Downpour

It was raining when I landed back in Vietnam, and the storms have kept sweeping through for the past 10 days.

Here in Hanoi, when it rains it either pours down in incredible, flooding bursts; or it drizzles for days and weeks on end. Since I returned, it’s been downpours.

Having been away for a few weeks I was excited to be coming home. But the downpours that have followed have been difficult.

In the past 10 days, three good friends of Blue Dragon have passed away, each in different countries and each completely unexpectedly. Death is always senseless; when it takes people who are still young and have so much to live for, it seems totally void of meaning or reason. There can be no explanation, no comfort for the many left behind who never had a chance to say goodbye. Life can be so cruel.

For the kids at Blue Dragon, the past 10 days have also brought plenty of downpours. One homeless boy, living in an internet cafe, calls me to say he’s been robbed – again – and has lost all his stuff. He doesn’t care about the stuff; his despair is that his life is in a cycle of hopelessness. Nothing goes right, and he can’t yet see the way out.

Two of the kids have been in hospital; one boy with a virus and a girl with a pretty severe case of TB. She’s going to need many long months of treatment. She picked up the illness in China, where she had been trafficked and sold. Recently she thought her life was starting to get better; this is a huge blow to her confidence.

And out of the blue some kids at our centre have been the targets of local gangs. A couple of the girls we work with have found themselves mixed up with older boys who befriended them and now are pimping them out; when the girls refused to work, the gang turned up at the centre looking for them. We dealt swiftly with that – they won’t be back! – but it was a terrible time for the girls.

Through it all have been the actual downpours: the huge bursts of rain hitting the city on and off in recent weeks. Our centre has been undergoing some renovation work; we thought the rains had stopped only to learn of “the mother of all storms,” as it was dubbed, sweeping toward us. With three floors of the building open to the elements, their windows removed, we were facing some tense days. Fortunately the typhoon mostly passed us by; lots of plastic sheeting and a team working through the nights saved us from flooding.

On Saturday night, I was out to dinner with one of our ‘old boys,’ celebrating his birthday, when an emergency call came through: two of our kids had been beaten up and were at the centre, pretty upset. The night staff needed a hand sorting things out.

I headed over with one of the team and we were able to calm things down. Before we could go home, though: another downpour.

Saturday night, and we were trapped at the Blue Dragon centre while Hanoi started to flood.

So I sat and got chatting to one of the boys, named Do. He’s an exceptional kid: 17 years old, from a terribly poor and abusive family, and yet he has the happiest disposition of any child I’ve met in the past 10 years. He greets everyone with a smile and a hug; and his smile totally lights up his face. Despite Do’s hardships and traumas, he seems almost naively optimistic. There are no ‘street smarts’ about this kid. All he wants to do is smile and spread joy. (You can’t say that about too many 17 year old boys!)

With the rain bucketing down outside, I asked Do: “Where do you get your happiness from? Is there someone in your family like this? How is it that you’re always so positive?”

Do looked surprised at the question. A little confused.

And then he said: “It comes from here – it’s because of Blue Dragon.”

Amidst so many downpours, Do’s words tell me that it’s all worthwhile. The storms will come and go; but there is always joy, always hope, always a reason to keep on going.

I rode home through the blanketing rain, saturated from helmet to shoe, smiling to know that there are people like Do in our world.

 

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Overcoming

We were in a cafe.

There had been some conflict; I had done something to bother one of the local gangs and they demanded a meeting to talk. Minh was there, even though he had nothing to do with this. I don’t know why they brought him, but they may have been trying to demoralise me.

Minh was a lovely kid. Quiet, peaceful, intelligent. He had just one fault: he hated himself. Absolutely, totally, despised his own being. I’ve never met anyone with a lower sense of self worth than Minh, who was just 13 at the time.

I had known Minh for about a year. He had left his home in the countryside, where he was neglected and rejected. He was born to a single mother, and therefore assumed by his community to be inherently bad. When his mother abandoned him, to start a new life far away, he had nobody at all to care for him. So he hitched a ride to Hanoi and within hours was the target of pedophile rings. A boy with such low self esteem was their ideal target.

