Monday, October 31, 2011

North and central

Tonight I am writing from Hue, in Central Vietnam, where Blue Dragon works with children who have been trafficked to work in factories. I'm on a quick trip to visit our staff and kids - soon I head south to Hoi An to catch up with children at the Hoi An Children's Home.

The 2 kids I met with today were both very happy girls! One, named V, is living in a pagoda on the outskirts of Hue. I've known her family for a long time, and we helped one of V's older brothers return home to Hue in 2006 after being trafficked to work on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

While V's family is in pretty good shape these days, Vi is severely hearing impaired and so is constantly harassed in her village. She's treated as a fool, denied education, and shunned by the other kids. So now she spends most of her time living in a pagoda and returns home every other weekend. She's studying now, and is treated with much more dignity than ever before in her 15 years. And she was positively beaming as she showed me off to all her friends in the pagoda!

It was also very nice to meet another of the girls, T, who has been studying English and basic skills in a training centre. T was overjoyed for 2 big reasons. First, she was able to speak to me in English, for the first time in her life - man, was she proud of that! And second, she's just been accepted into a charitable training program called Streets, which trains disadvantaged youth to prepare them for great jobs in the hospitality industry. There are lots of applicants and not many places, so she really deserves to take some pride in that achievement!

Meantime Blue Dragon's Child Rights Advocate, Van, has been trekking through the northern mountains to catch up with the 23 kids we just recently rescued from slavery in garment factories. A big part of his visit is to keep the families assured that we are still thinking of them and still committed to helping them.

Everyone is doing well, and the kids are really happy to see Van again. He was right there with the police when they raided the factories about a month ago, so all the children feel a very strong attachment to him. On the phone this afternoon, Van told me that many of the families are worried about the coming winter and are short on food supplies, so we'll get them some basic supplies on Tuesday.

It's great to be catching up with the children and their families - I only wish I could spend much more time out here in the provinces, much more often!

... and now a Post Script:

A few hours after writing this I arrived in Hoi An, and went for a stroll through the old town. Lucky for me, I stumbled across an old friend...

Kieu was the very first kid who I helped in Hanoi. I met him back in 2002, before there was any idea of starting a charity. At the time I met him, I thought I would be leaving Hanoi within weeks and would never be back!

Kieu was working like a slave in a hole-in-the-wall noodle outlet in Hanoi's old quarter. I know it's common to see young people hard at work, but this was exceptional. His job included washing the bowls in a basin which was carved into the floor, which meant that he had to reach down below ground level to work. Talk about back breaking!

His conditions were clearly awful and he was always tired. The final straw, though - and this was some months later - was when he was at work covered in chicken pox. Kieu was 13 years old. He should have been home asleep, not working 16 hours per day in a noodle restaurant!

The picture below shows me and Chung, Blue Dragon's co-founder, with Kieu around the corner from where he worked. We convinced his boss to let us take him for a walk to buy some ice cream, so that we could secretly ask his permission to get him out of there.

You might think, given the highly questionable fashion statement I was making that day, that Kieu would have had second thoughts... but he was only too happy to get out of that place.

His boss wasn't quite so happy. But that was not high on my list of concerns.

So... what's Kieu doing in central Vietnam? How is it that I ran into him tonight?

Well, he works at Green Mango - a very classy restaurant in Hoi An. And he doesn't just work there; he's the head chef, with a staff of 10 under him. Not bad for a 22 year old!

If only your old boss could see you now, Kieu.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Thanksgiving in Singapore

A quick call out to our friends in Singapore!

Come and join in a Thanksgiving dinner on November 20!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In my own words

Today we're kicking off a series of short films we've made here at Blue Dragon, in which our kids tell their stories in their own words.

We'll be uploading these on to Facebook, but for those who are not on Facebook the films are also being put up on the Blue Dragon home page.

A new film will appear each week!

Monday, October 24, 2011


Earlier this year, CNN named me as one of their 2011 Heroes. This was a great honour not only for me, but for my whole team working along side me.

One thing that the CNN award didn't acknowledge, though, is that I too have my heroes. Many of them, in fact.

They are the girls and boys who I meet each day, who have struggled so much to have what many of us take for granted and do everything they can to make their lives better.

They are kids who have every reason to give up, but don't.

One of my heroes is in New Zealand at the moment, studying a business degree at the National Technology Institute. His name is Chinh, he's 21, and he has had a really tough life. I could write a very long post about all the problems he's had to put up with until now.

