Exceptional care

When my phone buzzes late at night, my first impulse is to wonder what’s wrong.

Among the various roles that Blue Dragon plays in Vietnam, we are first and foremost a care provider to children with very special needs. It would be a rare week that went by without some emergency popping up, whether it’s one of our kids getting into trouble with the law, or a plea for help from a family whose child has gone missing.

A late night call this week was to inform me that one of our boys, Do, was in an accident on the street and needed urgent medical attention. He’s fine now – the story ends well! – but he suffered a concussion and for a time was non-responsive. Do was rushed by ambulance to a hospital, and my team called me to let me know what was happening.

Medical care in public Vietnamese hospitals is… well, not always of the highest standard. Rooms can be significantly overcrowded, and it’s not unusual to see two patients on the same bed. Family members must look after their relatives in hospital, and that includes sleeping there over night – often on the floor beneath the bed. With the culture of respect for people in certain positions, people will rarely ask a doctor to explain a decision or provide information; what the doctor says is law, and to maintain that air of superiority doctors often won’t ask anything themselves or let patients know what’s happening.

So when one of our kids lands in hospital, we know it will take some determination and focus to ensure they are getting looked after properly. Knowing that Do had a head injury made this situation even more serious.

One of the things I love about Blue Dragon is the way everybody cares; not just in words or grand statements, but in real actions. By the time I got to the hospital, 3 social workers were there, including one of my longest serving team members, and one of the older teens was there as well. The doctors sure knew that Do had an army of supporters, and we made certain he received the care he needed.

Every child needs to have an army of supporters; or to borrow a line from Philps and Lahutsky, every child needs to be the centre of somebody’s universe.

Imagine if we could set that as our standard for every person we met: not just to care, but to give exceptional care, the same care we would demand for ourselves and for our family. Every child, and indeed every person, hopes for and deserves no less.

Do is just about back to normal now; he’s his usual smiling self once again. He knows he is the centre of our universe; and not just during a crisis, but every day.

 

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Looking for impact

Thao and Tin’s rescue from a sweatshop in southern Vietnam changed the course of their lives.

Thao, a 13 year old girl, and Tin, a 14 year old boy, had been locked into the upstairs of a garment factory for over 4 months by the time we found them. They had left their village in the north-west, close to the border of China, believing that they were on their way to a vocational training opportunity.

Neither they nor their families had any idea they were to be used as slave labour in a home-based factory 1,200 km (745 miles) from home.

Both Thao and Tin are home now, and back at school where they can get on with just being kids and enjoying life. With help from Blue Dragon they’re doing well, and their families are getting some extra support for their siblings.

The question remains, though: How can we stop this from happening again? How can we help other kids just like Thao and Tin so that they never have to be trafficked in the first place?

With a problem as complex and multi-faceted as human trafficking, there’s no single answer or magic bullet. And yet, there’s a lot that can be done that we know will have an impact.

Blue Dragon’s rescue work stands out as one of the most powerful activities we do. On pretty much a daily basis, we receive calls to help people who have been trafficked and sold; and through our interventions we find missing people and get them home. Just like Thao and Tin.

And while this may be the most exciting part of our work, it’s only one part of the fight against human trafficking. (Which, by way of a shameless self promotion, you might like to learn more about in my Ted talk).

Apart from the individual rescues and the follow up that takes place (such as arresting and prosecuting the traffickers) a major tool to push back against trafficking is, very simply, working with communities.

Every community that has lost people to trafficking has its own set of vulnerabilities. In some villages, people may be illiterate and have no access to television, and so know nothing of human trafficking. Elsewhere, extreme poverty may make a community ripe for exploitation.

Many people who are trafficked have been easy targets because they lack basic paperwork: they may have no birth certificate or ID card, and so are ineligible to attend school and can never get a proper job. One initiative that Blue Dragon runs is the concept of the ‘registration campaign’ in which we go out to rural areas where this is an issue, and work with the government to register people en masse. This weekend just gone, we have registered 893 people in one area of central Vietnam, bringing our organisational total to over 8,700 people.

That simple bit of paperwork makes them much less likely to be trafficked, and much easier to help in case they do get trafficked.

We’ve found that working with schools, too, is critical in preventing human trafficking. Too many times, the children we rescue from perilous situations have dropped out of school because they couldn’t afford the fees, or they didn’t think education would help them in the future. And once they have dropped out, they become invisible; nobody notices that they are gone.

In one area of Vietnam, we’re working with schools to develop an ‘early warning’ system. As soon as a child drops out of school, a notification is made and someone checks up to see what has happened. It’s simple, but incredibly effective.

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Training teachers to understand and prevent child trafficking in Vietnam 

Organising registration campaigns in villages and training school teachers to notice danger signs just don’t sound as exciting as rescuing kids from brothels or from factories. And they don’t have the immediate impact that a rescue has. There’s no doubt getting little Thao and Tin home has changed their lives and brought significant relief to their whole family and village.

It’s also much harder to prove the success of the school and community approach. How can we ever know how many kids would otherwise have been trafficked?

