Tides of change

This week, Blue Dragon’s Kim Miller writes a guest post for Life Is A Long Story. Her journey – and the challenge before her – are an example of true courage.

By my desk sits a postcard that starts with the words: ‘Pick the path that lights you up.’

I’ve come to believe that happiness and fulfillment, the ‘light’, doesn’t arrive in neat packages of peace and contentment. 

Rather, I feel most alive and alight in the moments of grit; when I’m being challenged, when I’m working towards something new, and when I can see a way forward that’s possible, but not necessarily a given, that it will be successful. 

Since 2014 I’ve felt that feeling of fulfillment most through my work with Blue Dragon. 

Every person on our team inspires me in their own way and makes me want to be a better person. 

I’ve seen the worst of what can happen when vulnerable young people are left to fend for themselves. I’ve also seen the powerful impact that a single person can have when they provide the care and scaffolding needed to support a young person to go from surviving to thriving. 

And the power of us working together to create the sort of change needed to do something as momentous as ending human trafficking? Unstoppable!

In 2020, yes mid-pandemic, I left Vietnam, where I was living, to return home to Australia. I still work for Blue Dragon, but I commenced a new hybrid role working mostly remotely from Sydney. 

I felt joyful to be closer to my Australian family and friends and I was excited about the impact I could have for Blue Dragon by collaborating alongside our Australian supporters… But I was left with a Blue Dragon sized hole in my heart from the absence of living and working at the epicentre of the action. 

In time, I learned to (mostly) fill that hole with ocean swimming (combined with semi-regular trips back to my Hanoi home).

Only in the ocean do I find the same level of immersion, challenge, perseverance, mindfulness and grit that I feel through my work. 

Qualifying for the English Channel swim involves spending long hours in frigid waters to prepare for the gruelling conditions in reality.

So what better way to combine these two passions than to use my passion for swimming to keep vulnerable young people safe from human trafficking? 

This July, I’ll swim 34 kilometres across the frigid water of the English Channel for Blue Dragon. I’m aiming to raise $200,000 AU, which is enough to protect 70,000 people from the horrors of human trafficking. Right now, I’m close to halfway towards that goal.

And when the swimming gets tough, as I know it will, I won’t stop, because it’s such a privilege to be able to choose our challenges in life – a privilege that victims of slavery and human trafficking aren’t afforded by the people who exploit them.

I want every stroke and action I take in life to bring someone else a little closer to that same freedom. 

You can donate to Kim’s Big Blue English Channel Swim here; and you can follow her blog, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram or email: kim@bdcf.org.

Starts here, continues there.

Alone in the shadows, San had no idea how he would survive. A chance encounter changed that; but his story is far from over.

San was sitting alone, just out of the glare of the streetlight.

Blue Dragon’s social workers are trained to spot street kids among a crowd. But San was easy to identify: sitting in the shadows, his shoulders slumped, a backpack by his feet.

Hai, the social worker, has an easy going nature. Kids instinctively trust him. He pulled his motorbike over, introduced himself to San, and within minutes they were chatting away like old friends.

Social worker Hai, on the ground, chats with 14-year-old San.

With some street kids, it’s hard to build trust. San, however, was different. He’d only recently come to the city and very quickly realised that he had walked into a terrible situation. He just wished he could go home, but he didn’t have the few dollars needed for the bus fare.

San is 14 and from the northern mountains of Vietnam. He and one of his younger brothers have already dropped out of school. His youngest brother, in Grade 4 now, doesn’t plan to go back after the coming summer holiday.

A familiar story

Their family story follows a pattern we hear all the time.

Dad was in an accident and now suffers from poor health. He drowns his sorrows with rice wine and then quarrels with his kids. Their studies have suffered and they just don’t see much reason to keep going with their education.

Finally, San decided to head to the city and look for a job. At last that way, he could send money home for his parents to survive and he would avoid arguing with his father.

But the dream of going to the big city and earning money is just an illusion for young people from the countryside. They leave home hoping to find paid employment, but in reality there are few jobs to be found for young, untrained workers. It’s much more likely that the kids will be tricked and exploited.

And so San found himself homeless, broke and hopeless. Until he met Hai.

Where to from here

San stayed at the Blue Dragon shelter a few days to catch up on sleep and food. Then he was ready for the long journey home.

