Thursday, December 29, 2011

The end of the year as we know it

The calendar on my wall is still open to October. My mind is still switched on to August. Everything else tells me December is about to end.

This has been another fast moving year at Blue Dragon.

2012 will be the Year of the Dragon. Symbolically, this is exciting for us: this is our year. And we do have a few big announcements coming, but I fear saying anything too soon. So instead I'll make the prediction that this will be a huge year for Blue Dragon in Vietnam. Huge, I tells ya.

Having said that, 2011 has been a big year too.

We started on a terrible note, with the sudden death of one of our kids: a 10 year old boy named Toby Hai. At our coming Annual Tet Awards ceremony, we'll be marking a year since Toby Hai left us, but he certainly remains in our thoughts. From that awful low, things could only improve.

2011 was the year that 3 Blue Dragon teens headed to New Zealand to study; 2 of the boys studied English over 6 months, while the third joined a Business Diploma course, and did so well that the college offered him a second year of study.

Our fight against human trafficking landed some powerful punches this year. We reached the milestone of having rescued 100 kids early in the year, and since then have rescued a further 42. This included our biggest ever rescue: 23 children and youth from ethnic minority villages in the mountains. Although I don't get too hung up on the numbers, these figures are significant. Each young person we get out of a factory or a brothel is a life changed, and another blow to the filthy industry feeding off their vulnerability.

In Hue, a province of central Vietnam, we have set our sights on ending the trafficking of children to garment factories altogether. And in doing so, we want to ensure that the factories don't just start getting kids from other areas; and also that the kids from Hue don't end up getting trafficked to other industries. We plan to do this properly.

Of the kids we've rescued so far, a growing number include teenage Vietnamese girls we've rescued out of brothels in China. Earlier this month we brought back 4 more girls and young women who were tricked and kidnapped, to be sold to brothels. Whereas with the garment factory trafficking we believe we can put a permanent end to the trade, we are still just starting to get involved in this cross-border crime. All we know is that we've had some good success so far; not only in getting girls back, but in cooperating with both the Vietnamese and Chinese police, and then in helping the girls to resettle in Vietnam.

So we face the question now: What does this mean for Blue Dragon? Should we get more involved in this issue? When so many other agencies have anti-trafficking programs, is there a need for us to have one too? This is a question we need to wrestle with in coming weeks and months.

We've also been really pleased with the development of our Outreach work to street kids. Late in 2010 we were talking to a big funding agency from Singapore, which cooperates with a Hong Kong foundation, about securing funding to expand our services to reach runaway kids and others living on the streets. We went through the bizarre experience of being asked to submit proposals and conduct a survey and then finally be told that they wouldn't help because I am not famous enough - or as the woman put it, "Nobody knows who you are." (I couldn't help but wonder what she thought when CNN named me as one of their Heroes of 2011).

So instead we asked our supporters around the world to help, through a major appeal in June. Our donors dug deep and ended up giving 3 times the amount that the "major foundation" was ever prepared to consider. The result is that our Outreach work has grown from a single staff member to 3, and we're close to doubling the number of kids we meet every week. Many of the stories of these kids are incredibly moving; these are the children who nobody else is looking out for, but they're good kids and deserve a chance.

Personally, I am proud of each and every child we reach on the streets, and I am equally proud that our friends around the world have made this possible. Thank you.

Another part of our Outreach work is our soccer team, Blue Dragon United. Originally the soccer was a way to reach street kids, but as things have developed over the years the team has been embraced by youth living in a slum area close to Hanoi's Red River. Rather than street kids, the majority of the 50-60 kids who turn up each week are living in an area riddle with heroin, crime, and gangs. These, too, are a group of kids who need a helping hand. A highlight of the year was definitely our 1000th game of soccer... that's a lot of football!

The year is ending well, with news of a wedding and quite a few reunions between Blue Dragon and kids we've helped in years past. In fact, 3 of the 4 stories I wrote in November were of catching up with 'old friends'. Christmas has been great, and now for a long weekend.

Come Tuesday, it's 2012 but not quite a new year. That doesn't come until January 23, when the Lunar New Year (Tet) is celebrated throughout Vietnam. As always, the end of a year is a good time for reflection... on successes and failures, achievements and regrets, and on the road we've traveled as well as the path ahead.

It's been a good year for Blue Dragon because we've created real, lasting change for so many kids. We have over 1300 girls and boys in our care now.

But the great news is that we can hope for an even better year to come.

A wedding!

Four years ago, the Blue Dragon family was devastated to learn that one of our kids, an 18 year old named Ngoc, had been stabbed and left for dead by the side of the road.

He was attacked by a gang which mistook him for someone they were out to kill; fortunately they weren't as competent as they were violent. The story as it unfolded can be found here; scroll down to the first entry named Cut on December 7 2007.

Ngoc survived, and went on to finish high school and go to university.

Today, Ngoc came to Blue Dragon to hand out invitations... to his wedding next week. Ngoc's getting married!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Inside the factories

Ever wondered what it's like for kids who get trafficked to Vietnam's garment factories?

