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!

A love story

Two love struck teens were kept in captivity for four long years… but nothing could shatter their dreams.

Every day in the sweatshop was exhausting. Some days were terrifying.

Tieu and Nguyet had grown up in the mountains. Their village was little more than several timber houses on stilts.

Tieu was a few years older than his girlfriend Nguyet. They had gone to school together, staying at a boarding house in the nearest town. By the time they both left school, they already knew they wanted to marry.

But first they needed to save up some money. To have a traditional wedding was not cheap and they wanted to get their lives together off to a good start.

So they both felt very lucky when the strangers came through their village, offering jobs as tailors.

The jobs were in Ho Chi Minh City. Neither Tieu and Nguyet, nor anyone in their village, knew how far away that was. They shrugged their shoulders and accepted the good fortune, boarding a bus to take them to the other side of the mountain.

Tieu and Nguyet’s dreams took a dark turn. Ho Chi Minh City was over 1,200km from their home – a journey by bus of several days. Never in their lives had they travelled so far.

As soon as they set out, their phones were taken from them. As people of the Khmu ethnic community, their fluency in Kinh language skills – what we normally call the Vietnamese language – was limited. They didn’t know what to do.

For four years, they were put to work in a factory churning out cheap clothes. Night and day, they sat at the machines or on the concrete floor, cutting and sewing fabric.

One day, the factory owner came to speak to Tieu. Now a young man, the owner wanted to send him away. Keeping children in these conditions was one thing; as they became adults, they were not so easy to threaten and control.

Finally Tieu had his chance to go home. This was the moment he had been dreaming of: except for one thing. The owner was not yet ready to release Nguyet.

Tieu refused to leave. He would only go home when Nguyet could go with him.

And so they stayed.

By chance, it was around this time that Blue Dragon heard about Tieu, Nguyet, and almost two dozen other children and teens from their community who had gone missing.

When we found the factory and all of the ‘workers’ were set free, none were happier than Tieu and Nguyet.

We travelled home with them to make sure they could all return safely to their families. In the years since then, we have continued working with their communities to keep people safe from trafficking and exploitation like this. Factories like the one that forced Tieu and Nguyet to work are now rarely to be found.

So what became of Tieu and Nguyet?

Double happiness, a traditional symbol used at Vietnamese weddings.

Within weeks of returning home, they made a call to Blue Dragon, inviting us to join their wedding party.

It wasn’t the grand affair they had once dreamt of, but they had their families and friends – and their freedom. That was more than enough.

Valentines Day is a day to celebrate love. Blue Dragon is working every day to keep children and families safe, so they can lead the lives they dream of.

Bad people

Tay survived terrible experiences as a homeless teen. Now he faces a stigma that he does not deserve.

​I had dinner with Tay a few nights ago.

Every now and then, he calls me up and invites me for a meal. He’s in his mid-20s and works in a restaurant. I’ve known him since he was a teenager, when he was homeless on the streets of Hanoi.

Tonight, Tay has something on his mind. He shares with me at length about problems he’s having with his girlfri​​end, Ninh.

Tay and Ninh have been talking about getting married for some months. But things aren’t going right, and Tay shares with me that they keep having arguments over insignificant issues.

When I ask him about Ninh’s family, I realise we’ve gotten to the core of the problem.

“They don’t like me,” he says. “Ninh tells me it’s better that I don’t visit them too often.”

“Why not?” I ask, even though I can guess the answer already.

“They don’t like that I used to be a street kid,” he tells me. Yep, just as I suspected.

A street kid in Hanoi.

He goes on: “They don’t think it’s a good life for their daughter to marry someone who used to be so poor. They think that street kids are bad people.”

I’ve heard this many times before, and every time it infuriates me. It’s one of the reasons that so many of the Blue Dragon kids want to hide their own true history as they grow up, afraid that they’ll experience this discrimination and prejudice.

For the girls, it’s even worse.

Most of the girls and women we rescue from slavery have been sexually exploited. They’ve either been sold as brides or forced into brothels.

Finding them and getting them to freedom is just the beginning of their healing.

Once home, these girls have extreme trauma to deal with. While I am amazed at how many return to their homes and start their lives over, I know how unbelievably difficult it is. I am painfully aware of those who are shunned by their own communities – and sometimes their own families – and will never be able to hold their head high again.