When Blue Dragon reunites young people with their families – whether they’re street kids or survivors of human trafficking – we don’t just put them on a bus and wave them off.

A couple of social workers get on that bus with them and travel with the child. These journeys can take a couple of days in each direction, so they are a significant investment of time and resources. And they are always worthwhile.

It’s only when we meet the family ourselves, talk to the community leaders, and go visit the child’s school, that we can fully understand how to help.

San and a Blue Dragon social worker walking home.

And when all the key people in the child’s life know us, it’s a lot easier to get things done.

Through long discussions over shared meals, the Blue Dragon staff learned about the challenges that San and his family are facing.

They have critically little income – so we will help with some money for a few months to see them through. While we do that, we’ll work with the community to buy a few farm animals that San’s parents can raise to begin earning their own money.

San’s school teacher advised that he will need to reapply to go back to study, but knowing what he’s been through, she was very supportive and we’re confident he will be back in class shortly.

And on it goes

So is that ‘happily ever after’?

No. They take a bit longer than a week!

Helping San, his brothers and their parents will take sustained effort over the coming years. They might not need very much help from Blue Dragon, because they have a supportive community around them who is ready to help now that they understand the situation.

San’s family home.

We will stay in touch over the phone. We’ll check in with San’s teacher from time to time. And San knows that, should he want to leave home again, he can call us to discuss or ask for help.

With just this effort, San is no longer in danger of trafficking and exploitation on the city streets and his whole family has hope for the future.

But this story isn’t over. It started on the streets and it continues in a remote village, high up in the mountains.

Whatever happens next, Blue Dragon stands ready to help however we can.

The good work of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is possible only because of our amazing supporters around the world. Thank you to all who donate, volunteer, and cheer us along. Without you, San’s outlook would be very different.

Lesser known heroes

Young people who lived through homelessness and slavery are giving back by working with Blue Dragon. But their stories are rarely told.

I’m almost asleep when my phone buzzes to life.

It’s Cuong, one of the Blue Dragon “old boys”.

Sometimes our older kids, now with jobs and families of their own, get in touch to ask for help. Sometimes they just want to stay in touch or catch up for a meal.

Cuong’s call is for a different reason. He tells me that he’s on his way to the Blue Dragon shelter with a 14-year-old boy he has just met, sleeping rough on the city streets.

A former street kid (left, in the cap) accompanies a homeless boy to a Blue Dragon shelter.

Cuong works in a cafe and often delivers drinks or meals to customers. A former street kid, he has a keen eye for children hiding in the shadows and knows when somebody is in danger.

He didn’t choose to follow a career in social work and he doesn’t want people to know his history of escaping an abusive family and living under a bridge until Blue Dragon met him. But he wants to help however he can; it’s his way of giving back.

East v West

To a western way of thinking, Cuong can be proud of his journey. He has overcome incredible hardship, beaten the odds, to make something of his life. He’s a fine young man and has no reason to be ashamed.

However, Cuong sees it differently. He fears that people will judge him for coming from such a place of disadvantage. Perhaps people won’t trust him. And he knows that no girl’s parents would want their daughter to marry a former street kid.

Cuong’s way of thinking is not unusual among the Blue Dragon community. Young people who were trafficked, enslaved, abandoned and exploited rarely want others to know what they have been through.

This is more of an “eastern” way of thinking, if I dare to generalise so broadly.

Success stories

Blue Dragon’s co-CEO Vi Do is a well known “success story.” He was once a shoeshine boy on Hanoi’s streets and now, along with Skye Maconachie, shares the senior leadership of the organisation.

But throughout Blue Dragon, there are many staff who also have the “lived experience” of being a street kid, or surviving human trafficking; and most are unwilling to share their story with the world. So of course, we respect that. Their story is their own to keep or to share as they choose.

And then there are those like Cuong, who go out into the world to work and live independently, but keep finding ways to come back to Blue Dragon.

Several of our “old boys” work alongside staff at night on the streets as outreach workers. Their job is to go to places where homeless children might gather and offer assistance.

Our “old girls” similarly get involved as volunteers while they study and into their careers.

Each does this work out of their desire to help others, as they were once helped; and they entrust us to keep their stories confidential.