Here's a rare shot that Blue Dragon staff were able to capture inside a factory that exploits kids from central Vietnam.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The party!

Christmas day with the Blue Dragon kids was a blast.

This was my 10th Christmas in Hanoi, and I was very happy to spend pretty much the entire day with the kids. We started with our usual football match... then headed to The Garden shopping centre for a party organised by some good friends there... and finally went to the Botanic Park for a gathering of about 150 girls and boys.

Loads of fun. The pictures tell the story better than I can.

I'll put up more pictures of the day on Facebook during the coming week.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Yesterday morning, a few Blue Dragon staff were huddled together around a table deep in conversation. Our Outreach team leader, 2 lawyers, and a social worker. Something was happening.

When they were done, I asked what was going on. The Outreach leader explained that he had come across a young girl being used as a slave to earn money on the streets here in Hanoi. She had been living with her father in a rented room, and when her father died the owner of the building informally "adopted" her - but not out of kindness.

Her new "mother" pulled her out of school and sent her out to beg and sell gum on the streets. If she doesn't make enough money, she's beaten and abused. So much so, in fact, that one of her neighbours was very happy to come and tell us everything in the hope that we can do something. Anyone familiar with Asian cultures would know it's quite rare for a neighbour to speak up about somebody else's "private business."

This is an appalling case, and the little girl has been very open with us about her desire to escape from this abuse. As a foreign charity, we don't have any power to intervene directly in such a situation, but we do have various means of getting involved and calling on the authorities to assist, so we hope to have a good resolution within a few days. Until then, the "adopted mother" knows that we're monitoring the girl's wellbeing, which is enough to ensure some temporary improvement.

Since I last wrote about the 4 girls we recovered from China, there have been several arrests of traffickers, and more to come.

The girls have all returned to their homes but are staying in contact so we can get them to hospitals for medical treatment and support them as the search for their traffickers continues. Each was trafficked by different people, and in different ways. One was met by an elderly woman at a bus station, who offered to take her to pray at a pagoda, and then arranged her abduction. Another was kidnapped by a friend of her family, promising to introduce her to a well paying job on the border with China after 2 of her relatives were hospitalised due to an accident.

We may be a long way from finalising these cases - there will be much more work to do in coming months - but we're well and truly on the way.

And among our sponsored children out in rural Bac Ninh province, we recently had an opportunity to bring 5 to hospital for health checks, thanks to a private donor. The 5 were chosen as they each had a long term ailment, and the great news is that 4 of those 5 have an excellent chance of recovery.

One of the 5 is in hospital today, having the first in a series of surgeries on her ears. She's a Grade 7 student and has never been able to hear properly, but incredibly she has gotten through school by lip reading. She's obviously a very bright and determined student. However, the hospital believes that she should be able to hear almost normally with surgery and follow up treatment.

These 3 cases we're dealing with are good illustrations of the sort of work we do. The situations are complex and sensitive; a lot of attention to detail is required for us to get things right. Most of all, to help these kids, we need to develop solutions with depth. There are no simple solutions, no quick results. But with a lot of hard work and a team approach, we stand a good chance of making some lives a whole lot better.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The look

We have some great news to start the weekend.

Blue Dragon staff have found a teenage girl who was kidnapped from southern Vietnam and sold to a brothel in China. Last night, the girl was in her father's arms in a Chinese police station, overcome not only with terror but also the relief of being suddenly free.

Three other girls were in the same brothel, and have also been released. The traffickers are in custody - well, some of them. That's a good start.

The girls will be back in Vietnam in coming days. Once they're safely home, I'll be able to write more about the story behind their abduction and rescue.

What I can say is that this is one case that we didn't hold out much hope of resolving. It sure is nice to be wrong.

Going in to it, we had all sorts of doubts. To begin with, the information was incredibly scarce. The girl had made some calls home to her family, but she didn't know where she was, other than 'somewhere in China'.

Compounding our doubt was the fact that there is some urgent work facing our team in Hanoi. The lease on our children's centre expires in the middle of 2012, and we've been searching for a new place for months, with no progress. Finally we have found a possibility - a vacant block of land in the right area - and we need to start negotiating with the owner to come up with a plan. If we don't secure a new location, our centre will be closed and so will the office. This is a significant problem.

Putting aside our long term needs aside to search for a kidnapped girl, having almost no information about her location, was no small decision.

A lot of charities in Vietnam talk about their anti-trafficking programs on their websites, but most - particularly the big ones with all the resources - don't get involved in "individual cases". They help police and government with training. This is more sustainable, they say.

Such training is important, no doubt, but when faced with a mother and father who are desperate to find their daughter and have put their house up for sale just to raise the money they need to travel to China and look for her... well, what could we say? "Sorry, but your daughter doesn't fit with our organisational priorities at the moment"?

In making our decision to go on the search, a staff member said to me: "If you could see the look in the father's eyes right now, you would see why we have to do this."

There's no arguing with that. So we made the decision, and the girl has her freedom back.