Monday, June 15, 2015

The difference between bravery and stupidity

Just by chance, I was sitting on a boat when the call came.

The 'boat' was a café moored in Hanoi's West Lake. I was on the top deck with some friends on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and when my phone rang I was surprised to see it was an international call.

Hugh, a close friend who had left Hanoi a few years earlier, was living in Fiji now. His call came out of the blue, but as it turned out he had an offer that I immediately accepted.

Hugh had bought a boat in San Fransisco - a 42 foot Peterson - and needed to get it to his home in Fiji. Would I be willing to help him take it on the journey home?

Having never been sailing before, my immediate thought was of blue skies and smooth seas. How could I say no!? And so, two weeks later, Hugh and I set sail from San Fransisco, bound for Fiji.

Usually when I tell people the story of my one-and-only sailing adventure, the immediate response is: "You were brave to do that!" I quite like the compliment, but it's not true. I wasn't brave at all, because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Had I known, I might not have boarded the flight to the US. My enthusiasm to go wasn't bravery. It was stupidity - I went into something with my eyes closed.

Having said that, I am glad I went. Parts of the trip were frightening, and it took me a full 5 days to overcome sea sickness - but in hindsight it was one of the best things I have ever done. Never have I learned so much about myself and tested my own limits. (And, for the record, I didn't make it to Fiji - I only reached Hawaii).

It's easy to mistake stupidity for bravery . The results are often the same, or at least similar. But bravery is knowing what you're up against, and yet going in to a difficult and dangerous situation anyway. Stupidity is going in with your eyes closed, not knowing or maybe not caring what the consequences could be.

Every day at Blue Dragon, I am surrounded by people who act with extraordinary bravery. I often think that, back in my home country of Australia, these people would be showered with awards for what they do.

I see boys who dare to make statements to police about sexual abuse they have endured, knowing that their friends and family may think less of them or they may be exposed to public shame.

I see girls and young women who have been held against their will in brothels or in family homes deep inside China, constantly threatened with violence and beaten into submission, who dare to beg or steal a mobile phone so they can call for help and so begin the arduous process of being rescued.

I see mothers and fathers who will give up all they have just to find their missing children and get them safely home, regardless of community perception or the personal risks they face in searching for their sons and daughters.

And I see my own team at Blue Dragon - the Social Workers, lawyers, and even the cleaners and administrators - risking their personal safety day after day for the kids who walk through our doors or who call for help.

Just 2 weeks ago, a little boy turned up at our centre with a shackle on his ankle - a police handcuff had been used by a violent family relative to lock the little guy up. He had broken free, and found his way to us with the cuff and a long chain dangling from his foot. And so one of our cleaners grabbed some tools and started cutting the boy free, knowing full well that the enraged relative could come in at any moment, but also knowing that this boy needed to be set free. The wrath of the family was not as important as the care of the child.

Our rescue work in China is another case in point. We receive calls for help from girls locked in to homes or brothels in unknown cities scattered throughout China. In responding to those calls, we know that every rescue operation carries a risk of us being found out by the traffickers, who lose substantial money - and their freedom - every time we succeed. But we go anyway, because we believe that the need to intervene outweighs the fear of the traffickers' vengeance.

Yesterday I was texting with one of the Blue Dragon staff about a particularly murky situation we are involved in; gangs of pimps here in Hanoi are recruiting underage boys to sell to pedophiles. My staff replied to one message with the observation: The world is getting worse.

I want to believe that that is not the case, but sometimes the evidence certainly seems to point in that direction. Either way, this situation demands that we face up to the dangers and stand in the way of the pimps and pedophiles; not rushing in blindly, but preparing for what's to come and standing our ground.

In comparison to all this, my boat trip a few years back seems easy. I could almost wish again for some weeks on the open seas. But there's much more to be done here, and facing the traffickers and the abusers will take great courage - not only from me, but from the whole Blue Dragon team and, most importantly, the kids.

Monday, June 08, 2015

News Roundup: May-June 2015

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

The trafficking of Vietnamese kids to the UK grabs the headlines in both countries.

The Guardian - and in video

Tuoi Tre News

Yours truly talks to ITV about the growth in bride trafficking to China.

Vietnamese police bring down a ring trafficking Vietnamese people to China.

And the Vietnamese media has been reporting extensively on the pedophile rings targeting boys in Hanoi.

Some background info here in an earlier blog post.

In Vietnamese, a selection of recent articles:

Nhan Dan Newspaper

Cong An Nhan Dan Online

An Ninh Thu Do

Phap Luat So

Thursday, May 21, 2015


We met Minh in February, alone and cold on a park bench at night.

