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.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The muddy road


Street kids in Hanoi generally have one thing in common: They are not from Hanoi.

Over the past 11 years of meeting street kids, only a handful have been from this city. Almost all are from the countryside, leaving behind rural poverty with the dream of a better life in the big city. 

And so an essential part of Blue Dragon's work involves taking kids home to their families. We can sometimes call families in to meet us in Hanoi, but more often we need to travel with the children out to rural villages. 

Don't make the mistake of thinking these are fun trips out to quaint vineyards, or scenic tourist trips that Blue Dragon staff love to take. The kids we meet on the streets of the city are invariably from extremely poor families in extremely poor communities. And getting there can be a serious challenge.

Yesterday (Tuesday) one of the Blue Dragon team traveled out to Lang Son province with a boy, "Thuy," who we met on the streets but has been living in our Shelter for about a year. His relationship with his father is complicated, to put it nicely.

Little Thuy, aged about 13, has been dealing with some inner turmoil of late. He desperately wants to be able to live at home again, but deep down knows it's not possible. Dad has too many of his own demons to battle; raising a child is simply beyond him. But still, Thuy needed to see his father, and so we went.

A few years back some great friends helped Blue Dragon buy a car for just this sort of trip. We're incredibly lucky to have it. However, as with many similar trips, the car isn't enough to get us where we're going. Quite a bit of walking was also involved.

 Here's why:

There are just some bridges that no car can cross!

And after the bridge there was this: 

Lots, and lots, of mud. Followed by more mud.

At the end of the muddy road, we reached the family home. 

Thuy was nervous about seeing his father - his last trip home ended very badly - but having a Social Worker alongside him made all the difference. At the end of the day, Thuy decided to spend the night at home and return to Hanoi by bus.

Among the Blue Dragon team we laugh about the impassable roads that we face on these reunion journeys. There's something symbolic, though, in the great struggles that we face in order to return to the family home. It's never easy: not for the kids and not for the staff. Certainly not for the Blue Dragon car. But at the end of a long and difficult journey there is a reward, or at least the hope of one, and the chance for a family to make a new start.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

First day back

The Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday already seems like ancient history, even though it ended just a couple of weeks ago. But the Year of the Horse is off to a swift start, and I can see that this will be a big year for Blue Dragon.

- The exploitation of street kids in Hanoi stands out as the most pressing problem we face right now. There's a growing group of adults, both men and women, who seem to think that homeless kids are 'fair game': that they are there for exploitation and abuse without consequence. I'll be writing more about this in coming months, and I am looking forward to proving that there are indeed consequences for exploiting homeless kids. Stay tuned.

- Two trafficking cases have come to us already, and we are still in the investigation stage so I can't say too much. While it could be disheartening that trafficking is so common, there's great encouragement in the fact that both regular citizens and government agencies are so active and involved in finding, reporting, and resolving trafficking cases. During the coming year, I hope to post plenty of stories of successful rescues and the arrest of lots of traffickers.

And although these are big issues, the greatest satisfaction as always is in the stories of the kids: the individual girls and boys whose lives we touch and transform every day.

One of the Blue Dragon boys, "H," has just returned to school after 6 months. He's been living on the streets, in and out of trouble, on the run from a family that doesn't know how to care for him. 

Aged 13, H simply doesn't know how to manage his own behaviour or make good decisions; he's been like an explorer without a compass, wandering alone and making his own way.

Shortly before Tet he meet the Blue Dragon Outreach Team who took him in and gave him a place to stay while he works out what he's going to do. Now that he's back at school, he has moved into our Shelter to live with other kids just like himself.

Going back to school after surviving on the streets is no easy matter. It's hard for a teenager who has had freedom to roam at will, make fast money and live for the moment to suddenly start complying with the endless rules and regulations of Vietnamese school.

When H first went to the school to ask to join a class, one of the teachers grabbed a pair of scissors and cut his fringe - right in front of a Blue Dragon Social Worker! The poor little guy was devastated to see his beloved long hair stolen away like that.

It seemed that his hair was simply too long according to school regulations. I was so excited that he was simply prepared to return to school, but the reality was that his commitment to study was not enough. He also needed short hair.

