A long time

Late last week, Blue Dragon brought home a woman, “Binh,” who was trafficked from Vietnam to China 26 years ago.

The idea that someone could be enslaved for so long seems to defy understanding. We don’t yet know her full story, but we do know that when she was sold into a forced marriage at the start of the 1990s she already had a family here in Vietnam. Now in her 60s, Binh has spent almost half her life isolated from her own children, never knowing where they were or what had become of them.

Her chance to return home came about not because things got better, but because they got worse. Her husband became sick of her and threw her out of the house, leaving her to wander the streets begging for money. Only then did the Chinese police notice her and pick her up.

Binh returned to Vietnam with the Blue Dragon rescue team who were there looking for some other trafficked women, and she is already home with her family. There will be many difficult weeks and months ahead as this family heals, and they will be needing a lot of support to deal with the traumas they face.

Blue Dragon’s work is more commonly with the children who have been estranged from their parents than the other way around. We regularly work with young people who have been separated from their families for all sorts of reasons, and always at the start it seems unlikely that there can ever be a good outcome.

On many occasions we’ve met girls or boys on the streets of Hanoi who have been away from their family for years, or whose parents abandoned them at such a young age that a successful reunion seems simply impossible.

Since the start of this year, I’ve seen 3 of our teenage boys make contact with their mothers for the first time in many years. One had last seen his mother over 5 years ago; the other 2 boys were infants when their mothers left and they have no memory of her.

In each case, the mother left home to escape violence and abuse. But the children didn’t know that; they have grown up never knowing the truth and wondering why their mothers abandoned them.

And in each case, their reunion has shown them that in fact their mothers love them very much and have lived every day wishing they could be together. The long separation has never diminished their love.

Last night I spoke with one Blue Dragon boy, Cuong, who had just spoken on the phone with his mother after 15 years of not knowing where she was or why she had left. There was a new light in his eyes; it was as though he was feeling whole, suddenly confident in who he is and understanding his place in the world. Some of his questions are yet to be answered, but now he has reason to believe they will be.

Like the other 2 boys, and also like Binh, Cuong has a rough road ahead in addressing the many years of separation and loss. Time apart means that everyone has changed; there is no simple “Happily ever after” just because a family reunites after a long time apart.

The difference is that now they have hope. Even if the answers to their questions are not what they dream of, they have a way forward in life because they can finally address their past.





Thanh had a quiet life.

Aged 27, she worked in a Hanoi clothes shop. She had good friends, a decent salary, and every reason to think she would soon be married and starting her own family.

Until just over a month ago.

One of her friends in the shop came to her secretly with a great idea. Why did they have to work for someone else? Why not put their minds together and open their own shop, using the contacts they had made and the business knowledge they had picked up over the last few years?

It all made perfect sense. And her friend even knew of a company in China where they could buy the clothes from directly. By going there themselves, they could purchase all their stock and cut out the middle man.

Thanh was on her way to being an entrepreneur.

She and her friend – now her business partner! – set off to China for what should have been a couple of days. But her friend had no intention of starting a clothing shop. Instead, she had arranged for Thanh to be handed over to a trafficking ring as soon as they were across the border from Vietnam.

Thanh’s friend received $7000 USD in cash, then left immediately for home. For Thanh, an extraordinary nightmare was just beginning.

Her final destination was the northern provinces of Myanmar, where she was taken to a brothel and put to work under threat of her life. Thanh’s situation was terrifying – she had never imagined anything as horrific as this – and immediately knew she had to escape.

Thanh devoted herself to securing a mobile phone. Without one, her family back in Vietnam could never know where she was. Sometimes people trafficked from Vietnam wait for months before they can get their hands on a phone; Thanh had one in just weeks. Her life depended on it.

When the information reached Blue Dragon, we understood both the complexity and the urgency. Right at the moment we have at least 3 rescue operations taking place at any one time, and all are the highest priority.  At the same time that we learned of Thanh, we also learned of Ny, a young mother and her 5 year old daughter An, who had both been sold into China over 8 months ago. They were more than 3000km from the Vietnamese border, where they had been sold to a man for $15,000 USD. If not for her daughter, Ny would have already committed suicide. Now that she had a phone, just like Thanh she too had only a very short time before she would be found out and the line of communication would be cut.

