Monday, June 25, 2012

Street culture

Vietnam has a beautiful, rich culture. But working in Blue Dragon, I sadly see too much of the dark side of life here: kids who are abandoned or neglected; human trafficking; cruelty and violence; and on it goes. 

In recent weeks - in between dealing with the snakes that have taken up residence in my house! - I've delved into some fascinating youth culture that has been flourishing on the streets of Hanoi. Hip Hop dance. 

A few of the Blue Dragon kids are into the Hip Hop scene, and in the words of one of my staff they're often "throwing themselves around the floor" of our drop-in centre. Every night, they're off to one of several public locations where groups gather to dance. 

These groups are completely informal. There are no organisers, no guards, no rules; just kids gathering to dance to whichever flavour of Hip Hop music they're into. Girls are there as well as boys, and there are young teens right up to uni students. 

What's truly remarkable is how these self-organising groups get along so well. They space themselves out so that their music doesn't drown each other out, and the older dancers take time to teach the younger kids their moves. Instead of being competitive and 'in your face', they are incredibly supportive of each other. 

In fact, the final photo below shows, off in one corner, a man and woman practising ballroom dancing just metres from a teenage Hip Hop group - no problem at all! 

My visits to these places, ostensibly to watch the Blue Dragon kids dance, have given me a refreshing insight into a wonderfully positive aspect of modern Vietnamese youth culture that I otherwise had no idea existed!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Walking on water?

Here's a fantastic photo I posted on the Blue Dragon Facebook page a few days ago; but for those who don't use Facebook I wanted to share the image here, too. 

One of our staff captured this image during a swimming class last week. Dare I say that this is proof the Blue Dragon kids are truly amazing people!?

Monday, June 18, 2012

A visitor

I live close to the heart of Hanoi... on a small farm. Surrounded by trees, with only dirt roads leading to the house, it's very much like living in the countryside.

When I first moved here a few months ago, the biggest problem was the swarms of mosquitoes infesting the place.

Fortunately, the frogs moved in shortly after, pleased to have an ample food source. The mosquitoes haven't vanished, but the frogs do seem to have helped considerably.

But what next? Well, now the snakes have moved in, attracted by the frogs.

I'm starting to wish I could just have the mosquitoes back.

On Saturday morning, I stumbled out of my bedroom to be confronted with a snake. He (or she? How do you tell!?) was laying between my door and the bathroom. He wasn't very big, and apparently wasn't poisonous either, but it was still a surprising way to start the day.

A few hours later, I was at the Blue Dragon Shelter having lunch. One of the boys, "Anh," was celebrating his birthday. He says he is 16, but he's probably 13, and he looks 11.

I told the kids about the snake: It's a boy's shelter. They love stories like that.

Anh was sitting beside me, and after I had talked about the snake he quietly said (in Vietnamese): "Maybe the snake was Nghia's spirit, coming to visit you."

(Nghia is a very special young guy who died in February this year: some of his story is here).

I've lived in Vietnam for 10 years, but I still find myself occasionally stopped in my tracks by unexpected comments and ideas. Anh was not being at all facetious; he was telling me this to comfort me.

I had one of those moments when I wanted to speak, and my mouth was opening in readiness, but I had no idea what to say.

And then, even more quietly, he said: "When my mother died, a snake visited my house, too."

I shut my mouth. Sometimes there's just no need to say anything. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Kid power!

With so much happening at Blue Dragon in recent weeks, it's best to let the pictures do the talking... 

Kids in north-western Dien Bien province hang out in the shade. 
Blue Dragon visited this village while
investigating a case of large-scale child trafficking. 

True joy! 
Every June, Blue Dragon takes 50 or more kids with disabilities 
on an overnight trip out of Hanoi. This year, 
we stayed at the Halong Pearl (for no charge!). The kids and their parents
had the time of their lives. 

Fighting against child trafficking involves educating communities.
In Hue, 169 families attended gatherings to hear from 
Blue Dragon staff, government officials, and children
who have been trafficked, to find out what really happens
when a kind stranger comes offering work and training... 

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The scene of the crime

This has been a busy week for Blue Dragon's fight against human trafficking. And we're happy with the progress that we've seen.

First, the traffickers involved in kidnapping 2 teen girls last year and selling them to Chinese brothels - as I wrote about here last August - had their day in court on Thursday. The result: 10 years for the leader, and 9 years for the assistants. The victims were awarded some substantial compensation money, which will be a great help for their futures.

One of those girls is now in Hanoi studying at high school. She chose not to attend the court, but her family was there, and she was elated with the news that the men and women who tried to destroy her life will be locked away from society for a long time to come.

Two of the traffickers facing the judges...

Earlier in the week, our team became involved in a new case of ethnic minority children being trafficked from the northern province of Dien Bien. This is an area where Blue Dragon started working late in 2011, and I will write some more about it in coming days. 

In this case, the local police believed that 3 children had been lured away from their families by traffickers recruiting workers for garment factories. Blue Dragon staff found 3 more families missing children, bringing the total to 6; but there's a chance there may be more. The next step is to head to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to look for the kids in factories; that will happen soon. 

And in advance of this upcoming rescue trip, I had to head to Saigon on some other business. Accompanying me was Ngoc, the very first person we rescued from a trafficker. He has a great job now, and has earned the status of being the only Vietnamese person in Blue Dragon who is taller than me! 

Ngoc and I headed down to the tourist area of the city, which is where I first met him back in late 2005. We had spoken in advance about how he would feel about doing this; what feelings would this create in him? Was he worried or anxious about going back to the place where he was once the victim? 

