Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The life of Phi Quang Huy

Today's news from Blue Dragon is very sad: Last night, Phi Quang Huy passed away at home, aged 25. 

Huy and his family have been a part of Blue Dragon since 2009. Both Huy and his brother Kien were born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a genetic condition that left them both permanently wheelchair bound after its onset around the age of 10. 

Huy's mother and older sister have devoted their lives to caring for Huy and his brother every moment of every day: but sadly, Huy's passing has been only a matter of time. The typical life expectancy of anyone with DMD is just 25 years. 

Despite his severe disability, Huy made the most of life, in ways that inspired many. He studied English and wrote poetry as a hobby; in 2011 his reading of his poem, "Wonderful Mother," at the Blue Dragon Tet Awards left the packed room in tears. 

Knowing that he had received much help throughout his life, Huy decided that he wanted to help others. In recent years he established libraries for people with disabilities; sitting in his wheelchair, with a friend helping him access email and the internet, Huy organised the library to give opportunities to other house-bound teens. His efforts attracted the local media, and Huy became something of a celebrity in disability circles: 

Huy's passing means our world has lost a great young man who cared for others and inspired many. But it is his life that should be remembered, and the great lesson he has taught us: That no matter what obstacles we face in life, we can still care for those around us. 

I'll finish with Huy's poem - both in Vietnamese and in English. The words of this wonderful young guy deserve to live on forever. 

Người mẹ vĩ đại 

Có tôi trên đời nhờ công ơn của mẹ,

Tuổi thơ tôi trải muôn vàn giông tố,

Vẫn lênh đênh giữa biển đời xuôi ngược.

Cha mất đi khi tuổi còn thơ dại.

Đã kịp đâu hưởng thụ và cảm nhận,

Thế nào là tình cha khi chỉ còn lại mẹ.

Hỏi thế gian tìm đâu, công bằng hạnh phúc?

Cướp đi người cha, cướp luôn cả gia tài.

Nhọc nhằn công sức cha và mẹ,

Xây lên từ những giọt mồ hôi, và nước mắt,

Suốt tháng năm tuổi trẻ của hai người,

Phút chốc biến tan lại trở về bàn tay trắng.

Cha sinh thành, mẹ nuôi dưỡng đến bây giờ,

Nếm trải cuộc đời bằng tuổi đời ngắn ngủi.

Hai mươi năm đã bao lần mắc cạn,

Tôi sống trưởng thành một tay mẹ chèo lái,

Đã thành nhân cũng là bàn tay mẹ,

Dẫu tôi trên chuyến tàu còn chưa cập bến.

Luôn khắc ghi công ơn người lái tàu vĩ đại,

Người mẹ thân yêu mà con hằng kính phục.

Con xin dành tặng mẹ ngàn lời cảm tạ,

Đã dành cho con những gì đẹp nhất.

Tiếc nuối làm chi một cuộc đời như thế,
Mẹ kính yêu con yêu người hơn tất cả.

Wonderful mother

I was brought into the world by the will of my mother
My childhood experienced lots of ups and downs
And still ebbs and flows in the sea of life.

My father passed away when I was still small
I did not have any chance to experience and feel,
What is a father’s love, as only my mother remained.

I wonder where in the world is justice and happiness,
When my father, and all we owned were taken away
All the  effort my parents had built up
From their tears and sweat
During the many years of their life,
All of it has gone  in a minute and leave nothing as in the beginning

My parents gave me birth but only my mother raised me until now
I have been experiencing life only for a short time,
For 20 years I have faced many challenges
Becoming mature thanks to my mother

Everything I have become is because of my mother
Though I am still in the boat that hasn't reached the shore
I always appreciate the effort of my great captain
My dear mother who I admire
My appreciation thousands of times I show for my mother
Who has given me all the best
What an admirable life
My dear respected mother,
I love you more than anything.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Crisis / Resolution

Today Blue Dragon has some good news.

In May, we launched an appeal to grow our crisis work with street kids and victims of human trafficking here in Vietnam; and we're happy to say that we have raised a touch over $190,000.

There are still some pledges to come in, but it looks like we've made it. The goal was $192,000, but we can definitely work with what we've got!

This means that over the coming 12 months we'll have lots to report:

- more kids rescued

- more runaways reunited with their families

- more kids fed and sheltered

- more houses built for families

We aren't just aiming to do "more": we have some really specific targets and goals, all of which are "minimums" that we plan to achieve. Hopefully we'll do even more!  The complete list is on the Blue Dragon website, and during the year we will update the page to let you know how we're going.

Blue Dragon Website: Appeal Report

To all who have donated: Thank you. Every dollar will be used to resolve major crises in children's lives. We can't wait to show you how much we will do!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

147 and a mea culpa

A comment came through the blog today on my recent Betrayal post:

"Sadly young girls are kidnapped for sexual slavery every single day, even more sad is this rescue is as rare as finding cheese on the moon."

