Friday, January 24, 2014

This is how we do it

The weeks leading up to Lunar New Year (just 6 days to go!) are all about celebration and festivity. As they should be!

But at Blue Dragon, we also have an eye on something a little more serious... Because the weeks after Tet are prime time for child trafficking.

When all the kids are still at home, and families have exhausted their meager savings for the holiday period, and the economy goes through a slump, human traffickers roam impoverished villages selling their 'snake oil'.

They offer 'vocational training' but in reality just want vulnerable children to slave away in their factories. They offer sweeteners to families, such as a $50 'advance' which in effect means the family enters debt bondage and is unable to see their children again until the end of a 2 year contract - at best.

To counter this, Blue Dragon staff have been spending time talking to families, community members, and officials to let them know the reality of life for trafficked kids.

One such meeting, in a village in rural Hue province in the centre of Vietnam, gathered about 30 people together last weekend. A local official who has traveled with Blue Dragon to look for trafficked children recounted his own experience of going into squalid factories and finding children asleep at sewing machines, or working through the night, and crying with relief at the news that they were finally allowed to go home.

These meetings are small scale, but word quickly spreads through the villages, and the impact is profound. When community members hear first hand stories of what happens to their children who are taken away from home, they resolve immediately to never let it happen to their own family. And once a few families start talking about how bad it is to send children away, the whole culture of the village changes very quickly.

Child by child, family by family, village by village, district by district. This is how Blue Dragon is working to end the trafficking of children into the garment industry.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Biggest night of the year

In January every year, Blue Dragon in Hanoi organizes an event that we call the Tet Awards. It’s a night of celebration, games and fun to put the spotlight on each and every girl and boy who belongs to the Blue Dragon family.

Last week we held the 9th Awards Night, with more than 400 children in attendance, as well as family members and friends from the community. It was great to welcome the Ambassadors of Australia and New Zealand, and friends and supporters from local business and the Hanoi International Women’s Club.

In short: it was another amazing Tet Awards. The performances by children and staff were both touching and entertaining. Some of the kids who got up and danced have had the most horrendous time in the past year – and some have had whole lifetimes of trouble. But none of that mattered on the night. It was all about celebration.

Here are a few photos to give a glimpse into what Tet Awards is all about. And next year will be the big Number Ten… somehow we need to come up with something that will be even greater!

Kids and family members arrived early... 

The face painting was a blast! 

Through the night, kids with outstanding achievements received a Special Award...

Children and staff performed together...

... and at the end of the night, everybody wanted their photo taken! 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The workplace

On Tuesday this week, Blue Dragon found a nondescript house in Ho Chi Minh City where 3 teenage girls, all from ethnic minority communities in north-west Vietnam, were being forced to work against their will, for no salary.

Locating this house was the result of weeks of detective work. Our breakthrough was in meeting some children in a remote village who had been enslaved in this garment factory themselves, and had escaped; they could give us enough of a description of the street that after 2 days of searching we were pretty sure we had the right place.

"Pretty sure" isn't a great starting point for a raid on a home, and the factory owner had gone to great lengths to conceal his crimes. When the Vietnamese anti-trafficking police searched the building, they finally found the girls locked into a closet, terrified into silence and stunned to learn that we had come to set them free.

As you can imagine, the girls were hugely relieved to finally have a ray of hope. The had been locked in to the building for 11 months, allowed out just once a week under strict supervision. During their time at the factory, they were never paid, never allowed to call home, and a typical working day was at least 14 hours long.

The upstairs room where 3 girls lived and worked for 11 months

The girls are now on their way home; a journey of more than 2000km. Their reunion is sure to be a very happy one.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

New year, new house

Here's some good news to start the new year.

When Blue Dragon found 13 year old Lanh enslaved in a garment factory and brought him home, we were shocked to see the state of his family home. It wasn't just a little run down; it was barely habitable.

Bringing trafficked children home is not the end of our work or our responsibility. Home has to be a safe place; it has to be a place that the kids want to be. We can't just drop the kids off and hope things work out better for them. We have to make sure things will be better.

