20 years away

Nga walked across the border from China to Vietnam on Friday, 20 years after she was taken across by a gang of traffickers.

Nga is in her 50s now. Most of the rescue operations that we conduct at Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation are of children and teens; but in reality we never say no to any call for help, no matter what age the person.

Aged 33 when she was taken, Nga had a 6 year old son and a family who loved her very much. Her disappearance was a cause for deep concern: nobody knew where she was or what had happened. Eventually, everyone assumed she must be dead. They could never hope to see her again.

Nga, too, lived a life without hope. After falling pregnant to the Chinese man who bought her, she had a miscarriage so was beaten and sold to another family. The new ‘husband’ treated her even worse, and for well over a decade she lived a life of misery and horror.

When she was finally able to run away, Nga didn’t know where she was or who to turn to for help. Her experiences had left her disoriented and estranged from everyone she had ever known. After spending time living on the streets, she was taken in by a friendly man who could speak some Vietnamese and wanted a wife. He was kind to her and cared for her – yet was still her jailer. Nga didn’t believe she could ever return home, but still dreamt that it might happen.

Earlier this year, some Vietnamese people passing through the village met Nga by chance and learned her unbelievable story. When they returned to Vietnam, they informed the police and word reached the Blue Dragon rescue team. With some effort we were able to locate Nga and bring her home – to everyone’s astonishment.

Nga’s son is now in his late 20s and has a wife and child of his own. Her son is overwhelmed to be reunited with the mother he has grown up believing was dead.

The impossible has suddenly happened: Nga is no longer a slave, no longer a commodity to be bought, sold, and abused. She has a new life, and it will not be easy for even a moment but it is a life that she has secretly yearned for all these years.

I can’t say that this is a happy ending, as Nga’s life will always be filled with pain; but it is still an ending that gives Nga a chance for some happiness.

And it makes me wonder: How many other people are out there like Nga, thinking their life is all but over without any hope of making it home?




Bringing out the best

A few weeks ago, Vietnam celebrated an annual day to honour the Kitchen Gods. Right before Lunar New Year, legend has it that the Kitchen Gods ride to heaven on the back of a fish to report to the other Gods about how things are going down on earth. To mark the day, Vietnamese people release a live fish into rivers and lakes.

As with many traditions, the custom of releasing the fish has been given a modern slant. Men and women riding their motorbikes to work in the morning buy a fish in a clear plastic bag, and as they drive by a lake or river hurl the fish, still in the bag, out into the water. In some places, enterprising children stand by the shore to pluck the bags out and resell the fish to other customers.

What started as a quaint custom of setting an animal free has morphed into a national day of polluting waterways.

This year, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. Riding to work across Hanoi’s famed Long Bien Bridge, I passed dozens of university students armed with hand-made signs urging people not to throw plastic into the river. It was a freezing day – the wind was particularly icy – but these students stood their ground,  smiling pleasantly and politely while ensuring it was only fish, and not plastic, that was tossed into the river.

How they were organised and where they were from is a mystery to me. All I know is that they saw an ongoing social issue and decided to take action, for no reward other than the satisfaction of making their city a little better.

On a much larger scale, something similar has been happening in Australia. Tens of thousands of people have been rallying around a call to “Let them stay,” a tag-line referring to people applying for refugee status who are shipped offshore to detention on Manus Island and Nauru. While the Australian government has a policy of sending all refugee applicants who arrive by boat to offshore detention, community opposition is increasing both in number and in passion. Protests are popping up everywhere: churches, hospitals, schools, unions, and of course social media is playing an active part.

These are two examples of everything that’s right with our world: people stepping up and taking action to right a wrong in their own community. Apart from the fact that such actions tend to lead to great results, there’s something inherently right about ordinary people accepting responsibility for the problems around them and trying to create change. Even if their action lead to no result at all, there is still real worth in trying.

Throughout our lives we see over and again that terrible situations can bring out the best in us. Think New York in the weeks after 9/11: never before had the city’s citizens come together with such unity. In my own life, I have experienced incredible support and kindness from people during times that I have been grieving or suffering some exceptional hardship. I see it, too, in the people I work with at Blue Dragon: it’s just a matter of course that people will work through the night, or travel hundreds of miles along bumpy roads, to rescue someone in danger or care for a sick child. A few years ago, when we were moving into our new centre in Hanoi and were overwhelmed with the enormity of the task, family members of the children we help came out in force to clean, scrape paint, and wash down walls. These are all people with their own serious problems, but seeing our need they didn’t think twice before volunteering.

This capacity to step up when there’s a need is a wonderful human characteristic. It leaves me wondering, though: why do we need a crisis to bring out such generosity? Is it possible that we could always stand up for others, and always go that extra mile to care for our community, even when there isn’t a major event to rally around?

Is it possible that we show the people around us that extra love and care in ordinary circumstances, and not only when they are suffering?