What happened to Minh in the following weeks is a story I think he will never tell. By the time my team met him he was so damaged that it seemed there could be no recovery. It didn’t matter what we did. We offered him a home. We gave him money to get him through the day. We sat and ate meals with him. And when he walked away, he walked straight into the arms of the very abusers he hated and who sought only to exploit and harm him.

When the gang brought him to our meeting in the cafe, I was a little surprised. I don’t know what they were thinking; my best guess is they were trying to shock me. I cared deeply for Minh, so his presence at the meeting had the potential to unsettle me.

In a way, it did; but not in the way it hoped. It made me angry and determined to do anything I could to get Minh out of their grip.

During the meeting, I discreetly took some photos. Minh spent the whole time staring vacantly out the window, chewing his finger nails, hugging a cushion against his chest. I can’t share those images, as they are deeply personal and I cannot betray Minh in that vulnerable moment; but they are powerful and speak volumes about this boy. He was fragile, and while the gang brought him to shake me they only stirred me into action.

Over time we were able to intervene, and we won Minh’s trust. He lives with us now and is an unshakable member of the Blue Dragon family.

On Friday, the Blue Dragon centre was alive with dance, drama and song. We held a talent show, Blue’s Got Talent, and invited the kids to perform for their friends. It was an inspiring, joyous afternoon. Girls and boys who have been orphaned, rejected and abused stepped onto the stage and sang / danced / played their hearts out. Anyone disillusioned by our world would have had their whole faith restored.

Minh was there, sitting in the crowd and taking it all in. He might never have the confidence to get up on the stage himself, but he loved being there to see his friends shine.

After some time, a staff member entered the room with a 14 month old girl. This little girl, Chau, has been with us since she and her mother returned to Vietnam, rescued by the Blue Dragon team after being trafficked to China and sold for sex.

Minh’s eyes lit up. He held out his arms, and Chau toddled towards him. She doesn’t do that for just anyone; she has a powerful sense of who she can trust and who she cannot. She knows Minh, and she trusts him instinctively.

Two years ago, I photographed Minh staring into nothing with a cushion held as a shield against the world. On Friday, he sat with baby Chau on his knee, his face so bright with a huge smile.

This is a boy whose life is transformed. He might never recover to what he could have been; the damage done to him is so thorough that he might never believe fully in himself. And yet there he was, capable of earning the trust of a toddler who has been through hell, and so natural in caring for this gorgeous child.

Minh and Chau have been through so much more than any child should know. They have endured and overcome such torment. And yet they still have so much love to share.

The human spirit is an amazing thing.

 

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Brotherhood

Binh was trafficked when he was just 14.

His mother, raising 2 sons alone since the death of their father, thought that Binh was going to learn a trade. Living in extreme poverty, she couldn’t afford to pay school fees for Binh or his little brother Hien. When some traffickers came along, posing as intermediaries for a training program in Ho Chi Minh City, Binh’s mother believed she’d finally had a lucky break.

Instead, Binh was sold to a garment factory. He became a slave, working on an industrial sewing machine up to 18 hours a day, 7 days per week.

Blue Dragon learned what had happened to Binh, so we went to find him and took him home.

People often wonder what happens to trafficked kids when we take them home. Do they just go back to poverty? Or do they choose to return to the very places we’ve rescued them from?

In fact, by far most of the 544 people we’ve rescued from slavery have returned to study and work, doing all they can to make the most of their new chance at life with a lot of support from our organisation.

And this was the case with Binh. Since going back to his family, Binh has returned to school and gone on more recently to a training program (a real one!) where he’s learning to become a baker. His life has really turned around.

While Binh has been going from strength to strength, his little brother Hien has been having some struggles. Hien is only 13 and has been identified by a sports academy as an up-and-coming athlete. So while Binh has been learning to bake, Hien has been living in a sports centre on a full scholarship, training every day in the sport that he loves: judo.

