Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A week of loss and hope

The past week at Blue Dragon was an emotional roller coaster, with some wonderful highs and some terrible lows. Such is the nature of our work.

We were very sad to lose one of the Blue Dragon girls, 19 year old Nguyen Thi Hai Yen. Yen has been with Blue Dragon since 2006, as she suffered from an auto-immune condition called lupus. Although Yen has been independent of our financial support since the start of this year, she remained good friends with us all and was still a part of the family.

Perhaps the hardest part of being at Blue Dragon is attending funerals. Over the past 10 years I have been to many, and all have been full of young people mourning the loss of a mate. Bringing comfort to children bereft is gut-wrenchingly difficult, and it doesn't get easier. Yen's younger brothers and sisters are badly torn by their loss; having lost their mother some years ago, the loss of their big sister will be a pain they carry for a long time.

Yen's funeral was held on Thursday, the same day as Vietnam's Full Moon Festival. And so we had the awkward task of accompanying kids and staff to Yen's funeral and then organising a major party for almost 100 children at Dragon House a few hours later.

The party was a great success, with food and singing and games. We were incredibly fortunate to have support from some local businesses to provide the kids with gifts and moon cakes: Soft Water, ILA and ANZ Bank Vietnam all contributed to make sure the children were well taken care of. Even some of the teens who had earlier attended Yen's funeral joined the party, and it was nice to see them able to put their worries behind them for a short time.

The week finished with another significant development in the fight against human trafficking in Vietnam: a court case of three traffickers in Yen Bai province. Blue Dragon found and rescued one of their victims from China back in April; she had been kept against her will in a brothel for about a year, but was finally able to make a call for help and so we went to bring her home. Her return to Vietnam meant the police could take her statement, and so they swiftly arrested her traffickers. Another trafficking ring broken.

This case was important for several reasons. For Blue Dragon, it was the first time our lawyers have represented a trafficking survivor in court, and we were very pleased with the outcome: substantial financial compensation for the young woman, and hefty prison sentences for each of the traffickers.

But the case itself was rather special. Normally, major cases such as this are heard in provincial capitals, which are often quite far from the villages most impacted by the trafficking. This time, the judiciary arranged for a circuit court to be held, which meant that the whole process took place in Van Chan district - nearby the homes of the traffickers and their victims. Over 200 people turned up to watch the case, despite torrential rain. This was a big deal for the local people, and no doubt will be the talk of the town for a long while to come. Any would-be traffickers in this area now have cause to rethink their actions.

These events of the past week are a reminder of the importance of Blue Dragon's work in Vietnam: not only for the broader issues, such as the fight against human trafficking, but also for the impact we are having on the lives of children and their families.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


Before I left Australia to live in Vietnam, I was a huge fan of the X-files. I wasn't so much into the sci-fi aspect of the series as the tension between 'the man' and society.

One scene I sometimes think about involved the characters, Mulder and Scully, racing through the desert at night towards Area 51. Mulder had received a call of dubious origin, with scant information, but here they were traveling across the country on a whim. Exasperated, Scully says:

Don't you ever want to stop? Get out of the damn car and live something approaching a normal life?

Mulder's reply: "But Scully, this is normal." 

The scene makes me laugh because I can understand how vastly different people's ideas of normality can be. I'm someone who has cheerfully chosen to abandon the 'normal' life, with all of its comforts and constraints. I've followed a path without a 9 to 5 grind, and mortgages and summer holidays and superannuation plans and visits to the mall; to me, all of that is strange now.

And yet, ironically, my life's work is helping young people to find their own way to normality. Blue Dragon's mission is to find the kids who are out on their own: abandoned, sold, or homeless. There are very few kids we meet who anyone would identify as having 'normal' lives, by any definition.

This reality hit me this week during a meeting in a cafe without about 15 of the Blue Dragon teens. During the summer months we organised a Career Orientation program to help our youth think about the sorts of jobs they might want to pursue in the future. The gathering at the cafe was a wrap-up meeting to debrief and acknowledge the great progress that the kids had made. They'd all stuck with the program from beginning to end, and some had even taken the opportunity to start new jobs or join training programs.

I sat at the back of the room looking at the kids. Nearly all of them had experienced abandonment by their families and severe neglect. Many had spent time living on the streets. Some had been through the  worst forms of exploitation imaginable. Every one had a heart-rending story that they could tell.

But just looking at them, they seemed... well, totally normal. A stranger coming into the room would have seen a group of typical teenagers. During the meeting, some sat and listened quietly. Some raised their hands or interrupted enthusiastically. Some used the opportunity to flirt with a girl or boy who had caught their eye. Absolutely normal behaviour.

One of them, "Nam," has had a particularly harrowing life, and he's only 14 years old. Kicked out of home following his mother's death several years ago, Nam came to Hanoi and fell into a cycle of exploitation and crime. When he wasn't being used by the gangs, he slept with an empty stomach on concrete benches in public parks and waited for someone to come by and find him - police or another gang, it didn't matter to him. But one day he got lucky and it was a Blue Dragon Outreach Worker who found him.

When he first came to Dragon House, Nam was skinny and dirty, with long greasy hair and clothes that hadn't been washed in weeks. His fingernails were crusted black with dirt. And yet, just a week later, he was transformed. He'd had a hair cut, bought all new clothes, and polished himself all over. He even stood differently and started looking people in the eye. The change took place in just days; suddenly, he looked and behaved like any other teenager in Hanoi.

It occurred to me that a common characteristic of the Blue Dragon kids is the craving for normality. They don't want to stand out from the crowd any more; they want to blend in. They want to present themselves to the world as being the same as anyone else, no different. They want to be normal. 

And so I see that I have left a 'normal' life to help others find one.

I wonder if, in future years, some of them will follow a path like my own, and abandon that same normality they now pursue. I wonder if they too will make choices which seem alien to others, and find their own way through life.

Maybe they will. But for now, it's normality that they want, and normality that they need.