The first time Blue Dragon arranged the rescue of a trafficked child, back in 2005, I assumed that this was how "anti-trafficking" worked. Organisations rescued people who had been trafficked. But as the commenter above points out, it's actually extremely rare.

 A Vietnamese trafficker detained: June 2013

However, I have come to be a big believer that rescue work is critical to the anti-trafficking movement. I would even go so far as to say that rescue is the best prevention.

How can that be!?

Here's what a rescue does.

First, it locates a person who is being held against their will and has called for help - and gets them home. There is no underestimating the human value of doing that.

Second, it leads directly to the arrest of the traffickers. Less traffickers translates to less trafficking.

Third, it raises the stakes for other traffickers. If traffickers can conduct their business risk free, then why not keep doing it? But if you see traffickers getting arrested and prosecuted, you'll think twice about getting into the business yourself. So the arrest of 5 traffickers, for example, does not only mean that the world now has 5 fewer traffickers. It may well mean that there are 50 fewer traffickers.

And fourth, when a trafficked victim is returned home, an entire community is educated. In central Vietnam, Blue Dragon has observed that once we conduct two rescues of children from a particular village, that village will almost certainly have no more trafficking.

This is all a long way of saying: rescues are really, really important.

An Australian charity, The Big Umbrella, has just launched a campaign for Blue Dragon to conduct even more rescues. They are looking for 147 people to donate $1 per day for a year. 100% of the money will fund the rescue of children, teens and young women trafficked into sweatshops and brothels.

This is a practical way to help out, if ever you've wanted to be involved in rescuing trafficked kids.

And now for a mea culpa! Recently on Facebook I posted that Blue Dragon has rescued 313 children and young adults from trafficking. The correct number is 297. We mistakenly counted some of the people we assisted post-rescue, but didn't rescue ourselves. Apologies for the error!

Monday, July 08, 2013

Tertiary needs

When Blue Dragon was just starting, back in 2002, we were a group of volunteers helping street kids in Hanoi. Our immediate goal was to get kids out of danger, off the streets, and back to school.

 At the time we were not thinking that, in years to come, some of those kids would be finishing school and dreaming of going to university. We were focused entirely on the immediate, pressing needs: food, safety, shelter.

But those kids have grown up and, as they have found themselves in safe places, they have allowed themselves to dream of the future. For some, that means studying in university or college and going on to have a career.

We sometimes find it difficult to balance the need for crisis services with the need to give kids long term stability. Our philosophy is that it's not enough to only deal with the immediate crisis that a find a child in: we aim to be there until they can achieve their dreams without us. And so, if the kids want to further themselves through tertiary study, we need to be there for them.

At present we have about 50 tertiary students. They study all around Vietnam, from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, and they study in courses as varied as art, economics, civil engineering, and foreign languages.

Blue Dragon's approach, which we only started in the past year, is to give each of the students a combined grant and loan. The loan component is interest free, payable over several years after graduation, and those funds will go towards supporting more students in the future. It's a built in way of allowing our students to help other kids go to university.

Over the past 3 days, the Blue Dragon Tertiary students gathered in Hanoi for workshops, meetings and social activities. They stayed overnight in Dragon House, and during the day the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel donated the use of some meeting rooms - so the kids could really study in style!

The classes were great for many reasons. The kids learned a lot, they forged new friendships, and they had a chance to stand back and see how far they have come.

Some of the kids have long histories with Blue Dragon. One boy, Ngoc, was the focus of this blog back in 2007: Cut. Now he studies IT. Another, Than, appeared on the blog in 2009: I made this.  Than studies at Art College now - no surprises there!

Seeing all the Tertiary Students together for the first time was a real treat. They are such mature young adults now, and yet I can't help but see them as kids.

We're grateful to Barclays Capital for funding the entire event; we wouldn't have been able to do this otherwise! A few photos below show the kids out enjoying some social activities in Hanoi.

Thursday, July 04, 2013


Every morning, millions of people in our world wake up far from home in slavery. Children in factories and on farms. Infants forced to beg and steal, or sell on the streets. Girls and women in brothels.

We know that their lives are terrible - but there is something about trafficking that makes this crime different to most others. Human trafficking involves a very particular betrayal of trust and humanity.

Last week Blue Dragon set out on a rescue trip to China. We were looking for a 17 year old girl named "Hanh" (not her real name) who was tricked and kidnapped from northern Vietnam in January this year.

Sold into a brothel, Hanh was forcibly raped day after day for 6 months. The brothel was located underground: from the street, customers walked down a flight of stairs into a windowless basement that housed a dozen or so rooms for Chinese and Vietnamese sex workers.

Hanh made friends with a Chinese sex worker who was free to come and go, and earned her trust to borrow a mobile telephone. The sex worker, in her 20s, knew that she could be in terrible trouble for allowing Hanh to use her phone, but caved in to Hanh's pleas and gave her the phone for just 2 days.

Those 2 days were all we had to find and rescue Hanh.

