Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The simple things

I have some great photos to share from northern Vietnam: Lao Cai province, quite near the border with China.

A few weeks ago, a school in rural Lao Cai contacted Blue Dragon asking for help. They are a primary school in a remote area, and they explained that their students don't have enough warm clothes for the winter - which can be very severe in those parts.

With no heating in the school, and some of the classes held in timber shacks, the school knew that kids would start dropping out because of the cold. So they asked if we could help with some warm clothes and shoes for the kids.

We were hugely fortunate that the Hanoi International Women's Club was able to fund the purchases, and last week some of the Blue Dragon team traveled up to make sure all the kids received their winter gear. The excitement on the faces of the kids tells you everything.


The kids now have their shoes and jackets, and they've had the added bonus of seeing some visitors to their school... which is quite a rare thing in those parts.

It was nice to be able to bring some joy to the kids!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Make it pink

When Blue Dragon rescues kids out of factories, or girls and young women out of brothels, we get a lot of praise from the public on our Facebook page and through emails. And it's all appreciated very, very much.

Of course, there's a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that never gets any attention. Even right now, we are working on a plan to conduct a rescue of dozens of kids in coming months; the preparation is long and often tedious. It's all about gathering information, verifying evidence, piecing together clues, and so on.

Another important part of rescue trips is the fundraising. To be frank, no money = no rescues.

So Blue Dragon is hugely, incredibly fortunate to have friends and supporters here in Vietnam as well as around the world who chip in with amounts small and large, providing the funds needed to change lives.

One such 'behind the scenes' supporter - or rather, team of supporters - is Rally Indochina. This is an annual motorbike ride through Vietnam (every April) which raises funds that are then used over the coming year to rescue kids, build houses, and run community projects in areas being targeted by traffickers.

It's professionally run, using Ural motorbikes and traveling through some remote and untouched parts of Vietnam. Anyone familiar with a motorbike should look in to joining: it's superbly organised and the scenery along the way is stunning.

The amazing guys behind the rally are 3 Aussies: Glenn, Digby and Mark. When they're not running the rally, they have their own motorbike companies: Explore Indochina and Hoi An Motorbike Adventures.

Now, the guys are so keen to raise money to stop child trafficking that one of them, Mark, has come up with an offer:

For every $250 raised on his Go Fundraise page, Mark will wear a pink ao dai for one day of the rally.

Just to be clear, this is what a pink ao dai looks like: 

Meantime, this is what Mark Wyndham looks like:

Wouldn't he look so much better in a pink ao dai?

I say this is one cause we should all get behind. Let's help Mark raise the money he needs to spend 14 days rising through Vietnam in a pink ao dai. Let's do it for the kids.

Thursday, December 06, 2012


Blue Dragon's Outreach Team in Hanoi has a difficult and often dangerous job. Their work is to look for, befriend, and protect homeless children around the city. 

Adding to the complexity of this job is that Hanoi's street kids have learned to hide themselves away; they are often invisible to much of the city, in order to prevent being caught.   

The photos below were taken on Wednesday night and Thursday morning by staff meeting with a group of homeless children at one of Hanoi's bridges. Tonight the kids will have a safe and warm place to stay, and 2 are in hospital now, but the images below capture the place they have been calling home in recent weeks.

Apart from being cold (and Hanoi has been pretty cold and wet this week) and dirty, the boys have been camped out on a ledge high up off the ground. This is where they have been sleeping; it's an extremely dangerous spot.

Two years ago, Blue Dragon appealed to our supporters around the world for donations to grow and develop an Outreach program for street kids. The children below are safe tonight thanks to our friends who helped with that campaign!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

It's over; now it begins

This evening I had the huge pleasure of meeting the 21 kids who my team rescued from garment factories in Ho Chi Minh City this week.

I traveled out of Hanoi to Noi Bai airport to meet them all as they arrived. We spent some time together until they got on a bus and started the overnight drive to their village in Dien Bien province.

Make no mistake, these were children. They were tiny. Their faces shone with excitement at being on a plane for the first time: but no, it wasn't just that. They'd never seen an airplane before.

And make no mistake that this was a 'rescue'. The kids had a terrible time in these factories. Twelve children were kept in one workplace, where they worked and slept in a single 40 square metre factory. They had a single toilet/shower to share, and each child was allowed a maximum 8 minutes per day in there. Yes, the boss apparently kept time. This was Dickensian stuff.

I had wanted to get some photos to post, but a TV news crew popped out of nowhere and the kids were totally freaked out by the attention. I put my camera away. I'm sure readers here will understand.

