Untamed goats

Our world is a wonderful, inspiring, horrible disaster.

In any one moment, we can see both the best and the worst of humanity. And the past week has given us all plenty to look at.

World politics has never been pleasant, and right at the moment it seems particularly nasty. Brexit is the prime example of this.

People voted for the UK to break away from the EU largely because they either thought they would get a terrifically well funded health system (a promise that was called a “mistake” the next day) or because they believed that they would be able to end immigration to England (which is both incorrect, and terribly inward-looking).

The very day after the referendum, people who voted ‘leave’ were quoted broadly across the media as regretting their choice and saying they didn’t think it would actually happen. So financial markets are in chaos, the EU is faced with a huge mess, and the UK is likely to suffer for many years to come – but a good number of people responsible didn’t actually mean it. Oops.

Politics in the US is more toxic than anyone can remember (a statement that nobody thought could be uttered again, given the Tea Party backlash against Obama a few years ago). And Australians appear to be on the verge of voting for the incumbent party despite it opposing any real measure at dealing with climate change or giving marriage equality to all people, and also despite the most tone-deaf campaign imaginable (if you’re not Australian, go to Twitter and look up #faketradie. And yes, I know that #faketradie turned out to be #realtradie, but that only made things worse, didn’t it?)

And this list is entirely anglo-centric. I’m not mentioning the children being killed in Syria, decades of extermination of humanity in North Korea, conflict in the East Sea…

It’s a pretty depressing list – if you let it be.

But here’s what I would prefer to think about.

On Friday, while Britain was waking up to an “Oh sh— what have we done?” morning, it was evening in Vietnam and 25 kids were gathering in the Blue Dragon centre.

Among them were girls and boys of all ages. Some were homeless until we met them and took them in. Some have no known family at all; and some have no family able or willing to look after them. Many have been labelled trouble makers, and yes a few may have seen the inside of a prison cell.

They came together of their own volition, for something they organised themselves: a martial arts class. It started with the teacher – a young man they found and approached themselves – grabbing everyone’s attention with his silence, dropping his voice to a near whisper, and telling the kids: “All we have in this life is our body, and it’s up to us to care for it.”

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While entire political systems behave like untamed goats, the kids of Blue Dragon chose to organise, focus, and learn something new.

It would be easy at this time to feel despair about our future. There’s plenty going wrong. But there’s plenty going right, too; and if we take a moment to reflect, much of the hope for our world rests in our young.

I don’t know if Britain will be able to turn things around any time soon; and I don’t know if the people of countries like the US or Australia will find a way to register their discontent without trashing their great nations. I don’t believe there’s any end to the wars around the world.

However, I do know that whatever happens, there is real hope for humanity in the people around us. Political systems won’t save us; that power is entirely within ourselves.

 

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Whole

On Sunday, Blue Dragon’s Rescue Team set free 4 children from slavery in sweatshops.

Two girls and two boys, aged 11 to 13, had been trafficked from their homes in central Vietnam 6 months ago. Living in extreme poverty in a rural village, their families were easily deceived when some kind women came to their home offering training and education in the big city to the south.

I can’t post photos showing their faces; if I did, you would not believe that they are aged 11 to 13. They are tiny.

But of course, when they actually got to Ho Chi Minh City there was no training and education. Just constant work in home-based garment factories, all day and well into the night, 7 days a week. There wasn’t even any salary: after all, this was “training.”

When we found them, they were tired, dirty and hungry. One of the boys has a bad cough and a bloody nose – he hasn’t had any medicine or a trip to the doctor. No care at all. The only concern has been whether his illness might slow down his productivity on the sewing machines.

Now the 4 children are safe. They spent Sunday night sightseeing through the city where they have been held captive, and on Monday they are heading home. Soon they will be back with their families, who we’ll support to re-enroll their children in school and see what else we can do to make their lives better. Things are looking good for a happy ending.

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Set free: Leaving the factory. 

And yet, a ‘happy ending’ is an odd thing. The children should never have been trafficked in the first place. Their families should never have had to make the decision to send away their children; they should never have had to face such hardship that this could even seem like a reasonable thing to do.

The 3 factories that enslaved the 4 children also should never have considered the idea of taking these little boys and girls away from their families, deceiving them into thinking they’d have a better chance in life, and then treating them like soulless machines.

Even if the story ends well, there’s something wrong with the world that any of this ever happened.

There are many wrongs in world, many crimes. It’s tough competition for the title of ‘the worst,’ but human trafficking surely is a contender. Trafficking a person – be it a child, woman or man – is forcing them into constant abuse. Trafficked people are not exploited several times; their lives are taken from them while they still live, and every breath belongs to someone they never chose to give it to. The damage done to the psyche is deep and long lasting.

As if that’s not enough, human trafficking impacts the natural world as well. These 4 children were being held in garment factories; do we think those factories upheld good standards of environmental protection? Did they have a sustainability policy, use renewable energy, and dispose of their waste thoughtfully? The hell they did. If they’re happy to exploit a child, they couldn’t care less about the earth.