And so we put into action rescue operations for Thanh, Ny, and 5 year old An.

We have never conducted a rescue in Myanmar, but were able to send someone to reach Thanh within a few days. Getting her into China was the first step, and it turned out to be the easiest. With no paperwork, the journey back towards the Vietnamese border was difficult and dangerous.

And then something happened that we have never before experienced: Thanh was separated from us by another trafficker during a lunch stop. She went to the bathroom, and simply disappeared.

Thanh had been kidnapped and re-trafficked.

Ny’s rescue was all under control; she was able to slip away from the family that had bought her and meet our rescue team with ease. Before long she and An were on their way toward the border, which took 3 days but was fairly free of drama. Ny held her breath the entire way, fearing that it was too good to be true. After 8 months as a prisoner, she could not believe that she was truly free until she was back in Vietnam.

As Ny and her girl headed home, Thanh’s whereabouts was a mystery. Someone had been looking for her and intervened; we found out later that they had intercepted her, forced her into a car, and took her to a nearby brothel, where they sold her for another $2000 USD. Thanh’s temporary freedom had now turned back into a new hell.

It took us 2 days but we found Thanh again, and just as they took her from us, we took her right back.

Thanh, Ny and An made it back to the border at about the same time, and are now in safe houses while making statements to the police. Blue Dragon’s Psychologists and Social Workers are looking after them as they spend these first few days as free people: able to sleep through the night, able to eat when they are hungry, able to shut the door and keep the world at bay.

They have been through weeks and months that most of us can not imagine. Denied their freedom, living in constant terror, betrayed by those they trusted.

Now they are back. New life starts today.






Sometimes I find it hard to explain what Blue Dragon does.

We started out, back in 2003, as a group of friends in Hanoi running English classes for street kids. Soon after we took the classes to a football field, where our long-running soccer team began. (Just last summer we played our 2000th game).

Then we opened a shelter; then a drop-in centre. Then we found ourselves in a position to help a child who had been trafficked and sold, and so we started what would be the first of hundreds of rescues – so far.

We’re not an orphanage, although we certainly care for orphans; and we’re not a school, even though we have teachers and classrooms and have put thousands of kids through schooling and university.

And while we started out helping street kids who were shining shoes to earn money, as the situation in Hanoi changed we later found ourselves working with street gangs, and then with underage boys who were caught up in sex trafficking.

From a marketing perspective, Blue Dragon can be hard to get a handle on. But we’ve never been in it for the marketing; from the start we’ve been here to take on the challenges that have needed us.

As you can imagine, this leads us down some pretty interesting paths. This week, one of those new paths opened up to us.

Back in January, the police in Hanoi arrested a man for sexually abusing children; he’s a man long known to us, and his prosecution, if successful, will mean that the streets of the city are much safer for homeless kids. A twist in the case was that in 2015 this man was attacked by 2 teenage boys who claim that they were his victims; they beat him almost to death in a fit of rage after he allegedly sexually assaulted them, and for their crime they have each been sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.

The boys lodged an appeal against their sentence but in reality held little hope. The arrest of their victim, however, changes that. Their sentence will stand, but now there are clearly some extenuating circumstances which give renewed hope for a reduction in their punishment.

Blue Dragon’s Chief Lawyer traveled out to the prison to meet them during the week. You can imagine the surprise the boys must feel: the man who they say abused them is now in custody and out of the blue they have a lawyer to represent them in court for free. For the first time in a long time, they have some reason to hope.

Vietnamese law currently doesn’t allow prisoners to have contact with relatives while they have an appeal outstanding, so these 2 boys haven’t seen their families in a very long time. When our lawyer met them on Thursday, they handed him a gift that they had made for their mothers: delicately knitted flowers, which have clearly taken dozens of hours to create. They can’t send a written message, so instead they wanted to send a sign of their love.

The boys deeply regret what they did and wish they could change the way their lives have turned out. That’s something Blue Dragon can’t help with, but we can help them here and now. We can make sure their appeal has a decent chance in court, and we can get those knitted flowers to their devastated mothers.

So this is what Blue Dragon does: we do whatever it takes. For these 2 kids, that means a reason to hope.

Even though it won’t take away the damage that has been done to their lives, this is a hope that was unimaginable just a few days ago.