I met Chinh when he was 14 and working on the streets of Hanoi to support his family. But today I don't want to write about the hardships he's faced; I want to write about a mountain that he's conquered.

Last week, Chinh graduated from his first year at college. Despite having to drop out of school when he was barely a teen, and despite all of the obstacles that life has thrown in his way, Chinh came top of his course. Number 1.

Chinh is in the centre, along with Anne and Isaac from NTEC.

Do you see why this guy is a hero to me?

But that's not all. For coming first, Chinh was awarded a gift of $100. This is hugely helpful to Chinh, who has been working part time jobs in restaurants and cafeterias to make ends meet. However, he contacted me immediately to say that he wants this money to be given to Blue Dragon children at the upcoming Tet Awards night.

One of our prizes on this night is for kids who have done particularly well at school. Chinh would like his money to be divided among this year's award recipients.

What a beautiful thing for him to do.

Chinh, congratulations on coming top of the business course. You are an amazing young man with the whole world at your feet. You're my hero.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


How's this for a photo to get you smiling?

Our staff recently stumbled across this image, which won a prize in a competition on the theme of Joy by local photographer Hoang Quoc Khanh.

It caught our attention as one of the boys is from Blue Dragon. What a great moment this photo has captured! Oh, to be that age again...

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Late last night I received an email from one of the Blue Dragon boys, "Ton."

I'm in Singapore at the moment, catching up with friends and supporters, so it was nice to get a message from Ton. He's about 14 and has had a pretty tough life, but so far he's been able to keep on the right track.

Last night, Ton was asking if I would help him buy something. I couldn't understand what he was asking, so he sent me a photo.

It was a photo of a stun gun. He says he's afraid of being robbed because he lives in a bad part of the city, and he wants to protect himself.

In contrast, I have spent the past 10 days or so visiting international schools whose students have been supporting Blue Dragon. Each in their own way has done something amazing to help the kids in Vietnam.

The German European School uses its annual swim gala to raise the funds that we need to teach swimming to Blue Dragon kids. (About 10 children drown every day in Vietnam - learning to swim is massively important). The French School students create Christmas cards and sell them to support the children at our drop in centre. Some children from Chatsworth International presented me yesterday with $10.80, which they raised by making and selling origami items in their spare time.

Presenting to Grade 7 at the French School of Singapore

During the week I also received some emails from schools in rural Australia, including Narara Public School - a very small school on the Central Coast of NSW, where the students raised over $1100 by holding raffles and selling food... including this extraordinary cake! (I have never seen anything like it!)

The Blue Dragon cake at Narara Public School

I find all of this incredibly inspirational, because for all of the mess that our world is in - for all of the wars, and financial collapses, and child trafficking and corruption - the world is still full of kids who want to make things better.

On Thursday night I sat in a hall at United World College (UWC) watching brilliant dance and music performances, created entirely by the students, to celebrate UN Day. There were Korean pop dancers, American hip hop, Hungarian traditional dance... even a tribute a Bob Marley. I sat with tears in my eyes, stunned by what young people are capable of.

Which brings me back to Ton and his dream of protecting himself with a stun gun.

Ton is just as capable as any teenager of making the world a better place. Had he been born somewhere else, in another family or another time, he might be the one raising funds for kids in need rather than needing to receive the help from Blue Dragon.

I find it so sad that this little guy feels worried enough about his safety that he would ask me to buy him a weapon. That's not the world I want to live in.

My time in Singapore has certainly inspired me, and in a way it's reinvigorated my hope in humanity. But in a few days time I will be back with the Blue Dragon kids, where there is still so much to do - and so much need to bring that hope to children who seem to have so little to hope for.

Friday, October 07, 2011

What I see

Among the many kids Blue Dragon helps (about 1,100 at last count!) are some beautiful teenagers who happen to be hearing impaired. They're good friends, studying, playing, and sharing life's difficulties with each other.

Over some months, we have had a terrific volunteer named Cate Gunn teaching photography to this group of kids. Her project culminated last week in a Pecha Kucha presentation - the first of its kind in Hanoi.

The kids' images, as well as some explanations, are on Cate's Tumblr site, here. Definitely worth a look. And below are just a few shots of the presentation itself.

While the photos by the kids are amazing, the growth in confidence of the 5 teens involved in the project is what's most inspiring.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Hot dog!

After all of the 'heaviness' of events recently, here's something that brought a big smile to my face the other night...

One of the kids we work with in Hanoi is a 15 year old boy who has been living and working at Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of the Old Quarter. (I'll call him "Thu"). At times, he cooks and sells sausages for tourists.

