Still fighting

Dozens of boys were raped by a foreign doctor. Despite the clear evidence, justice is yet to be fully achieved.
WARNING: this post discusses child sexual abuse.

Ban is starting a new job this week. Again.

His family doesn’t understand why he just can’t stick with anything. He’s a young man now but doesn’t seem interested in getting married or settling down. He doesn’t have any close friends and he has no plans for the future.

Ban is drifting through life from one day to the next. He seems to live without any hope.

Ban is one of the many rape victims of Olivier Larroque, a French doctor who was living in Vietnam until his arrest in 2013.

Larroque was notorious on the streets of Hanoi. All the homeless kids knew of him.

Every night, he rode his bicycle to the lake where street kids gathered and picked out a boy to abuse.

The children were broke and hungry. Many had such low self esteem that they didn’t care for their own safety. As much as they hated Larroque, they would go with him if they were desperate enough.

Larroque would take the boy back to his apartment to rape him and film the abuse. Then he would send the boy away and often go back to the lake to choose a second victim for the night.

A street kid alone in a park.

At that time, Vietnamese law was not clear about whether a male could be the victim of a sexual crime. Blue Dragon’s work led to a change in the law in 2016, but when Larroque was abusing children there was a loophole that made it very difficult for the authorities to take action.

Larroque’s victims were so afraid that photos of their abuse would be shared online that one brave teen stole a memory card from the doctor’s camera to give us the evidence needed to stop him. Believing that the French police were in a stronger position to ensure justice, we handed it to them.

A few months later, interpol issued an arrest warrant and Larroque was extradited to France.

Despite the high number of victims and the photographic evidence, it took nine years for the case to reach court. For most of that time, Larroque was living as a free man. The victims of his abuse never heard a word from the French government about what was happening with the case – it seemed to have just been forgotten.

And then last year, news reached us that Larroque was missing. Nobody knew where he was.

The police found him two weeks later and a date for his trial was set. When the trial finally came around… Larroque was gone again. Nobody had seen fit to lock him up despite the fact that he had already absconded once.

Larroque’s court case went ahead without him present and he received the maximum penalty: 20 years in prison.

But with his whereabouts unknown, the court decision is just theoretical. And if he is found, he has the choice to appeal the decision and have the whole case heard again.

Meanwhile, the court also ruled that some compensation be paid – far below the level requested, and only some of the victims will receive it. Ban is one of the boys who will receive nothing.

There have been many other injustices along the way, too.

Like the NGO that joined the court case as a “civil party” and leaked parts of the children’s statements to the media, without the children’s consent.

And the fact that Larroque’s employer, the French Hospital of Hanoi, has never so much as expressed concern for the victims of his crimes. They have no legal responsibility for what happened, but it seems very poor form that a hospital would have no interest in the welfare of children who were raped by one of their senior doctors.

Despite Larroque’s arrest and sentencing, his victims are yet to see justice done.

Through these years, there have of course been some bright spots.

Larroque’s victims have been most fortunate to receive free legal representation from some excellent pro bono lawyers.

Emma Day of Child Redress International took a leading advocacy role from the start, along with Shireen Irani of iProbono. Christopher Mesnooh of Fieldfisher has been part of the case for years and represented the boys in court late in 2022.

There were many failings in the system, but the boys did have some wonderful support – and still do.

The case is not yet over and we are continuing to advocate for them to receive compensation.

Although the boys are all young men now, Blue Dragon is continuing to help several, like Ban, who still need counseling and material support to cope with all that has happened.

For our world to be right and for people to be whole, there must be justice. In this case, we are not there yet.

But we are still fighting for it.

You can read more about the case in this VICE article; and you can see the original news stories about Larroque’s arrest back in 2013. If you share our vision of a world where every child is free from exploitation, visit Blue Dragon’s website to learn more.

A Cluster of Goats

Keeping kids safe from trafficking is about addressing their human needs. But’s it’s not always as simple as that sounds.

Walking up the hill toward his family home, Van faced a wave of emotions.

After weeks being homeless on the streets of Hanoi, Van longed for the familiarity of home. He finally knew he was safe.

Even more than that, he would soon be with his father and uncle, back with those he loved and who loved him.

