Bricks and mortar

Tin was 13 when she dropped out of school.

It wasn’t that she disliked school; in fact she loved to study and was a good student. But living up in the mountains, in a remote ethnic community, meant that getting to school was an ordeal. She couldn’t travel to and from every day; it would take at least 2 hours each way, and that was in good weather.

Her only chance to stay in school was to move away from home and live in a shared room near the school. The room was a mud hut without electricity; boys and girls of all ages lived together, with no adults looking after them, and all the kids had to fend for themselves.

Apart from the fact that Tin’s family couldn’t afford to provide her with her own supply of rice, bedding, and school gear, she was too shy to live in a shared dorm like this.

Tin’s story is not unusual. While Vietnam’s cities are booming along, the rural regions of the country are struggling to get ahead. Children who drop out of school, for whatever reason, are easy prey for human traffickers, who promise to provide education and training, but then sell the children into slavery. For kids like Tin, there are few good options.

And so, in partnership with an Australian-Vietnamese food chain, Blue Dragon is looking at creating some choices. We’re working with Roll’d to build a boarding home in Mun Chung, a village in Vietnam’s north-western province of Dien Bien. The home will be on the grounds of a secondary school and, along with renovation to some existing structures on the school grounds, will mean that 150 children have a safe place to stay while they go to school – with supervision from teachers, and with the care and nutrition they need to stay healthy.

It will mean that little Tin can go back to school.

Construction has already begun, and Blue Dragon’s Facebook page will run some stories in the coming weeks and months to report on our progress. The plan is for the boarding home to be ready by the time the new school year begins in September.


I don’t often get excited about bricks and mortar, but I know that this will make a huge difference for the children of Mun Chung. And more kids going to school means less kids vulnerable to human traffickers.

I can’t wait for the grand opening!

Ode to Joy, and Sorrow

Mr Triem dropped by the Blue Dragon centre in Hanoi on Friday afternoon with an invitation.

A renowned pianist, Mr Triem and his soprano wife Xuan Thanh have retired from public life and spend their days teaching the Hope Choir, a band of blind students who over the years have performed for visiting dignitaries – including Bill Clinton – as well as countless charity events around the city.

Triem and Xuan Thanh are an extraordinary couple. As someone with no musical talent whatsoever, I marvel at the magic they conjure on the stage; and even more of a mystery is how they develop the talent of the young people they work with.

They had organised a small event at a local school for blind children on Saturday, in honour of the upcoming Day for People With Disabilities. There were more chorists than audience members, and we gathered in what appeared to be an abandoned sports room at the back of the school. But with Mr Triem on piano, a few blind performers on traditional instruments, and Xuan Thanh leading the choir, I spent almost 2 hours in a musical trance.

Two Blue Dragon girls are among the choristers; Giang and Thuy, who stood side by side, holding hands as they lifted their voices to the sky. Giang was born blind, and has just finished her law degree; Thuy lost her sight around the age of 10 so was out of school a few years before going back and is yet to complete her studies. Both have incredibly difficult lives, and watching them perform famous Italian, French, Swedish, Australian (Waltzing Matilda, no less!), Venezualan,  Russian, American and, naturally, Vietnamese songs was an uplifting way to spend Saturday afternoon.

Most moving of all was their rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. It’s a powerful enough piece of music in itself; somehow it becomes even more inspiring when sung by blind Vietnamese kids led by retired performers who once commanded international audiences – and all in an abandoned sports room.

The Ode was particularly stirring for me because, as I sat absorbed, I knew my team in Hue province were dealing with a very deep sorrow. One of our girls in the province, a 13 year old named Phuong, drowned on Thursday while swimming in the beach with her friends.

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Truong Thi Bich Phuong lived near the sea with her grandparents. Her own father died years ago, and her mother has been living and working in Laos. Blue Dragon has been making sure little Phuong could continue at school and supporting her socially through our community centre in her village. She was a bright girl, and dreamt of becoming a teacher when she grew up. Her loss is a tremendous shock to her family and her community, and also to my staff who saw her as their little sister.

On Saturday afternoon the staff went to visit Phuong’s home again and spend time with her mother, who they hardly knew but has returned from Laos, distraught with grief and torn with regret at having been working so far from her only child.

Life is an ode to joy, but it is also an ode to sorrow. It seems we can not have the one without the other.

