Friday, February 27, 2015

News Roundup: February 2015

An occasional roundup of news stories about the issues impacting kids in Vietnam and around the world.

- The UK continues to struggle with the issue of Vietnamese children being trafficked in to the country to work in cannabis factories.

- Moving on from 'awareness raising', Thai citizens take anti-trafficking into their own hands.

- China rescued 43,000 victims of trafficking last year...

- ... but bride trafficking to China won't be stopping any time soon.

- An academic study has been released on the health impact of trafficking for forced labour (and here's a newspaper article about it).

- Child abuse caught on camera at a Vietnamese orphanage.

- Could there be links between climate change and child slavery?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The year of (not) winning

The Year of the Goat has begun; and I for one am glad that the Year of the Horse is behind us.

At the start of 2014, I quietly decided that it was to be the Year of Winning. Readers of this blog will know that in the past couple of years Blue Dragon has been increasingly struggling with the issue of pedophiles in Hanoi exploiting street boys.

Pretty much every single boy who turns up in the city, escaping fractured families or poverty in the countryside, is met by a pedophile or one of their pimps within hours of arriving. Some of these men have deliberately targeted children who are at Blue Dragon and other charities, while most just hang around in the parks and internet cafes where homeless children tend to gather. Increasingly they are using social media to trawl for vulnerable children, meaning that their reach is close to limitless.

A year ago I determined that 2014 was to be the year that we got on top of the issue here in Hanoi and brought it back under control. I really believed that we could.

But we didn't. We didn't win.

At times we felt that we were incredibly close. At times we were sure we couldn't fail. But the year has passed, and the problem remains.

Kids who are caught up in this horrible trade are deeply confused and tormented; they want to escape the cycle of abuse but are steeped in shame at what is happening to them. They want to accept our help, but don't believe in themselves and don't think they are worthy of our kindness. Many act in self-destructive ways and take to using methamphetamines; the underlying problem is that they hate themselves and believe they deserve nothing good.

Even now, there are boys in Blue Dragon who only recently left the streets and are still being approached - in person and through Facebook - by the pimps and pedophiles who want to exploit them. It's unbelievably hard for the kids to be trying to move on with their lives, while their exploiters live just hundreds of metres away, in some cases.

And then there are the kids who gave in, who went with the abusers thinking they would make some quick money and then be done with it or were duped into going back to someone's house to sleep and ended up being raped. Ashamed and humiliated, they disappeared into Hanoi's seedy underbelly and gave up their hopes and dreams for the future. These are kids as young as 13 years old.

I wanted us to defeat these abusers so that we could protect the children, but at times it feels like everything is lost. Even now, there is a terrible frustration in knowing who these abusers are and not being able to stop them.

And yet, we have had some beautiful victories along the way. Many kids who were ensnared in the pedophile rings broke free and have settled into our shelters and homes, or returned to their own families. Some took months to calm down and start leading a stable life; some are yet to fully make the transition. Each has been through a tremendous inner struggle, so watching them transform into happy, smiling teens has been an amazing experience.

We've had great success, too, in starting to win support from local officials and police. Until now, this problem has been completely unknown in Hanoi. Indeed, many people appear shocked when we raise with them the issue of boys being sexually abused. But every single official we have approached and spoken to has expressed support and agreed that things have to change.

The great challenge is that Vietnamese law currently does not recognise that boys can be the victims of sexual abuse. In March, when our work resulted in the arrest of one of Hanoi's serial pedophiles, the man was charged with indecency, rather than sexual abuse, and so received a relatively light sentence (4 years) compared to his horrific crimes.

We've embarked on a plan to have that law revised, possibly within the first half of this year. We are working with police, the National Assembly, and the media to enable them to see the issue up close, as we do. And most importantly, we have put every last drop of our energy into caring for the kids who have been impacted by this abuse. At times it has been massively draining and seemingly futile, but it is with the individual kids that we have had both the greatest joys of success and the greatest sorrows of failure.

So we did not win, as I had hoped, but neither have we lost. We've made progress, and are even more determined - and knowledgeable - than a year ago. The men who exploit street kids might think they can get away with this forever, but they're wrong.