Imagine what our world could be like if we didn’t need a crisis to bring out the best in us.




Heroes among us

Trong has a mobile phone business. He buys and sells second hand phones from a shopfront in a winding alley in Hanoi. All day long, people stop by to recharge their phone credit, or repair their broken screen, or sell the phone they bought a few weeks ago but now can’t afford. It’s a booming business, and in his spare time Trong dreams of opening a second shop so his brother has a job too. But first he hopes to marry his sweetheart – once he convinces her parents to agree to the union.

Lan and Thi’s massage parlour is a 3 hour drive from Hanoi; it’s close to the beach in an area that’s popular with Vietnamese tourists during the summer, but quiet during the cold winter months. These days Lan mostly runs the business alone, while Thi cares for their infant son, but she’ll be back at work soon and in the meantime Lan earns enough to satisfy his family’s needs.

Luong is still at school, now in her senior years and starting to think about university. She is a popular kid in her class; her marks are good enough for her to consider studying law or finance, but her status in school and the community is down to her open and caring nature. She’s friends with everyone –  always has a kind word, always has a smile, embodies all the values that Vietnamese culture prides itself on.

Trong, Lan and Thi, and Luong are following very different paths in life. But they’re all friends of mine; all count themselves as “Blue Dragon kids” and drop by our centre when they can.

Trong’s customers love his phone service, but they don’t know that the young entrepeneur behind the counter once walked the city’s streets shining shoes. After his mother’s death, Trong’s father descended into a drunken stupor, took another wife, and sent his 2 sons away to work. Just 14 years old, Trong had to fend for himself until someone from Blue Dragon met him and took him in.

There’s no question that visitors to Lan and Thi’s massage parlour know that the proprietors are blind. It’s not uncommon in Vietnam for blind people to be involved in massage businesses. But the extraordinary tragedy of Lan, now a proud father who has never seen his own son but as a child had the gift of sight, is unimaginable to most. Growing up in a poor but happy family in the countryside, his world turned upside down when, aged 9, he found a metal ball in the field and brought it home. The resulting explosion, when the grenade left over from the Vietnam-American war detonated, killed his mother, destroyed their house, and left Lan permanently blind. The only family member uninjured was Minh, Lan’s older brother, who had to quit school and make his way to Hanoi to earn money as a street kid. A family once devastated, Lan’s massage business is now central to their economy and keeps them afloat.

And Luong, a high-flying student so popular with her peers: I remember the day her panicked parents came to the Blue Dragon centre to report her missing. Aged 10, she spent the days walking the city streets selling chewing gum alongside her brothers and parents. This one unfortunate day, they became separated for just a few minutes. Luong was picked up and taken to a detention centre without anyone knowing what had happened; it was over a week before one of our lawyers tracked her down and helped her return to her family. That was the last time she worked on the streets. The terrifying incident of their only daughter vanishing was enough to make the family decide that whatever sacrifice was needed, Luong needed to be in school.

Trong, Lan and Thi and Luong live with a degree of anonymity. Most people they meet from day to day cannot conceive of the tragedies and horrors they have lived through. And yet from day to day they succeed in their endeavours; they work, they study, they hold their heads high. Nobody can know the fields of fire they have walked through to get where they are now.

Today as you drive to work, or walk through the market, take a moment to think of the people you pass and chat with. There are so many hidden heroes among us; people whose very ordinariness is a testament to incredible resilience.

We may never know the stories of those we pass in the streets each day, just as others may never know the stories hidden in our own hearts.




Endless night

Cleaning out my desk at home, I stumbled across an old photo. It was taken 12 years ago by a teenager who had just joined Blue Dragon and was learning photography with a volunteer.

The photo is of a little girl aged 3 or 4, living in the Long Bien market of Hanoi with her grandmother. They are squatting in absolute filth beneath a staircase that crosses the dike wall; the entire sum of their possessions is a rotting blanket, a straw mat, and some scrap in plastic bags.

I don’t remember seeing the photo when it was first taken, and I didn’t know the little girl then. I know her now. Today “Thuy” is 16, and in prison for her part in a criminal gang that terrorised the suburbs of Hanoi for a couple of years. Her undoing was her involvement in a gang rape. She tricked another homeless girl into going with her to a room where a group of boys was waiting, and one by one took turns in brutally raping the terrified child.

Seeing the photo of Thuy as an infant reminds me of some lines penned by William Blake, the 19th century English poet:

Some are Born to sweet delight 
Some are Born to Endless Night

Thuy was born into nothing. No hope, no love, no education. Her grandmother had lived such a hard life that she had no affection to share with the baby who was left with her when Thuy’s mother disappeared out the door and never came back.

Her undignified start to life made Thuy feel ashamed. Living in the market afforded her no privacy – not even when going to the toilet or bathing – and no protection. By joining up with a gang, she found power and purpose that her life otherwise lacked.

