Pet projects

When I first met Son, he struck me as an intelligent, empathetic boy who had an unusually well developed combination of empathy and leadership skills.

Later, when I learned that he had a long history as a gang leader, I was initially surprised, although I probably shouldn’t have been. All of the qualities that served him so well in the Blue Dragon shelter – his ability to get along with others, his can-do attitude, his integrity – ensured his success out on the streets.

Son was 15 then, and is now a terrific 19 year old young man. He works in a bar, he lives in a rented room, and Blue Dragon is helping out just a little as he transitions to full independence.

He’s also one of the lucky kids who has found his passion in life: dogs. Son has undertaken a dog training course and has been raising several dogs, including his own and those of some friends. In fact, the story is that he landed his job in a bar when, during the interview, the bar owner’s dog walked into the room and leapt straight onto Son’s lap. The dog almost never takes well to strangers, but instinctively knew that Son was trustworthy – so the owner offered him the job on the spot!

Son’s love of dogs has filled the void left from his old gang days; working with dogs gives him an important role to play, and uses all of his natural talent for leadership and decision making.

And even more than that: the dogs give him an unconditional love, as any dog owner will know. I have two dogs myself; Tuesday marks the 11th year since one of the two dogs first joined my family, and my other dog is a year older again. So I totally get the joy that Son finds in working and playing with his dogs, and why he dreams of building a career around his love for them.

Talking to people about Blue Dragon’s philosophy of caring for children, I often make the point that every child should be the centre of somebody’s universe.

For Son, holding the responsible position of a dog owner means that he also has the unbound love of a 4 legged friend to remind him daily of how important he is. Perhaps that’s something we all need.


Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

Dying of regret

Sot’s every word is labored. His breathing is shallow and he coughs each time he pauses. He’s barely 22 years old, and he’s facing the prospect of dying very soon.

We sit in a café, and we talk about life. There is still hope for Sot; medication might yet clear up his lungs, which are wracked with tuberculosis, but the future is deeply uncertain.

The medicine is subsidized but visits to the hospital are not free. His doctor at the hospital has tried in the past to hold back some of Sot’s medicine; without a social worker to stand up for him, Sot will be robbed of the treatment he needs. And in this state, there is no way that Sot can work. As an orphan, he has nobody to care for him. He has some relatives who let him stay in their house, but they resent him and see him as bringing bad luck to the family.

In short, Sot is going to need a lot of help.

Vietnam has little welfare to offer a young adult like Sot. Generally people will be cared for by their extended family, and that works very well – so long as your family unit is strong.

Most of the people we meet here at Blue Dragon are not from strong families. Those we see every day, like Sot, have grown up without love or care, or have encountered some crisis along the way that has separated them from safety.

Sot grew up grieving his parents, knowing that his relatives saw him as somehow cursed. He saw little hope for a thriving, happy future.

We first met Sot as a young teen. He came along to play soccer with Blue Dragon United one Sunday morning, and over the years we got to know him and become a part of his life.

Along the way, Sot took some bad turns. He joined a gang that was exploiting younger children; he turned away from Blue Dragon and started profiting from other people’s misery, preferring the excitement and fast money of the gang over the care we offered.

At times he would be caught by police but managed to wiggle out of trouble and carry on. Infuriatingly, he would call other children from Blue Dragon to also follow him, and several left our centre to also start lives of petty crime and exploitation. Many children were terrified of him, and would obey him just to avoid his wrath.

Sot has been part of the Blue Dragon family, and he has followed the more exciting path that gangs offer. Now his life is in disarray and he knows that he could be dead within months.

In recent weeks, Sot has reached out to us after a long silence. He hasn’t asked for anything, but he has wanted to reconnect. Sometimes it takes a major crisis in life to really know who your friends are, who is there for you when you are in need. The gang sure hasn’t been there for Sot; realizing he is no use to them, they’ve turned away. And Sot is glad of this, because he has grown to see that they never cared anyway.

A nagging voice deep in the back of his mind has been whispering to him for years that what he’s been doing has not been right. He knows it, and when he thinks back to his teenage years in Blue Dragon he can see that this was the only time he has ever truly been happy and known he was valued.

Deciding to help Sot through his illness has not been easy for us. He’s done damage to people we care for. He has caused harm, led children astray, stood in the way of us caring for homeless kids.

But his sickness has brought a clarity to life, and Sot regrets the path he chose. Now as he stares down at his frail hands, he just hopes for another chance to get things right.


Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

A whole world to fix

Trang had a good, steady job.

She earned enough in the local fish processing plant to look after herself and her 2 sons; while she wasn’t rich by any measure, she was able to get by and she was proud of her small family.

When an environmental catastrophe hit north-central Vietnam in 2016, caused by a major steel mill discharging poison into the ocean, Trang’s job was among the first to go. With 200 km (125 miles) of coastline contaminated, all sealife in the region was devastated. There were simply no more fish to process, and Trang was suddenly unemployed.

