Every day I meet children and young adults who have been through extraordinary trauma.
If they lived in the west, their stories would be front page in the newspapers.
There’s one story that always stands out to me as among the worst; and it’s one of the foundational stories behind why Blue Dragon began, back in 2003.
Even before Blue Dragon was created, I was volunteering alongside Vietnamese and international friends to help out street kids we were meeting in Hanoi. We had no real plan to form a charity. We just met these awesome kids, and did what we could do to help.
One was a shoeshine boy named Ban.
Ban was from a village outside the city, and at age 14 he was the family breadwinner. His family had always been poor, but 5 years before I met him shining shoes in Hanoi they suffered a catastrophe.
Ban’s younger brother, Lan, was out in a field one day when he found a metal ball half buried by dirt. He brought it home and left it by his bed.
But Lan’s “ball” was a grenade, one of millions of pieces of Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) left over from the American-Vietnamese war. And in the morning, it exploded.
Lan was blinded. His mother was killed. His grandfather was badly injured. His house half destroyed.
Only his older brother Ban and their father were unharmed; but the shock of it all sent their father insane. Their father eventually remarried, but he never recovered from that horrific moment.
And so, in the aftermath, Ban left home and went to Hanoi to shine shoes for 10c a pair so that he could support his family.
When I met Ban, he was wanting to go back to school and also wanted to help his family. We managed to do both; we found a special school that could accept Ban (who had been out of the formal education system for too long to go back) and we also found a school that could teach his blind brother, Lan – who had by now been sitting at home alone for 6 years.
For the first time in years, this family had a ray of hope.
Shortly after starting back at school, we learned that Ban was actually a sponsored child. Although he was living in a shelter we had set up, and going to school with money coming from the pockets of volunteers, it turned out that he was technically ‘sponsored’ by one of Europe’s largest development organisations.
We found this out when he was called to go home to his village, which meant taking 2 days off school, so that he could write a letter to his sponsor in Norway. The letter was dictated to him by a staff member, and he later recited what he could remember of it: “Life with my family is good… My father is in the fields planting rice… I enjoy going to school…”
On top of everything he had been through, Ban was being exploited by an international NGO to make money.
Some months later, we received very bad news. The step mother of Ban and Lan had died of cancer. Ban returned immediately to be with his father. I had the task of going down to the School for the Blind to let Lan know.
It was a stinking hot summer’s day, and I led Lan by the hand to a stall outside the school gates selling ice cream. We sat in the shade and I told him of this latest tragedy to hit his family. He took it all in complete silence, his face turned downward. It was just another blow in an extremely difficult life.
As we sat like this by the road, a shiny new 4WD rumbled by. On the outside it bore the logo of a multinational children’s aid agency. On the inside sat an NGO worker in the backseat, dressed up and enjoying the air conditioned ride on the way to work.
It was just a moment in time but the incongruence hit me hard. Lan and I were crouched on tiny plastic stools in the oppressive heat, absorbing the latest awful events in this boy’s life. And here was someone who seemed to have such resources, such power, just driving on by in their protective, air conditioned bubble.
Those 2 stories – of the sponsorship and the 4WD – have stuck with me over the years. They made me angry, and looking back I really shouldn’t have been as angry as I actually was. One bad story about a child sponsorship-gone-wrong certainly doesn’t mean they’re all bad. An NGO worker on their way to a meeting in an expensive car doesn’t mean that all NGO work is wasteful or out-of -touch. It’s unfair to judge the whole by these 2 tiny parts of the story.
But at the time, my response was anger. I sensed injustice. I felt that those with power were not using it as best they could to help the powerless. I felt that those who should be helping were looking in the other direction at best – and sometimes even doing harm.
I was angry; so I did something about it.
Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation was born.
Ban has grown up now to become a baker. Lan studied through to Grade 9, learning to read braille and play guitar; he’s married now, a father, and runs a small business with his wife. My anger, even if misguided, has paid dividends for the brothers.
International events of recent times have reminded me of Lan and Ban’s story. There’s anger and disappointment in the US and around the globe about the next ‘leader of the free world’. Right or wrong, many people are worried.
The greatest fear appears to be one of social justice: How will the weak be affected? What will happen to minorities? What does this mean for communities who are already marginalised? And for already-fragile climate agreements?
People are angry, because an innate part of our humanity is a desire for justice.
And so I say: Be angry. Demand that the weak are protected, and that minority groups are treated with the same respect as anyone else. Raise your voice and be heard.
Don’t forget, though, that anger does not have to be destructive. Harness it for good. Let that anger take the form of a positive action to help someone who needs it.
Among the countless social media posts I’ve seen on the topic of racial and religious discrimination this week are some by a friend, Lauren, who lives in New York. Hearing the stories of mosques being vandalised in the wake of the election result, which has apparently emboldened racists around the world, Lauren organised a group of friends to visit an Islamic Centre that had been the subject of an attack. Atheists, Christians, Jews and Muslims shared some time together as friends – as people – in a very human show of love and solidarity.
A simple action like this is the perfect channeling of anger. Our world will always be imperfect as long as it is filled with humans; we’ll always make mistakes and sometimes we’ll hurt each other, even when we don’t really mean to. If only our anger makes us reach out to heal one another, then we can make the world as good as it’s ever going to get.
So be angry, and care for someone who needs you. That’s the best we can do.