Monday, November 03, 2014

Close of business

It's the end of a long day at Blue Dragon in Hanoi.

Meeting homeless kids every day, hearing stories of exploitation and abuse, we leave ourselves open to some pretty raw emotions. When we walk out the front gate at day's end, we carry with us all that we've seen: the tears of a mother desperate to find her missing daughter; the confusion of a teenage boy struggling to find his place in the world. We're just ordinary people, not automatons who can switch off at the close of business. 

And some days, as the U2 song reminds us, are better than others.

Today has been a tough one. Of all the hundreds of kids in our care at the moment, the day is marked by 3 particular stories that are yet to reach their conclusions.

"Huong" is just 13 years old, but already has been sold as a bride to a Chinese man. Blue Dragon has been working on this case for a couple of months; both the Chinese and Vietnamese police have been very active in finding her, and finally late last week Huong was delivered safely back to Vietnamese authorities, accompanied across the border by Blue Dragon's own Child Rights Advocate, Mr Van.

Huong is buzzing with excitement. What could be more joyous than being set free from a forced marriage, and being taken by the hand to begin the journey home? We've been present at hundreds of beautiful family reunions, but I fear that this one might not be so beautiful.

There's something that Huong doesn't yet know: her own mother is suspected as the trafficker.

People commonly assume that trafficked children in Vietnam are all sold by their parents. That's simply untrue. We've rescued over 350 trafficked kids, and there's only been one other occasion in which the parent was complicit - but that was a case of labour trafficking, and the parent recanted within the same day.

If this is true, that the mother sold her daughter to a 'marriage broker,' then it will be the first time we've seen it. And it will be unspeakably devastating for this 13 year old girl.

Back in Hanoi, the sex trafficking of underage boys continues to spiral out of control. Boys as young as 13, who end up on the streets because of family breakdown or even small conflicts at home or at school, are routinely targeted by pimps and taken to pedophiles offering care to hungry children, but delivering only abuse.

One of the boys caught up on this trap, "Hai," turned 14 just a week ago. He's been going with these men every night for the past few months; the only break he had was the month that he was detained in a Social Protection Centre. He certainly needs protection, but at the end of his time there they simply took him to the front door, gave him $5, and sent him on his way.

Hai is torn. He hates going with the men. He hates the men. He hates the way he feels about himself. And yet: he believes that he has nothing to lose by going with them. He meets them in parks, or through online chat rooms, makes the money he needs for a day of playing computer games, and the cycle repeats.

But today he says he wants to change. Hai tells me that he wants a future, and knows he needs to escape this life on the streets. He even opens up with information about the men he's recently been with.

At the end of a painful, painful conversation Hai says that he will have a final decision soon. He asks for money to eat and play games, so that tonight he doesn't have to go 'to work.' I give him the money, not knowing if anything he says is sincere. Is it all just a ploy? Is he playing me, the way he plays the men in the parks? I have no idea, but I have to take the risk that maybe he's telling the truth, and maybe tomorrow he really will turn his back on that life.

Another of the Blue Dragon boys, “Tong,” has already walked the path that Hai is on, and has made the decision to leave behind the life of ‘sex work’ on the streets. Not yet 16 years old, he has seen it all: he’s been passed around from family to family; adopted and then returned; he’s lived in a barn when his relatives exiled him from the house after his mother’s death; and he’s survived the streets of Hanoi by selling his body by the hour. 

In recent months, Tong has undergone a transformation. He left the gang that he had been following and moved into a Blue Dragon safe house. He studied a basic hospitality course and started playing musical instruments, which he apparently learned at some time in his very complex past. His progress hasn’t always been steady, but he’s still with us and doing his best. 

And now the latest step: Tong has been offered a work experience placement in a well regarded local restaurant. It’s only part time, and there’s no salary, but for Tong this is something incredible. 

Staff have taken him out to buy a bicycle, which he’ll need to get to work. He’s been fitted out with some new clothes, and even bought his first pair of shoes. To top it off, I bought him a cheap mobile phone so he can stay in touch with us and the restaurant manager. 

“Over the moon” is a complete cliché, but totally appropriate to Tong’s mood. He’s bouncing through Dragon House, bubbling with a happiness we’ve never seen in him before. It would be easy to think that this is because of the shiny new ‘things’ he now owns: clothes, a cool bicycle, a mobile phone. 

But at the heart of it, that’s not why he is so excited. The happiness stems from being someone: someone who can own a bicycle, ride it to work in his new clothes, and ring his friends to meet up when he’s finished. Those aren’t things that ‘street kids’ do. Those are things that ‘real people’ do. Tong is ‘somebody’ now. 

Of course, he hasn’t had his first day at work yet. He’s yet to experience the drag of going to work when all your friends are going out to play. Or the shock of having a customer grumble and complain when you get the order wrong. Or the disappointment of having a workmate who wants to slack off and get the new guy to do all the work.

For the moment, all Tong can think about is how great everything is going to be. 

The days ahead hold great uncertainty for Huong, Hai and Tong.

Was Huong's mother really involved in the trafficking of her own daughter? Does Huong already suspect this, or is she innocent to this dreadful possibility? If it's true: what will become of her?

Will Hai leave behind the streets, and the cycle of abuse that has ensnared him? Or is he just playing me along, trying to make some easy money to tide him over until his next encounter at the park? 

And how will Tong cope  with the pressure of living this new, 'ordinary' life? Before coming to Blue Dragon, he'd never been close to anyone who held down a steady, salaried job. Can he cope? If he fails, will that failure devastate his newfound confidence?

I wish I had all the answers to the problems I see every day; but sometimes I just don't. All I know is that, as today draws to a close, there is still hope for Huong, Hai and Tong. Whatever joys and terrors tomorrow may bring, those are still in the tomorrow. 

Right now, we have to believe that things can still work out ok.

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