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Street kids in Vietnam
Updated: 2 days 13 hours ago
This weekend, two of the Blue Dragon boys are setting off on new and great journeys.
Duy Nam first joined Blue Dragon in our early days: August 2003. Nam was shining shoes near a television station when I met him, and he was so eager to climb out of poverty that he immediately joined Blue Dragon's football team. Despite living on the other side of the city, he would travel by bus every Sunday morning to arrive at the field by 8am and play before heading back to work.
Nam needed surgery, so we helped him with that and he returned with his mother to his family home to recover. It was almost a year later that Nam moved back to Hanoi to live in The Big Room, which was Blue Dragon's first home for street kids. He distinguished himself as the most hard working of all the kids we met, and also the wisest: the other children nick named him Tam Mao, after a wise character in Chinese mythology.
After some study, Nam went to work for Hanoi restauranter Donald Berger; and almost 10 years later, Nam is still working for Donald in the role of sous chef. He's 3rd in charge of one of Hanoi's finest restaurant kitchens, has won awards in Iron Chef, and this Sunday, Nam will marry.
This is a big wedding for Blue Dragon. Nam has such a long and strong history with us, and he's one of our best respected young people. I think the Blue Dragon team will be taking up a lot of space at the wedding party...
(And a note for non-Vietnamese... One of the traditions here is to take wedding photos before wedding day - hence the photo above!)
But meantime, we are saying farewell to another of the Blue Dragon boys who is heading oversees. We first met Can in 2006 in Saigon, where he was working on the streets as a flower seller. He's been with us since, although for 4 years he studied at Chatsworth International School in Singapore on an extremely generous scholarship.
Armed with an international education, Can has now been offered a full scholarship to study in Auckland, New Zealand, at NTEC. He will be studying a Business Management degree for at least 2 years, which means being away from home for a very long time.
Can flies tonight (Friday), so we're all taking time to say goodbye and wish him well. Tonight we'll head out to the airport to see him off, and a whole entourage of his friends will be there. He's very much loved.
Can's farewell party! (That's Can with the badge on his jacket)
I remember those early days of Blue Dragon, 10 long years ago, when we wondered if we really could help Vietnam's street kids to change their lives. Nam and Can seem to be an answer to that question. They are remarkable young people who just needed a helping hand to get out of crisis - and now they're flying!
In the last few weeks, Blue Dragon has been focused on intervening in human trafficking, particularly of children from Dien Bien province.
Dien Bien is a beautiful part of Vietnam, with diverse ethnic groups and beautiful scenery as far as the eye can see. But its remote location, mountainous geography, and endemic poverty make it a haven for traffickers looking to exploit children.
A common sight in Dien Bien: families living traditional lifestyles.
Blue Dragon's involvement in the province began just 2 years ago. Since then we have been involved in rescues of girls and young women trafficked for the sex trade, and both girls and boys trafficked to southern garment factories. Just a week ago we rescued 16 children, aged as young as 11, who had been enslaved in factories.
The youngest had been in the factories for 11 months. They hadn't set foot outside once.
The oldest, aged 16 or 17, had been there for up to 3.5 years. They too had not been allowed out. They were locked into upstairs workshops where nobody could see or hear them. It took Blue Dragon's anti-trafficking team weeks of searching to find the factories, and to be sure we had the right places.
Not only were the kids locked away, but they were denied contact with their families for the first 2 years of their 'employment'. After 2 years, they were allowed to talk to their parents on a mobile phone; but the traffickers were standing right there throughout the conversation, and the kids could only speak in Vietnamese. The children, however, are all from ethnic minority communities where Vietnamese is not their mother tongue. It's likely that their parents, on the other end of the phone, could hardly understand a word.
A trafficked boy returning home after 2 years.
And then this week Blue Dragon represented a young woman in court, also in Dien Bien, where her trafficker was charged and sentenced to 11 years in prison. The trafficker was a young woman, in her early 20s. Illiterate and poor, she heard that she could make some fast money by tricking girls into following her to the Chinese border, then handing them over to brothel owners on the other side. Blue Dragon was involved in the rescue of this young victim some months ago, and we were glad to see the case resolved with justice done.
The traffickers, brothel owners and factory owners all know that they're doing wrong. There's no question about that: they try to hide their activities and do their best to avoid detection. But when caught, they all have justifications for their actions.
Without fail, they insist that what they were doing isn't a big deal. If they didn't do it, someone else might. The kids were poor anyway, so maybe this was a better chance for them.
It's a sad insight into human nature that people do this. We do this. I can't imagine a dog trading its young, and yet the most intelligent creature on earth does.
But that's only half the story. The other half is the compassion and commitment of those who fight against trafficking: the parents who don't give up; the kids who rebound even after years of being locked up; the police who travel from one end of the country to the other to raid factories and catch traffickers.
One of the joys of being part of Blue Dragon is that, while we see the very worst human behaviour, we also see the very best. And the best of the best is the inspiring resilience of the young people who, time and again, get their lives back together and face the future with a bravery I cannot conceive.
The fight against human trafficking has a long way to go. But as long as there is some goodness in people, there's always a chance we will win.
Six months ago, 13 year old Tiep* thought that life had no hope.
Deceived by a trafficker pretending to have 'training opportunities' for disadvantaged youth, Tiep's parents agreed for him to leave home and learn a new skill, which they hoped would guarantee him a better life.
Instead, Tiep was taken over 2,000 km (1,200 miles) from home and put to work 16 hours a day in a small factory. There was no salary, no day off, and no training or education.
Blue Dragon found Tiep and took him home in July. It was immediately clear that his family's extreme poverty was the main reason they were vulnerable to trafficking: their family home was in ruins, and they had no money to repair it, let alone pay for their children's school fees.
Apart from helping Tiep home and supporting him to return to school, Blue Dragon agreed to rebuild their house. As the family belongs to the Thai ethnicity, we've had it built in the local style, and as of today the house is almost completed. In the coming week the floor will be finished and the electricity connected. Tiep and his family are thrilled!
But the best part has been seeing the whole community chip in to get the house built. The village has no money at all to contribute, so instead people have helped with the construction even though it's also harvesting time for most families. Some local government officials have been involved too, helping with the design and making sure we stick to budget. It's really been a 'whole village' effort.
Yesterday we had a small gathering to congratulate the family on their new home. Tiep's mother was close to tears as she told us that she never thought her children would have a proper roof over their heads.
What a delight to help this family get their lives back together.
* Not his real name