Saturday, November 26, 2011

Blue Dragon / Red Stocking

December is a crazy month for many people around the world: the end of the year, plus Christmas, mean sometimes endless celebrations, as well as copious preparations for parties and finishing off our year's work.

In Vietnam, the madness spills over into January, with Tet (Lunar New Year) being the major annual holiday for the country.

All of this means a lot of frenzied and excited activity around the Blue Dragon kids!

For the past few weeks I have been on the road a lot, mostly away from Vietnam, and I am very much looking forward to getting back to Hanoi in coming days and seeing all the kids and staff again. It's a bit odd, but as time goes by I get more and more homesick for Vietnam during my trips away.

We have a lot to celebrate at the moment. Throughout the year, our work with kids who have been trafficked has grown considerably; another rescue trip is planned for coming weeks. The effect of this is to keep up pressure on the people who traffic children, and the businesses that exploit them. We're going to keep that pressure up until they stop trafficking children.

The new year will bring us the Year of the Dragon - a special and significant year for the whole country, but with particular meaning for us. This is our year! We're hoping for great things!

And of course, anyone who has been on our website or Facebook recently will be aware of our Christmas plans: Blue Dragon / Red Stocking. We're inviting people to not only fill the stockings of their friends and family, but also to remember the kids in Vietnam who would love a gift of something simple: health care, clothing, freedom.

I'm optimistic that I will have some good news to share in coming weeks about developments in our work for the kids of Vietnam!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dropping by, growing up

Over the years I have written many blog posts about Blue Dragon's work in reuniting runaway kids with their families. It's a great part of what we do, and hugely important.

Children and teens who run away are highly vulnerable to all sorts of abuse. The sooner we get them off the streets, the better.

Once they are home, my team does not always hear from them again. We manage to stay in touch with some kids, but others may change their phone numbers (that happens a lot in Vietnam!) and if they live far from Hanoi, we might not get the chance to see them again.

On Friday last week, Blue Dragon's lawyer, Van, was in the countryside helping a trafficked girl with a legal issue, and it occurred to him that he had been in this area before.

Some years ago, Van had had quite an adventure taking a runaway boy named Cuong back to his family. I wrote this story about what happened in September 2007.

So on Friday, Van decided to drop in and see how Cuong was going!

Cuong is 18 now, and a very happy young man. He works with his father on building sites and since returning to his family after his stint on the streets, Cuong has had no further problems at home.

Interestingly, he remembered all of his Blue Dragon friends by and was interested to know how they all were. Van rang me, and I had a chance to talk to Cuong over the phone for a few minutes.

It sure is a nice feeling to catch up with a kid we helped 4 years ago, and to know that his life is on track!

Cuong and Van in 2007...

Cuong and Van on Friday!

Monday, November 07, 2011

The return

Last week I wrote about the many reunions that we were involved in, or a part of, in central and northern Vietnam.

Today most of my team is back in Hanoi, with the mountains now just memories, and I have had the chance to see photos of some of the trips that the Blue Dragon staff undertook last week. I'd like to share some of the photos of just one of these trips: a journey to reunite a teenager with his family after 2 years of living on the streets.

This trip highlights the challenging work we do, as well as the beautiful results that we can achieve.

About a month ago, our Outreach team came across a 17 year old boy - "Bac" - who had been living on the streets after running away from his home, up in an ethnic minority village near China. He's been doing odd jobs, sometimes on the streets and sometimes on building sites, all while carrying in his heart the terrible burden of missing his family intensely.

Bac's story isn't unique, but it is terribly sad. Living in poverty, dreaming about the big wide world beyond the mountains, one day the buffalo he was tending broke loose, and Bac decided that this would be a good time to start exploring the world!

A lot of kids come to Hanoi dreaming of the bright lights, but all they end up with is muck. Being from an ethnic minority background, and homeless and broke, Bac could find nobody willing to help him or befriend him.

He was in for a tough couple of years.

When he finally did meet Blue Dragon's staff, Bac's initial reaction was to be cautious. He didn't know who we were, and experience had taught him to be wary of smiling strangers. It took a few weeks before he started opening up about himself, and eventually he was ready to accept our offer to take him home.

And just like many of the runaway kids who need our help, Bac was from far, far away. Almost 700km away, it turned out.

Back in June we called out to our supporters around the world to ask for funds for this very work. Helping kids in such lonely and dire situations takes a lot of effort and resources. We don't get quick results; there are no overnight successes in Outreach work.

One substantial need was for us to buy a 4WD. This was a big move for us. There's nothing I despise more than charities which buy expensive new cars for nothing more than to take their CEO to fancy restaurants around town. It happens far more than anyone would believe.

