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.