One thing the kids don't know is how much support they have from around the world. In the last few days, Blue Dragon's Facebook page has had more comments and likes than ever before. I want to say a very humble and sincere 'thank you' to everyone who has taken the time to express their concern and interest in these 21 children. The kids might not know it, but my team is very aware of the support we've received. I want to say it again: Thank you.

And thank you also to all those who responded so quickly to our call for donations. Frankly, asking for money is not the highlight of our work at Blue Dragon, but we do it because money means we can help the kids. Simple as that. We asked for $2,100, and we received $2,250 from 22 different people. Perfect. We've already bought jackets for all the kids, and closer to their home we'll buy blankets and rice (we thought it would be good for their local economy).

On Thursday morning, the bus with 21 kids, Blue Dragon staff, and Vietnamese police will arrive in Dien Bien, and the children will be reunited with their families. Some have not had contact with their parents for 2 years. It will be an emotional time.

And then these gorgeous kids will head home, where they'll start to think about what happens next. Blue Dragon will stay in the picture for the foreseeable future. We'll help the kids to enroll at school, and provide emergency relief to families who need it, and work with the older teens to find decent jobs.

The story of misery and enslavement for these 21 kids is over. Now the story of the rest of their lives can begin.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The search

It started in mid-October.

Parents from a remote village in Dien Bien province of Vietnam, up near the border of Laos, got word to Blue Dragon that their children were in trouble.

More than a year ago, people came to their village offering jobs and training for the youngsters who were out of school and unemployed. All expenses paid training, no strings attached.

As time ticked by, the families realised something was wrong. Their children never called. They never came back. The children could rarely be reached by phone; on the rare occasion that they could be contacted, via the mobile phones of the adults who took them, the kids said nothing other than that they missed home.

Eventually, all of the phone numbers ceased to work. The children could not be contacted at all.

When we heard about this, we knew instantly that the children had been trafficked into the garment factories of Ho Chi Minh City. With great support from the police, we started searching for the kids, and we finally did find the factory where they had been working. But they were gone. The factory was closed.

For a while we have been at a dead end. The Ho Chi Minh City police have been looking, but no information has come to light. Blue Dragon staff have also continued investigating.

This afternoon, we believe we might have had a breakthrough. It's still too early, but we're optimistic. And if we're wrong, then we just keep on searching.

How can situations like this develop? How can parents be so naive as to send their children away with complete strangers? And how many kids are we talking about?

Simple questions, but no simple answers.

The children we're looking for are from remote and isolated parts of the country. Many don't speak Vietnamese, and many are not literate in any language. Very few have completed primary school. The photo below shows where the kids are coming from. These communities are among the most vulnerable to exploitation in the region.

As for the number of kids, so far we have been thinking there are at least 5. It now looks like that number may be much higher.

The search is on, and we're determined to find the kids. Whether it's 5 or 20, we hope to be taking them home soon.

Updates to follow on Facebook.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

These are a few of my favourite things

I realised something important this week: I really, really love the new Blue Dragon centre, Dragon House.

It's still a work in progress, and many things are yet to be done. There's no roof over the front yard to protect the kids from the rain (which is pretty important right now, as Vietnam is being battered by a typhoon!). We need to install safety railings on the rooftop before the kids can use it. The electricity in many parts of the building doesn't work right. And so on.

But all of that is insignificant compared to how brilliantly usable the whole centre is. So I thought I'd commit the literary sin of compiling a list of 'a few of my favourite things' about Dragon House.

1. It has SPACE!

The kids can spread out through the drop-in centre, classrooms, art room, meeting rooms, and open areas. They can chat with their social workers and psychologists, have private meetings, play table tennis, exercise... there are so many new opportunities for the children that they haven't had before.

And an unexpected advantage of all this new space? Staff are reporting less incidence of fighting and arguing among our sometimes-volatile teens. There's now plenty of room to chill out without getting in each other's way!

2.  It has ACCESS!

In Hanoi, the Blue Dragon family includes over 50 kids with all kinds of disabilities; and anyone who has been to the city knows how rare it is to find buildings with disability access.

To enter Dragon House, there are no steps. There's an easy-access bathroom with hand rails  on the ground floor. And there's an elevator to get up to the classrooms and offices. All of which means that kids in wheelchairs can get to just about every room in the building as easily as anyone else.

3. It has PRIVACY!

The week after we moved in, Blue Dragon's anti-trafficking team dealt with 2 separate cases of teenage girls being trafficked into China. There were 2 girls each time, and 1 of them had a baby. However, apart from the staff who were working with them, nobody knew that they were even in the building.