And yet, these local interventions are keeping kids and communities safe. The impact might not be as obvious as for Thao and Tin, but it’s just as real and just as important.

 

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Plans and endings

We all dream of fairytale endings at some point in life.

Especially when it comes to working with street kids and people who have been trafficked, we love to think that if we do our part, if we give our time or our money, there’ll eventually be a “happily ever after” – and who wouldn’t want that?

Sometimes there is. On my old blog, 2 years ago today, I wrote of such a story: the very first girl and boy who we rescued from trafficking (in separate operations) married. Since then, their story has only gotten better. Ngoc now works for Blue Dragon, helping children who would otherwise be trafficked just as he was. Seriously, it does not get sweeter than that!

Here at Blue Dragon, not all of our stories end so happily but it sure is nice when they do!

On Saturday, Blue Dragon’s Outreach team set out with a plan. There were 4 children we’ve been working with at our Hanoi Drop-in centre who needed to go home to their families in the countryside. They weren’t from the same districts but their families could be reached within a few hours of each other.

The team made a plan to meet the 4 kids in the morning. One didn’t show up. One had a phone and turned it off when the staff rang them! One hid in an internet cafe. Only one boy, 13 year old Sanh, showed up; and he brought a friend to go with him. (I wrote about Sanh back in July).

So the trip was rather different to the plan; the entire day had taken on a new trajectory. What to do?

Rather than cancel the trip, the team turned it into an awesome outing for Sanh and his friend. Sanh did get home and see his family, but along they rowed a boat down the river and even visited an animal park.

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There’s still plenty of work to do with the other 3 kids, but Sanh and his mate had a day to remember!

Life doesn’t always end with a “happily ever after”and it doesn’t always go to a plan. It’s nice when it does; but even when it all goes wrong, there’s still a chance for good to come of it.

 

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Home time

There’s just a little sadness at the Blue Dragon centre today.

For the past 10 weeks, we’ve had the joy of a little girl named Chau toddling through our building. She took her first steps with us; she ate her first solids here in our office. I mentioned Chau on my blog a couple of weeks ago; and today she and her mother have returned to their village to be reunited with their extended family.

Chau was 12 months old when her mother, a 19 year old woman named Hien, called us for help from China. In the early days of her pregnancy, Hien was trafficked from central Vietnam and sold as a bride deep inside China; she found herself living with a mentally unstable man in a small town surrounded by a forest.

Unable to speak any Chinese language, with no money and no idea where she was, Hien was terrified and couldn’t see a way to escape. When she gave birth just 8 months later to baby Chau, her ‘husband’ didn’t quite realise the baby wasn’t his; but as time went by, he slowly worked it out.

With the realisation that Chau was not his child, the husband started becoming erratic and violent. Hien knew there was a very real danger that he would want to get rid of her little girl – and she lived in fear to think of what he might do.

Desperate to keep her baby safe, Hien found a way to secretly use her husband’s phone and get a message back to Vietnam.

When we first heard of this case, we knew it would be difficult; Hien had traveled for many days to get to the town where she was now living, and she didn’t know exactly where she was.

Adding to the complexity of this was that the town was remote and tiny. Strangers coming through would be noticed. It would be almost impossible for the rescue team to work anonymously.

Over some weeks we pieced the puzzle together and found Hien and Chau’s location. Getting there, and getting them out before anybody noticed, remained a huge challenge.

We had a lucky break when Hien learned that a local festival was about to pass through town. There would be activity, and strangers, and lots of noise. It was time for us to get a plan together and bring Hien home.

The rescue of Hien and Chau took several days. Our team had more difficulty locating them than we expected. Then little Chau fell ill with a fever and needed some time to recover. All together, we had a very tense week until mother and daughter were finally back to Vietnam.

Since then, Chau and Hien have been a part of the Blue Dragon family. Nothing quite stops an office of industrious people like having a baby around! Every time she wandered into our work areas, my team of lawyers, social workers, and managers would pretty much drop everything and shower her with love. Me included!

The kids adored her, too. Children at our centre are here because they’ve experienced some kind of damage; they’ve all been through trauma. So they have a natural affinity to an infant who has also suffered, and their desire to protect and care for Chau was deeply touching.

Normally we help trafficked people get home as quickly as possible. Chau and her mother spent more than 2 months in our care because the traffickers, both Chinese and Vietnamese, went into hiding and couldn’t be found. One has now been arrested, and the others have evidently fled the country. Finally, this little family is safe to go home.

I know we should be much happier than we are. The return home of Hien and Chau is a wonderful, almost miraculous, outcome. Trapped deep inside China, Hien never thought she could find a way out; and her daughter’s safety was so tenuous. There was a time when all seemed hopeless.

Going home and having this chance to start over is a beautiful end to the story. I know they’ll be well; even though they’ve returned to their own village far from Hanoi, they still have all of at Blue Dragon looking over them and supporting them in whatever they need.

And yet, somehow it’s impossible to not feel just a little sad, knowing we may not see Hien and Chau again for a little while.

 

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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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