Survivors as leaders

Within the anti-trafficking sector is a wonderful movement to give survivors of trafficking more voice. “Survivor leadership” has recently emerged as a topic of much discussion.

This concept of “leadership” can take many forms. In some places, it means ensuring that survivors of trafficking have more opportunities to take on roles as advocates and public figures.

In Vietnam, it often takes a quieter, more discrete form. Those who have lived through exploitation and want to give back are more likely to assume leadership roles within their peer group or family – or their extended community, such as at Blue Dragon – than on a public stage.

Young people like Cuong are indeed “survivor leaders” even though the world may never know.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is on a mission to end human trafficking.

Go small or go home

A 14 year old girl rescued from slavery. A community just wanting to break the shackles of poverty. An opportunity to make a lasting change.

It was a misty, muddy day in the northern mountains of Vietnam.

I was on my way to meet Ma, a teenage girl we had rescued weeks earlier from forced labour in a factory. She was 14 years old and wanted nothing more than to be home with her family.

I knew that life for her was difficult, and arriving in her village I could see why. Their sheer remoteness – so far from services, proper roads, jobs and hospitals – made for a harsh environment.

Walking through an ethnic minority village.

It’s easy to enter a village and see their deficits. But the key to helping people is always to find their strengths.

On this day, the answer came quickly: Community.

The village seemed almost empty, but as we walked along a narrow track between timber stilt houses we could hear a muffled chattering nearby. And then we could see many dozens of plastic flipflops piled and scattered at the base of one such house, which was larger than all the others.

A woman’s head popped out from the door above us and called us up. Off with our shoes and up the ladder we went!

The gathering

While the air outside was cold and damp, inside the traditional stilt house of this ethnic community was much warmer. Packed into the single-room building were at least 70 people, mostly women, and all dressed in the colourful outfits that were customary to this community.

The chattering was in a language unfamiliar to me. This was an ethnic Thai village, and the local language was used far more widely than the mainstream Vietnamese Kinh language.

Through translators, the village leader welcomed me and my colleagues from Blue Dragon and in turn we introduced ourselves. Despite our attempts at maintaining confidentiality, they all knew who we were and that we had recently helped one of their teen girls escape from slavery and return home.

Ma was at school, they told us, so we would see her later. For now, we were invited to take part in their community meeting.

An opportunity suddenly presented itself. Here was a gathering of members from almost every family in the village. We knew that the villages all across these mountains were being targeted by human traffickers. They came to town promising hope for people to escape their poverty. False offers of jobs and training led to children and adults alike being trapped into unpaid forced labour, unable to escape.

Community education

Taking a mobile phone from his pocket, one of my colleagues opened up his photos of the sweatshop where Ma had been taken more than a year ago. Relying on a translator, we talked about what these factories were like: the long hours, the harsh treatment, the lack of payment.

As that phone passed from hand to hand, the mothers and fathers visibly gasped. Mostly they were silent with shock. Some muttered angrily to the people sitting around them.

This was not what they had been promised by the “successful job brokers” who came to their village.

The parents were appalled. Our photos, taken in the sweatshops where children from this region were put to work, showed the awful conditions in which they lived. Sitting on a concrete floor cutting cloth. Working at machines that were much larger than the children themselves. No parent wants that for their child.

We talked to the community about what they thought the ‘job brokers’ were offering. They shared their disappointment at learning they had been tricked. Many knew someone, or were related to someone, who had followed them for work.

Changing hearts and minds

When it came time to go and see Ma, I sensed that a shift had taken place in this community.

Next time the traffickers came to town, they had no chance. In fact, I wondered if there might even be violence. Now that these parents had seen the images and heard the stories, they would never be deceived again.

Efforts to prevent human trafficking are often focused on reaching the largest number of people possible. This is to save money, be more efficient, and achieve the holy grail of ‘scalability’.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with mass campaigns. Some undoubtedly work.

But time and again, I’ve seen in Vietnam that the most effective way of changing minds and behaviour is to do so on a very ‘local’ level.

Local does it

The people who are most vulnerable to human trafficking are villagers like those in Ma’s community. Ethnic minority communities are vastly over-represented as victims of exploitation.

So the question becomes: How can we help them to stay safe?

One thing I know for certain is that they’re not interested in hearing from celebrities. Messages from sports stars and singers don’t move them. Strangers in suits coming to town from NGOs and embassies to give speeches or put up posters have no impact at all.

