Thuong married on Sunday.

It was a beautiful wedding; she had long dreamt of this day and her family worked hard to make it perfect. Vietnamese weddings are packed with specific customs and traditions, all intended to ensure the marriage is a success, and Thuong’s family put in an extra effort to ensure nothing would be overlooked.

Because Thuong’s wedding was a little special. It was just over a year ago that she made it home, after being trafficked and sold into a forced marriage in China.

She was 14 years old when this happened. People often think that girls who are trafficked must have somehow asked for it, or engaged in some kind of risky behaviour… so it’s ultimately their own fault. But this is rarely true in Vietnam, and certainly in Thuong’s case. She was tricked and deceived by a young man posing as her friend; she had no way of knowing what was to come.

Her time in slavery was hell. She had no contact with her family in Vietnam; no way of letting them know what had happened or where she was, and no way of asking for help. The very first time she could get her hands on a phone, she immediately called her mother… and soon the message reached us at Blue Dragon. We had her safely home within weeks, and her traffickers are now behind bars. But it was not an easy rescue operation, taking 9 days to get Thuong and 3 others back to the border.

Since we started rescuing people who have been trafficked, we have brought home over 560 girls, boys, women and men, from slavery within Vietnam and from other countries, particularly China. While not all can return to full and happy lives, many can. Thuong’s wedding was a  beautiful end to one chapter of life,  and the start of another.

After the wedding, the Blue Dragon team headed back to our emergency shelter to prepare for the arrival of Hanh, a 26 year old woman who had just crossed back into Vietnam and was on her way to our centre. She too had been trafficked and sold, and she too has been rescued from a forced marriage.

Her own journey to recovery is only just beginning; we don’t know yet how deep are her scars, or how resilient she will be in overcoming the trauma of what she has been through. But we do know that there is hope, and Hanh’s healing begins today.

Somebody should do something

Last week’s blog created some discussion around the issue of personal responsibility: what each of us can (and should) do when we see injustice and suffering.

There’s no shortage of either injustice or suffering in our world, and nor is there going to be any time soon. Whether it’s Australia’s treatment of refugees, or the apparent rise in hate crimes against minorities in America, or the ongoing tragedy unfolding before our eyes in Syria, or the fact that the past 5 years are the hottest 5 years ever recorded, the news is constant and overwhelming in its portrayal of how badly we are doing as a planet.

Any good news – and there is good news – is readily drowned out by the endless lists of catastrophes. In part this is because the good news is often on a ‘human’ scale (such as individuals or communities taking action) while the bad news is in a political or global sphere, which seems to be out of our ability to influence.

It’s easy to be left feeling powerless and thinking there’s nothing we can do.

It’s easy to think that someone out there, that unknown “they”, should do something to fix the world.

But this is our world. It’s our world to break, and it’s our world to make better.

So there’s no use in waiting for things to just change. It may be cliched, but I believe it’s true: change starts with you and me.

I’m in Singapore at the moment, and have the incredible privilege of speaking here to schools and organisations which have committed to helping the work of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation through funding. United World College SEA has organised an event at the Hilton Hotel on Monday night, with teens from Vietnam being invited over to demonstrate their hip hop skills on stage. In the past few days I’ve watched the kids grow in confidence like never before as they refine a dance they created themselves, receiving guidance and choreography from an international artist named Escoe. They’ve even performed twice in public, completely spontaneously.

This whole event is being led and organised by school students, from start to finish.

Similarly, on Sunday morning I spoke in a park to almost 400 students from schools around Singapore who had spent the past 24 hours running and walking in teams to raise money for charities which fight against human trafficking. The organisers of this event, called the 24 Hour Race, are all students themselves. Now held in 3 countries across South East Asia, the race brings together teenagers who want to not only fundraise, but also learn about the issues and develop some more empathy for the victims of this crime.

And again, it’s an entirely student-led initiative.

In the past week alone, Blue Dragon has brought 3 Vietnamese girls back across the border from China, where they had been trafficked and sold. One was just 13 years old. These schools and events in Singapore are taking action that will directly help those 3 girls, and hundreds more like them in the coming year.

So yes, somebody should do something about the state of our world. And if so much hard work and advocacy is being done by our youth, then what excuse does the adult world have for our failure to act?

Be angry

Every day I meet children and young adults who have been through extraordinary trauma.

If they lived in the west, their stories would be front page in the newspapers.

There’s one story that always stands out to me as among the worst; and it’s one of the foundational stories behind why Blue Dragon began, back in 2003.

Even before Blue Dragon was created, I was volunteering alongside Vietnamese and international friends to help out street kids we were meeting in Hanoi. We had no real plan to form a charity. We just met these awesome kids, and did what we could do to help.

One was a shoeshine boy named Ban.

Ban was from a village outside the city, and at age 14 he was the family breadwinner. His family had always been poor, but 5 years before I met him shining shoes in Hanoi they suffered a catastrophe.

Ban’s younger brother, Lan, was out in a field one day when he found a metal ball half buried by dirt. He brought it home and left it by his bed.

But Lan’s “ball” was a grenade, one of millions of pieces of Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) left over from the American-Vietnamese war.  And in the morning, it exploded.

Lan was blinded. His mother was killed. His grandfather was badly injured. His house half destroyed.

Only his older brother Ban and their father were unharmed; but the shock of it all sent their father insane. Their father eventually remarried, but he never recovered from that horrific moment.

