Whenever there’s a headline in the news about kids in Hanoi getting arrested, Vi is on alert.
He scans the article and checks the photos. He worries that he will know one of the young people in trouble.
Vi was a street kid himself as a teenager. With some help from Blue Dragon, he escaped the street life and had a promising career in hospitality, but decided to return to the organisation that helped him so that he in turn could help others.
Now he’s a senior leader at Blue Dragon, working with psychologists and social workers and lawyers to protect children from being abused, misled and exploited.
Just last week, one of Vi’s fears was realised. One of the young men arrested for his involvement in a huge gang fight – with swords and knives and metal bars – was Tu, one of the Blue Dragon boys not so long ago.
Tu is an orphan and as a child he learned to fend for himself. By the time we met him, he was already in his mid teens and hardened in his ways.
But Tu always had a soft side; in moments of quiet, he would share his regrets and his dreams, wishing that life had been very different. He would wonder aloud if he had any chance of turning his fortunes around.
The last time that Tu came to see Vi was just last year, and it was an emotional meeting. Tu is in his 20s now and has already spent time in prison; he’s survived a severe bout of pneumonia that almost killed him; and he’s battled with a meth addiction. So he came by the Blue Dragon centre to talk, but instead spent an hour in uncontrollable tears.
Tu said almost nothing. He just wanted someone to sit with him as he unloaded his burden of guilt and shame.
Now he’s caught up again in gangs, and this time he’s facing a prison sentence of at least 5 years. He may be in his 30s the next time he walks free.
For Vi, Tu’s story is too familiar, and very close to home. Vi knows that, as a teenager who worked on the streets alone, he too could easily have followed the path that Tu is now going down.
In some ways Vi was just lucky. Even though he was a street kid, he had a family back in the countryside who loved him very much. He had a community of people from his village who were also living and working in Hanoi. And he met Blue Dragon before he was on the streets for very long.
All these factors were out of Vi’s control, but along the way he also made some good decisions that kept him out of too much trouble. Now, he can see that the teens who come to Hanoi and end up homeless or working on the streets are in need of that same family support, community and social assistance that got him through the very difficult days he experienced as a teenager.
These girls and boys come from all around Vietnam – from north to south – and come for all kinds of reasons. But they all face the same dangers when they get here, and Vi wants nothing more than to be their shield to keep them safe.
This morning he’ll be checking the newspapers once again, and tonight he’ll be back on the streets with his outreach team, looking to see who needs a helping hand.
Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation meets and assists 12 – 20 new homeless children every month.