What’s needed is much ‘smaller’ than that.

That morning, as we sat with the community and got to know them, we connected. Mothers and fathers asked us questions, shared their own stories. We listened and asked them questions of our own.

A community education meeting inside a traditional stilt house.

Even though we were strangers, they knew we had helped one of their children. We weren’t just promising help in the future; we had already proven ourselves by doing something they appreciated.

Local-level solutions like this are powerful. Scaling them up requires a more ‘back to basics’ approach: it’s all about working with people and building trust. And Blue Dragon’s work shows it can be done.

Ma was back at school, more than happy to cross the hills and streams each day to attend her classes.

Her family was delighted that their daughter was safely home.

And her community was determined that no more of their children would be lured away by the false promises of human trafficking.

Community conversations just like this one were key to ending the trafficking of children to garment sweatshops and are now central to our strategy for ending all major forms of trafficking in Vietnam. A donation to Blue Dragon‘s work will make a real difference in the lives of children and communities.

The Year That Made Me

This week I was asked to nominate a point in time that made me who I am today. My choice was easy – but for complicated reasons.

Sometimes, great things happen because of good planning and lots of hard work.

Other times, we look back with surprise and wonder how they happened at all.

This week I was delighted to be featured on an ABC Radio program called “The Year That Made Me.” You can listen to the episode here.

The premise of the interview is to explore the events of a single year that stands out as being pivotal in someone’s life. For me, that year was 2002.

The plan that was not to be

It was in 2002 that I left Australia with a few clothes and books, believing that I would set up in Ho Chi Minh City as an English teacher.

By the end of the year, I was living in Hanoi helping street kids get back to school; and in collaboration with some friends the idea for creating Blue Dragon was born.

Blue Dragon’s first shelter for street kids opened in 2003.

Since then, every year has been significant. I can’t think of a single year when “nothing much happened.” 2003 was the year we started our first shelter for homeless teens. In 2004, Blue Dragon officially registered as a charity. In 2005, we rescued the very first child from human trafficking.

And so on…

But none of this was planned. At least, not in the beginning.

In those early days when some friends and I went out onto the streets offering help to ‘shoeshine boys’, we didn’t know that our efforts would lead to something much bigger.

I recall the day that I counted how many children we were assisting in one way or another. The total: 30. I thought to myself: “Well, this is probably the limit of how many kids we can help.”

Today Blue Dragon is reaching about 20,000 people around Vietnam.

Similarly, I thought that our first rescue of a child from trafficking would be a one-time event. The boy, Ngoc, was 13 years old and had been trafficked to work as a flower seller on the city streets. I just wanted to help him go home.

Since that “one-time event,” we’ve rescued 1,550 people from slavery.

And it has all happened because, in 2002, my plan to start a simple new life fell apart.

A better plan

As Blue Dragon grows, planning becomes more important. After all, there are children and families who depend on us. Rescuing someone from a brothel or forced labor can’t be left to chance.

But the plan is never the master. It never has been. The plan is there to serve us; and when it no longer serves us, we make a new plan.

Because the needs of people must come first. Always. That’s the plan.

Taking part in the radio interview was a great opportunity to reflect on my personal journey as well as Blue Dragon’s growth.

As we mark Blue Dragon’s official 20th birthday, there’s much to celebrate.

I’m just glad that I didn’t stick to my original plan all those years ago.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation works in Vietnam to end human trafficking.

This is what it’s all about

After a terrifying year enslaved in a brothel, Linh is home. Her rescue reminds us that there is much we can do to end human trafficking.

For a few moments, 13-month-old Bi looked mystified as he stared at the woman before him. She was both familiar and foreign, leaving him lost in a haze of confusion.

But as she held him to her body and cried his name, understanding dawned on Bi’s face. This was his mother.

Linh and Bi, reunited.

Bi’s mother Linh left their home in southern Vietnam almost a year ago.

She didn’t want to leave her son but felt that she had no choice. Her little boy, then just 3 months old, was growing fast and Linh knew that she needed an income. In their quiet village in the Mekong delta, there were no factories or businesses with jobs on offer. So she set out to find work further afield, leaving Bi with his grandmother.

