Be

Sometimes it’s hard to see
Who you’re gonna be
So be the young, the brave, the powerful

– James Blunt, “The Greatest”

Ngoc hears a voice, and holds his breath.

He can’t see anything through the blanket that covers him. He feels the breath of Tam sleeping beside him; and no matter the noise from around them, nothing will ever wake Tam.

The voice calls again and Ngoc pulls the blanket from his face.

At first he sees the vast concrete bridge above him, the discarded bathtub beside him. Then he sees the young man kneeling at his feet, calling softly. A friendly face, but a stranger. And a stranger is always a threat.

Ngoc came to the city last year to find a job. At first everything worked out great, but his boss kept delaying his salary. Finally it became clear he was never going to get paid, and when he raised his voice, he was fired.

Now he’s sleeping under a bridge, ashamed to tell his family that he has nothing to show for his months away from home. Every noise startles him. Even when he wakes, he’s exhausted. Fear is a heavy burden to shoulder, and the shame he carries feels like rocks shackled to his feet.

Ngoc never thought of himself as a homeless person. He’s not a street kid. He has a family, a village up in the mountains. At home he is the funny guy. He jokes with his mates. He talks to the village leader as an equal, looks after the ducks in his spare time, enjoys the solace and the silliness of his feathered friends.

How can he let his parents know that he failed? That he’s sleeping on dirt with no money in his pocket? That he’s afraid of everything around him? This wasn’t what he dreamt about as a child.

It’s now mid afternoon on a cold and rainy Saturday, and the man waking him is offering warm food and a place to stay. He’s a social worker, scanning the streets for young people like Ngoc. Is this finally a chance for escape from the sleepless terror of having nothing and nobody? Is this the moment that will light a path for Ngoc to return to his family, where he is loved and safe?

The life of street kids in Hanoi – and in every town and city around the planet – is harder than any of us can appreciate unless we have been there ourselves. At Blue Dragon, half our Street Outreach team were once homeless themselves, just like the social worker who met Ngoc on Saturday.

Children in our world aren’t homeless because of a lack of resources. There’s more than enough to go around.

Sometimes it’s abuse or neglect that forces them to the streets. Other times, it’s not much more than a sequence of bad luck or misfortune.

But it shouldn’t happen. It doesn’t need to happen. It’s simply not right.

Ngoc and his friend Tam are going to be OK. Blue Dragon has met them and can help them get home.

Over the coming days and nights we’ll spend time with them, helping them work through their fears and keeping them safe until they are ready to return to their families. And once they’re back in their village we can keep helping so they get the education and training they need, and then a good job where they won’t be exploited again.

Every child, every person, needs someone willing to stand up for them. It’s not only for governments or for charities to make a difference. This is something we all can do: be the helping hand that we would wish for ourselves. The shoulder to cry on. The understanding smile on the hardest of days.

We don’t have to be overwhelmed by all the world’s hardships. We can start where we are, play our small part, reach out to the person before us. Be the change we wish to see, as someone once said.

Imagine what our world could be.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

Behind the story

Coping with trauma and crisis, a 14 year old street kid finds hope for the future.

The first time I saw him, Tan was standing alone on a street staring into nothing.

He was down the road from the Blue Dragon centre, and everything about him signaled a child in distress. His face showed no expression; his shoulders slumped forward. His arms hung limply by his side.

Just 14 years old, Tan had been neglected and abandoned by his family, forcing him to leave home. Once on the streets of Hanoi, he was abused repeatedly by pedophiles who traded him like an object.

Street kids in Vietnam, living under a bridge.

Once he was with Blue Dragon, Tan’s healing took years of care, counselling, and legal representation to find justice against those who had harmed him. Today he is a very different young man to the boy I first saw on the street. He has a job and a circle of great friends; he has started rebuilding the relationship with his parents; and his eyes shine with hope and joy.

Last week, Tan joined in Blue Dragon’s annual Tet celebration, called Tet Awards; we shared some photos of this on Facebook on Sunday. We hold this party for children in the lead-up to Lunar New Year, and many of our ‘old’ boys and girls come back to see us.

Tet Awards is one of the few big events we hold; our work is much more focused on dealing with day to day crisis than with organising ceremonies and parties.

