played a role in the escape of the 2 girls. After they had broken out of the brothel, they found themselves in a Chinese city over 1000km from Vietnam. Just as a chat room had been the start of their troubles, the same chat room was their best chance to reconnect with their families back home and call for help.

Each trafficking case that we get involved with teaches us new lessons - and no matter what we see or hear, each case reminds us that we have so much more to learn.

We only hope that each new case we work with can prepare us better to help the girls who are being targeted by traffickers, and find new ways to counter the trafficking before it even takes place.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Under the wing

Blue Dragon was featured in yesterday's Relax magazine of the Sunday Canberra Times... Click on the images to see the larger file sizes.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Student accommodation

With the new school year starting in Vietnam, Blue Dragon's residential programs are preparing for new children who need a home in order to go to school.

In both Hanoi and Hoi An, we have homes where kids can live while they study, attend training, and start jobs. These homes are important not just as accommodation, but as social programs too. They give kids a safe place to live and grow until they don't need our help any more.

Recently a Blue Dragon staff member was traveling through a rural region and came across the makeshift huts pictured below:

He was shocked to learn that these huts were 'student accommodation' for kids who lived far from town and couldn't afford to travel each day, or to pay for room and board.

And it gets worse - not only did the kids live here, but they lived here unsupervised and unsupported. The oldest was just 16 years old; the youngest was 7.

What a powerful reminder that the Blue Dragon homes are so important... and that we need to offer our help to more children around Vietnam!

Monday, August 01, 2011

Some new houses

Some good news to start the week!

We're very proud to have finished building 2 new houses for families in Hue (Central Vietnam). Each house cost about $2000, and both families have been victims of child traffickers in the past.

The "Before and After" shots tell quite a story!

This is the house of a teenage girl who was trafficked to a garment factory...



... and this house is where a 15 year old boy who was trafficked lives. It's one of the worst houses we've come across in recent times - far worse than the photo suggests!



We don't put the Blue Dragon logo on the houses we build, because we see the homes as belonging entirely to the families, but during the week we'll have a small celebration with the families, their communities and the local Red Cross.

I think that a small party is well and truly in order!