Sunday, June 29, 2014

The little red book

We all know what's most important in life: good health, an education, a place to live, and people to care for us.

But there's one thing we often take for granted... Something so basic that we rarely stop to consider it.

A legal identity.

Having an identity is among the most basic rights we have. When we're born, we are registered and receive a birth certificate. That's not a certificate to congratulate us on being born... it's an official acknowledgement of existence.

In the west, we complain about bureaucracy and procedures every time we need a new passport or we change our name and need a new driver's licence. Fair enough. But imagine the hassle of having no legal identity at all.

Not having a legal identity means that all the basics are out of reach: you can't enroll in school, you can't go to hospital, you can't get a job, you can't rent a house, you can't get a driver's licence, you can't apply for state welfare. You can't do any of this because you don't officially exist.

Throughout Vietnam, there are countless families who have never had a legal identity. They tend to live in remote rural areas, although plenty of city dwellers also have no paperwork to their names.

Blue Dragon has an amazing Legal Advocacy Team who travel the country assisting people in all sorts of difficult situations, including children and families who have no legal identity.

One of our strategies is to work in particular regions where the incidence of poverty is extremely high, and register local citizens en masse. This means that not only do the people end up with their legal identities, but the local government has an opportunity to learn to do this work themselves.

Early in June, Blue Dragon's Legal Advocates registered over 400 people in Muong Ang district of Dien Bien province - this is right off the beaten track in north-west Vietnam. All of the people we registered belonged to ethnic minority groups; almost none spoke Vietnamese.

We traveled with local government officials out into the villages, set up in community spaces, and then went about inviting people to come and register.

This may sound like a simple and mundane paperwork exercise, but the personal impact of this is enormous.

Prior to the registration campaign beginning, our lawyer Hong spoke to a group of almost 60 families, to help them understand the importance of registering. One of the mothers approached her and said:

None of the members of my family has personal papers yet, but we don't really care. It's not important, because none of us goes to school or to work, and we never leave our village.

Later in the day, after the meeting and the registration work were all finished, the same mother found her way back to Hong to say:

Thank you so much for organising this. Now I understand why these documents are important to my family. It will make life much easier when my children grow up and go to school or go to work. Now that we have this paper, my elderly mother can receive a monthly allowance from the government. The commune leader even promised to start supporting her from next month!

Those few pieces of paper - the "little red book" with all registration details and personal documents - make a huge difference. Now that we have completed registering citizens in this commune, we are already planning the next campaign, and hope to register at least 400 more people soon.

Friday, June 20, 2014

My Hero

The truth that I have known for many years is now official.

Van Ta, Blue Dragon's own Chief Lawyer, is a Hero - with a capital "H."

On Friday morning in Washington DC, Secretary of State John Kerry awarded Van the prestigious Trafficking In Persons Hero Award from the United States government.

Many people know of Van's work, but few know of Van himself. He spearheads Blue Dragon's anti-trafficking work; he finds and rescues children and young women taken for exploitative labour and sex work against their will; and he defends victims in court, ensuring justice according to the law.

Among all his other work defending victims of  crime and registering citizens who have never been officially registered with the government, Van has rescued 331 children and young women from trafficking. That's 331 people who have been taken from home and held captive; and Van has located them and found a way to set them free. His rescue work sometimes involves raiding the places of slavery, and sometimes involves assisting victims to escape and, without exaggeration, make a run for their lives.

But Van is not a household name, both out of a genuine humility and out of a need for safety. To be blunt, Van's work is dangerous, yet he has never hesitated or put himself first. Nor has he ever sought the spotlight.

I first met him at a party for blind children in September 2003. Van was a bright eyed law student intent on changing the world, and I was in the early days of creating Blue Dragon Children's Foundation. Immediately on meeting me, Van declared that he wanted to volunteer for Blue Dragon, and that he would like to work for us for a couple of years after graduating from law school. It was as though he could foresee both the challenges and the victories that lay ahead.

In the early years, Van's work was largely with homeless children and unregistered citizens. One of his first great successes was reuniting a runaway teenage boy with his mother in the countryside. Van was welcomed as a hero by the entire village; they had feared that the missing teen was dead and would never be heard of again.

That teenage boy went on to complete school, go through tertiary studies, and is now the IT Coordinator at Blue Dragon HQ.

Van's first encounter with human trafficking was a couple of years later, in 2005, when I met a trafficked boy on the streets of Saigon. Van and I worked out a plan to rescue the boy, and in getting him home to central Vietnam we were shocked to learn of the extent of trafficking in the region. So we embarked on a process of finding and rescuing trafficked children, bringing them home from the streets and sweatshops of Saigon, and reuniting them with their families.

As of today, we have rescued a total of 260 girls and boys who have been trafficked for forced labour within Vietnam.