In fact, Tan inspired the creation of this very blog at a Tet Awards party several years ago. Looking out over the crowd and thinking how much his own life had changed since he met Blue Dragon, Tan shared his astute reflection: Life is a long story.

For kids like Tan, this annual event has a significance beyond it being a great night. Dressing up, meeting old friends and enjoying hours of singing and dancing takes the kids away from the hardships of their daily lives.

The delightful chaos and laughter of a children’s party will never replace the need for long-term care, shelter, legal advocacy and psychological therapy. But a moment to forget the pain and turn instead to friendship and the simple joys of life is a precious moment indeed.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis while advocating for greater legal protections and policies. You can read more of Tan’s story and how we changed Vietnamese law to protect boys here.

Old Boys, New Year

A year-end wedding brought together a crowd of Blue Dragon ‘old boys’, whose journey reminds us that there are always better days to come.

Blue Dragon’s year finished with a wedding.

This was a particularly joyful event, with kids and staff heading out to the countryside to take part in the ceremony. The groom was a Blue Dragon staff member, and not only that; he is one of our ‘Old Boys’.

Diep was one of the original Blue Dragon boys back in 2002, when we were just beginning. He came to the weekly football games for street kids and joined the English classes, and then headed out to the streets where he worked shining shoes.

He was only 14, but he carried the burden of supporting his family who lived in poverty. They couldn’t afford to send him to school, so he volunteered to go and work in the city.

When we opened our first shelter, in 2003, Diep was one of the 6 teens who lived there. When he was old enough, he started working in a restaurant. Within a few years he returned to Blue Dragon as staff to help look after the children we were caring for.

Diep in 2003, with a friend.

He’s been on the social work team ever since, assisting street kids and helping to run the weekly football games that still take place (over 3,000 games so far!). Diep has a quiet, gentle way about him that makes children feel safe and cared for.

His wedding on the final weekend of 2020 was a cause of great celebration. And of course, many attendees were young men who had been a part of Blue Dragon at the time Diep was ‘one of the kids’.

Diep and his wife Chuyen at their wedding, December 2020.

All are in the late 20s and early 30s now. Most are married and some have children of their own. Their lives are in stark contrast to when we first met them, working on the streets of Hanoi hoping to make enough money to get through each day. Most survived by shining the shoes of strangers for a few cents.

Tuan was there; he flew up from southern Vietnam where he works as a chef. Binh has his own bakery. Hiep runs an electrical repair business, which is booming. Kieu owns a pizza and pasta restaurant. Nam is an executive chef for a large company. Thinh has a motorbike mechanic shop. Doan runs a building supplies company. Vi is a manager at Blue Dragon. Tinh has a mobile telephone shop. Duong works as a welder.

Each was a street kid at one time. Each has found his own way in life. For some, it took years of assistance from Blue Dragon to get them there. Others needed just a small boost to get them back to their family or back to school, and then they were on their way.

These occasions when they reunite and celebrate the success of ‘one of their own’ really are joyful days. Blue Dragon has grown and changed a lot since then; we now work with girls and boys around the country, and have expanded our scope to help people escape human trafficking.

But our vision of giving young people the care, assistance, and resources to overcome their hardship and build the life that they choose remains exactly the same.

At the end of a very difficult year, Diep and Chuyen’s wedding was the perfect way to finish off 2020.

Seeing all the ‘old boys’ gathered together served as a reminder that no matter the difficulties we face today, there is always hope for a better tomorrow.

The new year has arrived, so let’s get started on creating the ‘better tomorrow’ that we are all dreaming of.

Blue Dragon rescues children and young people in crisis.

Being kids

The Blue Dragon kids, along with much of Vietnam and the world, have been through some especially difficult times of late. So this weekend, we took the opportunity to have some fun.

In case you missed it, this weekend was Halloween.

It might seem an unlikely celebration for Vietnam, but in cities and towns across the country, people were dressing up and decorating their homes and their shops with all the familiar ‘spooky’ imagery.

The past month has been a difficult few weeks in a terrible year. The central provinces of Vietnam have been hit by storm after storm, causing floods and landslides and damage to tens of thousands of homes.

And it’s not over yet. One more storm is expected to hit on Wednesday. Reports are calling it “the world’s strongest storm so far this year.