But alongside this joy and sense of relief, Van also felt a certain dread.

Van arriving at his family home.

Like so many young people growing up in poverty, home is not always a happy place for Van. A few weeks ago, I shared the story of how Van came to leave his mountain home and travel alone to the city for work, even though he’s still a child.

Blue Dragon found Van after he’d been robbed and left with nothing, and we accompanied him back to his home to meet his family.

Changing fortunes

After sharing the post, some awesome people around the world donated to give Van a chance to start over.

We’re working with the family step by step, and have already helped them buy some goats and build a basic pen.

It may seem a little strange: we meet a homeless boy in Hanoi and part of the solution to keep him safe is to buy goats.

In fact, keeping kids and families safe often takes a lot of creativity. Because there’s no single intervention that will help everyone. Instead, we have to understand what each person needs, taking their community context into account, and find out what their own dreams and hopes are.

Van’s family needs goats so they can earn some money – it’s as simple as that.

Several of the new herd.

Now that they have the goats, we’ll arrange for a local veterinarian to teach them to care for the animals. And our next step will be making repairs to the house to make it safe and comfortable. We don’t have enough money to build a whole new house but we can definitely make some significant improvements.

Integrated clustering

Last week, my colleagues and I spoke in a webinar about this idea of tailoring a package of activities or services toward the specific local needs of a family and a community in order to keep them safe from being trafficked.

We call it “integrated clustering” which sounds rather technical but it’s a simple idea. It’s about putting in place several actions which go hand in hand with each other to protect people from the risk of trafficking. Like fixing someone’s house, sending the kids to school and buying some goats.

And it goes even further: buying the goats alone isn’t enough. The family needs training in how to care for them. In coming months they might need business advice on where to sell the goat milk or the offspring at the best price.

It’s not just one simple ‘fix’ to solve a problem. It’s several actions working together to lift a family, or a community, out of poverty. When we do this, human traffickers don’t stand a chance.

Meeting human needs

There’s a bit more to it, of course. The “integrated cluster” approach may involve arranging rescue operations, or working with law enforcement. For many, psychological care or emergency shelter may be part of the cluster.

Does all of that sounds like “common sense”? Then you’ve understood that this approach is simply addressing basic human needs. And human needs may be basic in one sense, but in another they are complex.

They’re basic in that our needs today are the same needs we were born with. Love, safety, food, belonging.

And they’re complex because they all work together and vary depending on our individual nature and set of circumstances.

Blue Dragon’s “integrated clustering” approach is key to how we are keeping kids and families safe around Vietnam.

For young Van and his family, it means they are now on their way to financial security and having a home that protects their dignity.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is determined to end human trafficking. We operate programs to prevent trafficking; we rescue people who fall victim to it; we support survivors in their recovery; and we work on law reform initiatives to strengthen government systems.

Rescue is not enough

Many of Blue Dragon’s rescues end with a beautiful reunion of family members. Some, however, end with a tragic discovery.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of rescue operations to combat human trafficking.

Today I want to share another perspective: that as important as they are, rescues alone are simply not enough.

One of the joys of my job is receiving photos from staff out in the field who have accompanied home one of the people we have rescued from slavery. I get these photos almost every day.

Often, they are photos of pure joy. The beaming faces of mother and daughter with their arms wrapped around each other. The tears of a father holding his teenage child who he feared he would never see again.

I usually can’t share these images because I need to protect the privacy of these families. So I try to emulate that joy here on the blog.

But sometimes the moment of returning home is not an occasion for joy at all. Sometimes it is a moment of devastation.

This week was one of those occasions.

Blue Dragon rescued 34-year Tuyen just a week ago. She had been tricked by a distant relative into traveling to China – all the way from southern Vietnam, close to Ho Chi Minh City – thinking that she was on her way to a job where she could earn a decent living.

That was in 2019. Instead of being offered a job, Tuyen was sold as a bride and held against her will for four years. Blue Dragon found her location last month and sent a team to rescue her. Tuyen crossed back into Vietnam on March 31.

After receiving some treatment and support at our emergency shelter, Blue Dragon staff traveled with Tuyen back to her home town. And that was when the full tragedy of Tuyen’s situation became clear.