Thu has been studying English at Blue Dragon, and from his lessons and the slang he has picked up on the streets he knows enough to deal with foreign customers.

But on Sunday he asked me to explain a very strange request he'd recently had...

Thu knows what a "dog" is. And he's heard the phrase "hot girl" and "hot boy" plenty of times - a teenage way of admiring someone beautiful.

So he wanted to know... why on earth would a tourist ask him for a hot dog??

Monday, October 03, 2011

All home

Thank you to all of you who have been following this story and sending comments and messages of support over the last couple of weeks.

I'm happy to say that the 23 trafficked children are all home now - back with their families in Tuan Giao district of Dien Bien province, north west of Hanoi.

Here's how it all came to an end...

To save the 2 day journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi by bus or train, Jetstar donated the flights and we were able to fly the kids north on Thursday afternoon. Blue Dragon's Chief Lawyer, Van, flew with them (as he has been working closely with the kids) along with 2 police from Dien Bien province. Their presence has been important because the ultimate goal is to have the trafficker (a woman) and the factory owners (her sons) prosecuted. Their factories have already been shut down and they've each been fined heavily (including some compensation payments to the kids), but we want to see these people in court - and eventually in prison.

Once everyone had landed, I met them at the airport and we hopped on a bus (also donated - this time by Peak Adventure Travel, formerly known as Intrepid) to head to the city of Tuan Giao in the district of Tuan Giao. "City" is an exaggeration, of course... After an 11 hour bus ride through the night, we arrived at a tranquil town where many people still wear their traditional dress, or at least head scarves, and nobody seemed to understand a word I said. (After nearly 10 years in Vietnam, I hope to do better than that!)

Although the police in Ho Chi Minh City had taken statements from the kids already, the Tuan Giao police needed to take them again. They appear to be building their own case against the trafficker, and I can see a possibility that there will be 2 separate sets of charges.

The process was very quick: police and various officials had set up a room where children about 10 children could be interviewed at a time.

By that time, family members had started to arrive from the villages, so there were sporadic reunions over the course of a few hours. During these, the true state of the families started to become clear.

On the bus ride up we had bought a box of bottled water. As soon as no adults were looking, the kids pounced on the box and within seconds all of the bottles were gone.

No problem, we wanted the kids to have them... but it was a bit odd that nobody seemed to be drinking.

Once we were in Tuan Giao and the parents started to arrive, we could see why.

One of the boys, V - among the smallest of the children - had used some of his compensation money to buy some simple gifts for his mother. His father had long since died, and V had gone to Ho Chi Minh City hoping he would somehow be helping his mother. If not for the police demanding that the factory owners pay compensation money, she wouldn't have received much at all.

Among the gifts that V handed over was a bottle of water, taken from the box on the bus. He and his mother live in such poverty that a mere bottle of water was treated as a prize possession, a sign of love from son to mother.

And most telling of all was that V's mother had no idea how to open it. One of the policemen, seeing her try, stepped over to open the bottle. How small and humble I felt at that moment.

The children and their family members wanted nothing more than to get home, so they left around midday on motorbikes arranged by the local government.

Van and I wanted to go out with them to visit each of their homes, but with the threat of a tropical storm looming we could only go as far as the first village, which was about 45 minutes by motorbike. This is the 'richest' of the villages, and it was really disappointing that we couldn't get out further and see more families.

Along the way, I shot some film from my camera to get a sense of the countryside we were in.

And once we reached the village, I was able to capture some images of the homes that the kids lived in. The film below shows a typical house in this village.

Not one of the houses that we entered had electricity or running water. The floors were bare dirt, and the finger-wide gaps in the walls made me shiver with the thought of the coming winter.

I can see why the trafficker chose to come up here to get these children. She assumed that nobody would notice, or care. She believed that even if someone did notice, and did care, that they wouldn't possibly put in the effort required to find the kids way down the other end of the country and bring them home.

It turns out she was wrong on all counts. Quite a few of us noticed, and cared. And we were more than willing to travel the length of the country several times over in order to find, protect, and bring them home.

In coming weeks my challenge is to work out what to do next.

The kids left their villages because someone came along offering them the promise of a better life. But it was a lie, a cheap trick with nothing more in mind than exploitation.

They've been working up to 18 hours a day, every day, for many months; they're exhausted, they have been through hunger and beatings and verbal abuse. Now we've taken them home to their families.

But will life be better now? Somehow, it has to be. We have to find a way, or else we'll have lied to the children, too.