Even though many boys would dream of having such an opportunity, Hien has been dispirited. He’s missing his home and community, and feeling out of place in the boarding house where he and the other young athletes live. Hien’s studies and training have been poor, and getting worse; his teachers called us to say that if things don’t change, he might soon be sent home.

While Hien’s mother loves him very much, going home would mean returning to poverty and the risk of being targeted by traffickers, just like has big brother once was. And so the impetus for Hien to change has not been from the Blue Dragon staff – but from Binh.

When Binh heard that his brother was in difficulty, he took leave from the bakery to go with a social worker and visit Hien. The two boys spent hours together, talking like long lost friends.

The Blue Dragon team is used to working with kids in all sorts of precarious and vulnerable situations. We have considerable experience in counselling and comforting teenagers who are unhappy or going through some inner turmoil. It’s what we do.

On this day, though, we didn’t need to do anything. What Hien needed was his big brother to listen to him, share his fears and doubts, and offer him comfort.  He just needed some brotherly love.

The Blue Dragon staff who saw all of this sent me a message later, amused that her fantastic plan to encourage and support Hien had not been necessary at all. Her words were simple and powerful:

The way Binh shared with Hien was not only about his life experience, but he also cherished his brother… I am touched at their meeting. Especially that Binh, from a trafficked boy to a young man, shows responsibility and care for his family. With their brotherhood, Binh and Hien can cope with any difficulty in their life.

There truly is good in our world.

PS: Earlier this year I shared my thoughts on human trafficking at a TEDx talk in Hanoi. Click here to watch, and be sure to share your own thoughts in the comments. 

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Run

Thanh was 16 when she was sold.

She was a good student at school, and loved her family deeply. Growing up in a small city in northern Vietnam, with parents who cared for her, Thanh never imagined that anything like this could happen to her.

If you made a list of all the typical vulnerabilities that can increase the risk of being trafficked, she would match almost none of them. Except, of course, that she is a girl in a world that objectifies and commodifies women.

It was a friend who sold her. A classmate. Another girl – who we rarely expect might be a trafficker. We tend to think of traffickers as men, and often they are; but in Vietnam at least, they are just as often not.

In some ways, nothing about Thanh’s case was typical; and yet, that’s exactly what made her case so typical. Human trafficking is most effective when it defies expectation, takes you by surprise.

And with an equal measure of unpredictability, Thanh found the means to escape.

Having been taken to the border of China by her friend and suddenly surrounded by a gang that had come to collect her, Thanh was moved deep inland, far from Vietnam, where she had no hope of knowing the language or asking for help. Under the control of these violent strangers, whose plan was to sell her to a brothel, Thanh had no hope of being found.

So when an opportunity presented itself, she didn’t think twice: left unguarded for a few moments, she took a risk and ran. For her life.

In that decision, Thanh could have lost everything. Her traffickers would rather kill her than allow the possibility that she might regain her freedom and report to the police.

Running also gave her a chance of making it. Staying in the hands of the traffickers was also a likely death sentence, albeit a much slower and more painful death.

Being sold to a brothel means the certainty of daily multiple rapes. Some survivors talk about serving 20 men per day. With no protection or health care, catching a disease is just a matter of time and chance. When a brothel has had enough of you, they don’t let you go; they sell you to another brothel and the whole nightmare starts anew.

Thanh may not have known all this, but she knew enough. She chose to run.

Word came through to us at Blue Dragon later that day that Thanh was in hiding. She managed to call her family and let them know which city she was in. Our rescue team was there the next day, and we brought Thanh home.

Her traffickers are in prison now, including her classmate who initiated the abduction. After some months of counselling, giving statements to police, and a courtcase, Thanh went back to school. She found it too difficult to return to her old high school, so we helped her attend a school in a different city and gave her a place in a group home with other girls who have survived the trauma of trafficking.

