Monday, December 30, 2013

What did Blue Dragon do in 2013?

Here's a snapshot...

- 162 street and homeless children received help from the Street Outreach team.

- 56 street children were reunited with their families. 

- 19 rescue trips brought home a total of 82 victims of human trafficking from brothels and factories.

Children trafficked for work in garment factories: April 2013

- 20 human traffickers arrested, and 10 sweatshops penalised for using child labour.

A sex trafficker is taken into custody: March 2013.

- 4 victims of sex trafficking represented in court.

- 836 children and family members received legal registration papers, such as birth certificates and identification cards.

A Thai woman in northern Vietnam with her legal documents: December 2013.

- 715 children and families received legal advice.

- 20 children and youth in conflict with the law received legal advocacy.  

- 1205 children went to school, with full support for school fees, uniforms and study gear. 

- 53 teens studied at Vocational Training centres. 

- 76 tertiary students received scholarships and support.

Tertiary scholars gather to plan their year: October 2013

- 5 houses built.

- 83 kids taken to a doctor or hospital.

- 112 children received a bicycle to go to school.

- 50 life skills workshops were held for children and family members.

A workshop on Keeping Safe: November 2013.  

- 31 victims of child sexual abuse received legal advocacy and emergency care.

- 104 children stayed in Blue Dragon's short term accommodation. 

- 112 children and and teens lived in Blue Dragon's long term accommodation.

- 36,080 meals served to hungry kids.

- 8,160 kg of rice distributed. 

- 183 games of soccer played.

- ... and our work all around central and northern Vietnam meant that the trusty Blue Dragon car drove a total of 41,199km!

P.S. We're not sure how to measure fun, but we had loads of that, too!!

 A performer from Circa teaches the kids some tricks: November 2013.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Year of the Crisis

2013 has been a challenging year.

And that's putting it nicely. Looking back, I will have to call this one the Year of the Crisis.

It's often been difficult to share the stories of what has happened at Blue Dragon during the past 12 months. There have been many times I have wanted to write about an issue or a special case, but have had to hold back. Most of the cases have involved child sexual abuse, and so have involved police investigations. All up, we have worked with more than 30 individual cases of children being sexually exploited, both girls and boys, and I have no simple explanation for why the number of cases has been so much higher than previous years.

When Blue Dragon meets a child who has been the victim of exploitation, we take on many roles:

- we offer emergency accommodation and care;

- we organise a health check at a clinic;

- we provide counselling, which is sometimes formal and sometimes simply involves 'hanging out' and building a trusting relationship;

- we assist the child to make a statement to the police, and provide legal advocacy from beginning to end;

- and finally, when the child is ready, we develop long term plans for stable accommodation, schooling, and family reunion, if possible.

We've found over the year that most of the 'exploiters' target the kids very carefully. They choose victims who are estranged from their family, desperately hungry, and seeking friendship.

Our response has been to get Blue Dragon staff out onto the streets day and night, meeting kids in places where they commonly gather and developing networks among street workers who can call on us when they meet kids in crisis. This has been hugely effective, and as the year has gone on we've been able to get to homeless children and youth early enough to protect them from exploitation. We've likely saved at least another 30 kids from being exploited. 

This work is in addition to the rescues we've done of young people trafficked to China for sale to brothels, and children trafficked to sweat shops in southern Vietnam. Those cases have involved painstaking investigation and legwork, often out in the remote rural areas which are considered 'safe targets' by the traffickers.

While the rescue trips have so far all been successful, every case is played out with bated breath. What dangers lay in store? Will the traffickers know we are coming? Do we have the right information? What if we travel from one end of the country to another and find nothing? While we rarely say much about the details of the rescues - we need to be reasonably discrete to make sure we're safe - there have certainly been some trips this year that had very tense moments.

Our older kids have had tough years, too. As they grow up and move on, we normally stay in contact and catch up when we can. That often involves helping out when problems arise: when someone is arrested, or injured in an accident, or passes away. This year two of our older kids died of illness: 19 year old Yen, and 25 year old Huy. Other kids have spent time in hospital, lost family members, or been arrested for various offenses. One of the teens we were working with on the streets has been charged with murder; there's very little we can do for him now.

There's a lot about 2013 that I am glad to put behind me. But I've also seen some true beauty in the Blue Dragon kids, staff, volunteers and supporters.

