Matters of significance

I’m flying back today from Australia to Vietnam.

One of our friends in Sydney organized a terrific gala to raise money for Blue Dragon, so I headed over last week and joined in the event on Friday night. It really was a fantastic evening, with some awesome entrepeneurs attending all in the cause of helping kids in crisis.

Normally I’d stick around a bit longer and spend more days in Sydney, which is my hometown. But this time, I have to get home to Hanoi for some matters of significance.

Tuesday is an important day for two reasons.

First, one of the Blue Dragon “old boys” is getting married. Doan joined us back in 2004, when Blue Dragon was really just starting up. He’d come to the city because problems at home, combined with severe poverty, meant that he’d be better off as a shoeshine boy than continuing his education.

Doan is a lovely kid and has worked hard to get where he is now. After some years with our support, he opened his own mobile telephone shop and has been running his business for over 4 years now.

That alone makes him a success story – but Doan’s success goes much further than that. On a personal level, he has overcome incredible odds to leave behind life on the streets and to now be marrying the young woman he has long loved is surely the highlight of his life so far. What a guy.

And there’s another reason I need to get home: a birthday.

Tuesday is also the 17th birthday of ‘Thanh’, one of the boys who has been with us a couple of years now. Like many of the Blue Dragon kids, Thanh has had an extraordinarily difficult life, and yet has risen above it.

Thanh’s journey has been a long one, and there have been times I have feared for what would become of him. In Blue Dragon he has found a home and a family to help him heal and grow.

On Thanh’s 16th birthday I took him to a café and handed him his gift: a set of books about innovators and world leaders. We talked about the coming 12 months being a year of learning and exploration. Thanh went on to get a job as a barman and in his spare time studied music, singing, art and photography.

Most of the photos on this very blog are Thanh’s.

Tuesday will give us a chance to catch up on what Thanh is dreaming of next. He’s taken the step of allowing himself to try his hand at new endeavours; some have failed and many have succeeded. The process of simply trying, and getting back up when things go wrong, has given Thanh a new confidence in himself.

I know I should be spending more time in Sydney catching up with the business side of Blue Dragon; but some occasions are just too important to miss.

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TGIF

Emergency wards in hospitals are always terrible places to be. Nobody goes there when things are going well.

Over the past 14 years of leading Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, I’ve had more occasions than I can recall to visit emergency wards here in Hanoi. The kids we work with tend to get into a fair bit of trouble – that’s why we work with them! – and so it’s not uncommon to get a call that someone has had a motorbike accident, or a skateboarding accident, or has suffered a burn… The list goes on.

Friday night’s trip to the hospital was to see Dang, a 16 year old boy who had been beaten and stabbed at the lake in central Hanoi. A group of 4 young men had set upon him, apparently hoping to settle some score, and the only saving grace was that it was a crowded public place. Dang was quickly in an ambulance and on his way to hospital while police went after the attackers.

The emergency ward resembled Hanoi’s streets, with stretchers replacing motorbikes. Absolute chaos, with a steady stream of people limping or being carried in as though there was some kind of battle going on outside. Blood on the floor, a guard bellowing at people through a megaphone, families shouting for doctors or yelling into mobile phones.

And there was Dang: his head bandaged up, his shirt covered in blood, his right elbow strangely swollen. He stood in the passageway alone, looking dazed, and only when he saw us arriving did some light cross his eyes.

The Blue Dragon staff met with doctors to make sure Dang was getting the care he needed, then one of the team stayed by his bed while the rest of us went out on the next part of the adventure: making sure the fight was over. Word had come through that some other Blue Dragon kids had gone after the attackers and were looking for revenge, and at least 2 had been arrested.

We took to the streets to find out what was going on, and soon met up with more Blue Dragon staff who had heard about the incident and were also out looking. By now the centre of Hanoi was throbbing with nightlife, and yet within minutes we were able to find all the Blue Dragon kids who had come down to the lake after hearing about Dang. None had been fighting, and none arrested; thankfully the reports were all wrong. They were just worried about their friend.

I’m no night-owl, so I rarely head out in the evenings to just hang out. But there was a real pleasure in being out with all the staff and kids, knowing they were safe, and sharing their worry for the mate Dang.

In fact, Dang is going to be fine and has already been released from hospital. His attackers are all in custody. Things are going to be OK.