Instead of a joyful family reunion, Tuyen arrived home to the news that her much-loved mother had died just a month ago.

Instead of a chance to hold her mother, Tuyen went to the family altar to burn incense in her memory.

Tuyen at her mother’s altar.

In time Tuyen will learn to live with her grief, comforted only by the knowledge of how much her mother loved her. Family members report that the mother’s final words were: Please keep looking for my daughter.

At last Tuyen is home; but feels that she has lost everything.

This is why rescue is not enough. It’s vital and it might always be needed; but we must do so much more.

Most importantly, we must do all we can to stop trafficking from happening in the first place. Not just ‘awareness raising’ and telling people to be careful; but actively addressing the causes of human trafficking to keep people safe and put traffickers out of business.

And for people like Tuyen who fall victim to trafficking? Beyond rescue, it’s essential to provide services and support for recovery. Tuyen will need years of assistance and counselling if she is to truly ever heal from this terrible experience.

Human trafficking is happening every day… in many different forms… in every part of the world. It’s a sinister crime and there are many important reasons that we must end it.

Above all is the very human cost it exacts on its victims. For Tuyen’s sake, and in the memory of her mother, we must do everything we can to stop this cruel trade of innocent people.

Blue Dragon is committed to ending human trafficking. Join us on April 12 and 13 for an online discussion about how this is possible and what we can do to achieve it. For details and registration, click this link.

Hold me

Dinh was a challenge to even the most experienced therapists – until we learned what he needed most.

He was a wild child.

“A real ratbag,” as we say in Australian slang.

His name is Dinh. He’s been coming to Blue Dragon for about 7 years now. And when he’s there – boy, do we know it.

When he first started coming, he would enter like a storm on a quiet spring morning. Dinh knew no rules or boundaries and had never been taught any social ettiquette. He would tear the place up, rattle everyone he came in contact with. All with an innocent smile!

But over time, there was something I started to notice. One thing, and one thing only, would calm him down completely: A hug.

“Bế em,” he would say.

His words literally translate as “Hold me,” but they mean more than that. They’re the words that a child says to a parent.

And when you picked him up, held him against you with his arms around your neck, he would finally fall quiet.

That was all he wanted. To be held. Human contact.

The first time we met Dinh, he was covered in scabies and filth. He was building some kind of shelter for himself in a ditch. He was six years old.

Dinh has a mother, but she’s too deep in her own trauma to care for her child. She’s never shown him the affection that he craves. All children need to be held, to experience a loving touch. Sadly, Dinh has grown up without it.

Now he’s 13 and he’s still tiny for his age. He was at Blue Dragon for his classes today, with his sweet disarming smile and the chaos that he always brings.

“Hold me,” he demanded when he saw me.

In a moment, the chaos is gone and Dinh is at peace.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation works in Vietnam to protect kids from trafficking and exploitation.

Safe, not sound

Tricked and robbed, Van found himself homeless on the streets of the city. But going home wasn’t the end of his problems…

Van is typical of the teens we meet on the streets of Hanoi.

He’s a lovely kid who just wants to have a decent life. He grew up in the mountains with his father and uncles in an old timber house that has just a dirt floor and an open fire for a ‘kitchen’.

Van’s life has always been hard. He barely remembers his mother, who left when he was a toddler. His family lives day to day, hoping that tomorrow they’ll have enough to eat. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

It’s not an easy life for a teenager, so Van made the decision to leave.

He wasn’t really sure what to expect; he just imagined that life far from home would be easier. He dreamt that he would find a job and send money home each month to support his father, who would be proud of his only son.

Van’s dream was noble, but reality proved to be harsh.

He traveled down from the mountains by bus and arrived in the city with no plan, no friends, and nothing in his pocket. Despite his sunny optimism that he’d find a way to get by, he was soon homeless and hungry. A scam ‘job broker’ took his ID card and someone stole his mobile phone, leaving him with no way to call home and get help.

Just as Van is like so many of the kids we meet, his story is painfully familiar.

A social worker (with backpack) meets Van (in white).

