Friday, March 28, 2014

The hanger

Every week, Blue Dragon's Street Outreach team meets new kids who are in complicated and dangerous situations on the streets of Hanoi. Many are the target of traffickers, which is a relatively new phenomenon for the city; boys as well as girls face serious exploitation unless they get help quickly.

One boy, "Vu," was in such a situation when we met him almost 2 years ago, aged 13.

His family loved him very much, but several complexities lead him to leaving home and taking to the streets, where he immediately became a target for traffickers. Although Vu met Blue Dragon's Outreach workers, he was in such a state of despair that he didn't know who to trust. And then he vanished.

About a year later, he resurfaced. He was taller and seemed physically healthy, but his face belied the truth. Vu had been through a year of hell.

Even now, Vu says almost nothing about what happened during that year. But we know enough to understand the deep pain he lives with. One comfort is that, thanks to Blue Dragon's work with the Vietnamese police, 2 of the main people responsible for his 'year of hell' now live in prison cells.

Most of the trafficked boys who we work with act out their pain by getting in to all sorts of trouble. Not a week goes by that one of them doesn't get caught by the police for some minor violation... or come to tell us that their girlfriend is pregnant... or drops out of school for a few days. But not Vu. He quietly and smilingly goes about making friends with everyone at Blue Dragon. He tries to blend in, to be like everyone else, but when he thinks nobody is looking the pain returns to his eyes and the sorrow is etched into his face.

However, in the past week, Vu has achieved two major milestones: he has returned to school, and returned for a visit to his family home.

Going back to school was a way of declaring that he has healed. It took him all this time, but finally Vu told us that he was ready to get back to his studies. He didn't want to go to a 'special' school, either; he wanted to go back to a mainstream secondary school. With the school year nearly over, his timing wasn't great, but the school generously agreed for him to sit in on classes as a way of preparing for the new school year in September.

And then came Vu's next pronouncement: he wanted to visit his family.

Since leaving several years ago, Vu has not stepped foot back in his home. He's gotten progressively closer, though. Some months ago he agreed for Blue Dragon staff to accompany him home... but at the last minute couldn't bring himself to do it. So after a 200km drive, he hid in the car while the staff went and spoke with his father and grandfather.

Then at Lunar New Year he almost went home again... This time, he went to the nearest village to his home, called his father to come and have tea, and then returned to Hanoi. That was a 12 hour round-trip for a 30 minute drink.

But today Vu did it. He returned home, dressed in his school uniform so that everyone could see he's a 'normal' kid.

I was both fortunate and proud that Vu asked me to go along with him on this trip. These days I rarely get to go on such journeys myself: rightly so, it's my Vietnamese colleagues who accompany kids on their family business. But when Vu invited me to join him, I immediately agreed. I knew how important this journey was.

It was a long trip to get there, and Vu was nervous along the way; but once home, those worries melted away. Today was also the death anniversary of Vu's grandmother, so many relatives and neighbours had gathered at his family home. Having Vu return - with a foreigner in tow! - was a huge event for everybody.

A meal was prepared, and lots of typical 'family gathering' stuff going on, but there were also many touching moments, discretely held. Perhaps the most beautiful was when Vu's grandfather, 87 years old and hard of hearing, sat by Vu and tearfully encouraged him to work hard at school, always do his best, and remember his family when he (the grandfather) is gone.

Vu was shy about me taking photos at the house, but I took this one of a home-made clothes hanger in the yard. It struck me because I'd never seen one before. With so little money and resources, this family simply could not afford any luxuries, such as hangers for their clothes. So they made this one, out of a stick and some string.

Of itself, this hanger isn't particularly remarkable. But standing in Vu's home, seeing how little they have and how much they have all struggled, the hanger reminded me of just how unimportant 'things' are.

I have always seen hangers as basic household items. Yet for some families, they are a luxury; an unnecessary expense in the context of so many pressing needs.