This article, which appeared recently on CNN, makes the powerful point:

“If slavery were a country it would have a population of some 35 million people and the gross domestic product of Angola, in global terms a small and poor nation… [and] it would be the third largest emitter of CO2 (2.54 billion tons per year) in the world.”

Slavery is killing our world. It may be illegal in every country, but it thrives across the planet. This is a problem of ‘wholeness’; people, animals, and the whole of our world’s ecosystem are being damaged.

This is a problem for all of us, whether it happens in our backyard or not.

Today, 4 children are free from slavery. I hope that with some care and assistance, this terrible experience really will just become a memory. And for all those other children, teens and adults who are yet to be found: it’s our duty as humans to commit ourselves to setting them free, too.

There has to be a happy ending for many more people yet. The stakes are high; this is about saving the world.

 

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Deep impact

When I first met ‘Tan’, he was living wild on the streets of Hanoi. I don’t know if anybody had ever cared for him before; every instinct of his body was about survival.

Everyone Tan met was either afraid of him or loathed him – and often both. Even though he was only 12 or 13 years old, his rejection of all social boundaries, all rules, left people shocked. Little kids are supposed to be cute and playful; and when you meet homeless children and offer to help, they should be grateful. Tan didn’t fit the mold at all.

One of the Blue Dragon Social Workers, Vi, took Tan under his wing and spent about 18 months getting to know him. Tan would disappear for days or weeks on end, then turn up again covered in dirt and bruises. He would return from these absences as though nothing had happened at all; Tan was forever moving on. He truly lived in the moment.

Despite the harshness of his life, Tan’s spirit somehow kept an aura of innocence about it. You could see it in his eyes. He may have spent the night sleeping in a drain pipe, eating discarded bread, or scavenging along the river, but when he turned up the next day he would be wide-eyed and innocent. In so many ways he was just like any other child, except that years of fending for himself had given him a toughness that no child should have to develop.

A good friend of Blue Dragon, Vincent Baumont, managed to capture some film of Tan with Vi back in 2011 for a short documentary about life on the streets. The documentary is below; that’s Tan at the 30 second mark, smoking a cigarette.

 

Eventually Tan hopped on a train to the south, made it to Ho Chi Minh City, and didn’t come back. From time to time he would ring Vi – always from a different phone number – just to say hi and chat about nothing in particular.

Last week, Vi was in Ho Chi Minh City and caught up with Tan. He’s all grown up now; not only is he much taller, but he has become a young man in his own right. Tan has a job, and a home, and seems to have found his place in the world. As someone who has always had to fend for himself, there was never any question that he would be able to survive.

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So when they met, what did Tan want to talk about? All he had on his mind was the days he spent in Hanoi hanging out with Vi. He couldn’t stop talking about how much he valued their rides around the city, their meals by the roadside, their drinks at the tea stands. At the time I had no idea how deeply Vi was impacting Tan’s character and outlook on the world; but now, 5 years on, Tan thinks of nothing but how he once knew people who cared for him and loved him.

At the time we wondered if our time and energy meant anything at all to Tan. Now we know it meant everything.

If our work was to be measured only in terms of immediate outcomes and with quantifiable data, we would miss the most important part of all: the long term impact of one human caring for another. No matter how wild or dirty or outrageous we appear, we still all have the same fundamental need to be connected and valued.

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Old friends

Life at Blue Dragon is about constant change and growth.

I may see one of the kids every day for months, or even years, and eventually they move on to develop their life away from the safety of our centre. Just as parents feel the mix of joy and sorrow when their own children start becoming independent and move away from home, my team and I are in a perpetual flux with new kids coming in and – albeit much more slowly – the older kids heading out.

None leave us entirely, though, and this is one of the rewards of our work. While it can be hard to say goodbye, we never really have to. The children might move out of home, but they don’t leave the family.

This past weekend was spent catching up with old friends and reminiscing about days past. On Saturday night, a party for an American friend returning to Hanoi gave me a chance to sit with Doan and Tuan, two young men who once shone shoes on the streets of the ancient city but now work and live on the other side of town. Doan has a shop selling and repairing mobile phones; Tuan drives a rental car.

Although they both spent time at Blue Dragon in their teens, somehow they never met and so it was fascinating hearing them exchange stories of their experiences and encounters. I found it both amusing and completely understandable that the stories they told were quite sanitised: one of the guys (I’d better not say which!) had at least 3 run-ins with the law and I consider it one of my greatest personal achievements that he never ended up in prison.

More old friends turned up on Sunday; Kien came along to football although he lives in Ho Chi Minh City now, having followed his parents south when they moved for their work. He’s a much-loved player at Blue Dragon United and has been missed, so his return to Hanoi for the summer holidays has been a cause for celebration among his team mates.

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Sunday night, too, was a time to catch up with a young couple who are deeply in love but yet to turn 18. One works as a DJ, the other is training to be a chef. We laughed at photos and videos of the kids from when they were still tiny, from a time before life was so complicated. Both are having difficulty with their families and are desperate to escape from the negativity that they see in their homes; they just want to grow up and move out, and be in control of their own destinies.

Life itself is about change and growth. Life is a long story, and we can hardly ever guess at where the next chapter will begin, let alone how the story will end.

 

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