The Blue Dragon kids lead tough lives. Before they find their way to our centre, they come through many years of hardship – neglect, abuse, trafficking. Finding a new chance with us is a powerful beginning, but it can’t undo the years of damage they’ve already been through. They come to us with their histories and their ways of resolving conflicts and their complex webs of relationships; our purpose is to care for them no matter what they bring.

Friday night reminded us how harsh life can be for the kids, and also how much good they have inside of them.

It was almost midnight by the time we got all the kids back to the shelters, and we could finally all go home. Exhausted, and still worried for Dang, but relieved that Friday night ended as well as it did.

 

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Safe

Last week I wrote about Canh, a teenage boy who has been living in an internet cafe and on the streets of Hanoi for the past year.

He has been unable to return home, and wanting to join Blue Dragon but afraid he could not fit in. Instead, he’s been waiting for us to open a new safe house for kids in crisis; and on Friday we finally took the keys to the new building we’ve rented.

Blue Dragon staff were there first thing in the morning, scrubbing the house down and getting it ready for kids to move in. It’s intended as a short term home only, helping kids until they are through their time of trauma and ready to move on.

Before we’ve even finished cleaning the house – let alone furnishing it! – Canh turned up at the front door. He was ready. He wants a place to be.

Once inside, Canh found a quiet corner and curled up into a deep sleep almost immediately. He spent the next 24 hours asleep, even as people carried in furniture and worked around him. Nobody could wake him. It’s the first time in many many months since Canh felt safe enough to sleep like this, and he was making the most it.

And while Canh slept, 5 Cambodian girls started their journey home after a month at Blue Dragon.

The girls had been taken through Vietnam and into China by a sophisticated and well-resourced trafficking ring. Initially the Chinese police rescued 3 of the girls, who were bound for a brothel, and they were returned to Vietnam so that the police here could investigate. While they stayed in safe accommodation with us, the police used their information to track down 2 more young women who were then also found and set free, and returned to Vietnam.

The past month has not been easy on the 5; nobody at Blue Dragon speaks Khmer so we have been resorting to occasional interpreters and using translation apps on smart phones. Far from perfect – but at least the girls have been safe and cared for.

Finally on Friday there was an official handover ceremony between the Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities, and on the weekend all 5 started their journey home. They’ve endured so much and have shown such spirit over the past month, and they are all so relieved to now be going back to their families.

Everybody deserves to be safe.

 

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The best time of your life

Every other day, I get a text message from a boy named Canh.

He’s 16 years old, but looks not a day over 12. He is tiny, and along with it he has a child-like laugh and air of innocence.

Despite appearances, life has been hard on Canh. He lives in a dank internet cafe – Hanoi is littered with them – and spends his days staring at a screen, chain smoking. I don’t know how he makes money, but his closest friend is a teenage boy just slightly older than him who sells sex in parks at night.

Canh first ran away from home over a year ago. He spent some time at Blue Dragon before getting into a fight with some other kids, stealing their things, and running away. It was nothing major – it all could have been easily resolved – but Canh is deeply shy and throughout his life has only learned to hide from his problems, rather than deal with them.

From time to time the Blue Dragon social workers convince Canh to go home with them to see his family. We have tried really hard to make their reunions work, but they never last long. On the last trip, Canh’s mother called a fortune teller who announced that Canh keeps running away because there’s a spirit inside him. When Canh scoffed at this, the fortune teller decided that the best way to deal with the spirit would be by slapping it out of Canh.

Canh may be small, but he’s also quite used to defending himself. The fortune teller quickly regretted his decision, and Canh’s family reunion was abruptly ended. He’s been back in the internet cafe since then.

And so, Canh regularly texts me and a few other Blue Dragon staff to ask for money. We all have to coordinate our responses as we’re never sure if he’s asking one of us, or all of us. We don’t want to give him money, but someone always arranges to meet him, have a meal with him, and then give him enough to keep him alive for the next few days.

Last week one of the team responded to Canh’s message and went to meet him. As they sat eating rice together, the social worker asked Canh to think about the best time he’s ever had in life. Without much hesitation, Canh realised that in all his 16 years, the happiest and safest he’s ever been was when he was with Blue Dragon.

After many months of us working to convince Canh to leave the internet cafe behind and either return home or go to stay in a shelter, he asked if he could come back to Blue Dragon.

Finally Canh is getting his life together. Will it last? We don’t know yet; we’re still in the earliest of stages and Canh has a great deal of trauma to work through.

Being in a Blue Dragon shelter certainly doesn’t mean his problems are over; but it does mean that he now has a real chance of finding some healing and care.

 

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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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