For Vu's family, the list of needs is so long: hangers are surely last on that list. First and foremost is their need for family healing. Vu has been through such terrible times, but is now finding stability and thinking of the future. That's so much more important than having 'things.'

Life is starting to look good for Vu. He has a home with Blue Dragon; he's successfully returned to school; and he has re-established contact with his family. The reunion went so well that there's no doubt he can be confident to go back again any time.

Many struggles lay ahead, but I am optimistic of Vu's future. Maybe he doesn't have many 'things' to call his own, but as each day passes he has greater inner strength, and now he has started rebuilding a relationship with his family.

What could be more important?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hope and healing

Border crossing: A 16 year old Vietnamese girl, rescued from 
a Chinese brothel by Blue Dragon, returns to Vietnam. 

Vietnamese girls are being trafficked to China as a matter of routine.

Traffickers – some hardened criminals, some opportunists who otherwise seem to be regular men and women – are constantly adapting, constantly shifting and blending and moving so that they can get away with their high-profit ‘business.’

And Blue Dragon keeps receiving calls for help.

Families desperate to find their daughters come to us with little more than hope. Their only information is a phone number: their daughter has stolen, swindled or begged for a mobile telephone and secretly called home, knowing that if caught she will be sold to another brothel, beaten, or maybe even killed. Some traffickers are so arrogant that they give phones to the girls they have enslaved once they have been in the brothels for several months; they want the girls to form 'relationships' with the 'regular clients.' All the girls want to do is escape, and so they ring home.

This phone number is all Blue Dragon has at the start of a rescue operation. And most of the time, the phones are turned off. The girls can’t risk their phone ringing or beeping at any moment; they can only turn them on for a few precious moments each day.

Some weeks ago, a family called Blue Dragon asking for help. Their 16 year old daughter, “Dinh,” missing for 18 months, had suddenly made contact. She knew the name of the Chinese city she was in, but nothing more.

Over several weeks, our team pieced together the clues to work out where Dinh  might be. Liaising with Vietnamese police, we narrowed down her likely location, and finally last week we travelled to China to find her.

We’ve done this 17 times now, but the trips don’t get less stressful or difficult. There are countless dangers and risks, but the greatest risk of all is leaving a girl in a brothel to be raped repeatedly, day after day, until she dies. That’s a risk that we can’t accept, and so we go.

We found Dinh very quickly. She was able to describe the street outside her brothel, and we knew it from a previous rescue. As we’ve done many times before, we arranged a car, made a plan, and swung into action. Dinh was back at the border of China and Vietnam early the next morning.

Reporting to the Chinese police at the Vietnam - China border.

But this time something different happened. When Dinh made her statement to the Chinese police, she explained that there were other girls in the brothel, even younger than her. And the Chinese police said: “So let’s go back and get them.”

Instead of leading this rescue, Blue Dragon was now in the much safer position of accompanying the Chinese police as they conducted their own operation. What a huge relief for us to not have to carry the risk and burden alone.

The result was fantastic. One more girl was rescued on the spot. Two more have been rescued since, and we are working with the Vietnamese police to identify and repatriate them. 

As for the traffickers and brothel owners: they are being rounded up. Most are caught already. And the information we have now means that we can likely conduct another rescue operation in coming weeks.

Back in Vietnam, the police here are also rounding up the ring that trafficked Dinh 18 months ago – and that has trafficked many girls since. That ring is finished now; they won’t be trafficking anybody ever again.

Dinh is back with her parents, reunited in tears. She has a long road to travel: in coming days and weeks she will see her entire family, her community, and her old friends. Every encounter will be traumatic.

Ultimately, Dinh’s most difficult reckoning will be with herself. Most girls come back from China thoroughly traumatised and blaming themselves, at least in part, for what has happened. The truth is that they have no responsibility at all for what has happened to them, and should instead be praised for finding a way to escape their captors.

Dinh will come to realize that. Until then, the healing process will be painful and slow.