When we met Van, he was sleeping in an abandoned construction site. He was frightened and alone beside an open fire he’s made to keep warm. Although he was wary of strangers, he was desperate for a meal and a safe place to sleep, so he gratefully accepted the offer of shelter with Blue Dragon.

And then, after a few days catching up on food and rest, Van was ready to go home.

As we normally do, some staff traveled back with Van to meet his family and see if they need any help. We do this because otherwise we have no way to know if the kids have gone home to a dangerous situation. And we want the families to know us, so they can call if they need to.

Returning home after weeks as a street kid.

Van’s family is delighted that he’s home, and he was all smiles to be back with his dad.

But clearly, this isn’t the end of the story.

It would be easy to say that we’ve done our job: Van is safely home and no longer living on the city streets.

However, the grinding poverty that caused him to become homeless hasn’t changed. So Blue Dragon’s work isn’t yet finished.

Van’s house is in need of repairs. It’s freezing in winter and the rain pours in during the wet season. They don’t even have a water tank or running water in the house, and no space for a toilet or washroom.

Van, his father, and a Blue Dragon social worker.

Beyond that urgent need, Van’s family needs some way to earn a stable income. They’d love to raise some goats and pigs as a step to becoming self sufficient.

A proper place to call home and a way to earn money. That’s all they dream of.

We’re working with them now to develop a plan and then we need to find the money to help. Around $2,000 will transform their lives forever.

Van isn’t quite old enough yet, but in a couple of years he will be ready for vocational training and a job. When that time comes, we’ll be here to help.

Getting kids like Van home to the safety of their family is important – but it isn’t always enough.

They need a sound home, certainty that their basic needs are met, and a reason to hope for the future.

Just the same as all of us.

If you would like to help Van and his family, you can donate here or email me to discuss: Every contribution will help.

** AN UPDATE: As of March 30, wonderful friends of the blog have donated $2,350 to help Van and his family. Thank you!! We will gladly continue accepting further donations, and all money raised will be used directly to support Van. We are excited to have this chance to change his life.

Embrace the risk

For charities like Blue Dragon, the choice between playing it safe and taking risks is a delicate balance.

I’ve just returned home after almost three weeks on the road in the US.

Hello jetlag, my old friend!

I’m glad to be home, but catching up with Blue Dragon’s friends and supporters abroad has been inspiring. It’s entirely true to say that we couldn’t do any of our great work here in Vietnam with the support of people, schools, companies and foundations around the world.

Building a Track Record

America in particular has a special place in Blue Dragon’s history. When we were just setting up, in our very early days, many hesitated to get behind us. They wanted to first know our ‘track record’ in helping kids – and of course, we had none. That’s the nature of a start-up, by definition!

Americans, however, would get behind our idea of starting an organisation to help kids. I guess that’s the entrepreneurial spirit that has made the USA such a success.

This is always a challenge for charities like Blue Dragon.

In the commercial world, investing in an unproven idea might lead to a total loss or a massive windfall. Think of those investors who had either the luck or the foresight to buy a piece of Apple or Amazon in their startup phase.

When it comes to charity, both “investors” and organisations are even more cautious. Perhaps it’s because we have so much to lose. A charity going belly-up means that everyone it helps will now be abandoned. Better to play it safe and at least keep helping some, than take a risk and possibly be unable to do any good at all.

Bold decisions

On the other hand, taking a risk can mean forging a new path that benefits many. I often think of our decision, way back in 2007, to send staff to China to look for a missing girl. They found her in a brothel, where she was being violently abused.

Our intervention set 6 teenage girls free and sent a whole ring of traffickers to prison. Today, Blue Dragon has rescued more than 1,300 people from slavery. This great result started with that initial step of taking a risk that nobody else considered to be sensible or feasible.

Much of Blue Dragon’s success over the years has been in making decisions that nobody else would. We are very conscious of the fine line we walk between blazing ahead to do what must be done; and ensuring our survival so that we can continue.

A symbol of what’s possible

Visiting Boston, I stopped by the Common to see Embrace. It’s a relatively new monument, memorialising Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

Embrace: A monument to the power of taking a riskfor good.

For me, the sculpture is a moving tribute to the difference we can make. The power of raising our voice. A reminder that our most outlandish dreams can come true… but not without risk.