Thanh’s story ends well. She’s a university student now, enjoying life and mixing with friends who can never guess what she has endured. She has plenty to look forward to in life.

You might say she’s one of the lucky ones, although there’s nothing lucky about the horror that was inflicted on her. Thanh is only lucky in the sense that she survived.

Her split second decision to run saved her life. The possibilities of where she would be today, if not for that momentary choice, are terrifying to comtemplate.

 

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Quiet

This weekend I have been visiting my family in rural Australia. It’s been some years since I was last here, and I have forgotten how quietly paced life is in the countryside.

In Vietnam, life never seems to slow down; there’s never time to take a breath. In part, this is the nature of the crisis work we do at Blue Dragon; but it’s also a reflection of the country itself.

Even while I am travelling, there are rescues underway of girls who were trafficked to China, and our street outreach team has been looking for 2 missing children in Hanoi. The emergencies continue, and this place of quiet where I am now seems to be a world away.

Charities working in crisis situations often feel frustrated in conveying to the world the urgency and depth of the need they are faced with. This is why they resort to ‘poverty porn’: parading the poor and desperate in front of the world in order to attract donations. It’s a despicable way to raise money, but the frustration that leads organisations to do it is not surprising.

Life in Australia – even in the cities – is calm and peaceful compared to the immediacy of life in Vietnam. People in Australia are comfortable; they generally have what they need, and most people aren’t faced with daily questions of how to eat or how to find a missing child. There is undoubtedly poverty and hardship here, too, but it is far less common; it is exceptional and unusual rather than normal.

Although I have taken the weekend away, I’m travelling to meet with supporters and talk about Blue Dragon’s work. My stories are mostly of kids who have been abused but, with some help, have turned their lives around. People are always interested to know how we conduct rescue operations, and how the kids survive when they are so profoundly traumatised.

To me, these stories have become a part of my ‘normal’. I am still often deeply touched, and sometimes shocked, by what I see, but I sit and talk with traumatised young people every day; their stories are part of my daily life. To people in other countries, these stories can seem surreal. Such trauma and suffering among children is unimaginable.

Standing with feet in both worlds, I feel torn about where I belong. I am drawn to the idea of a quiet life; I dream of living as a hermit, out in the bush away from the crowds. But I feel a pull towards a place where life has more immediacy, more demands: and in Vietnam I know that there is still a huge need. I have a place there. I don’t see how I could settle in to the quiet life when I know that such suffering continues.

And so I will take this moment to breathe, and by the time I return to Vietnam I hope to have some new energy. The quiet life will always be an option; for now it is only a reprieve before returning home.

 

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Past and present

It would be easy for me to think I’ve seen it all.

My team here at Blue Dragon has rescued Vietnamese girls from brothels deep inside China. We’ve travelled to the border of Mongolia to find women sold as brides, and brought them home. We’ve met kids on the streets of Hanoi so entangled in pedophile rings, so deeply scarred, that we doubted we could ever get them out – and yet we did. We’ve founds children locked into sweatshops, missing for years, with no more than a gut feeling to guide us to their location.

We’ve seen some terrible stuff. But this week a couple of photos brought me to the verge of tears.

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I met 13 year old Sanh a few weeks ago, almost by chance. I was sitting outside a cafe when some street kids I knew walked by, along with a boy I hadn’t seen before. Sanh looked both cocky and frightened all at once, and it was immediately clear that he had something to hide. He wasn’t going to let me know who he was or where he was from; but he was completely open about wanting help.

It took us more than 2 weeks of working with Sanh before he agreed for us to take him home. Legally, we have to do that; Blue Dragon has no right to keep kids in our shelters or centres without their parents’ knowledge.

Sanh was telling the truth when he said his family had no phone number. We had to drive several hours to get to his village; and what we found was shocking. His home, in the photos above, looked abandoned. You don’t need me to describe it; take a moment to imagine living there yourself.

My staff, who normally take countless photos to document their work, put their camera down after just a few shots. There was something wrong, invasive, about taking photos of this.

