Tuesday, July 31, 2012

And now for the wedding

For 4 years, Diu and Duyen spent every day, every hour, together. Not because they wanted to, but because they were enslaved in a garment factory in the south of Vietnam.

On July 4, Blue Dragon staff took part in a police raid on the factory - the culmination of weeks of detective work by our legal advocacy team.

Now back home in north western Dien Bien province, high up in the mountains away from the bustling cities, Diu and Duyen have decided that they want to spend the rest of their lives together. With a very humble ceremony in their village over the weekend, they celebrated their wedding. As is the local custom, Duyen's hair is now tied up in a bun, symbolising that she is married; no longer does she wear her hair long, as the unmarried girls do.

It was a beautiful honour that they asked our staff back to take part in the wedding; and they were thrilled at the prospect of their photo being on the Blue Dragon blog! 

This is a beautiful young couple who deserve the best in life. The last few years have been terrible to them, but for now they are excited about their future together.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Things I don't believe in...

I don't normally link to other people's blogs, but I came across a great post today that made me say "Yes!"

For some reason, there's a general belief around that handicrafts are a good industry for disadvantaged people (especially trafficked women) to get into. I've always been perplexed by this. There's nothing wrong with handicrafts, and I am sure there are people all around the world who are interested in careers in the industry. But some trafficked women would prefer to go to university. Or get into hospitality. Or marketing. Or work in a factory. Or finish high school. Or...

So while there's nothing inherently wrong with handicrafts, there's also nothing inherent about people in poverty that makes handicrafts a good career choice for them.

Today I stumbled across this blog post - Things I don't believe in: Handicraft projects and wanted to share it, as it's the first time I have found someone who I agree with on this topic!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

This is how it begins

Renovation and construction is underway. Thanks to our friends around the world, Blue Dragon is preparing to open a new, much larger, centre for Hanoi's street kids.

Before the workers could do anything, a ceremony had to take place... Not really 'the norm' in western countries, but construction cannot take place in Vietnam without some kind of ritual first! 

And then, the work begins...

We're starting on the ground floor, adding some bathrooms (yes, with disability access) to the space that will soon be the drop-in centre. 

We believe the work will all be finished in 5-6 weeks... so the next thing for us to do is prepare the opening party!

Friday, July 20, 2012

We can end it here, too

I recently came across an article in the Huffington Post about this photograph, taken in 1912 in the US:


The 11 year old boy pictured has just lost 2 fingers, and had his toes crushed, in a workplace accident... in a garment factory. More of the story is here.

The resemblance between this little boy 100 years ago, and the conditions faced by Vietnamese children in garment factories today, is startling.

In one way, that's a bleak assessment: the exploitation of children in American garment factories was a problem 100 years ago, and is still a problem today in Vietnam. But it's also a reason for hope.

If the US could get rid of this problem, so too can Vietnam. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Still linked

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of providing ongoing support to victims of human trafficking rather than just the initial 'big bang' of the rescue trip.

Since then, I have been thinking about some of the street kids who have been with Blue Dragon over the years. There are kids at our centre, now in their mid to late teens, who have been around for 5 years or more.

One particular group of kids have been familiar faces at Blue Dragon since 2006. I met them when they were living on the streets: some had been there for years already, while others were new to Hanoi and had joined up with the group only recently.

These same kids are mostly unrecognisable now.  In 2006, they were dirty and barefooted; one of the boys once told me he preferred to go without shoes because he could run away from the police faster that way.

Their behavior was wild; other kids feared them, and even some of the staff were afraid to get involved.

 2007: The Link kids in a cooking class at Blue Dragon.

Reaching out to the boys - there were 8 altogether - was not only difficult, it was also controversial for us. Local police wondered what on earth we were doing working with kids they considered among their 'most wanted'! Some staff objected to the boys being around: they were often in fights, they were demanding and loud, and they refused to 'fit in' with our expectations of kids at the centre.

After about a year, we developed a program which we called "The Link." In a way, it was to create a new group for the kids to join - it was an alternative to the gangs running wild on the streets. I wrote about them here, back in October 2007.

I could write a book about the adventures, trials, joys and disasters that took place over the next few years with the Link boys. Much of it is only amusing in hindsight! Some of the boys have come and gone; 2 are in prison now, and 1 has vanished but is probably in prison somewhere. When they come out, we'll catch up again and maybe even help them get back on their feet.

So they certainly have not all done spectacularly well. But some have.

One has recently finished an apprenticeship as a trainee motorbike mechanic, and has just returned to his countryside to help out in the family business.

Two are working in restaurants; one is doing particularly well as a barman and comes in to the centre to study English several times a week.

And even those kids who are not employed right now are still in contact, still linked in to Blue Dragon in their own ways. The door is always open to them, and they connect with us at least a couple of times each month.

Perhaps the real success of Blue Dragon is something that can only be properly measured in years to come, when we look back at the thousands of street kids we've brought in to our family and see how they've progressed over time.

Until then, there are plenty of indications that our work is all worthwhile.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


Here's a rare shot of the massive divide between Hanoi's urban development, and the vast majority of the country which has been untouched by the supposed 'economic miracle' of the recent years.

These boys are brothers.

One lives with Blue Dragon in Hanoi; he spent some years surviving on the streets but now resides in our Shelter. He goes to school, loves playing on the internet, and is in every way a 'typical' modern kid.

His brother has never been to school, has never left the immediate district where he lives, and has never seen a computer. Sadly, for the province in which he lives, this too is typical.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

This is not a drive by

Seven youths, aged about 15 to 20, have made it home to their families in the remote mountains of Vietnam after up to 4 years in captivity in a garment factory.