Society moves at such a rapid pace that having a track record might help, but it isn’t always an advantage.

And in a world of injustice, looking back at a track record isn’t always the right way to plan for the future.

I don’t have any simple guidance for choosing between risk and safety. Every situation is different, every circumstance unique.

But I can say this:

Wherever you are and whatever you’re facing, always choose what you know is right.

Choose the path that lifts others up in the long run- no matter the short-term cost.

In the end, with or without a track record, we all must choose where we stand.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is working toward a better world for all. In April, you can join us for an online discussion about how to end human trafficking.

​To the rescue

Desperate to escape the brothel where she was enslaved, Bi was shot through the chest. She survived, but​​ was more determined than ever to be free.

In the world of nonprofits, “rescue work” has a mixed reputation. 

Some people associate rescue work with reckless cowboys, kicking down doors and acting like tough guys… Reducing the people they rescue to mere victims. Damsels in distress.

Some see rescue operations as demeaning to those they are meant to assist. Stories abound of organisations “rescuing” women from situations they did not wish to be rescued from.

Meanwhile, some organisations use the word “rescue” to mean “assisted.”  I once met a woman who claimed she had rescued 10,000 people from human trafficking. In fact, she had helped 10,000 people to live  in safety; a highly admirable achievement, but an unusual use of the word “rescue”.

At Blue Dragon, we use the word in a literal sense: helping someone out of immediate danger. People in slavery call for help; we go looking for them; and when we find them, we get them out of danger and back to safety.

Our approach is non-confrontational. We don’t use force. We also don’t pay off the traffickers. (I must confess that I did this just once – the first time I encountered a victim of human trafficking. It didn’t work, and I would never do it again!)

Instead, we assist people to escape quietly and then we get them back to Vietnam or to another safe place. It’s not about heroics; it’s about getting the best result for the person who has called for help.

Doing it this way has meant that we could rescue over 1,300 people – so far.

Not one has ever been injured during a rescue operation; but plenty were harmed before we could get to them.

First the beatings

Ngoc’s experience of human trafficking began because of Covid.

Almost 30 years old, Ngoc lost her job in a restaurant when lockdowns gripped the world, as happened to many millions of people.

Ngoc thought that she was lucky when a friend messaged her about a job at a restaurant in Myanmar. It would be difficult to get there, but the salary she was promised was triple her old salary. Triple!

Ngoc and her friend made the long journey from Vietnam to northern Myanmar overland and as soon as they reached their destination, it was clear that Ngoc had been deceived.

Instead of going to a restaurant, she was taken to a brothel. Ngoc was terrified and refused to obey, resulting in a terrible, brutal beating. The brothel owners had paid traffickers to bring them Ngoc and now they owned her.

What eventually made Ngoc give in to them was not the beatings. It was the whispered warnings by others in the brothel that those who did not comply were sold elsewhere and never heard from again.

Then the shooting

While Ngoc went through her personal hell, Myanmar was tearing itself apart with armed conflict. A total lack of law and order in northern provinces meant that the girls being held there against their will, controlled by violent gangsters, had no protection at all.

Traffickers are so confident that their victims can’t escape the region, they sometimes let them outside to eat or get their hair done. One afternoon Ngoc was out on the street with other girls from the brothel when she heard a loud bang and fell to the road with a burning pain in her chest.

She had been shot.

Ngoc doesn’t know who shot her. It probably wasn’t a trafficker, because they would have made sure she was dead. Most likely it was a stray bullet from the armed conflict, or a case of mistaken identity.

The bullet punctured her lungs but she was still conscious when someone found her and dragged her back to the brothel.

Instead of being offered medical help, Ngoc was left to lie alone in a room. If she healed, she would be put back to work. If she didn’t heal: well, she would die.

The operation

What saved Ngoc in the end wasn’t a medical operation. It was a rescue operation.

Another woman Blue Dragon rescued around this time told us about Ngoc, so we sent a search party to find her. Once we knew where she was, we put our plan into motion and got her out of the brothel. No confrontation, no bribes. The bosses didn’t know anything had happened until Ngoc was miles away.

From there we got her to a hospital where she could be treated and stabilised. Then the team transported Ngoc to the capital city Yangon, worked to get her a passport and finally we flew her home to Vietnam.