The house was empty apart from a timber bed. Nothing else. No electricity or water. No doors or windows.  Just nothing.

How could a 13 year old boy be expected to live like that?

I was thinking about how I could explain this on my blog. I had a working title in mind: The house of no hope.

But then came the weekend, and with it the wedding of Duong, one of our ‘old boys’.

I travelled out to Bac Ninh province for this wedding. Duong is a tall and handsome young man; he works as a driver but he’s highly skilled with mechanics and can do anything that he puts his mind to. He stood tall and proud at his wedding; it was such an honour for him that a bus load of Blue Dragon people turned up to take part.

As I sat amidst the festivities, my mind turned back to the early days of knowing Duong. He too had made his way to the streets of Hanoi, running from family problems that are now long in the past but at the time were all consuming.

This young man who now seems so strong and stable once lived in despair, too. When I met him, he was living in a tree. Nobody would know that now; I’m sure most people at the wedding would have no idea of the struggles he went through as a teenager.

And if Duong could turn his life around and make something great for himself, then why not Sanh? His story can have a happy ending too. It won’t be easy but it can happen. Sanh just needs a lot of love and care, and above all time to heal and find wholeness.

This is not a story without hope; I just don’t know the ending yet. The one thing for sure is that Sanh doesn’t have to live in an abandoned concrete box any more, and nor does he have to live on the streets of the city.

Hope for Sanh begins today.

 

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Carry me

A popular idea among charities working with disadvantaged people is that of ‘mutual responsibility.’ It can take various forms and is given different names; these days the concept of ‘paying it forward’ is well known, but it can more simply be the idea of someone being obliged to volunteer or donate after they have received help to get back on their feet.

The idea itself is terrific, and many inspiring stories have developed from this principle of reciprocity. In an organisation like Blue Dragon, this can be much harder to implement as we are open to young people from all ages, backgrounds and with all sorts of needs; most have experienced pretty severe trauma by the time we meet them, so requiring them to repay society for the help they’ve received is a very tall order.

The upside of this, however, is that when our kids do ‘pay it forward,’ they are doing so solely from their own will. The absence of an obligation, or a formal expectation, means that when it happens it’s being driven by the young person’s own heart and mind.

A couple of examples of this have really struck me in the past week.

Among the children at our Hanoi centre are quite a few kids with disabilities and health issues. One of those children is a little boy, Tran, who lost a leg in an electrical incident and has a few problems with some internal organs. He’s one of the bravest kids I’ve ever met; I’m sure he doesn’t think of himself as ‘disabled’ at all. Even with just one leg, he joins in skateboarding, rock climbing, and absolutely any other activity on offer. Try to hold him back at your own peril.

And so it really says something about the Hanoi summer that Tran was having difficulty getting back to Dragon House one afternoon; the heat was extraordinary and he was struggling along on his crutches. Another of the Blue Dragon boys was with him, and totally unprompted he picked him up and carried him back to the centre.

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This was a complete act of selflessness. There was no duty being filled, no ‘service points’ being earned, and nobody would even have known but that a staff member passing by saw this and snapped a photo. The faithful friend has himself been through an incredibly difficult life, and until recently has never had a home where he could feel safe and loved. Yet he somehow has the inner strength to care for people less fortunate than himself. Imagine how different our world would be if we were all like that.

Back at the Blue Dragon centre, the kids have come up with their own plans for summer activities, and this has included community service which the girls and boys have designed themselves.

In short, they raised the idea that families at a local pediatric hospital might need some support; carried out some simple research on what was needed; and concluded that children at the hospital, all being extremely impoverished, were in need of some care and attention.

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Their solution? Organise events such as a film afternoon to give the ill children something to do.

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Again, this was not Blue Dragon staff telling the kids what to do; it was the children organising themselves and expressing a desire to do something for others.

These examples of selfless care, sparked by an internal drive, are really all around us. We need to take the time to stop and look… and to be inspired by what we see.

 

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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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