Linh just wanted to earn enough so that she could send money home each month for her mother and her child to survive.

Thinking that she was on her way to northern Vietnam for a job in a restaurant, she was instead trafficked to Myanmar and sold into a brothel. For almost a year, life was a constant hell. The only thing that sustained her through the pain and terror she endured was the hope that she could hold her child again one day.

Blue Dragon went in search of Linh. Following a complex operation, we brought her home last week, along with other women who had suffered similar fates at the hands of the traffickers.

Home again

Most likely, Bi will grow up remembering neither his year without a mother nor the day she returned home. But the pain of separation and the joy of their reunion is certainly something that Linh will never forget.

Blue Dragon has rescued more than 1,500 people from places of slavery: brothels, sweatshops, forced “marriages” and forced labor. We’ve brought home people who were tortured, shot, operated upon, raped and beaten.

While it’s the rescue that seems most dramatic, it’s the moment of reunion that is the most powerful.

Some journeys home end with tears of devastating grief. There are people we’ve rescued who were away for many years and returned to find their parents have died, never knowing what fate befell their missing child.

Some journeys end in shock, like the teen we rescued who had no idea she was pregnant with twins.

And some journeys end with the true joy of a family reunited, of hope restored.

Life is a long story and continues well beyond the rescue operation.

The children, women and men we bring home invariably struggle with trauma, feelings of shame and the hardship caused by months and years lost to slavery. But by far, most go on to write their own story of survival. Some pick up where they left off while others start over anew.

Perhaps the deepest cruelty of human trafficking is that it denies its victims the control of their own life, their own story. People in slavery have little agency over their day to day; “tomorrow” is beyond imagination.

Right now, there are so many more people awaiting rescue. We must find them and bring them home, while at the same time doing all we can to end human trafficking forever.

To see Linh back with her family, once again the author of her own story, is what drives us on to do this work.

In a world where the news is filled daily with stories and images of tragedy out of our control, this is something that we can do.

If you can, please consider a gift to Blue Dragon’s urgent appeal. All funds raised will go toward operations to rescue people trapped in slavery.

Bringing out the inner entrepreneur

It’s easy to talk about ‘breaking the cycle of poverty’. But for a person who has spent their whole life in poverty, what does it take to make a change?

She was nervous at the start. By the end, she was beaming.

Linh has never really felt in control of her life before. She’s always been poor and always at the mercy of others.

As a single mother raising 3 kids, her whole life is about providing for her family – as with most parents. But with no savings, no home of her own and no support, getting by is a daily struggle.

When you live in such extreme poverty, it’s impossible to get ahead. Linh only ever has enough money for a day at a time; planning for the future or saving for a ‘rainy day’ is just a fantasy.

Blue Dragon has been getting to know Linh for the past year. Her kids are at our Hanoi centre every day, joining classes and activities as they prepare to go back to school. Now we’re finding how we can help Linh directly so that she has the dignity of providing for her children without the need for charitable help.

Tools for the future

And so we’ve been working with Linh to uncover her dreams and aspirations. What is she good at? What does she enjoy doing? What kind of work would she like for the future?

Nobody has ever asked her these questions before, so the answers didn’t come naturally. But with some time and guidance, Linh has identified that she’d love to have a food stall, selling dishes like dumplings and sticky rice.

Work like this will allow her to prepare the food at home and sell at a stall or market during hours that she’s in control of. This will give her the flexibility she needs to look after the kids.

Last week, Linh’s training for her new business kicked off. She is spending time at Blue Dragon with a chef who is showing her how to make the dishes she wants to sell and teaching her the basics of food hygiene.

Turning up for her first day of training, Linh was visibly worried. Would she be able to master this? Did she really have what it would take?

But her ability wasn’t the issue. It was all about confidence. Once she got started and could see that food preparation came naturally to her, Linh was beaming with pride.

Linh making new dishes with her chef trainer.

Next we’ll mentor Linh in managing her finances, then we’ll help her find a site to set up business.

For some months, and maybe even a year, Linh may still need financial assistance. Her kids will still need to join Blue Dragon’s classes. This step to independence is just that: it’s a step. It will take time.

But there will soon be a day when Linh is no longer thinking just about survival. She may even have some savings in the bank.

The final product: A hand-wrapped Vietnamese dumpling called ‘banh gio’.