We flew in to the nearest big city and then drove overland to the town where we believed Hanh was being held. Our only information was that the street frontage was red, and the brothel was below street level. That wasn't much to go on, but a rapid search through the main streets lead us to the right location in just one day.

Finding the brothel turned out to be the easy part. We've never engineered an escape from an underground site before, and security here was the highest that we've ever seen. Hanh revealed over the phone that there was another Vietnamese girl there, "Thi," who also had been kidnapped; she was just 16. Neither of the girls was ever allowed outside without a security guard.

"Hanh" and "Thi" in China

In a case such as this, calling the local police seems like a good option. However, we had to rule it out entirely. Hanh had been rescued by police once already. They raided the brothel and took her back to the Vietnamese border and released her - but her traffickers knew she was coming. Freedom was only an illusion. She was grabbed immediately, taken straight back to the brothel and forced right back to work.

We were going to have to do it ourselves.

Next door to the brothel was a hair salon. Hanh and her friend asked permission to get their hair done - which was a fairly normal thing to do. The security guard stood inside the doorway of the brothel while they stepped next door, as they had done many times before.

This time, though, there was one major difference. We had a car parked across the street with the motor running. As the guard stood dumbly in the doorway, the girls dashed across the street and jumped into the escape car. We were racing down the street before the doors were even closed.

It was all over in about 5 seconds.

The car headed straight back towards Vietnam, which was over 450km away. To be doubly sure of safety, we switched cars twice along the way. The girls hid in the backseat, half thrilled and half terrified.

Even a change of car wasn't enough. Long before we got near the border, a Chinese patrol pulled our car over - apparently at random, but the coincidence seemed too great. For a little while, the whole rescue was in jeopardy. Thankfully we have some friends in the Chinese police, and a few phone calls were enough to have us on our way again after 40 minutes.

Back at the China-Vietnam border, the police on both sides were helpful and supportive. They expedited the border crossing so that the girls could cross over the next morning. A lot of paperwork is involved in getting a victim of trafficking back across the border, so the Blue Dragon staff worked through the night to complete the procedures.

Waiting for the paperwork to be finished... 

That night was the girls' first night of real freedom in months; but still they couldn't sleep. They longed to see their families, and until they were safely home they feared that something could yet go wrong.

The next morning was not uneventful, but it was certainly a success. As planned, the "Handover" ceremony took place between the Chinese and Vietnamese police. Hanh and Thi were officially returned to Vietnam.

The Handover Ceremony on the Chinese - Vietnamese border 

But something else happened as well. Two of her traffickers were caught right there at the border.

This case had originally come to our attention because the Vietnamese police had caught the traffickers, but without a statement from Hanh they couldn't make the charges stick. And even though we were swift in finding her and getting her back to the border, the police had no choice but to release the suspects - according to the law, they can only keep them for 3 days without a formal charge. However, the police were sure that they would soon have Hanh's statements and so followed the 2 suspects right up to the border. They were trying to disappear into China before Hanh could get home and identify them.

Two traffickers, caught  at the border
So - a happy ending? In a way, everything has turned out well. Five of the 7 known traffickers are now in custody. Arrest warrants are out for the others, but they've probably made it to China by now and are unlikely to ever return. Hanh and Thi are both home with their families. Earlier this week, Hanh and her parents travelled to Hanoi to thank Blue Dragon for bringing their daughter home; they've had 6 months of terror and they almost can't believe their family is back together again. Hanh wants to go back to school and continue her studies. She was in Grade 11 when she was trafficked.

However, there's more to the story and some more nightmares for Hanh to deal with. Her earlier "rescue" by Chinese police had ended badly; but the story of how she originally was trafficked is even worse.

Often we think of traffickers as evil men in dark suits, violently grabbing girls and stuffing them in to cars. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Hanh's trafficking started with another girl. One of her classmates. On Hanh's birthday back in January, this "friend" invited Hanh to go visit her boyfriend, and as a group they then headed towards the nearest big town for some fun and shopping. It all seemed completely innocent, but the friend and her boyfriend had already lined up someone to buy Hanh from them. All they had to do was hand her over; and Hanh went completely willingly, not even suspecting that a girl from her class at school could be involved in an international plot to kidnap and sell her.

And it gets even weirder.

While Hanh was enslaved in China, her family received a phone call. The traffickers offered to bring Hanh home - for $5000. Of course, it's almost certain that they would have taken the money but never returned Hanh, as she would have been able to identify the traffickers immediately. But we also know that within an hour of Blue Dragon rescuing  Hanh from the brothel, someone was on the phone to her parents claiming to have her and offering to return her for $1500. These guys are networked and well organised.

While the danger of anything happening to Hanh now is extremely low, she has to go on living with the knowledge that all of these terrible events were started at the hands of a classmate. People who know her have abused and exploited her in the worst possible way.

The horrors of enslavement and rape are over, after 6 terrifying months. But how can a 17 year old girl cope with such betrayal at the hands of people she knew and trusted?