Rest in peace, Phuong, and live long in our memories.

The cool kids

Thuan has a new piercing this week. He saved up money from his part time job and went down to the parlour around the corner from Blue Dragon.

Like some other teens from our Hanoi centre, he now has multiple earrings, a few tattoos, and his hair is dyed another colour every other day. It’s all very inexpensive – the kids do much of this “self renovation” work themselves – but the result is incredibly cool.

Trang doesn’t have any piercings, but she has defined herself through movement. In just a few short years, she has transformed from a girl who hung out on the city’s streets playing and fighting every night, to a dancer with a particular focus on hip hop. On the stage, she has a gleam of determination in her eyes and a massive smile that lights up the room.

Thuan and Trang are typical at Blue Dragon; at least, ‘typical’ insofar as they have cultivated their own identity and found their own special place to be. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they are as different as everyone else.

Kids come to Blue Dragon because of trauma. The first time they walk through our gates, they are entering with fear and pain and trepidation. It’s not the lucky kids who come to us; it’s the kids whose lives have fallen apart.

Some have been sold into slavery. Some have been abandoned by their families and left to fend for themselves. Some have run away from homes where nobody loved them or knew how to care for them.

But visitors to our centre don’t see poor, miserable little children with puppy dog eyes. They see kids who are into dance, or theatre, or art, or music. Some of our kids just want to study – we have about 70 young people in college or university right at the moment. Some just want to play. Lots have no idea what they want, and need time to figure it out.

This is something I love about working with the Blue Dragon kids: where ever they come from and whatever has happened in their lives before we meet them, they are not defined by that. While their past may always impact on their future, it doesn’t have to hold them down. With someone to care for them, and a place where they can explore and be safe, they can be the cool kids too.

I may not always like the kids’ decisions to get another piercing or another tattoo, but I understand their need to control their own destinies and make their own choices. Watching them grow from tired, frightened victims into empowered, confident young men and women reminds me every day of all the good there is in our world.

The ‘R’ word

Among charities that work in the field of human trafficking, there’s a particular word which is considered highly contentious.

My own organisation, Blue Dragon, started using the word 10 years ago. I didn’t even know that there was controversy around its use.

The word? Rescue.

It’s controversial for some good reasons. In places, organisations have ‘rescued’ people who didn’t want to be rescued, or used it as a euphemism for ‘imprison’. There are stories of NGOs raiding brothels or night clubs and taking out adult sex workers who didn’t consider themselves slaves, and keeping them in ‘safe houses’ against their will.

In light of such incidents, ‘rescue’ has been branded by some as a dirty word. But I still believe that rescue work is a critical tool in the fight against human trafficking.

It was 10 years ago, in April 2006, that Blue Dragon conducted our first ‘rescue operation’. We travelled from Hanoi, in Vietnam’s north where we are based, to Hue in central Vietnam to talk to parents whose children had been taken to work in Ho Chi Minh City, in the south of the country. The parents had been told that their children were going to study, but they were not; they had been taken to sell flowers on the streets or work in garment factories. They were slave labour: unpaid, working up to 14-18 hours per day, and threatened with violence if they objected.

When presented with the facts of what was happening to their children, the parents asked us to find them and bring them home. The traffickers tried to stop us, so we took the children in the face of aggression.

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Meeting with parents in rural Vietnam to talk about child trafficking

Ten years on, when we conduct such work we normally have police or government officials by our side, but either way we are rescuing children from slavery. There’s no other word to describe it. The kids have been trapped and held against their will; we find them and get them to safety. That’s a ‘rescue’.

While we have rescued over 400 girls and boys from slavery within Vietnam, Blue Dragon is probably better known for the rescue of over 120 girls and women trafficked from Vietnam to China. Again, the convention is to avoid using the ‘R’ word, but ‘the Big R’ is exactly what we do.

My staff receive calls for help from girls and women who have been duped into travelling to China. The trafficker is normally known to the victim: a boyfriend, a neighbour, a family friend. These are not women who have wanted to go to work in a Chinese brothel and then changed their mind; they are sold against their will, and call for help at the first opportunity. Blue Dragon staff locate them, and then either work with Chinese authorities to set them free, or find another way to help the trapped person escape and run for their lives back to the border.

