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.

Friday, March 27, 2015

News Roundup: March 2015

An occasional roundup of news stories about the issues impacting kids in Vietnam and around the world. This month, slavery has received significant media attention.

- Babies are advertised for sale online in China...

- ... and a film maker reflects on his own experience of human trafficking there.

- The rescue of a Vietnamese woman trafficked to China is described in this report.

- A British crackdown on human trafficking leads to the discovery of young Vietnamese women trafficked into beauty parlours.

- The Modern Slavery Bill is close to being passed as law in the UK.

- Cambodia continues to struggle with trafficking for forced labour and the sex trade.

- The Economist takes a look at slavery in supply chains.

- And this article explores the use of slavery in the fishing industry.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


"Hong" grew up in a small town on a high mountain in north-west Vietnam. She had never travelled far from home until the day one of her friends - a woman who lived just down the road - told her about a high-paying job as a mushroom farmer in China.

Hong was excited to have a job opportunity for the first time in her life. But much to her horror, there was no farming job at all: her "friend" had arranged to sell her to a Chinese family, where both the father and the son used her as their bride.

As difficult and terrifying as this life was for Hong, she succumbed to it until something even worse happened. She fell pregnant to one of the 2 men, and the family announced that they wanted her to abort the unborn child.

After all the pain and anguish that Hong had been through, this was too much; she decided that she wanted to have this baby, that her son or daughter should have a chance at life. In desperation, Hong cried out for help; the Blue Dragon Rescue Team went in to China, found Hong, and brought her home.

"Tuan" grew up in very different circumstances, but also with great hardship. He's now just 14 years old, but was orphaned as a child, grew up in central Vietnam in extreme poverty, and in 2013 went to work over 600km from home in a factory. He went because he thought he had no other choice.

Life was bleak at home, but it was worse in the factory, where he worked up to 18 hours a day in dreadful conditions. But then in 2014, Blue Dragon visited the factory where Tuan was working, learned his story, and brought him home.

How do young people like Tuan and Hong ever get their lives back on track? Is it even realistic to think that they might have a normal life again after experiences like these?

In all the time I have been in Vietnam, one of the constant surprises has been the resilience of the young people we meet. Despite the extraordinary hardships that they may be in at the time we first encounter them, many of the girls and boys make the most unlikely comebacks, and find a way to carry on with life.

Hong is living in her village once again, and is now the proud mother of a little boy. Her son, conceived in the worst of circumstances, has the most loving mother that any child could have. Blue Dragon has just built a house for Hong, as her own house was in great disrepair, and we are in contact with her just about every week. She's working from home, thanks to an inexpensive sewing machine, and has the support of her community. A visitor to her village would never guess the horror that Hong has lived through.

And young Tuan is also back on track. He's in Grade 5 now, living back in his village with an aunty, and he tells us that he loves studying art, IT and English. A couple of  weeks ago, he received a certificate from his provincial government for his graphic design work. How amazing is that!

Not every young person like Tuan or Hong is able to make such a comeback - some take many years to repair the damage that has been done to them, and some might never fully recover. But there is hope, strong hope, that kids who have been through the worst of the worst can still turn their lives around.

And if there is hope, then aren't we obliged to give them that chance?