He was 15 years old, but tiny for his age; he could easily pass for 12 or 13. He'd been sleeping rough on the streets of Hanoi for just a couple of nights, and was relieved when he came across Blue Dragon's Outreach workers. The streets of Hanoi are dangerous places for homeless children.

Minh was a likable boy, quiet and unassuming but with a dazzling smile. We were shocked when he disappeared just a few days later, slipping away unnoticed from the shelter... with a laptop he decided to steal from us.

We weren't thrilled about the laptop, of course, but our deeper concern was for Minh. We feared what would become of him out on the streets. Hanoi is currently in the grip of a plague of pedophiles preying on homeless boys; the chances of him staying out of trouble were slim.

But last week, we met Minh once again. He was very embarrassed to see us, having both left and robbed us, and he was stunned that we were concerned for his welfare. I guess he thought he was in for a beating, or that we would call the police. In fact, we just wanted to make sure he was safe.

Minh came back to the Blue Dragon shelter, half in disbelief that we really weren't planning to take him to a police station, and over the coming days he told us what had happened. He explained that he feared we would force him to return to his family (which we don't do - we don't do anything without the kids' consent), so he ran away and took the laptop as something he could sell.

In the months that he was out on the streets, he was approached by pimps and pedophiles repeatedly, but he didn't give in. He was able to beg for money and he met some kind people who would give him food. Still, life was incredibly difficult and he was always hungry.

Minh had left home in the countryside because of some problems in his family, and he was afraid to go back. But after some days with Blue Dragon, seeing that we were not going to punish him for the missing computer and that we really did have his welfare as our only concern, he agreed to go back to his family home on two conditions.

First, he wanted one of the Blue Dragon staff to go with him. And second, if things didn't work out, he wanted to return to Hanoi with us.

And so on Tuesday, one of the Blue Dragon Social Workers, Huong, travelled over 200km from Hanoi, up into the mountains, to reunite Minh with his family. There was absolutely nothing to worry about: they were all so worried for the missing child that whatever wrongs had been done, they were just glad to have their son back. Many tears were shed, and finally Minh turned to Huong to tell her he would stay at home. He didn't need to go back to Hanoi again.

This was the happy ending we had hoped for, but didn't dare expect.

Minh is home now, and has sent us messages over Facebook telling us how happy he is. I can't help but think, though, that he should also acknowledge how brave he has been.

Returning to Blue Dragon when he was unsure what we might do... and then going back to face his family after months away... what courage this must have taken. Minh told me that he was scared, but that he needed and wanted to do this. He knew that going home was the right thing to do, and so even in the face of his fears he decided that he must do it.

Yesterday, Blue Dragon launched its annual appeal for donations. Every year at this time we ask ourselves: What is it that our kids really need? What is the pressing need for the coming 12 months, that we will have to go out and ask for?

This year, the answer came back to us in a single word: Courage. Our kids need courage. Whether it's a boy running away from home who has to face his greatest fears, or a girl trafficked into China who needs the pluck to call for help and attempt an escape... the Blue Dragon kids need courage.

Minh's story well illustrates the fears and dangers faced by kids here in Vietnam. We've updated the Blue Dragon website with stories from a few of the kids who wanted to share their own thoughts on what courage is - go and have a look at the site, it may well be the most inspiring 5 minutes of your day.

I don't often use my blog to ask for donations. But right now, I'd be remiss not to. I am seeing kids every day who face terrible situations that very few of us have to ever confront; they need, and deserve, our help.

They need courage to conquer their situations; and they will have courage if the world can stand beside them. We all have a part to play.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

News Roundup: May 2015

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

In Vietnam

Man claims to be selling sperm in Vietnamese hospital as a cover to sell babies.

Vietnam strengthens its commit to fight human trafficking...

... at a time that trafficking appears to be on the rise.

Reports in English and Vietnamese on the issue of boys being sexually abused and the fear of an increase in sex tourism.

Across the region

Refugees being killed by traffickers as they cross the Bay of Bengal.

Nothing to see here.

300 men enslaved and held on an island in Indonesia.

Some thoughts on why South East Asia still struggles with slavery and trafficking.

Around the world

Wanting to work in international development? A new book details all the ins and outs - including a section quoting Blue Dragon's founder, Michael Brosowski.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Strength to share

One of my deepest personal joys is seeing Blue Dragon kids take an interest in caring for others.

In some ways I wish that all of the kids we raise would go on to become carers and advocates, but I maintain that the motivation has to come from within, and not be a requirement for receiving our help.