Vietnamese women are not only being sold into brothels; there is also a significant market in selling women as brides. The buyers tend to be Chinese men living in remote rural areas. Last year alone we rescued 35 such women who called for help after being trafficked and sold as someone’s wife.

One problem with the ‘rescue’ word is that it has emotive connotations, and the world of international development prefers to use a more academic and passive language. I understand that concern; but the truth is that rescues are powerful and, yes, emotional events. Conducting a rescue involves weeks of slow and deliberate planning; sometimes days of tedious travel and search; many hours of heart-pounding terror as the rescue plan is enacted; and finally the intense joy of being set free after months or years of captivity.

So I acknowledge all the problems with the ‘R’ word but I won’t be shying away from it any time soon. If we are to make any inroads against human trafficking, it’s not enough just to raise awareness and ‘build capacity’. People who have been trafficked deserve to have their calls for help answered. There is very great need for more rescue work to be done, and we should never be apologetic for that.

If only

Ton and Viet are neighbours in a village about two hours drive from Hanoi. The roads turn into alleys and then into dirt tracks, winding through the hills towards the quiet settlement that they call home.

Both boys are aged 15 now. Both are the only child in their family; both have grown up with just their mother; and both live in houses so dilapidated that they are beyond being fit for any person to inhabit.

With all this in common, both boys ran away from home together more than a year ago, and both found themselves targets of pedophile rings in Vietnam’s capital city.

Ton had been to Hanoi before. He had lived on one of the city’s bridges, surviving by scavenging at night and hanging out with gangs of teens who live by stealing. When he fell afoul of one of the gangs, he was beaten almost to death and left, bleeding and naked, by the river. He was just 13 then. One of the Blue Dragon social workers found him, took him to hospital, and nursed him back to health.

Eventually Ton went home, but his self esteem was through the floor. Home life was miserable: in a house with no electricity, no comforts to speak of, and holes in the wall, he was embarrassed to mix with other kids his age. Only Viet, living down the road, could share his feelings, and so it’s no surprise that they made a plan to run away together. They dreamt of excitement and a better life, as teens do.

The predators in Hanoi have their tentacles everywhere; they are constantly on the lookout for new kids, both girls and boys, arriving in the city and in need of cash. Fuelled by their sense of worthlessness, Ton and Viet succumbed to the offers of money and, over the course of a year, became the disposable playthings of dozens of men, both Vietnamese and foreign, who would pay them from $1 to $10 for sex in parks, hotels, and houses.

Some kids who experience this abuse feel compelled to find an escape as soon as they can. Others, like Ton and Viet, just give up all hope and let it happen. They allow themselves to be exploited, seeing it as a punishment they deserve to suffer. They ‘work’ for a few hours at night until they have enough money to last the next day, and drown out the pain with meth and computer games.

My staff at Blue Dragon spent many months caring for Ton and Viet before they would agree to receive our help. Social workers would meet them at the parks, or go to the internet cafes where they slept, and invite them out for a meal. Building trust took a long time, and critical to our approach was showing the boys that we would not judge them, no matter what they did.

Finally Ton and Viet agreed to go back to see their mothers. Ly, one of our social workers, and I traveled with them, doing our best to allay their apprehension at going home.

Sitting in Viet’s tiny, half-collapsed house, Ly put into words the feeling I had in my heart: “If only someone had helped these children a few years ago, maybe they would never have run away from home… And maybe none of this would have happened to them.”

Her thought was simple, yet profound. If only. All of this mess that has engulfed their lives could well have been avoided. If only someone had cared.

Ton and Viet are doing well now. They have worked hard to break out of the cycle of abuse they were caught up in. I don’t know how they have found the strength to do so, but their progress has been remarkable. I see them fairly regularly and they are adjusting as best they can to a ‘post-exploitation’ life.

And yet I can’t get it out of my mind: If only. How different their lives could have been.

We can’t change the past. If we could, Ton and Viet might now have very different lives. But for these 2 kids, it’s too late. The damage has been done.

It’s not too late, though, for someone else. There are so many young people out there, in Vietnam and throughout our world, who desperately need someone to care for them before disaster strikes. It’s not too late to prevent a similar cycle of abuse for another boy or girl who is living in misery and dreaming that life could be better.

We can’t allow more children to be trapped like Ton and Viet because the alternatives seem no better. We can’t allow ourselves to say “If only” for any more children.