One of my greatest fictional heroes is Mulder from the X-Files, who failed repeatedly but persisted because he believed in his cause. One episode finished with him laying in a hospital bed barely alive, after a long journey in his attempt to save the world. When he awoke, his partner Scully asked: "Did you find what you were looking for?"

His answer: "No, but I found something else. The faith to keep looking."

2014 was not the Year of Winning. But as the Year of the Goat kicks off, I will not give up hope that Vietnamese kids can be protected and safe, as all kids deserve to be.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The announcement

It's time for a change.

For over 12 years now, I have been running Blue Dragon in Vietnam. I've never been alone in this: the struggles, joys and challenges have always been shared among a team. That team has grown over the years, as has the scope and impact of our work.

In the earliest days our work was with street boys in Hanoi who were mostly economic migrants to the city.

Today we rescue girls trafficked into China for sale to brothels or as brides; we bring them home and make sure their traffickers are caught. We find kids trafficked to sweatshops, and we believe we are close to extinguishing the use of child labour in garment factories. We send about 1500 children to school, and another 70 to university.

And we continue to work with Hanoi's street kids, although these days they face very different problems. In addition to homelessness and lack of opportunity, they are targets for sexual predators on a scale that continues to shock us. Vietnamese law does not include males in its definition of victims of sexual abuse, so the abusers have so far been difficult to catch and prosecute. We're working on changing that law, and momentum is building.

We've done much, and much remains to be done. 

However, my role in all this is changing. If you're on the mailing list, you will know by now the news: I am stepping aside as CEO. Once lunar new year rolls around, late this week, I will no longer be the boss. I can see that Blue Dragon needs somebody new, somebody better able to manage and administer the day to day running of what is now a significant organisation.

Blue Dragon is not only my job. It's my family and my life. There are people whose lives I have changed; and many more who have changed mine. There are people I gave hope to when all seemed lost, and people who stood by me when I thought I had lost my own hope. There are so many special - profound - connections that I can't imagine that I will ever be able to leave.

So I am not walking away from Blue Dragon, and not looking for a new job. I'm simply hanging up the CEO hat and continuing on in the role of Founder, with a capital "F". Rather than running the organisation and calling all the shots, I will be working on special projects alongside the team. My work in anti-trafficking and crisis management will be increasing. I'll be mentoring staff and developing leadership among the kids. I'll be finding ways for Blue Dragon to grow without compromising our philosophy of caring for the kids as individuals. With a bit of luck, I might even have more time to write my blog.

While I can write about this objectively now, getting to this point has taken many months and has sometimes been an emotional affair. It certainly hasn't been easy to take this step. What has enabled it, though, is the amazing team at Blue Dragon, who have supported my decision completely.

Our incoming CEO, Julienne Carey, has risen through the ranks of the organisation. She started as a volunteer; took on the role of  Communications and Fundraising Manager; and then became Deputy CEO. The Blue Dragon staff know and respect her, and see this move as a natural next step. Nobody has expressed surprise that Julienne is taking on the leadership role. For both Julienne and I, it is enormously reassuring to know that we have the full support of the staff, some of whom have been with Blue Dragon since before we were even officially an organisation.

When I first moved to Vietnam, I joked that I was coming here to retire. Aged 28, I had left my job in Australia, sold or given away everything I owned, and was in search of the simple life. I utterly failed at that - creating and running Blue Dragon has been anything but simple - and now I am again at the point of making a major change.

This new move also won't be retirement. I suspect things aren't going to get much simpler, either. But I do hope that now I can be more focused, have more time to think and to breathe, and achieve even more for the people I care most about: the kids and staff of Blue Dragon Children's Foundation.

Monday, February 09, 2015


The Blue Dragon kids celebrated a terrific milestone last week: the 10th annual Tet Awards.

Every year, for the last 10 years, we've held a ceremony to mark the end of the lunar calendar, and welcome the coming year. The original idea was to give each child a chance to stand in the spotlight and shine, and 10 years later that's still what we do. These days there are about 500 kids joining in, so it's a bit bigger than when we started and even more fun!

So here are 10 things I loved about the 10th annual Tet Awards.

1. The kids had a chance to shine - and that's what they did. They organised their own performances. They sang and danced. They MCed the night. Everybody left the event feeling proud.