I think it’s worth adding that this stigma isn’t unique to Vietnam or to Asia. Street kids and victims of sexual crime in every country are looked at with judgment and suspicion. (Surely you could have just stopped it or called for help… And what were you doing wrong in the first place that you ended up in that situation?)

But here’s the thing.

Tay is a wonderfully kind, clever, hard-working young man. I can’t imagine the inner strength that he needed as a child to leave an abusive family, survive on the city streets from the age of 13,  and then turn his life around when finally someone offered help. Once he met Blue Dragon, Tay returned to education and later got a job that he loves. He lives with such dignity; his experiences have strengthened him, not made him weaker.

And then there are the girls we rescued from trafficking.

The courage that they have to call for help is superhuman. Those who make that call and then trust us to find them and bring them home are taking a huge risk. They can be killed if the trafficker knows they plan to escape.

After all they’ve been through, I don’t know how they have the strength to keep going. But they do, and their bravery should win them awards, not scorn.

It’s sad that these kids grow up to face discrimination when they deserve admiration and respect. These young people are an asset to society: resilient, creative, determined.

Yes, they are victims of a crime, but they are also heroes who have overcome extreme hardship.

Kids who have been through traumatic events deserve our support to take back control of their lives. Those events may shape them, but they don’t define them.

And above all, a terrible experience – like homelessness or trafficking – does not make them bad people.

Thanks for reading Life Is A Long Story. To find out more about Blue Dragon’s work, drop by the website:

Perfectly imperfect

Blue Dragon rescued Tan from slavery. A year later, he was on his way to prison for a serious crime.

One question I’m often asked about our work with young people: What is Blue Dragon’s success rate?

Here on the blog and in Blue Dragon’s public communications, we want to share inspiring stories.

Stories of kids we met in extreme circumstances like slavery or homelessness, but who are now thriving. There are plenty of such tales to tell.

But do all the kids ‘make it’? Are we cherry picking our stories? Or worse still, are we cherry picking the kids we will help based on those we think have the most potential?

Part of the answer to these questions lies in the name of my blog. Life is a long story. It’s never smooth or easy, and there’s no true story without major challenges along the way.

And not every story has a happy ending.

Something I’m proud of at Blue Dragon is that we embrace the nuance. We accept that things don’t always turn out as we would wish. After all, that’s life.

One of my colleagues recently commented to me that our work is “perfectly imperfect” and I’ve been thinking a lot about what she means.

About 12 years ago, we rescued a little boy named Tan from a sweatshop. He had been trafficked by a gang that preyed on extremely poor families, promising them free vocational training for the kids and a chance to earn good money. It was all lies. But these families were desperate, living in plastic and bamboo shacks and hadn’t been to school themselves.

So after Blue Dragon brought Tan home, we helped his family to turn things around. We built them a new house and paid for all the kids to go to school. We even helped Tan’s mother start a small business raising fish in a nearby lagoon.

For the first time in their lives, everything was going great.

And then Tan burnt down his school.

As he tells the story, it was something of an accident. He’d actually just intended to burn some of his teacher’s files. Having failed an exam, he wanted to get rid of the ‘evidence’ so he broke in with a friend at night and started a small fire.

But whether or not he meant to, Tan caused major damage to the village school. He was arrested and sent to prison, and his family felt a terrible shame for what their son had done.

So – a success story?

If you’d asked me then, I certainly couldn’t have agreed. That a boy we had rescued from slavery then went and burnt down his school wasn’t exactly something we were keen to promote.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Several years later, when Tan was released from prison, he knew he had to make amends. He could never repay the school or the community. And there was nothing he could do to erase his family’s shame.

What he could do, though, was turn his own life around. So he travelled away from home in search of a pagoda where he could live, study and work.

Tan is almost 30 now, and just a few months ago he completed his high school studies. He lives in the pagoda and wears the traditional brown garb along with his shaved head. His whole life now is devoted to the service of others. And he loves it.

Each year, Tan calls me and asks to meet. When we’ve finished our tea, he hands me an envelope with a donation for Blue Dragon: usually $50 or $100. I don’t know how he can even earn that much, but he insists that I take it and he is delighted to be contributing.