In the last 20 years, Vietnam’s economy has developed at a staggering pace; most developed nations can only dream of the annual rates of growth that have been achieved, even in the slower periods. Major cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Danang and Hanoi have grown into bustling metropolises packed with skyscrapers and luxury cars.

But inevitably, the gap between rich and poor has widened. Those with nothing – born into “endless night” – want a chance to make it. Too many, like Thuy under the staircase, live on the margins of society until somebody comes along to exploit them or recruit them for nefarious purposes.

Thuy’s situation is not unique to Vietnam. This week in the US, a San Fransisco tech dude made the headlines for his open letter to the Mayor and Police Chief complaining, in large, about having to see poor and homeless “riff raff” around the city. It’s hard being homeless anywhere.

When that photo of Thuy was taken, way back in 2004, was it already too late to help her? Was she already irretrievably on the path to destruction and violence? Or could an intervention, a helping hand, have changed her course?

We’ll never know. But for the next little girl or boy living rough on the streets, there is still a chance to make a change. Being “born to Endless Night” surely doesn’t have to mean a life of hardship, exploitation and pain.

For every child, there has to be hope that life can offer something better.



A major gift

When it comes to fundraising, charitable organisations talk about ‘major gifts’: the grants and donations that are ‘major’ in terms of their size compared to the charity’s budget. They are ‘major’ because of their impact on what the organisation can do.

But another way to look at ‘major gifts’ is from the point of view of the person giving the gift – the donor. A gift of $10,000 might not be a significant sum for a billionaire to donate; but $20 might be a major gift from a retiree or a student.

On the last day of work before Vietnam rested for the lunar new year, a young man came and handed me one such major gift.

It has been a few years since I last saw “Thai” but our first encounter was during one of Blue Dragon’s first rescue missions about 10 years ago. We were looking for children who had been trafficked for labour exploitation and came across Thai walking the streets of Ho Chi Minh City selling flowers and trinkets for a ring of child traffickers. Thai was deeply relieved to meet us and went home very happily to his parents.

Thai’s family was extremely poor – their house was one of the most dangerous and dilapidated homes I have been in – and despite everyone’s best efforts, Thai struggled to fit back in at school and the community, and started acting out. Just 2 years after going home, Thai found himself in serious trouble with the police – serious enough that he was sent to prison for 3 years. He had caused damage to a property in a silly and senseless act of anger.

At the end of his sentence, Thai was ashamed to return home. He moved north and found a job where he could settle down and start saving some money. I only saw him once, briefly, but we stayed in contact by text message and he seemed to be doing fine.

So on the day that he called to say he was passing through Hanoi on his way home for New Year, I was a little surprised. To be honest, I feared he was going to ask me to lend him some money.

Instead, Thai came to the Blue Dragon centre with a gift: equivalent to almost $100US. He had saved this over the last year, and despite needing to support his own family and having significant debts of his own to pay, he was adamant that I take his envelope. “It’s for you to help the children,” he told me.

There’s no way in the world Thai could afford to part with $100. He’s still just a kid, barely out of his teens, and living on a factory floor to save money for his family. But giving this gift was of great importance to him, and we spent some time talking about his dream of helping others so that they can avoid the sort of troubles he has encountered in his own life. At the end I accepted his gift, and committed to using it to care for homeless children during the week-long holiday. I’ll also make sure we get some extra help to Thai’s younger brothers and sisters very soon.

Back when Thai was arrested and charged for his crime, it would have been easy for us to regret helping him escape from trafficking – had we done it all for nothing? A few years on, though, and the outlook is very different. Here is a young man who has made mistakes, has paid for them, and has learned the value of caring for others.

His story will be a long and interesting one for sure.



A journey begins

Life is a long story. 

These are the words written by ‘Tung’, one of the boys of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation in Vietnam. He’s a boy who has been abandoned by his family; repeatedly lied to by his parents; sexually abused by dozens of men, both Vietnamese and international; and fed with meth to dull his pain and keep him subservient.

But he’s also a boy who has decided, against all likelihood of success, to not let his life be defined by these afflictions. Over the course of the past 9 months, Tung has broken free of the paedophile rings in Hanoi that enslaved him in psychological chains. He has begun studying in alternative education programs. More recently, he has even started playing games and taking part in sports and enjoying music – all things that any other 15 year old boy would consider normal, but which for Tung are miracles beyond belief.

When I read Tung’s simple Facebook statement – Life is a long story – I knew it was time to get back into writing. For 10 years I wrote my blog about Vietnamese street kids and the stories and issues of the extraordinary young people I met through my work at Blue Dragon. Now it is time to start over, this time around sharing more of the stories that inspire, educate, and enlighten me: stories of young people overcoming unbelievable odds and finding goodness in the darkest places.

Life is a long story, filled with unpredictable mixes of sorrow and joy. It’s a story that goes on well beyond our own imaginations and mortalities.