And so we put out a call for help to a group of friends and volunteers in Sydney, who call themselves the Blue Water Dragons. They responded by raising the money - about $2500 -  to completely renovate Lanh's house and make it a home that the family could be proud of and comfortable in.

Here's the "Before"...

Front view of the house. 

The front room - with Blue Dragon staff visiting.

The rear of the house...

 ... and this was the kitchen.

And here's the "After." Spot the difference?? 

The new front view

The front room - now with a proper floor!

Interior view

And a new kitchen!

Lanh's home is looking great, and it's all ready in time for the Lunar New Year (Tet) which is coming soon. This is one very happy family.

Here's to hoping we can do the same for many more families in need this year! And a huge THANKS to the Blue Water Dragons for making this possible.

Monday, January 06, 2014

A New Year's Resolution

2014 marks the beginning of Blue Dragon's 10th 'birthday'. Sort of.

We started in late 2002, as a few volunteers helping out some street kids in our spare time. During 2003, we got serious about becoming organised and finding ways to help for the long term. We started the soccer team - originally Real Betis Vietnam, and now Blue Dragon United - and also started our first shelter, a boys' home called The Big Room.

But it was in 2004 that we became 'officially' recognised as an NGO (ie a registered charity) both in Australia and Vietnam. So in a sense, this will be our 10th year.

During our first few years, we faced considerable opposition. Some organisations and NGOs were great, spending time advising and supporting us. Education For Development, Catholic Relief Services, and the New Zealand Embassy were particularly helpful in those first months and years.

But surprisingly, some organisations and people were outright negative. "You don't know what you're doing," they'd say. "You have no track record. You're not an expert."

I don't disagree with them. In some ways, they were right: those of us who started Blue Dragon had very little experience in working with charities, and no experience at all in setting up or running an organisation.

And yet, looking back on this time, here's my conclusion: Our lack of knowledge and experience turned out to be our greatest strength.

We weren't afraid to try something that others thought would fail. We weren't afraid to 'roll the dice' and give something a shot, no matter how unlikely a good outcome seemed.

We didn't start with plans and budgets and setting up bureacracy. We just got in there and helped, and let the money and the administration catch up later.

One example: in 2005, we started tackling the issue of domestic trafficking - ie the trafficking of children within Vietnam for labour exploitation - before it was recognised by the law, and before any other organisation (that we know of!) was dealing with it. We found kids who had been trafficked to work on the streets or in factories, and we took them home. What was once a little-known issue is now a well known problem which provincial governments are working to address. Blue Dragon played a key role in creating that change.

Ten years down the track, Blue Dragon is significantly larger. We have over 1500 kids in our care. We have social workers, lawyers, teachers and psychologists working together on cases throughout the country, and sometimes in China as well. We've rescued more than 300 trafficked kids and helped about 2700 kids attend school. Nobody can accuse us now of not knowing what we're doing.

But do we still have that same drive and passion as ten years ago? Are we still bold enough to take the risks?

The danger, as Blue Dragon grows older and wiser, is that we become inward looking and self serving. We've taken so many blows; why not now take it easy? Deal with some simpler cases?

Last year in particular was a tough one, as I wrote about here: The Year of the Crisis. We focused heavily on finding and helping kids in serious danger: street kids vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and young people trafficked for labour and sex. We achieved some great results, but the cost was a year of incredible stress for my team.

And so, what of the year to come?

The start of a new year is a time for resolutions and dreams. As Blue Dragon enters its "official" 10th year, those pronouncements hold an even more important symbolic value.

My resolution is this:

To never be complacent. To stay hungry and determined. To keep pushing the limits, trying new ways to help kids in crisis, getting out of our organisational comfort zone and being where we need to be.

This will be a year for innovation rather than 'more of the same.' We will make great progress in the fight against human trafficking, and we will make sure that Hanoi's street kids are safer for our presence.

And I look forward to sharing the journey with you right here on the blog.