Two years later, Van conducted his first rescue of girls trafficked to China. A teen girl we knew from Hanoi had gone missing, and she made a call for help in July 2007. All we knew was that she was in China; she didn't know which town she was in, or how close it was to Vietnam. But she was desperate for help. Not knowing what else to do, Van headed to China, found her, and rescued her - along with 6 other girls being held in the same brothel. All had been deceived and entrapped; all lived in fear for their lives. Today, thanks to Van, all are free.

But that first rescue trip was exceptionally dangerous. Van was lucky to make it back alive, and for a few hours I had no idea where he was or what had happened. When he finally did re-emerge, we agreed that this China rescue was to be a one-off. No more rescue missions in China!

Well... except that by now he has rescued a total of 71 girls and young women from brothels and forced marriages in China.

This award from the US government is richly deserved. Van and his family have given themselves totally to the service of others; there is not a day that Van does not help another person. The only other person who is anything like Van is his wife, who is also an exceptional legal advocate.

The formality of the ceremony, and the associated visits to the White House and other government institutions, is quite a contrast to the normal pace of Van's life.  Van's rescues and legal work are fast-paced, intense, and relentless. It's unusual for Van to have a few hours of peace; around Blue Dragon HQ we joke about how hard it is to get 5 minutes with him. Secretary Kerry doesn't realise how privileged he is to have Van in one place for a 30 minute ceremony!

I am incredibly proud of Van. This blog isn't a place for formalities, but it must be said: Van, on behalf of all the children, families, and young adults you have rescued from slavery and whose lives you have changed... Congratulations. Stand tall and proud, for you are truly a hero to many.

And most of all, Van, you are a hero to me.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Hero of the streets

Meet Vi, hero to many of Hanoi's homeless and neglected kids. In a world where the bad guys always seem to make the news, this is one story that deserves to be told.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Second home

For the past month I have been on the road, catching up with friends and supporters in both Australia and New Zealand. As usual, it's been a whirlwind trip with not enough time, but along the way I have found great encouragement and inspiration.

I'm in New Zealand at the moment, where Blue Dragon has some very special connections. We have some great NZ friends, particularly people who have spent time in Vietnam and come to know or even volunteer at the Blue Dragon centre. And even more than that, New Zealand has become the second home to several Blue Dragon kids, who have been incredibly fortunate to earn scholarships to study here.

The NTEC College in Auckland has trained up 3 of our young people in the past, and now a fourth is studying there: a young man named Can, who is in his first year of a business course. One of NTEC's past students, Chinh, now lives and works in Taupo, where he joined forces with friends and supporters of Blue Dragon to organise a fantastic fundraising dinner. Chinh is so much a part of the community that, during the evening, the president of the local soccer club in which he plays asked me if we could send 10 more "Chinh's" to Taupo!

 Singers and dancers at the Blue Dragon Taupo dinner!

The community spirit in Taupo was extraordinary. Dozens of local businesses and companies supported the event, and the director of a language school, the Taupo Language & Outdoor Education Centre, announced that they would offer a scholarship to one Blue Dragon student to study English. What an incredible opportunity - and that will be the second time the school has offered us such a scholarship.

Meanwhile the financial community from around New Zealand came together for a boxing match in Auckland; some participants even flew in from Australia to take part. It was all great fun, and the boxers were mostly bankers, slogging it out for the kids of Blue Dragon. I'd never been to a boxing match before that, and it definitely ranks up there with 'unusual fundraising events' - but it was a terrific event!

Fighting for the kids of Blue Dragon

And finally I traveled south to Wellington, where the Blue Dragon Children's Trust (New Zealand) has been supporting our work in Vietnam for about 4 years now. The Trust organises an annual book fair in Ngaio, as well as a film evening; they're a great bunch of friends who really care about Blue Dragon and Vietnam.

 Annual book fair in Ngaio - every April!

While here, I attended a ball organised by the students of St Oran's College, and visited both Wellington College and Hutt International Boys' School. All around, it's been incredibly encouraging to receive such support and interest. I'll be heading back to Vietnam tomorrow with a renewed energy - and it's just as well, because so much is going on at Blue Dragon.

During this time away, we've been involved in rescuing kids from garment factories and young women trafficked into China; and now we are preparing to represent a former victim of trafficking in court on Tuesday. These have all been very significant cases; not only for the people involved, but because of the implications of our work. Every child who is rescued, and every trafficker who is detained, signals to the world that trafficking is not, and never will be, acceptable. All the money that Blue Dragon's friends have raised here in New Zealand will be going to the Blue Dragon Rescue! appeal to ensure that even more kids can be brought home and kept safe.

And so, I am excited to be heading home to Vietnam, and ready to get back into the swing of things. The support of our NZ friends has been amazing - and I hope to be back soon!

P.S.: Listen out on Monday  June 16 for an interview with Bryan Crump - Radio New Zealand from 7pm.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

The rescue plan

With Blue Dragon's rescue appeal well underway, lots of people are asking: How do you actually do it? How does a rescue of a trafficking victim work? 

So we've created this chart to show the steps involved. It's up on the website, too, if you want to have a look there.