At first we could only see Panh’s feet.
He had taken refuge in a construction site with another homeless teen. They were in such a deep sleep that no amount of noise could wake them. Their faces were covered with blankets, so we couldn’t even see who they might be.
Sleep is precious when you’re homeless. It’s also dangerous.
Panh is 14. He had been in the city for nearly 2 weeks when Blue Dragon social workers found him. But it wasn’t his first time running away from home.
Born high up in the mountains of northern Vietnam, Panh’s story is one we have heard too many times. His parents separated before he was born; his mother remarried; and as a child he was left with his elderly grandparents to care for.
In a region so remote and economically poor, Panh’s early years were filled with hardship. His grandparents loved him, but he longed for the love of his parents. Going to school without enough money to pay his fees, or for lunch, put him to shame; and knowing that all his friends would go home at night to their mothers and fathers only made him feel deeply inadequate.
Over time, Panh increasingly acted out in ways that demanded the attention of his family. He skipped school. He didn’t come home at night. And before long he was really pushing the limits: stealing bicycles around the village and hanging out with older kids who already had a bad name in town.
But when we met him in Hanoi, buried in a filthy blanket and deep in an exhausted sleep, all we saw was a child desperate for love and attention.
At heart, Panh is a good kid.
So when we offered help to get him to a safe shelter – and later, to return to his village – Panh knew it was the right thing to do. He was also glad of a safe place to sleep.
Last week we took Panh home. It was a long journey – the social workers were on the road with him for 3 days. He’s back at his father’s house now, and his school and community has committed to looking out for him.
But to be honest, we’re half expecting that Panh will return to the streets before long.
Because life will still be tough back in the village. Panh wants to be with his father, but in reality his dad struggles with an alcohol addiction and he won’t be as helpful tomorrow as he’s promised today. This is no ‘happy ever after’ ending.
And that’s the reality of working with street kids.
Some just need a helping hand one day to get back to their family or to a safe shelter where they’ll stay until they finish their schooling. Others will stumble from crisis to disaster, and may even end up in trouble with the law. Life is messy and complex even for those of us lucky enough to have a loving family around us. For street kids, there may never be an end to the hardships that they know.
Blue Dragon’s work with victims of human traffickers has a clear end point. We want to see the day that trafficking just doesn’t happen any more. We can’t say when that day will be, but that’s the goal and we believe it’s achievable.
In our work with street kids, the goal is very different. We know that there will always be children working and living on the streets. There will never be a tidy end to this work.
Instead, we have set a very different goal. Blue Dragon is aiming to make sure that every street child in Hanoi, where our main centre is based, has access to someone who can care for them.
And we know that caring for street kids is more complex than it sounds. Experienced social workers and psychologists are critical to this work. Lawyers are too, and Panh’s case is a great example. Because his father left home before he was born, Panh has never had official registration as a citizen. Now he does, thanks to Blue Dragon’s work with his village police. That means he’s now legally entitled to support from the government. It sounds like a tiny detail, but it makes a massive difference in anyone’s life.
The Consortium for Street Children – of which Blue Dragon is a member – acknowledges April 12 as the International Day For Street Children.
The theme this year is the right for street children to access the services they need so they can have a safe and prosperous life like anyone else: shelter, education, psychology, legal advocacy.
It’s a basic right for street children to have access to these services, yet it seems so difficult in practice. Because it’s messy. It often involves having social workers climbing around construction sites or under bridges late at night, looking for kids who are hiding or sleeping, afraid to reveal who they are.
Making sure that every street child has access to someone who cares – who really cares – is a bold and ambitious dream. It’s a dream we all must work toward, because together we can do it.
Children on the streets need special care and and attention. We hope that Panh will be OK now that he’s home; but we must accept that he may still need further help. His difficult days are not yet over.
And if Panh does return to the streets, looking to escape the hardships of his life, we will be here for him.
Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.