Despite that unnecessarily rocky start, H has had his first day back at school, and was still smiling at the end of it. That's a huge success.

Will he get through another day? That remains to be seen. I think it's best to accept the small victories as they come, and H's first day back at school is something I can definitely celebrate.

Friday, January 24, 2014

This is how we do it

The weeks leading up to Lunar New Year (just 6 days to go!) are all about celebration and festivity. As they should be!

But at Blue Dragon, we also have an eye on something a little more serious... Because the weeks after Tet are prime time for child trafficking.

When all the kids are still at home, and families have exhausted their meager savings for the holiday period, and the economy goes through a slump, human traffickers roam impoverished villages selling their 'snake oil'.

They offer 'vocational training' but in reality just want vulnerable children to slave away in their factories. They offer sweeteners to families, such as a $50 'advance' which in effect means the family enters debt bondage and is unable to see their children again until the end of a 2 year contract - at best.

To counter this, Blue Dragon staff have been spending time talking to families, community members, and officials to let them know the reality of life for trafficked kids.

One such meeting, in a village in rural Hue province in the centre of Vietnam, gathered about 30 people together last weekend. A local official who has traveled with Blue Dragon to look for trafficked children recounted his own experience of going into squalid factories and finding children asleep at sewing machines, or working through the night, and crying with relief at the news that they were finally allowed to go home.

These meetings are small scale, but word quickly spreads through the villages, and the impact is profound. When community members hear first hand stories of what happens to their children who are taken away from home, they resolve immediately to never let it happen to their own family. And once a few families start talking about how bad it is to send children away, the whole culture of the village changes very quickly.

Child by child, family by family, village by village, district by district. This is how Blue Dragon is working to end the trafficking of children into the garment industry.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Biggest night of the year

In January every year, Blue Dragon in Hanoi organizes an event that we call the Tet Awards. It’s a night of celebration, games and fun to put the spotlight on each and every girl and boy who belongs to the Blue Dragon family.

Last week we held the 9th Awards Night, with more than 400 children in attendance, as well as family members and friends from the community. It was great to welcome the Ambassadors of Australia and New Zealand, and friends and supporters from local business and the Hanoi International Women’s Club.

In short: it was another amazing Tet Awards. The performances by children and staff were both touching and entertaining. Some of the kids who got up and danced have had the most horrendous time in the past year – and some have had whole lifetimes of trouble. But none of that mattered on the night. It was all about celebration.

Here are a few photos to give a glimpse into what Tet Awards is all about. And next year will be the big Number Ten… somehow we need to come up with something that will be even greater!

Kids and family members arrived early... 

The face painting was a blast! 

Through the night, kids with outstanding achievements received a Special Award...

Children and staff performed together...

... and at the end of the night, everybody wanted their photo taken! 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The workplace

On Tuesday this week, Blue Dragon found a nondescript house in Ho Chi Minh City where 3 teenage girls, all from ethnic minority communities in north-west Vietnam, were being forced to work against their will, for no salary.

Locating this house was the result of weeks of detective work. Our breakthrough was in meeting some children in a remote village who had been enslaved in this garment factory themselves, and had escaped; they could give us enough of a description of the street that after 2 days of searching we were pretty sure we had the right place.

"Pretty sure" isn't a great starting point for a raid on a home, and the factory owner had gone to great lengths to conceal his crimes. When the Vietnamese anti-trafficking police searched the building, they finally found the girls locked into a closet, terrified into silence and stunned to learn that we had come to set them free.

As you can imagine, the girls were hugely relieved to finally have a ray of hope. The had been locked in to the building for 11 months, allowed out just once a week under strict supervision. During their time at the factory, they were never paid, never allowed to call home, and a typical working day was at least 14 hours long.

The upstairs room where 3 girls lived and worked for 11 months

The girls are now on their way home; a journey of more than 2000km. Their reunion is sure to be a very happy one.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

New year, new house

Here's some good news to start the new year.

When Blue Dragon found 13 year old Lanh enslaved in a garment factory and brought him home, we were shocked to see the state of his family home. It wasn't just a little run down; it was barely habitable.