So when our girls and boys do choose to pursue a career in Social Work, or volunteer at the Blue Dragon centre on the weekends, or repay their university scholarship to us early so we can use it to help somebody else, I know that their compassion really comes from the heart, and not just a sense of obligation.

'Cuong' is one Blue Dragon boy who has discovered a deep concern for other children, and who looks for ways to help. Despite the many difficulties of his own life, he has an instinct to protect those around him who are in need.

His part time job in the evenings is teaching rollerskating to children at a local park. As he takes the smaller kids by the hand and skates out onto the rink, his face shines with real joy. He has helped another person to stand tall and learn something new.

Teaching rollerskating: 'Cuong' is at the back

Last week, Cuong travelled out of Hanoi with other Blue Dragon kids and staff to spend the holiday week in a rural village. There they visited an orphanage, taking time to help others and to reflect on their own lives.

Cuong was right in there, picking up any crying babies and playing with the toddlers as though they were his own brothers and sisters.

Visiting an orphanage 

A telling moment was when he turned to staff and said: It makes me realise how much I have in life.

Such an insight is not easy for a teenage boy to have. It would be easy for him to wallow in self pity at all the hardships life has thrown his way - none of which he has deserved.

In caring for others, Cuong is overcoming his own difficulties.

But more than that: he has a heart to share, and he has learned that he can share it in spite of his hardships.

And if Cuong can do it...

Names have been changed for privacy.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The long haul

Blue Dragon works from a centre in Hanoi, where most of our team is based. A few years ago we also established a centre in central Vietnam to support the several hundred kids and families we help there in the fight against human trafficking.

But our work takes us far and wide throughout the country. Not a day goes by that we're not out on the road, often in isolated and remote areas, reuniting a homeless child with their family or investigating a case of missing children.

Over the past week, we've been working on a case that has been even more extreme than usual. The Rescue Team been travelling through central China, more than 2000km from the border of Vietnam, to find a trafficked 13 year old girl, "Quy". As the case isn't yet over, we can't share too many details, but this has been an urgent and tense case with quite a lot at stake.

Quy is safe now, but of course deeply traumatised by what's happened and desperate to get home. She was evidently taken and sold as a bride, but the information is not yet totally clear and I'm sure we'll know more later in the week. For now, all that matters is that she is on the way back to Vietnam.

The Blue Dragon Rescue Team has been in contact with Quy via text messaging for several weeks, but the case was brought to a head about a week ago and Quy needed to escape her situation. She ended up in a police station, where she has been until today.

It will be a few more days until Quy is back to Vietnam, and some more days still before she sees her family again. Once she's OK, we know of another 13 year old girl trafficked into China who needs our help, so the team may be back on the road even before the week is out.

To some it may seem like a lot of effort to help just one child. Apart from the fact that our rescues also result in trafficking rings being arrested - and thereby prevent future trafficking from taking place - I have to say that travelling a 4000km round trip to save a child's life is a worthy mission in itself. None of us would hesitate if it was our own child.

Rescue work is a long haul, both chronologically and geographically. When the moment comes that Quy is back in the arms of her mother and father, there will be no question that this has been worthwhile.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Blue Dragon's Street Outreach team meets new homeless children in Hanoi every week, and sometimes every day.

Kids come to the city for a great variety of reasons: neglect and abuse at home... a fight at school... poverty and hunger... or maybe just a search for adventure.

They're drawn to Hanoi in the hope of a better life, but in reality the city is a dangerous place for homeless children. We've now come to the conclusion that every child, boy and girl, who comes to the city as a 'street kid' is either sexually abused or at the very least approached by a pedophile offering money in return for sex.

One day last summer I met two boys, aged 13 and 14, who had come to the city looking for a summer job. They spent only one night on the street but were approached by 6 pedophiles. By the next morning, they were terrified and just wanted to go home.

How has this situation developed in a conservative capital city where tradition and family values reign supreme?

A very large part of the problem is that Vietnamese laws on child protection have been written in such a way that definitions of sexual abuse apply only to girls. In short, boys are not protected from sexual abuse by the law.

Over the past two years, the number of boys we have met on the streets who have been abused by pedophiles has grown, and continued to grow. We've worked closely with police to turn this situation around, but have only seen 2 of these men arrested.

However, there's some good news on the horizon: there is a building momentum to revise the law so that the abuse of both girls and boys is considered a criminal offense.

On Friday last week, Blue Dragon Children's Foundation and the People's Police Academy led a workshop that brought together police, lawmakers, academics, and officials. The single topic of discussion was the need to reform those articles of the criminal code which apply only to females, but should apply equally to males.