Just a few examples:

- After speaking at a school in Singapore about the life of Vietnamese street children, two little girls approached me with all the loose change they had in their pockets. Moments like that are deeply moving; they remind me that there really is good in the world, even if it's sometimes hard to find.

- Earlier in the year, we had a group of teenage girls who had escaped from sexual abuse and needed to stay with Blue Dragon for several days while we helped them make statements to the police. I emailed all my staff asking if anyone could volunteer to work some night shifts to look after the girls, and was inundated with offers of help. I really do work with an amazing team. 

- One of the Blue Dragon boys, who has been through an extremely difficult time these past 2 years, asked my staff why I stay in Vietnam for Christmas and don't return to Australia. The staff suggested that maybe I can't afford the ticket back, so I prefer to stay here, at which the boy said he wanted to save his breakfast money to buy me a plane tickets. Rest assured, I won't be taking him up on that offer, but what a show of compassion from a child who has so little.

So it's been a tough year, but with lots of bright spots throughout. Thank you to everyone who has cared, emailed, donated, visited, or followed the adventures of Blue Dragon in 2013. You can't imagine what your encouragement has meant to me and my team. And very special thanks to friends in Australia, Singapore and the US who hosted and met with me in my travels.

Here's to better days ahead. There are surely plenty to come.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Make me legal

Khanh* was a 13 year old orphan when we first met him on the streets.

Both of his parents had died several years before, and he had been raised by uncles and aunties who were basically good people but didn't want to be burdened with somebody else's child. They made their feelings obvious, so one day Khanh grabbed all he could stuff into his pockets and left town.

Once in Hanoi, Khanh met up with other homeless youth and drifted about. Street kids tend to be pretty creative when it comes to surviving; Khanh was no different. He lived on bridges, found abandoned shacks to stay in, and moved from place to place. He doesn't like fighting and isn't an aggressive person, so he would often move on to a new location rather than stand his ground when rival gangs turned up or somebody came to cause trouble. Every day started with Khanh wondering where he might sleep the next night.

Hanoi's street kids often live on bridges 
or in concealed spots, away from the public.

Blue Dragon's Outreach team met up with Khanh and brought him to the drop-in centre, but he was reluctant to stay with us for very long. Khanh feared that we would force him to go home, or treat him like he had been treated for the past few years. For now, all he wanted was freedom.

His freedom came at a cost. In order to eat, Khanh needed money, and so he soon found clever ways to get by. He's an ethical young person, and didn't want to rob people or break into homes, so he instead carved out a niche in metal recycling. Unfortunately, his metal was all part of a park fence that he set about dismantling... and when the police found him taking apart public property, he was arrested and sent to reform school.

During his 18 months there, we visited when we could and brought warm clothes for the winter. Khanh worked hard and studied well, and so was released early - but was back on the streets in no time. He connected with Blue Dragon straight away, but at the same time was being targeted by adult gangs who saw a good looking kid and just wanted to exploit him.

After a couple of months, Khanh was ready to leave all this behind. We saw him one day in April on a bridge over the Red River, invited him to come and live with us, and he's been with Blue Dragon ever since.

Khanh's transformation into a studious, hard working 8th grader has been amazing to see. He's no angel, but he's honest and caring, and intensely loyal to both friends and Blue Dragon staff.

The all-important personal papers. 

Khanh's story is a good case study in how Blue Dragon's multidisciplinary team works together. Outreach workers, Social workers, Lawyers, Teachers and Shelter staff have all played a part in Khanh's decision to leave the streets, live in a home, and return to school.

Just a few weeks ago, one of the Blue Dragon legal team accompanied Khanh back to his village to meet the local government and obtain the all-important personal papers that he needs to continue at school. In coming years, those papers mean Khanh will be able to get a proper job, a motorbike license, and one day get married or rent a home of his own.

One way to look at what we've done with Khanh is this: We've worked to make him legal. He's no longer homeless, no longer stealing to survive, no longer living without official identification and paperwork.

Blue Dragon meets many young people like Khanh - sometimes 5 or more in a week. That's why, this Christmas, one of the wishes on our list is for donations to obtain legal identities for children (more info about that is here).

It's an unusual request for a Christmas gift, but street kids don't have time for luxuries. First they need the basics.

Now that Khanh has settled down and is doing well, he's starting to imagine a future. Nobody who meets Khanh can guess at the troubled start he's had in life - he's just an ordinary teenage boy who likes computer games, girls, and hanging out at Dragon House.

But he has the basics now; he's safe and happy; and the future is his own to create.

* Not his real name.