Dragon House includes a room set aside specifically for our anti-trafficking team: the lawyers and psychologist who have so far rescued more than 230 children. Access to the room is fairly discrete; nobody needs to walk through the busy children's areas, or past the offices and meeting rooms.

4. It's huge, but it's humble.

Dragon House looks out over a main road towards Hanoi's Opera House; it's highly visible, which means street kids can find us easily; and it's 6 storeys high.

But this is no luxurious office tower: some floors are bumpy, most walls are still in need of paint, and a lot of the windows and doors really should be replaced. Because we couldn't afford to do that, we brought with us the old windows from our last centre and reused them to save money. Even though they were 5 years old, they were still better than the windows and doors throughout the building!

In my mind that humility is important. Blue Dragon isn't all about a building. We're about helping kids in need. A luxurious building would just be... wrong. And unnecessary.

5. It all happened because of the community.

We knew for almost 2 years that we needed to open a new centre for Hanoi's street kids. While searching for potential land and buildings, we were also talking to potential donors who could provide the funding. A few in particular were quite large organisations which have helped other charities in the region purchase property or build new facilities; and they could easily have helped us achieve our dream of opening this new centre.

But they didn't. They wanted us to remould ourselves to fit into their preconceived ideas of what we should do and how we should look, based mostly on their experience in Cambodia.

We weren't willing to do that, so instead we turned to the international Blue Dragon community for help.

Our friends around the world dug deep. Someone gave $5. Someone gave $30,000. A community group in Australia sent money for kitchen and dining utensils. One foundation in the USA, and another in Germany, sent money for furniture. Everyone gave what they could. We put it all together and it was enough to create something fantastic.

Here in Hanoi, the community helped out in many ways. One company, Uma, painted the classrooms and offices for free, and gave a huge discount on furniture. Ford sent a team of volunteers to assist with the thankless task of cleaning the place. Another company, which doesn't want to be named,  donated about $2000 worth of roofing. The Hanoi Hotel donated enough equipment for an entire kitchen, then paid for a team to come and install it, along with an industrial grade exhaust fan. Several local restaurants and cafes are pitching in with food and drinks for our opening party in a few weeks time.

It feels like all of our friends have joined in to make Dragon House what it is. And that's a beautiful feeling.

Blue Dragon isn't a building. The relationships we build with young Vietnamese people are far more valuable than the bricks and mortar of Dragon House. But it sure is great having a beautiful space where the kids can come to learn, play, and be safe.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Back to where it began

Some of the most powerful events in life begin with a chance encounter. The course of my own life changed in January 1999, when I had my 'mountain bottom' experience in Chau Doc.

Right on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, Chau Doc is a quiet town far from the major cities. Most visitors to Chau Doc are either crossing toward Phnom Penh, or on their way to visit Sam Mountain.

I was on a tour of the Mekong Delta, following a well worn path, when my bus stopped at the base of Sam Mountain more than 13 years ago. Stricken with food poisoning, I was too weak to walk up the mountain with the rest of the group, so I opted to miss the beautiful view over the delta and into Cambodia. Instead I sat alone on a bench under a tree.

But I wasn't alone for long. Within minutes, two boys aged about 13 and 15 approached me, asking for help with their English homework. The boys were named Huy and Vu; their families lived on the side of the mountain, and they saw countless tourists walk by every day. On this day, they decided to be brave enough to approach one and ask for help.

Huy's mother owned a tin shack along the path from which she sold drinks and sweets. She plied me with food, refusing to accept any payment. Other kids, including Vu and Huy's brothers and sisters, came to look and try to learn some English too. It must have been quite a spectacle. 

I have no memory of how long we sat there going over their English text books. It might have been 20 minutes, or maybe 2 hours. All I remember is that, when the tour group came back down to the bus, I didn't want to go. It's a cliche, but there's no better way to say it: I was having the time of my life.

That single encounter changed me. I had been unhappy in my job back in Australia and had been looking for a change but didn't know what to do. I did get back on the bus, and we returned to Ho Chi Minh City; but the very next morning I was back on a local bus to Sam Mountain, a harrowing 8 hour journey, but I just had to get back to see Vu and Huy and their families.

On returning to Australia, the experience stayed with me. Next time I had a holiday, I was back in Vietnam, and back in Chau Doc. And again some months later. And again.

Vu and Huy, in 1999, holding birds they brought me as a gift

Finally I moved to Vietnam, and I have been here for 10 years now. After 6 months in Ho Chi Minh City, I found myself in Hanoi meeting street kids, and so Blue Dragon was born.