Bringing trafficked children home is not the end of our work or our responsibility. Home has to be a safe place; it has to be a place that the kids want to be. We can't just drop the kids off and hope things work out better for them. We have to make sure things will be better.

And so we put out a call for help to a group of friends and volunteers in Sydney, who call themselves the Blue Water Dragons. They responded by raising the money - about $2500 -  to completely renovate Lanh's house and make it a home that the family could be proud of and comfortable in.

Here's the "Before"...

Front view of the house. 

The front room - with Blue Dragon staff visiting.

The rear of the house...

 ... and this was the kitchen.

And here's the "After." Spot the difference?? 

The new front view

The front room - now with a proper floor!

Interior view

And a new kitchen!

Lanh's home is looking great, and it's all ready in time for the Lunar New Year (Tet) which is coming soon. This is one very happy family.

Here's to hoping we can do the same for many more families in need this year! And a huge THANKS to the Blue Water Dragons for making this possible.

Monday, January 06, 2014

A New Year's Resolution

2014 marks the beginning of Blue Dragon's 10th 'birthday'. Sort of.

We started in late 2002, as a few volunteers helping out some street kids in our spare time. During 2003, we got serious about becoming organised and finding ways to help for the long term. We started the soccer team - originally Real Betis Vietnam, and now Blue Dragon United - and also started our first shelter, a boys' home called The Big Room.

But it was in 2004 that we became 'officially' recognised as an NGO (ie a registered charity) both in Australia and Vietnam. So in a sense, this will be our 10th year.

During our first few years, we faced considerable opposition. Some organisations and NGOs were great, spending time advising and supporting us. Education For Development, Catholic Relief Services, and the New Zealand Embassy were particularly helpful in those first months and years.

But surprisingly, some organisations and people were outright negative. "You don't know what you're doing," they'd say. "You have no track record. You're not an expert."

I don't disagree with them. In some ways, they were right: those of us who started Blue Dragon had very little experience in working with charities, and no experience at all in setting up or running an organisation.

And yet, looking back on this time, here's my conclusion: Our lack of knowledge and experience turned out to be our greatest strength.

We weren't afraid to try something that others thought would fail. We weren't afraid to 'roll the dice' and give something a shot, no matter how unlikely a good outcome seemed.

We didn't start with plans and budgets and setting up bureacracy. We just got in there and helped, and let the money and the administration catch up later.

One example: in 2005, we started tackling the issue of domestic trafficking - ie the trafficking of children within Vietnam for labour exploitation - before it was recognised by the law, and before any other organisation (that we know of!) was dealing with it. We found kids who had been trafficked to work on the streets or in factories, and we took them home. What was once a little-known issue is now a well known problem which provincial governments are working to address. Blue Dragon played a key role in creating that change.

Ten years down the track, Blue Dragon is significantly larger. We have over 1500 kids in our care. We have social workers, lawyers, teachers and psychologists working together on cases throughout the country, and sometimes in China as well. We've rescued more than 300 trafficked kids and helped about 2700 kids attend school. Nobody can accuse us now of not knowing what we're doing.

But do we still have that same drive and passion as ten years ago? Are we still bold enough to take the risks?

The danger, as Blue Dragon grows older and wiser, is that we become inward looking and self serving. We've taken so many blows; why not now take it easy? Deal with some simpler cases?

Last year in particular was a tough one, as I wrote about here: The Year of the Crisis. We focused heavily on finding and helping kids in serious danger: street kids vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and young people trafficked for labour and sex. We achieved some great results, but the cost was a year of incredible stress for my team.

And so, what of the year to come?

The start of a new year is a time for resolutions and dreams. As Blue Dragon enters its "official" 10th year, those pronouncements hold an even more important symbolic value.

My resolution is this:

To never be complacent. To stay hungry and determined. To keep pushing the limits, trying new ways to help kids in crisis, getting out of our organisational comfort zone and being where we need to be.

This will be a year for innovation rather than 'more of the same.' We will make great progress in the fight against human trafficking, and we will make sure that Hanoi's street kids are safer for our presence.

And I look forward to sharing the journey with you right here on the blog.