Research papers were presented, professional experience discussed, anecdotes shared, and ideas were exchanged.

During a break, one senior policeman approached me to say that we had met before. I couldn't recall how or where, until he told me the story.

Back in 2007, his own nephew had run away from home in the countryside and come to Hanoi. We had met him and taken him in, and as is our usual way of working he stayed in our care some days until he revealed to us where he was from. When we contacted his parents, this policeman came to our centre to pick him up.

The encounter was a poignant reminder that the children in danger of abuse are not only stereotypical street kids from broken families; they are any kids at all, no matter what kind of family or background they are from.

Everybody agrees that the law needs to change. It's now just a matter of when.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Farewell, young Quoc

Today I share the sad news of the passing of a little boy named Quoc.

Quoc was 12 years old and living in rural Bac Ninh province, 2 hours north of Hanoi. He had a difficult life, growing up in poverty with a very ill mother. Quoc appeared to be a normal, healthy child but he had suffered a brain aneurysm in Grade 2 and never fully recovered.

He passed away in a local hospital having had a stroke in his sleep.

Despite his poor health and difficult family circumstances, Quoc did well at school, even receiving certificates of excellence for his studies, and he loved football. He was studying Grade 7 with support from Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, dreaming of a better life ahead.

There is always an inherent sense of unfairness when a child dies, in any circumstance. Knowing of Quoc's hard life and sudden death, it's impossible to not feel sorrow and grief; he had so much ahead, and was determined to make the most of his life.

But equally, Quoc's life was not in vain. He did make the most of his short years, caring for his little brother and his parents, and enjoying every moment. He didn't live with self pity, and he didn't use his difficulties as an excuse for not trying.

So we say farewell to our little brother, and we grieve his passing, but we remember the good he brought to our world and will let our happier memories of his life be his legacy.

Farewell, young Quoc.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Safe / not safe

After 3 weeks on the road in Australia, it's great to be back in Vietnam, back at home, and catching up with everyone and everything.

One of those 'things' that I have been catching up: the last few episodes of The Walking Dead.

For those who don't watch the show (seriously? There are people who don't watch TWD!?), our rugged band of zombie apocalypse survivors has been lurching from disaster to disaster, losing friends and sustaining plenty of damage along the way. But now they have made it to the safest and most peaceful place they have yet been: Alexandria.

They have high walls to keep them safe; electricity; dinner parties; cookies; rocking chairs on porches.

And it's driving them all insane.

Never in all 5 seasons of the show have they been this safe, and yet they are now divided against each other and acting completely irrationally.

Any psychologist would quickly put a label on this: PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I, meantime, am watching this and thinking how much it all reminds me of many kids here at Blue Dragon.

When we first meet children, they are normally in the midst of a crisis. They might be locked into a brothel in China; or caught up in a pedophile ring in Hanoi; or trapped in a sweatshop in Ho Chi Minh City.

They may have been in this situation for weeks, or months, or years. They may have survived by adapting to a violent and hostile environment, or by learning to manipulate people around them as a defence mechanism. They may have become violent themselves.

When they finally can escape their crisis, that doesn't mean everything is fine now. Just because they are in a safe place doesn't automatically mean their problems are over.

At Blue Dragon, we see young people deal with their trauma in many different ways, and we are extremely fortunate to have two outstanding Vietnamese Psychologists working with us. Just recently I wrote about the incredible resilience we see in the young people we encounter; but of course not all of the Blue Dragon kids make quick recoveries.

For the kids we meet who have been through particularly tough times, such as sexual abuse, it's normal to see them struggle for up to a year: they'll stay with Blue Dragon for a while, then regress and go back to the streets before coming in again. Sometimes they repeat this several times before calming down.

Going back to school is particularly hard for many. Sitting in a room with strangers who have never been through the same life experiences; listening to a teacher who knows nothing of the horrors they have faced; learning about subjects that seem so abstract and useless against the recurring nightmares.

Anyone who has suffered through ongoing trauma can have a whole range of symptoms of stress that live on with them long after the crisis is over. A scent or sound can bring back a forgotten moment of terror. An innocent question or comment can result in sudden anger. Often there is no rhyme or reason to the way they will react to their new surrounds.

Healing is a process that needs time, professional help, and care. And then some more time.

Leaving behind the crisis is not the end of trauma. The scars to be dealt with are often invisible, but they are real.

As The Walking Dead reminds us, getting to a safe place is only the start of healing; the journey to real safety goes on much longer.