We have had a little car for about 4 years, but it has been struggling to cope with the demands we put on it. Our staff are forever on the road taking kids home to their villages, so after a few near accidents and too many occasions like this we put out a call for help to get a car that would really serve us.

We have only just bought one, a Ford Explorer, and this trip to the mountains was its very first test. But wow, do I feel justified in the decision to buy it...

These shots were taken by one of the staff who accompanied Bac home. I think I can confidently say we have put this car to good use!

However, even the car had its limitations... the last leg of the journey had to be done on foot. Here are some shots of the walk!

It took 2 days to get there - and another 2 days to get back. The staff have returned to Hanoi exhausted, but proud of what they've achieved.

Some other photos they took along the way give an insight into what the area was like. This is not what visitors to Vietnam normally get to see along the well worn tourist roads. The final photo is of Bac's house.

There are some more photos that I would like to post here, but it wouldn't be right to do so. At the time that Bac saw his little sister again, there was an incredible release of emotion. The 2 were overwhelmed as they embraced, and through the images I can almost hear their wails of regret and sorrow.

One of the staff happened to be standing a few feet away with a camera in hand when the sister appeared unexpectedly; this is not the sort of thing we would usually stand about photographing. If I was to describe the moment in music, it would be to Train's Drops of Jupiter: "Did you miss me while you were looking for yourself out there?"

Part of me would like to publish these images, because I want people to know how real our work is. A few months ago we asked for money to help street kids - and this agonising embrace as a brother and sister reunite is the result of that. Two years lost, but a new future grasped, and it's thanks to people around the world who dug deep when Blue Dragon asked for help. That's a butterfly effect all of its own.

However, this was a deeply personal moment so I know that I should not put the images up.

Tonight Bac is home, and now when he dreams of his future he can share his dream with his family.

No more life on the streets; his days of exploring the world are done for now.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

I never thought I'd see you again

The last 3 days have been full of beautiful and sometimes emotional reunions.

As I wrote on Monday, our Child Rights Advocate, Van, is up in the mountains of Dien Bien province meeting the 23 kids we rescued from factories a month ago, while I have been in central Vietnam catching up with the children around Hue and Hoi An who are part of the Blue Dragon family.

One fantastic encounter last night was at Streets restaurant. On Monday I mentioned that one of our Hue girls is about to start training there; last night I saw Nam, who used to live in the Hoi An Children's Home, and who is about to complete his 18 month program there.

The founder of streets, Neal, has given us a glowing report about Nam's progress... not just in his obvious cooking skills (and the food at Streets is amazing), but more importantly in his confidence. We were sad to say goodbye to Nam when he left the Home, but Streets has been the best thing that could have happened to him.

It was great to hang out at the Home on Tuesday and today, catching up with kids who I have known for years and meeting some who have just been living there for a few months. All of the kids are from extremely poor families and have a range of needs which are better met in a group home than in the community. For these kids, living at their own home would almost certainly mean they could not go to school.

Apart from reunions, I was thrilled to meet someone new: a 5 month old boy named Long. His dad is the man I refer to as "Baby Nam", the first street kid ever met in Vietnam, back when I was here on holidays in 1999. No longer a Baby, Nam has his own shoe shop and family. Long was adorable, and I swear he wanted to lay like this - it wasn't just my general incompetence with babies!

While I have been in central Vietnam, a lot has been happening across Blue Dragon. Our Outreach team is on the road right at the moment taking home a boy from an ethnic minority village who ran away from home 2 years ago and then couldn't get back... so lived on the streets of Hanoi. It's a 1400km round trip, way up in the mountains, so this is a pretty big trip!

And I have been hearing lots from Van up in Dien Bien province. The families are deeply grateful that he has come back to see them. He's been distributing basic supplies, including instant noodles, just as a show of support, but these items are so highly valued that one mother said she would keep them aside, for a time when she is ill, so that she would really make the best use of them.

There are lots of stories that I could tell about what's been happening up there in the mountains, but one really stands out. The little guy in the picture below, "R" was one of the kids we brought home in October. Van was walking through his village, and the boy saw him from a classroom window (yes, some of the kids are back in school already!).

On seeing Van, R jumped up and raced out of the school to greet him. He was wearing his Jetstar hat, which the airline had given to all the kids when they flew home. Clearly this, too, is a prized possession.

R was overcome with emotion at seeing Van back in the village. His opening words were "I thought I'd never see you again."

If that doesn't inspire me to do my best for these kids, then what else could?