With mouths to feed and bills to pay, Trang was deeply worried. It was a huge relief when she met a man who happened to know of a footwear factory that was recruiting, and paying $500 a month. Unfortunately the factory was in China, which would mean she had to leave her children with her own mother, but Trang figured she could work there for a few months and then come back to find another job closer to home.

Except, of course, that there was no footwear factory and no $500 a month. Trang had been deceived by a human trafficker, who had a client in China waiting; a single man in need of a wife.

Trang was held against her will by this man for almost 2 years before she could call for help. Blue Dragon responded and went to find her, bringing her home to the children she so deeply loved.

We tend to think of human trafficking as being caused by poverty, or by a lack of education. In reality, the causes of trafficking are many and complex. Simple ‘awareness raising’ isn’t enough because trafficking is so intertwined with many other issues.

As Trang’s story highlights, the environment matters. Changes to the local environment can create vulnerabilities that traffickers can prey on, and with global warming we’re going to see much more of this.

Opportunities for employment matter. Where people can get good, safe jobs with adequate income, the chance of being trafficked is much lower.

Having decent social support matters. Blue Dragon has been involved in cases of trafficking where a family member was vulnerable to exploitation because of the illness of a child or a sibling, with no adequate social support for medical emergencies or child care or welfare.

Access to education matters. In Vietnam we see very plainly that children become highly vulnerable to trafficking when they are out of school. Longer retention means safety from exploitation.

And legal status matters. People without birth certificates, identification cards, or other important documentation cannot access basic services (including school), or government welfare, and it’s extremely difficult for police to open a case when the victim has no legal status. The absence of some very simple paperwork puts people at massive risk.


Trang is safe now and every day she is thankful to be back with her beautiful family. If we could go back in time and consider how we could have protected Trang, it’s not just an ‘anti trafficking’ program that she needed; it was a safe environment, stable employment, and a welfare net to get her through some difficult times.

When we see people in context and take an holistic view, we begin to understand that the end of human trafficking really will take a whole-world approach. We can’t fix just one issue without also addressing other areas of society and the environment.

There’s much to be done, and no time to waste.


Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

All in this…

I’ve posted an article on LinkedIn, discussing the pitfalls to current approaches that governments are taking to fight human trafficking.

To end trafficking, we have to use our resources as best we can. There’s some evidence that countries may be taking a ‘siloed’ approach, trying to deal only with forms of trafficking which directly affect them, and I fear that there’s no way to succeed if we work like that.

This issue is too important for us to mess up.


Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

The long story

This first shot at getting back to the blog finds me quite far from home.

I am in Zurich today, and heading to Ireland tomorrow where I will be speaking about human trafficking and what my organization in Vietnam has learned about it over the years.

The story of Blue Dragon is one of unlikely success. We started back in 2002 as a group of friends in Hanoi wanting to help street kids; I was an English teacher in a university and most of those working alongside me were economists.

Frankly, we had no idea of what we were doing or what challenges we would face, and in hindsight that was the best way to be. Had we known, we would have probably never started, or worse still we might have tried following the rule book!

Our first encounters with human trafficking were similarly unplanned. We came across young people in need of help and we realized that it was us or nobody – so we started rescuing kids who were being held in slavery and taking them home to their families.

Because we have always taken this approach of starting out with people who need a hand and building interventions, services and programs from the ground-up, we have created something pretty special.

So far, Blue Dragon has rescued 759 people from slavery; represented survivors of abuse and trafficking in 39 court cases; and trained over 4,200 police and officials in how to better prevent and prosecute human trafficking.

With support from people all around the world, we’ve given safe shelter to 541 young people and changed Vietnam’s law on child sexual abuse to give boys and girls equal protection.

And so the list of successes keeps growing.

What hasn’t changed, though, is our passionate belief in listening to and learning from the people we are here for. Everything we do starts with the girls and boys we meet on the streets or who call for help from their places of slavery.

The name of my blog is from the words of one of the Blue Dragon boys, Tan, who was living on the streets of Hanoi in an unbelievable hell when I first met him. Some of his story is also detailed here in my explanation of how we changed Vietnamese law. Tan was a central figure in that story.

One day, as his life was for the first time starting to look up, Tan wrote a very simple observation on his Facebook page: Life is a long story.

His reflection on the inevitable highs and lows, wins and losses, that we all traverse in life was the original inspiration for me to share the stories of the Blue Dragon children.

As I keep learning and growing, I look forward to sharing more moments of this long story we are all a part of.


Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis. 

It’s been a while

Blogging is a wonderful routine. Over the years I have blogged on and off – first here and now here – and have found it a reflective, thoughtful exercise to follow.

In recent months I’ve become a lapsed blogger, and not for want of something to write about. Plenty has been happening here at Blue Dragon and there has been much to share… but somehow I fell out of the discipline of routine.

It’s time now to reverse that! I’m going to start writing again, with a new post each Tuesday morning (Vietnam time) and an occasional extra during the week.

Thanks to everyone who has nagged at me to get back on the horse, as well as those who made more polite enquiries!

All I ask is that if what I write resonates with your own life, please share so that others can also join our community of people wanting to find some hope and beauty in this sometimes-ugly world.



Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.