Blue Dragon’s work is always about resolving crisis. This year, coronavirus and the floods have added to the complexity of life for people who are already in crisis, already struggling, already trying to cope with abuse and exploitation.

So when Halloween came onto the horizon, we knew what we had to do.

Throw a party.

In the end, for all the crisis and hardship, kids have to be kids. Fun and play shouldn’t be luxuries for children; they are essentials.

And the Blue Dragon kids know how to have a party. They painted a huge banner, organized a talent competition – “Blue Dragon’s Next Top Zombie” – and spent the whole afternoon dressing up and painting their faces.

We’re all still mourning the loss of My, one of our young women who died in an accident just over a week ago. We’re doing all we can to get aid to flood victims, and help families repair their homes before the next storm hits. And our work of rescuing victims of trafficking and finding homeless children continues.

But for a few glorious hours, the girls and boys at the Blue Dragon centre could put all their woes aside and just be kids, having silly, playful fun.

Sometimes, we all need to do exactly that.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

A leader in the making

There’s really only one good thing about a crisis. It shows us who we really are.

Do we rise to the occasion, or fall into a heap? Do we keep smiling and working toward better days, or do we give up and expect the worst?

For 19 year-old Viet, this global crisis has been his turn to shine.

Not that he knows it. Not that he was looking for it. But a teenager who was living under a bridge just a few months ago, with a metal bar tucked away for protection, is now playing an important role in how Blue Dragon faces the COVID-19 pandemic.

Late in 2019, Australian Masterchef Adam Liaw met Viet under a bridge in Hanoi. Liaw was with SBS Dateline, learning about what life is like for homeless young people in Vietnam. This short clip shows the extraordinary hardship of Viet’s life at that time. And yet, he was stoic and accepting.

Viet has long known Blue Dragon. Sometimes he lives with us, and sometimes he wanders back to the streets when he needs the open sky and the space to be alone.

Shortly after filming, Blue Dragon helped Viet find work on a farm outside the city, where he loved getting his hands dirty, building with stone and bamboo and farming the fields. It was not only great for Viet: most of that food ended up on the plates of children back at the Blue Dragon centre in Hanoi.

Viet at work on the farm

And then the coronavirus started making headlines. As it spread through China and then the world, a crisis enveloped us all.

Blue Dragon has continued working through these months. The children and families in our care are reliant on us at a time like this. They are girls and boys who have been trafficked and sold; children who have escaped violence at home and made their way to the city, only to face exploitation and further abuse.

Caring for so many children is a challenge while schools are closed, public events cancelled, and now all non-essential businesses shut. At the very same time that Blue Dragon’s work has become even more critical for the welfare of children, the nature of this global crisis has meant that donations are drying up and resources are more limited.

And so, many of the Blue Dragon children from our Hanoi centre have moved out to the farm with Viet to be in a safe and healthy environment. They’re helping in the fields a few hours and in their free time they enjoy swimming in the dam or just being in nature. In the evening the kids do their school study online and group activities. 

In this way, they’re safe from the spread of the virus in Hanoi, and able to contribute to Blue Dragon and their own wellbeing at the same time. Had they stayed in Hanoi, they would be largely locked into homes with little to do all day or at high risk of being exposed to the virus if still on the streets with no safe place to stay. 

Suddenly, Viet’s knowledge and experience is tremendously valuable. As the number of other teens on the farm has grown, Viet has quietly stepped into a role of supporting everyone to know their way around, to know what needs to be done, and to know how to cope with the inevitable challenges.

Viet has taken on the special role of being responsible for keeping the farm equipment. Every evening his job is to make sure the hoes and the shovels are back in place; the wheelbarrows are clean; and all the gloves are dry and dirt-free.

What Viet is doing is important. He has a purpose, and he’s passionate about farming. He has the respect of everyone around him.

Has he blossomed into a flawless leader? Of course not. This is no fairytale. Viet is still struggling with his own past trauma and has much to learn in his new leadership role.

But he is learning, and he’s making the most of a very bad situation. Right now, Viet is needed as a leader: and a leader he has become.

Your help is needed to keep essential services going for Viet and children like him. If you can donate the cost of a couple of cups of coffee a month, please consider joining Dragon Wings, an online community of people giving monthly for this important work. Thank you!