So, again – a success story?

Well, now it’s easier to say ‘yes’. But far from perfect. And who knows what might be next in Tan’s journey?

As an organisation, Blue Dragon can only take credit for the good that Tan does now if we also take the blame for his arson over a decade ago.

Which brings us right back to the question: What’s our success rate in working with kids?

I can’t help but think it’s a meaningless question. However, I do have something of an answer.

Blue Dragon can’t change anyone’s future. All we can do is offer. We can hold our hand open with the treasure of a lifetime sitting on our palm for anyone to take. All they have to do in return is accept it.

We’re successful if we make that offer. If we do all we can to encourage a child to choose the right path; if we go the extra mile to make it possible for them to change. If we’re prepared to wait until they’re ready, in their own time, to truly want that treasure.

And we’re a failure if we hold this treasure too high for a child to reach; or give it away too easily, before the child sincerely accepts it. Every child is different and needs a unique level of challenge, as well as a unique level of support to attain it.

Our success is in being there for kids when they need us, without judgement, meeting them at their level.

Over the years, there have been kids who have broken into our offices. Stolen staff’s personal belongings. Joined skinhead gangs. Even committed violent crimes. Unlike Tan, not so many then have an epiphany and commit their lives to the service of others.

Even if we could see into their future and know what they would one day do, we would still care for them in their moment of need.

Blue Dragon’s work isn’t about helping just the kids who will one day be ‘highfliers’. It’s about giving everyone a chance.

And if we do that, then we’ve succeeded – no matter what happens next.

Thanks for reading! If you share our vision of a world where every child has the chance to thrive, be sure to visit Blue Dragon’s website to learn more about what we do.

That time of year

The new lunar year has arrived: a time of family, traditions, and hopes for the future.

Just when you thought the holiday season was over…

Vietnam, along with other countries in the region, are celebrating the biggest holiday of all: Lunar New Year. In Vietnamese, it’s called Tet.

As a westerner living in Vietnam, I sometimes describe Tet as ‘Christmas + New Year x 100’. But that doesn’t quite cover it.

Vietnamese people see the end of the old year and the start of the new as a particularly important time. It sets the tone of what’s to come for the next 12 months.

Passing down the traditions: A grandfather teaches his grandchildren to make ‘Banh Chung’, a food traditionally eaten at Tết.

Starting the new year with new clothes, or new notes of money, is a sign of prosperity to come. Even the matter of the first visitor to enter your home after midnight is carefully considered. It must be someone with the ‘right’ birth year to make sure you have ‘good luck’ in your home.

Customary beliefs aside, Tet is the time of year that things should be right. You should be with your family. You should be having some rest. (For many Vietnamese workers, it might be the only break they have each year). And you should have plenty to eat and share.

All of which makes it a difficult time for people who are poor, or socially isolated, or sick, or in prison.

For people doing it tough, this is the time of year that their hardship hurts the most. Seeing others celebrating with their family and giving gifts to their friends only reminds them of what they don’t have.

Blue Dragon’s focus is on the big picture of how to end human trafficking. We have a vision and a plan for how to push back against this terrible crime and keep every person safe.

But that’s only half the picture.

We have this vision because we care about people. We want every child to grow up with the chance for a great life. Everyone should have that hope.

So while we work on our big goals and dreams, we never forget the individuals: the boys, girls, women and men who need help right now. After all, if we can’t change one person’s life, we can’t change the world.

With Tet upon us, Blue Dragon has been going the extra mile to make sure children and families can start the new year right.

Our rescue work has ramped up – in these first few weeks of January, we’ve brought home almost 30 people from human trafficking in neighboring countries.

And we’ve been working overtime to reunite street children with their families. In most cases, the kids do have a family to be with. They might not be able to live with them long term, but at least for the holiday period most want to be at home. Because that’s what’s ‘right’.

Helping children and families in extreme hardship to turn their lives around takes time. A single occasion, even an important one like Tet, doesn’t change lives. But we all need moments of fulfilment along our journey; times that bring us joy and create the memories we will grow old with.

For the kids of Blue Dragon, I hope that the start of this lunar new year will be one of those moments.

Thanks for reading Life Is A Long Story! You can learn more about the important work of Blue Dragon on our website.