Obviously, her story doesn’t end here.

Coping with the extreme trauma of being trafficked, beaten and shot is a daily struggle for Ngoc, even with Blue Dragon’s psychological support.

And then there’s the legal representation needed to deal with her trafficker; and the very basic need for financial support until she’s able to go back to work.

No doubt about it, rescue isn’t the cure for everything. But despite its bad reputation in some quarters, rescue work is a critical pillar of the fight against human trafficking.

An end in sight?

While Blue Dragon rescues, we continue to do all we can to prevent human trafficking from happening in the first place.

Focusing on regions with high rates of trafficking, we’re keeping kids in school; training up community members and officials to recognise trafficking and support victims; helping impoverished people to start farms and businesses; and developing community infrastructure, like toy libraries and student boarding houses.

Together, this “cluster” of activities is very effective at preventing human trafficking. So while we do all this, we’re learning and sharing our information with the government. Because we want this work to reach far beyond what we can do ourselves.

When there’s no more trafficking, we’ll gladly put an end to our rescue work. But for now, rescue operations must go hand in hand with our prevention efforts.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is determined to end human trafficking. We operate programs to prevent trafficking; we rescue people who fall victim to it; we support survivors in their recovery; and we work on law reform initiatives to strengthen government systems.

My mother, the trash collector

Today’s post is written by Blue Dragon co-CEO Vi Do about his mother, Hien, on the occasion of International Women’s Day.

Some time ago I met with a friend who, like me, has the job title of CEO.

At one point he kindly asked me about my mother, Hien. I answered that she’s fine and still works here in Hanoi.

When my friend asked what work she does, I could see the surprise in his face when I explained: My mother collects trash on the streets.

This might seem really strange to many people at first. I work as co-CEO of Blue Dragon, an international NGO. How is it that my mother is a garbage collector, like some of the families Blue Dragon helps?

Usually when you see someone working on the street like my mother, your instinct is to think that it is someone in need of charity. Surely nobody would do such a dirty job by choice? After all, it means riding an old bicycle around the streets every day, picking up anything that can be recycled – paper, tins, any kind of metal, old boxes… This is not an attractive or high paying job.

My mother at work.

You might also think it’s a job for someone without the benefit of an education. But my mother was once a kindergarten teacher. When I was very young, she taught in the local school. She left this job because the salary was so low, it was not enough for our family to survive. Even though she had a good education and a professional job, my mother could earn more collecting and selling scrap.

My family isn’t in financial hardship any more. My brother, two sisters and I all have jobs. There are no more children at home who my parents must support through school. My father’s health is too poor for him to work, but he doesn’t need expensive medication or treatment. So in reality, my mother could stay home now and enjoy retirement. She has worked hard all her life. I think she deserves it.

However, this is not what she wants. My mother has always enjoyed being active. Staying home all day is not her dream.

Even more than that, my mother has always wanted to be independent. I could easily support her with some money. I would like to do it! But for her, this would mean a loss of independence. She sees no reason to stop working and take money from others when she is fully capable of earning it herself.

So then, why keep collecting scrap? Isn’t there another, better, job that she could do?

In fact, my mother has never been afraid of dirty work. She’s planted and harvested rice in the fields – backbreaking work. She’s been a cleaner. She does odd jobs for small businesses and for households. I’ve never heard her complain that any job is beneath her. It’s really the opposite. Whatever she does, she does it well.

Maybe it seems unusual for my mother Hien to be working on the streets like this when all of her adult children have jobs, including me as a CEO! And yet I am so proud of her for choosing this. For choosing her own way.

I remember during the Covid lockdowns, many poor people living around Hanoi’s river had no food, no money, and were unable to pay rent. While I was working with Blue Dragon to distribute food and money, so was my mother. She called on her personal network to gather and deliver food packages to immigrant workers in the area. Later, she was invited to represent immigrant workers to speak on their behalf at an NGO conference. This was totally her own doing – I didn’t even know about it!

My mother has taught me so much. Because of her, I know the value of hard work. I know that getting my hands dirty is a sign of strength, not weakness. I know that other people might look down on me, but I can still have my dignity and hold my head high.