2. Children who have been with us just a few weeks were there, along with kids we met more than 10 years ago. It was like a massive family reunion, and everybody had a smile or hug to share.

3. Local businesses pitched in. Accor Hotels made sure we had cookies for everyone. Ecopark donated money for the food. Don's Bistro sent along a staff team to help with food preparation for the entire day! People were really generous to make sure the kids had a great night.

4. Looking at the joy in the kids' faces, nobody could imagine the hardships they have endured. There were kids who got up and sang, or received awards on the stage, who just a year ago were living through the most horrific experiences. Seeing how they have bounced back and embraced their second chance at life is profoundly inspiring.

5. There were teens performing hip hop to rap songs, kids acting out comedies, and little children dressed as fairies singing "happy birthday"... and the whole crowd loved all of it.

6. 500 kids packed into the hall. All are from disadvantaged and troubled backgrounds, but there was not a single moment of bad behaviour as the stereotypes would have you believe.

7. Everyone wanted to take a photo! A few days after the event, the kids' Facebook pages are still buzzing with their memories and pictures of the night.

8. Kids who are blind, or deaf, or have any type of physical or intellectual disability joined right in along side kids without any disability. There was not an ounce of discrimination.

9. Volunteers pitched in to make everything perfect. Friends from around Hanoi came to take the photos, serve food, set up the hall, and paint the kids' faces. Nobody expected to be thanked; they just wanted to make it a great night for the kids.

10. And the Blue Dragon staff came out in force once again. They spent weeks getting ready - in fact preparation started in December. Not a murmur of complaint from anyone... and not a single person failed to lend a hand. Everyone, from the social workers to the cleaners to the driver, worked together to make this a special event.

A ten-year anniversary is an important occasion. The kids had a great night, but in truth so did all of us. I say this every year, but I think this may have been our best Tet Awards yet!

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Wedding season

It's wedding season in Vietnam; the moon and custom dictates that this is a good time of year to marry, and so throughout the land couples are getting hitched everywhere you turn.

Blue Dragon has not been immune to the buzz. Two of our 'old boys' have married in recent weeks; both young men who once needed help to get out of poverty but who now are doing tremendously well for themselves. One runs a mobile phone shop, and one works at Blue Dragon helping street kids.

I love going to Vietnamese weddings, and yet would dread to have my own. As a guest, the wedding is a simple party: you turn up and eat, then leave. No fuss about buying wedding gifts, either; you just put some money in an envelope and drop it in the box on the way in.

For the couple getting married, it's another story. Months of hard work to meet cultural and social obligations, and in the end many of the decisions about how the day goes fall into the hands of elderly relatives and fortune tellers. There's an endearingly perverse sense of controlled randomness about how everything is going to work.

As a foreigner, attending a Vietnamese wedding can vary between bewildering and hilarious. At one of the recent weddings, Blue Dragon's DJ boy Bao Bao played electronic music for a hugely energetic crowd of young adults - all under the watchful eyes of Joseph and Mary and their baby Jesus. Rather a contrasting set of images, which absolutely nobody cared about.

At another wedding, the singer was a local guy who performed a song which was meant to be sung by a male and female duet. But not to worry: he simply switched to a high-pitch to sing the female lines! It was so bizarre and unexpected that we couldn't help roaring with laughter. I couldn't shake the memory of the puppets from Sifl and Olly - watch at your own peril.

Despite all the wacky "what on earth!?" moments, there has also been something deeply moving about these weddings. Every time one of the older boys or girls from Blue Dragon gets married, the event turns into a massive reunion at which kids and staff, both current and former, all get together to celebrate.

Young men and women who once worked on the streets of the city or were trafficked against their will but are now leading independent lives turn up, and it's as though no time at all has passed since we last met. Even those who got themselves into trouble, or left Blue Dragon to return to the streets, join in and there's no judgement or awkwardness: we're all united in celebration.

In the case of our staff member recently marrying, so many kids attended that we needed 2 buses to get them all there!

As an organisation, we often talk about ourselves as a family; and these occasions confirm that yes, we are more than just a legal entity with staff and policies. Blue Dragon really is something special.

As abruptly as it started, wedding season will soon end. I can't wait for the next round of marriages, and for all the get-togethers with kids new and old.