Best of all, Blue Dragon’s work is to draw out of Linh the talents and abilities that she already has. She’s always wanted to work and to be her own boss; she’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Now she has the support to live out her dreams.

With a little time and the right, targeted assistance, Linh might finally have reason to hope for the future.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation works in Vietnam to end human trafficking.

Will this ever get better?

Trinh feared she would never see her family again. Today, she is safely home. What can we do to end this crisis once and for all?

On Saturday morning, Trinh walked across the border back to Vietnam.

It was a long journey home for the 31-year-old. Almost a year ago, she was trafficked to Myanmar and sold into a brothel: a violent, terrifying place where she believed she would surely die.

Trinh had the courage and good fortune to one day be able to call for help. This set in motion Blue Dragon’s rescue operation which came to fruition on the weekend when she finally reached her homeland.

Trinh on the journey from Myanmar to Vietnam.

The path home was long and dangerous. Trinh and the rescue team crossed rivers and jungles, taking boats, motorbikes and buses to escape danger and make it home safely.

And Trinh’s rescue isn’t the only one we’ve been working on. As I write this, we have 8 more operations underway, bringing home a total of 17 more people.

As we complete them, new operations will begin immediately.

Calls for help

Blue Dragon is on track this year to rescue from slavery double the number of people we rescued in 2020. That’s a rapid and deeply worrying growth in the need for our services.

So we’ve just launched an emergency appeal, asking friends around the world to donate to this work.

The problem is: We did the same thing last year.

Does this mean we’ll be calling for urgent help like this every year?

I want to believe that the answer is ‘no’. Looking forward, there’s hope that this crisis in human trafficking will eventually peak and recede. I shared my thoughts on why I remain optimistic in this post just a few weeks ago.

But I also know that human trafficking isn’t a problem that will disappear any time soon. While Blue Dragon is working on a big picture initiative to reduce its incidence across Vietnam, we know that it will take a long-term effort to really make a difference.

And as a charity, the only way we can make anything happen is by asking for support from the global community.

All of which means that we may well be calling again for urgent help. Not because we want to, but because that’s the only way we can respond to the children, women and men in slavery who are desperate for someone to rescue them.

As we rescue, we’ll keep on working to strengthen communities so that people are safe from being trafficked in the first place.

We have to believe that one day this work will be over. When there’s no more need to rescue another person, Blue Dragon’s job will be done.

Thank you to all who have already donated. If you can, please consider a gift to Blue Dragon’s urgent appeal.

Good – for poor people

When it comes to charity, why do we give people in poverty services and assistance that we would never accept ourselves?

I was sitting in a café chatting to the owner, who asked about my work.

When I told her, she pulled out a plastic bottle stuffed with discarded plastic bags. With a huge smile on her face, she proudly told me that she was involved in a project to collect discarded plastic to build houses.

Fantastic idea! But her enthusiasm gave me pause when she continued: These houses will be good for poor people.

The idea of creatively using waste rather than sending it to landfill is one that I wholeheartedly support. But I have to question why such an initiative is suitable only for poor people. Why not for those who are considered middle class or wealthy?

Would the cafe owner live in such a house herself?

Last year, Blue Dragon built 100 houses for people in extreme poverty.

An architect and a builder designed the houses, with different styles for different regions of the country. In the northern mountains, we built houses to reflect the same style as the traditional houses around them. In central Vietnam, where flooding is common, houses were built up above flooding levels with escape hatches in the rooves to prevent drowning.

Before:

After:

While we had several designs for each family to choose from, they could modify their choice according to the number of residents and their specific needs.

In other words, every family got what they needed and wanted, rather than simply what Blue Dragon decided to give them. The result is that the 100 houses are all unique and match the local conditions. There’s no noticeable difference between the houses of the “poor people” and their neighbours.

And best of all, many families have told us that they now live in their “dream house.” By having input into every stage of the process, from design to construction, their new homes are truly their own.

Building houses, building dreams

Our work with young people follows the same principles.

When Blue Dragon was beginning 20 years ago, it was common to hear people say things like: Disadvantaged boys should learn motorcycle repair. Girls should learn sewing or cooking.

Those same limits were never imposed on children from wealthier families, who had the option to go to university or take on any job they were interested in. 