Before coming to live in Vietnam, I stayed in close contact with Vu and Huy. Those were days when "close contact" meant sending letters and making an occasional phone call. I sent their families money to make sure they were in school, and they asked for some extra help to study computers.

After moving to Vietnam, I saw them again a couple of times, but then ended up in Hanoi, at the other end of the country, and we drifted out of contact. 

This afternoon, I returned to Sam Mountain for the first time in 10 years. I was not alone on this trip; Blue Dragon's lawyer, Van, was with me, as we had both been in a nearby town for a meeting with police about human trafficking.

In many ways, nothing has changed at the mountain village. Huy's mother still sells sweets out of the same tin shack. Most of the neighbours remembered me; as I pulled up on my rented motorbike, a woman instantly recognised me and started calling out to others. It felt like I'd never been away.

The shop run by Huy's mother

However, a lot really has changed over the years.

Before coming on this trip, a friend had visited, just a week ago, and had met the mothers of Vu and Huy. So when I arrived today, I had already heard the news that Vu died 3 years ago of liver disease. He was 26, and had been working as a driver. His mother told me proudly that he had finished high school and was tall and handsome; and also that he had hidden his illness from his family for as long as he could, knowing that there was no cure.

His mother took me and Van to visit Vu's small grave. We sat and talked about his life; she seemed pleased to have the chance to talk and I was happy to listen.

Huy's mother was there as well, of course, and she told me that her son is married now and has a daughter. They live near Ho Chi Minh City, and I hope to see them over the weekend.

We have much to catch up on. And I know I will be back to Sam Mountain very soon.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Good to be back

Blue Dragon United has been playing football regularly for the past month, after having been booted off the Long Bien field for the whole summer.

Every Sunday morning, up to 90 kids are coming along to play, and then smaller groups go off together to play in the Hanoi Youth Football League tournament.

The kids' joy at being able to don the BDU shirt and get back on the field is etched is undeniable!

Since our beginnings back in early 2003, we've played over 1000 games with the kids. It sure is good to be back every week, giving the kids the chance to laugh and play.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Counting the cost

I recently ran into a social worker from another charity who had heard about Blue Dragon's rescue of a trafficked Vietnamese girl back in August.

The girl, aged about 16, had been trafficked and sold as a bride to a Chinese man. Although we've mentioned this rescue in our social media, we haven't given all the details because the trafficker is now on the run and has yet to be caught.

The social worker, rightly enough, asked me about how Blue Dragon justifies the cost of such rescue trips. Given our limited resources, and the seemingly endless needs of children and families in Vietnam, how do we decide to allocate money to sending staff on risky trips into China to find individual girls (or sometimes groups of girls) and bring them home?

It was a good question, and thinking later I felt that my explanation deserves also to be blogged. So here goes.

First, it's worth pointing out that Blue Dragon rarely journeys into China to find trafficked girls; most of our rescue work is done within Vietnam. But when we are contacted by girls who are in China, or their family members here in Vietnam, pleading for help, it's very difficult to decline. In the most recent case, we were in direct contact with the girl who was desperate to escape but had no idea where she was or how to get home. She was there against her will, and it was within our power to find her and get her home.

In such a situation, it would be almost inhumane to tell her that we thought that helping her would be too expensive..

In the western world, how much would we consider "too much" to rescue a teenage girl who has been abducted? Such cases do some up reasonably frequently, although they might not be trafficking as such. In recent months in Australia there have been cases of Australians detained in Libya; in one case, the Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, flew to Libya to intervene on behalf of the detained woman.

Can you imagine how much that cost? A bill of half a million dollars would not be out of the question.

By contrast, a typical rescue of trafficked children within Vietnam costs around $400 per child; a rescue trip into China can cost $2000 - $4000 per rescued person.

In the grand scheme, $4000 isn't a lot of money, and yet the point stands that the same $4000 to help one person might seem excessive when you consider how many others it could help.

However, when Blue Dragon organises a rescue trip, we are doing much more than bringing home a single person.

In the last few months, 10 individual traffickers from cases we've been involved with have been sentenced in court. That's 10 men and women who would otherwise be trafficking girls, right now, into China.

How have they been sentenced? The starting point in each case has been the evidence provided by the girls Blue Dragon brought back from China. Without their testimony, there was no case against the traffickers.

Put simply: To stop the traffickers, we first need to bring their victims home. 