One day, my mother will put away her bicycle and return to our home in the village where she can enjoy some peace and quiet for good. I will be happy when she does that, because I want to see her relaxed and comfortable.

Until then, I am proud of her strength and her independence. She is my role model and I hope that my children can learn from me the same goodness of character that I have learned from her.

Vi Do is co-CEO of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. His mother is, as we say in Australia, a living legend. You can connect with Vi on LinkedIn.

Time to play

Growing up in extreme poverty, Boi had never seen a toy before. Now, a simple innovation in his village is making a world of difference to him and his friends.

Boi holds the plastic brick in his tiny hands like it is a thing of wonder.

At first he looks curious and then baffled. Finally, a huge smile breaks across his face.

This is the first time that Boi has ever seen toys with his own eyes. At 6 years old, he spends plenty of time playing. He is often to be seen running around the field with sticks and he loves to chase after the chickens that peck around beneath his stilt house.

But he’s never held something so bright and colourful like this before.

Children enjoying a Blue Dragon Toy Library in the northern mountains of Vietnam.

Boi is typical of the children in his H’mong village. All of the families in his district, high up in the mountains of north-west Vietnam, put their energy and resources into survival. They don’t have time or money for luxuries like toys and games.

Instead, children grow up learning to raise crops and care for livestock. Everything is precious and valuable; there’s no waste and few simple pleasures.

Compared to the lives that many of us lead, children like Boi have it tough. Perhaps the hardest of all about this upbringing is that it places such limits on their futures. Toys are not just an indulgence for children; they spark curiosity and help children’s minds develop. They let the mind wander beyond the here and now, and into the possible.

Blue Dragon came to Boi’s village several years ago to help families improve their income. More earnings mean less risk of human trafficking, because when people are desperate to survive, they’ll accept risky offers of jobs far from home. When they are safe and satisfied, they are more likely to stay with their community and keep their children at school.

As we helped families to buy chickens and pigs we could see that the children needed something more. They had few opportunities to learn or develop… or to just be kids.

And so began the idea for a Toy Library.

In Boi’s village, and in others around the district, we supplied the community with a range of games and toys for children at all stages of development to enjoy. A group of mothers are responsible for keeping the items safe. Several times a week, the toys are set up in communal areas where any of the children are welcome to come.

Every other month, volunteers come to exchange the items with other Toy Libraries so there’s always something new. Eventually, we hand each library over to full community management and then open a new Toy Library in a new village, to reach even more families.

Children like Boi now have much to look forward to. And while Boi plays with his plastic bricks, he is also learning and improving his motor skills.

The simple act of playing with toys should not only be for children who have plenty. Every child needs a chance to play, to let their imaginations soar. And the introduction of something as cheap and convenient as a Toy Library means that kids like Boi now have the same chance as any other child.

Blue Dragon’s Toy Libraries are possible thanks to funding by the Morris Family Foundation. Find out more about how Blue Dragon changes lives on our website.

Building trust in extreme situations

How does Blue Dragon establish trust with kids who are in ‘survival mode’, dealing with extreme trauma? Co-CEO Vi Do shares his insights in this special guest post.

Early on a winter morning in Hanoi, I was out for a run around one of the city’s lakes.

As someone who was once a street kid, I am always alert to seeing children who are homeless. On this morning, I spotted three boys sitting in the doorway of a shop. Everything was still dark and the shop was closed, but I could see they were holding each other to keep warm.

Their filthy clothes and skinny arms told me that they had been on the streets for a long time.

I put my training on hold and went to chat with the boys, but they insisted that they were fine. Even though they were exhausted, cold and hungry, they told me that they lived nearby and were just out playing.

It might seem strange that kids who are in a desperate situation would refuse to receive help. I see this a lot in my work. Sometimes kids will accept a helping hand right away but others will deny that they need it for weeks or even months.

I talked with the boys for a while and then went back to the Blue Dragon centre nearby to get some clothes and food for them. Without challenging what they said, I just handed them some things that they clearly needed and gave them a way to contact me if they wanted to. 