Of course, some Blue Dragon kids do want to study motorbike repair. Or cooking or sewing. And we make sure they have that option.

But we also offer scholarships for school leavers to study at a tertiary level. Right now we have about 160 kids in college and university.

The point is that every child should be able to find their strengths and achieve their own dream, not just do whatever is considered “good for poor people”.

Luong’s story exemplifies this.

When we found him, he was working in a sweatshop at the age of 14. Now he’s an outstanding pastry chef and chocolatier, working in five star resorts and teaching other young people his skills.

His story features this week on the Blue Dragon website.

In the same way, we’ve had girls and boys study abroad in jobs from engineering to medicine to teaching… And also some who want to work as farmers or stay at home and raise a family.

Whatever the dream, that’s what we’re here for.

Because what’s really “good for poor people” is the same as what’s good for all of us.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation works in Vietnam to end human trafficking.

Busting the boundaries

When Blue Dragon first started, many believed we were destined to fail. Had we listened to them, life for vulnerable children would be very different today.

​You might have heard that it’s Blue Dragon’s 20th birthday this year.

We don’t often stop to celebrate milestones or achievements in Blue Dragon. But this time, we’re taking the opportunity to reflect and celebrate what we’ve done over the years.

A question that often comes up is: what do we consider our biggest achievements?

There are certainly a few successes that stand out among the many. Some of them are very clear. Our 1500 rescues of people from slavery is a key accomplishment that we are acknowledging this year.

And some of them are less easy to define. One such achievement is what I want to write about today.

Although Blue Dragon is well-known now as an anti-trafficking organisation, in our early days we were focused solely on protecting street kids.

Hanoi shoeshine boy, 2004

It’s hard to remember and even harder for people to imagine what that work was like 20 years ago.

As a group of volunteers and friends who were doing our best to get kids off the streets and back to school, we had some good support. But we also had some extraordinary obstacles and opposition. 

I can’t recall how many times people told me that street kids weren’t worth helping. One foreign embassy worker said to me: “Those kids don’t want help. They just want money.”

And then there were those who didn’t believe that we had any chance of succeeding. One well-respected aid worker spat down the phone at me: “You’re not an expert. This work should be done by people who know what they’re doing.”

The problem was, there were no “experts” to be found other than those sitting in offices writing reports. Hanoi simply didn’t have programs for street children. There were some excellent vocational training programs, but they relied on the kids being a certain age and academic level, and interested in a particular course of study.

For kids who were under age or had dropped out of school early or were traumatised from abuse, there was basically nothing.

Girl selling food by the road, 2004

So the idea of “leaving it to the experts” essentially meant: do nothing. Let the kids try to survive on their own.

Today our work protecting street kids is not controversial at all. We have won awards for it, both locally and internationally.

We have a center and shelters for street kids and we routinely advocate for the needs of children we meet on the streets.

What was considered outrageous and risky 20 years ago is mainstream today.

And that is one of the successes that I’m most proud of. It’s also something that nobody really notices, because the shift has been so gradual.

The people who tried to discourage me all those years ago probably don’t even remember it that way. They may look back at that time as giving me practical advice which was helpful to my development.

I look today at the thousands of kids we’ve helped to get off the street, back to school and home with their families. Many are now in great jobs, have families of their own, and some even work or study in other countries.

The ripple effect in those children’s families and communities is immeasurable.

What would have become of these kids had I let the criticism and discouragement stop me? It’s unthinkable what life would be like for street kids today if Blue Dragon had never begun.

Rented room where street workers, including kids and adults, lived together, 2004

In every corner of the world, there’s an accepted way of doing things. A socially acceptable set of boundaries that everyone is expected to work within.

Those boundaries serve a purpose. They unify society and set cultural norms. At times, they keep us safe.

But they can also stop us from fighting for what’s right, like protecting street kids when nobody else will do it.

This was a difficult time in Blue Dragon’s history. As volunteers on the frontline, we were standing up for what we knew was right and persisting even when people thought we were wrong.

We defied expectations, pushed past conventional limits and spoke up for people who had no voice.

It wasn’t easy. But sometimes, that’s the only way to make real change.

Thanks for following the story of Blue Dragon. You’re invited to join me and my colleagues on Tuesday March 26 for a webinar about human trafficking, including how it impacts street kids. Sign up here.