Our experience so far has been that each trafficker has several girls 'in the wings' at any one time. In one case, the trafficker had groomed a girl over the course of a whole year before finally taking her into China and selling her. We know that the same man had trafficked at least 2 other girls, but it's reasonable to suspect that there could have been at least another 5 to 10 victims already; and it's also a reasonable assumption that he had several other victims lined up ready to go.

Unless he was arrested, how many more girls would he have trafficked? Five more? One hundred?

So part of the value of our rescue work, in addition to bringing home individual girls, is that we follow up with the prosecution in order to put a complete stop to the same traffickers taking even more girls.

And there's one more effect of this work: with stories being published in the local media, other traffickers and would-be traffickers must see that they cannot get away with this forever. The prosecutions act as a deterrent to others. This in itself will not stop trafficking, and it's unlikely that scores of traffickers will go out and get a real job just because they've heard of someone else getting caught. But if the traffickers had free reign, and nobody was challenging them, how much worse would the situation be?

It's definitely worth stopping to count the cost of rescuing trafficked girls and boys. When we do so, we see that the cost of NOT rescuing them is even higher.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Full moon, full house!

Vietnam celebrated Full Moon Festival on Saturday - which means endless kids' parties, moon cakes, and colourful decorations around the streets!

Blue Dragon took the opportunity to hold a huge party in Dragon House, our new centre for street kids. The space was fantastic; at least 150 children and family members came to celebrate!

One of our boys, Quy, told me later that it was the best Full Moon party he's ever attended. That's high praise!

Friday, September 28, 2012

3 new houses

Blue Dragon has just finished building 3 houses for families in central Vietnam; take a look at the change!

Hoang's house before...

... and after:

Thai's house before... 

and after:

 And Van's house before...

... and after (painting still to be finished!):

Each of these houses cost between $2000 and $2500 to build, with all the money coming from Rally Indochina 2012. (If you haven't heard about the Rally yet, take a look at their website for the April 2013 rally).

This weekend, some kids and parents are sleeping in a secure, well built house for the first time in their lives.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dragon House

Monday was the day we've been building up to for the past 2 years: the opening of a new centre for Hanoi's street kids.


The Blue Dragon team is exhausted but running on adrenaline - and we still have plenty of that!

Our new centre has opened its doors, even though the builders haven't quite finished their work. I don't want to post a photo of the front of the building just yet, because there is still construction work being done, but this time next week we'll be fully ready to go.

Regardless, our first day was wonderful. Finally the kids have a huge space to play, with endless sunlight streaming through the windows. Because of construction work, we decided to not open up the ground-floor drop-in centre, but instead create a temporary centre on the second floor.

The kids loved it; even though it's temporary, it was still more spacious than the centre we've occupied for the past 5 years! The sense of open space led the kids to spread out, find spaces with their friends and relax. 

Several of the older kids, who now live independently and have their owns jobs (and, in some cases, their own businesses!) came along to visit or help. It was lovely to see the older guys hanging out with the younger kids. 

Lunch was great, even though the kitchen is also not quite ready to use. We ordered in 'bun cha' and had a feast - nobody went hungry, that's for sure! 

So the centre needs a few finishing touches.... like doors, windows, and gates. But we're nearly there!

And after much discussion and deliberation, we're proud to announce the name for our new centre:

Dragon House.

The various Blue Dragon centres over the years invariably end up being named after the house number: 66, 32, 18, 51... It sounds a bit too much like we've been playing bingo! So this time, the house has a name.

We're honoured to be borrowing this name from author John Shors, who published a novel named Dragon House back in 2009. John and I have been great friends since then; John used the book to raise support for our work in Vietnam, and even though the story is completely fictional, I always recommend Dragon House to anybody who wants to know what life is really like for Vietnamese street kids.

So life is now imitating art, and the Blue Dragon kids have a centre that shares a name with John's novel.

Dragon House is already an awesome place. In coming weeks, as we add the finishing touches and really make it our home, it's going to be even more amazing.

Sunday, September 09, 2012


We're back!

Blue Dragon United has its fields back!

After about 5 months of not having access to the 3 fields we have played on over the past 9 years, today was the first game of the Blue Dragon soccer team.

And a record number of kids came: 85!

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The countdown

Blue Dragon's new centre for street kids opens in 2 weeks... and here's how the renovations are looking!

(Click on the pictures to get a larger view). 


The main building now has an extension to give the kids a much larger space to play. The ramp leads to a parking area for the children's bicycles!

As for the inside of the building, the bad news is that we asked Bluey to do it...

Not long now... We're counting the days! Moving starts Thursday September 13th.