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!