But Ngoc really wanted to do this, and once he was out visiting the streets which he once walked all night, he transformed into a social worker. He was chatting to street kids, quizzing women selling trinkets by the side of the road, and approaching other street workers he recognised from 7 years ago. I just stood back and watched, so proud of this incredible young man. 

He may have been a victim once, but he is no more. And that's what I hope I can say of all of the trafficked young people Blue Dragon reaches. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

A moment of inspiration

Last night, I was talking to a couple of the older Blue Dragon boys about their dreams for the future.

One of them, "Han," has been with us for about 6 years now. He's 18 and has a steady job, but when I first met him he was living on the streets, hanging out with gangs, and getting into all sorts of trouble.

When he told me about his hope for what he would do in the future, he didn't mention what sort of career he wants. Instead, he said (and this is my translation / paraphrase):

When I was young I used to go stealing from a lot of people. Now that I am getting older I want to be able to pay back for what I did. But I don't know who those people are who I stole from, so instead I should use my money to help poor children and families. 

What a priceless moment, and what an inspiring young man. 

Sunday, June 03, 2012

The way

Over the years, Blue Dragon has tried many approaches to helping kids in need here in Vietnam. We've met them on the streets; built houses for their families; rescued them out of factories and brothels; paid their school fees... 

And now we've built a road. 

This is a very simple road - as far as roads go - connecting a village in Loc Tri district of Hue province to the nearest highway. 

Without it, kids had to travel extra kilometers along the busy highway to get to school. Parents were cut off from the markets, so their opportunity to sell the fish that they raise was very limited. And when child traffickers came to the town, the police were too far away to respond quickly. 

This road changes all of that. The village is now much closer to town, and much easier for the police and local government to respond quickly when called. Within the next year, we hope that there will be a new fish market based in this village too. 

Friday's "Opening Ceremony" was a terrific event. The whole village turned out to watch the dragon dancing and listen to the official speeches. 

It was an event the whole town will remember - and benefit from for many years to come.

From the opening ceremony of the road, I traveled north to Thanh Hoa province for a much more sombre occasion the following morning: the 100th day anniversary of the death of Le Dinh Nghia.

In Vietnamese culture, the 100th day marks the departure of the person's spirit from the earth: Nghia has made his final journey to Heaven.

Nghia's funeral, back in February, was an overwhelming day. Hundreds of people of all ages walked with his coffin from his family home along the road to the cemetery where he is now laid to rest. Along the way was an outpouring of emotion, and the procession was led by a band of funeral musicians. People cried openly, and sometimes loudly, imploring Nghia to wake up and come back home.

Saturday's ceremony was much simpler, much quieter. Family members and a few close friends gathered by Nghia's graveside, lit some incense, then returned home for a humble meal. This time there was no music, no crowds, just a handful of loved ones still broken by the loss of one of our world's most beautiful young people.

Nghia's ceremony was a quiet one, but no less important and touching.

Have a safe journey, Nghia. You are not forgotten here. 

Friday, June 01, 2012


Last Friday morning started with an unexpected phone call: a Chinese policeman rang Van, the Blue Dragon Lawyer, asking for assistance.

The policeman had 2 Vietnamese girls with him, both of whom he had rescued from a brothel. They were just 15 years old. The girls were terrified, and he asked Van to comfort them over the phone and assure them that they were in safe hands now.

That was at 3.30am. By the end of the day, Van had traveled out into the Vietnamese countryside to meet the families of the girls, and brought them in to Hanoi. Both families were from rural villages, and traveling to Hanoi was a big affair for them; they didn't even have the money for a bus ticket.

On Saturday, Van accompanied the families to the Chinese border to meet with the Vietnamese police; and on Sunday the girls were able to re-enter Vietnam, reunite with their distraught families, and head back to Hanoi to meet with the main anti-trafficking police agency.

By the time I met the girls on Tuesday, they were calm and smiling; to look at them, you'd never guess what they had been through in the past 8 months. Both girls were trafficked deep into China by people posing as friends: one as a boyfriend, and another as a job intermediary. Neither girl could have guessed that the people befriending them had the most horrible of intentions. The man who posed as a boyfriend groomed his victim over almost a year.

The Chinese police had been hoping to rescue 7 girls; our early information was that at least 7 had already been located. But sadly, the traffickers had moved too fast. The Chinese are still looking for the other 5 girls who had been taken to the same brothel.

Trafficking is a huge international problem. It's a blight on our humanity. But it's also a very individual, personal issue. Many governments and NGOs are running massive programs to try to counter the growth in human trafficking. This is great, but the individual tragedy - the life sullied forever, the family forever grieving, the shattered dreams of a young woman - must not be forgotten in the construction of these major anti-trafficking projects.

Over lunch with the 2 girls and their families, Van and I got to talking about their hopes and fears. They definitely had more fears than hopes: How would their friends and extended family treat them? Would the traffickers ever come back and find them? Could they ever get a proper job after this? Or go back to study?

So we told them about some of the other young women we've worked with recently who have been through similar experiences of being trafficked into Chinese brothels. One is about to get married. Another is soon to sit her university entrance exam, while yet another is finishing her degree this summer.

The girls were clearly surprised to hear these stories; perhaps they had forgotten that there is hope.

They're back in their villages now; Van traveled with them as a show of support. It's much too early to know how the girls will cope, and what they will do to overcome the awful circumstances that have gripped them; but we'll be staying in touch every day for at least the coming months, and we will see them again very soon.

Of all the things that have been taken from them, the girls still have hope.