After that, we stayed in touch and I went to see them regularly. Sometimes they would message me from an internet cafe asking that I come to see them. One morning, I heard my phone beep at 3am and saw that they wanted to talk. I traveled across the city to meet the boys for breakfast and they were gone by the time I arrived. Even though they had invited me to meet them, they were afraid to see me.

Little mafia?

It would be easy to see the kids as ungrateful, or even as being rude. Here I was doing everything to help and they chose to live on the street instead! I’ve even heard people call kids like this “little mafia” and accuse them of wanting to live on the street because it is convenient for them.

But I don’t see it like this.

Kids like these three boys are traumatized. When I first meet them, I have no idea what they have been through. And I can see that the children do want help. They are just too afraid to receive it.

As I got to know these boys, they introduced me to some more of their friends who are also homeless. Together they live under a bridge and spend their days collecting scrap around the city. Sometimes they wander too far from their “home” to walk back, so they sleep in ATM booths or doorways and just keep working the next day.

A homeless teenager in his secret shelter

One boy named Phi told me that to survive, he collects empty bottles. He earns up to $1 per day, but often less. When he has some money, Phi goes to a tiny restaurant and buys the leftover rice. This is rice that has been cooked but not eaten, so would normally be thrown out. Phi buys as much as he can and takes it back to the bridge where he fries it up on an open fire and mixes it with the cheapest instant noodles he can buy. Then he and his friends have a meal together.

Phi is a child, not yet 15 years old, and this is how he gets through each day. As he walks the streets, some people accuse him of being a bad person; others try to offer him money if he will go with them for sex. Phi tells me that he has never done this, but it’s possible that he has.

So how could I expect that Phi and his friends would trust me? They’ve met many people before who offered help but just wanted to post a story about them on social media, or wanted to trick the boys into being abused. Some people with good intentions have also approached Phi and his friend, but then tried to force them to go back to their families in the countryside.

These kids dream that somebody will come and help them; but they are so afraid they will be hurt again.

As one of the children in the group said to me recently: “So many things have happened to us already.”

Seven keys

I have started now to build trust with Phi and his friends. How have I done this?

1.   I make myself available. The kids know how to contact me anytime. When they ask to meet, I do my best to get there. If I ask to meet and they refuse, I show them that it’s fine and I respect their decision.

2.   I set appropriate limits. Just because they call doesn’t mean I can always drop everything to go see them. If I can, I do. And if I can’t, I tell them so and suggest a different plan.

3. I keep it personal. One time, when the boys were expecting me to come, I made the mistake of sending another staff member to see them instead. I was really busy and couldn’t make it; but Phi and his friends hadn’t met other Blue Dragon staff before. This was a valuable lesson for me: trust must be very strong before it can be shared with others.

4.   I give without expectation. There have been times that the boys needed money but didn’t want to see me. So I found a way to send money to them. (Some internet cafes offer a ‘money transfer’ service for small amounts). And I never use my help as leverage over the kids by telling them that they should follow me just because I have helped them. Everything I do is done freely.

5.  I look for the best in them. To other people, these boys seem wild. The way they interact with each other and with strangers is very physical and loud; they don’t follow the rules that everyone else does. But they are also kind and honest. One time when I took them for a meal, they spent time discussing which dish would be cheapest and also fill their bellies for the longest time. When I notice them being so thoughtful, I make a point to compliment them.

6. I show a genuine interest in their wellbeing. Nearly every day, I check in with the boys either in person or by social media. Just by asking how they are and seeing if they need anything, I am showing that I truly care.

7.   I let them know who I am. Building trust goes both ways. It’s not fair for me to ask them about who they are and tell me their story if I don’t also tell them the same information about myself. When they see that I am open with them, they are more likely to be open with me. In fact, by doing this we have found some surprising personal connections: Blue Dragon has helped other street kids and families who they know, so it turns out that we have mutual friends!

Even though I am working with homeless and traumatized street kids, many of these lessons apply to anyone in a leadership situation. Have a look at these seven practices again. If you want to build trust with anyone, these will help.

Building trust takes time. It can be frustrating and disappointing; but if you truly want to connect with someone who is in a desperate situation, it is possible. There are no tricks or shortcuts; it’s just about basic human decency and being patient.

This post first appeared on Vi Do’s LinkedIn. Connect with him!