Some are illiterate and innumerate, with no understanding of what money is or how it is used.

Some have never seen a bowl of pho before.

None know their date of birth.

Extremely vulnerable, desperately impoverished, and living in ethnic minority villages off the electricity grid, these kids were deceived by a trafficker offering them training and an income. Instead, they were locked into a factory, refused permission to go home, and paid absolutely nothing.

They worked 18 hours a day, eating nothing but steamed rice and instant noodles. Beatings and physical punishment were routine.

Now they're home. But Blue Dragon is not finished yet.

Having found the building where they were enslaved and garnered the support of police and local officials to raid the factory, we now have 2 more commitments to fulfill.

First, the trafficker needs to be prosecuted. Not out of revenge, but according to the law. He and his wife put these 7 young people through hell. He assumed that, because they were poor and vulnerable, nobody would care. That is not acceptable, and the kids need to see that the law is there to protect them.

And second, these 7 young people will need ongoing support, care, and education. It's not enough for us to give them their freedom; we cannot expect a fairytale ending. They need significant assistance to get their lives back on track.

We are proud to have rescued these kids out of slavery, but the true worth of our work will be in what we do over the coming months and years. Like the hit song says: This is not a drive by. We're here for the long term.

... And just in case you didn't see this on the Blue Dragon Facebook page, we've just created this short film documenting the story of one girl from Hue, Diep, who was also trafficked to a garment factory.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Independence Day

In early June, my team from Blue Dragon went searching through the garment factories of Saigon to find 10 kids who had been trafficked from Dien Bien province.

These kids are all from ethnic minority villages, which means they are vulnerable to exploitation. In ethnic minority areas, levels of education are lower; many villagers have no experience of the 'outside world'; and indeed many do not even speak Vietnamese.

Our trip was only a partial success; we found 7 of the kids, and were very happy to take them home. But 3 remained missing.

These rescue trips are emotionally demanding, yet almost always end on a high note. There's nothing more satisfying than giving children back their freedom.

However, the June trip wasn't a 'high'. We were thrilled to have the 7 kids back - but the thought that there were more young people waiting for us to find them was painful. Their families, too, were worried sick.

Because they are from remote rural areas - at least 16 hours drive from Hanoi, or 3 hours from the nearest airport - and because of language and cultural differences, we found it hard to get clear information. How old were the kids? How long had they been gone? Many things were uncertain.

One of the kids in this particular factory had managed to secretly get hold of a mobile phone. If he was caught with it, the consequences would be severe. So he could use it only for a few minutes at a time, late at night... usually well after midnight, and sometimes as late as 4am. He'd been sending messages to his mother in Dien Bien, so she gave us the number and Blue Dragon staff started making regular late-night contact.

The group of kids were being held in a factory on the outskirts of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It's a semi-rural area, so there were no signs or landmarks to give away the location. They simply didn't know where they were.

Over a couple of weeks, we put together all the information that we could to work out where they might be, and on Sunday last week our lawyer, Van, traveled to Saigon to look for them one more time. Another of our staff headed up to Dien Bien to take statements from the families and find out more information. Our goal was not only to find the kids, but to provide the police with enough information that they too would take an interest in the case.

Through a LOT of determination and a little bit of luck, on Monday we located the factory where the kids were being held. On Wednesday July 4, while the US celebrated Independence Day, Blue Dragon staff worked alongside Vietnamese police, government officials, and journalists, to raid the factory and set free the 7 young people enslaved there.

The 6 boys and 1 girl are aged from 15 to 20. Some have been in captivity for 4 years. All are from ethnic minority villages in mountainous regions of Vietnam.

The factory owners, a husband and wife team, thought that they could trick and exploit these vulnerable young people, and that nobody would ever find out. The neighbours in the surrounding homes were genuinely shocked to learn of what was happening right under their noses; they've already dug deep to give the 7 youngsters some money for their journey home.

In coming days, the police will decide the fate of the husband and wife. They definitely have to pay compensation to the kids, and that's due immediately - the kids will have it in their hands when they return home.

For now, the 7 kids are with Blue Dragon staff, having some much needed rest and making statements to the police about their ordeal. Soon they'll be heading home, back to their families, with the rest of their lives ahead of them.

Happy Independence Day, kids.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


Blue Dragon kids are enjoying the summer holidays; it's sweltering hot, in between massive rainstorms, and our centre near the Red River is packed all day. (We are so glad that we'll have a much bigger space for next year!)

As part of our summer plan, we've taken 2 groups of kids out of the city for an overnight stay at Halong Bay. We've been incredibly fortunate to have the support of the Ha Long Pearl hotel, which not only sponsored the trips but also treated our kids like kings and queens! Buffalo Tours, meanwhile, provided the buses - so we were well taken care of.

Our first trip was for both kids with disabilities and their family members: a huge undertaking to organise more than 80 people for a trip out of the city! But everyone had a great time; both the activities inside the hotel, and the games at the beach, were a welcome treat for everyone.


Our second trip was focused on the kids at Blue Dragon who have done particularly well at school this past year - whether through effort or achievement. Even some older kids, who have left school but are in jobs or training, went along as a reward for their great work.

Both events finished with the hotel manager, Eddie, and his team delivering gifts to the kids.

So much of Blue Dragon's work is serious and urgent - it was nice to have a change of pace and give the kids a trip they'll surely remember forever.

(And special thanks to photographer Michael Fountoulakis for coming along on both trips!)