And so, in the aftermath, Ban left home and went to Hanoi to shine shoes for 10c a pair so that he could support his family.

When I met Ban, he was wanting to go back to school and also wanted to help his family. We managed to do both; we found a special school that could accept Ban (who had been out of the formal education system for too long to go back) and we also found a school that could teach his blind brother, Lan – who had by now been sitting at home alone for 6 years.

For the first time in years, this family had a ray of hope.

Shortly after starting back at school, we learned that Ban was actually a sponsored child. Although he was living in a shelter we had set up, and going to school with money coming from the pockets of volunteers, it turned out that he was technically ‘sponsored’ by one of Europe’s largest development organisations.

We found this out when he was called to go home to his village, which meant taking 2 days off school, so that he could write a letter to his sponsor in Norway. The letter was dictated to him by a staff member, and he later recited what he could remember of it: “Life with my family is good… My father is in the fields planting rice… I enjoy going to school…”

On top of everything he had been through, Ban was being exploited by an international NGO to make money.

Some months later, we received very bad news. The step mother of Ban and Lan had died of cancer. Ban returned immediately to be with his father. I had the task of going down to the School for the Blind to let Lan know.

It was a stinking hot summer’s day, and I led Lan by the hand to a stall outside the school gates selling ice cream. We sat in the shade and I told him of this latest tragedy to hit his family. He took it all in complete silence, his face turned downward. It was just another blow in an extremely difficult life.

As we sat like this by the road, a shiny new 4WD rumbled by. On the outside it bore the logo of a multinational children’s aid agency. On the inside sat an NGO worker in the backseat, dressed up and enjoying the air conditioned ride on the way to work.

It was just a moment in time but the incongruence hit me hard. Lan and I were crouched on tiny plastic stools in the oppressive heat, absorbing the latest awful events in this boy’s life. And here was someone who seemed to have such resources, such power, just driving on by in their protective, air conditioned bubble.

Those 2 stories – of the sponsorship and the 4WD – have stuck with me over the years. They made me angry, and looking back I really shouldn’t have been as angry as I actually was. One bad story about a child sponsorship-gone-wrong certainly doesn’t mean they’re all bad. An NGO worker on their way to a meeting in an expensive car doesn’t mean that all NGO work is wasteful or out-of -touch. It’s unfair to judge the whole by these 2 tiny parts of the story.

But at the time, my response was anger. I sensed injustice. I felt that those with power were not using it as best they could to help the powerless. I felt that those who should be helping were looking in the other direction at best – and sometimes even doing harm.

I was angry; so I did something about it.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation was born.

Ban has grown up now to become a baker. Lan studied through to Grade 9, learning to read braille and play guitar; he’s married now, a father, and runs a small business with his wife. My anger, even if misguided, has paid dividends for the brothers.

International events of recent times have reminded me of Lan and Ban’s story. There’s anger and disappointment in the US and around the globe about the next ‘leader of the free world’. Right or wrong, many people are worried.

The greatest fear appears to be one of social justice: How will the weak be affected? What will happen to minorities? What does this mean for communities who are already marginalised? And for already-fragile climate agreements?

People are angry, because an innate part of our humanity is a desire for justice.

And so I say: Be angry. Demand that the weak are protected, and that minority groups are treated with the same respect as anyone else. Raise your voice and be heard.

Don’t forget, though, that anger does not have to be destructive. Harness it for good. Let that anger take the form of a positive action to help someone who needs it.

Among the countless social media posts I’ve seen on the topic of racial and religious discrimination this week are some by a friend, Lauren, who lives in New York. Hearing the stories of mosques being vandalised in the wake of the election result, which has apparently emboldened racists around the world, Lauren organised a group of friends to visit an Islamic Centre that had been the subject of an attack. Atheists, Christians, Jews and Muslims shared some time together as friends – as people – in a very human show of love and solidarity.

A simple action like this is the perfect channeling of anger. Our world will always be imperfect as long as it is filled with humans; we’ll always make mistakes and sometimes we’ll hurt each other, even when we don’t really mean to. If only our anger makes us reach out to heal one another, then we can make the world as good as it’s ever going to get.

So be angry, and care for someone who needs you. That’s the best we can do.

Matters of significance

I’m flying back today from Australia to Vietnam.

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

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

Tuesday is an important day for two reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody deserves to be safe.

The best time of your life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exceptional care

When my phone buzzes late at night, my first impulse is to wonder what’s wrong.

Among the various roles that Blue Dragon plays in Vietnam, we are first and foremost a care provider to children with very special needs. It would be a rare week that went by without some emergency popping up, whether it’s one of our kids getting into trouble with the law, or a plea for help from a family whose child has gone missing.

A late night call this week was to inform me that one of our boys, Do, was in an accident on the street and needed urgent medical attention. He’s fine now – the story ends well! – but he suffered a concussion and for a time was non-responsive. Do was rushed by ambulance to a hospital, and my team called me to let me know what was happening.

Medical care in public Vietnamese hospitals is… well, not always of the highest standard. Rooms can be significantly overcrowded, and it’s not unusual to see two patients on the same bed. Family members must look after their relatives in hospital, and that includes sleeping there over night – often on the floor beneath the bed. With the culture of respect for people in certain positions, people will rarely ask a doctor to explain a decision or provide information; what the doctor says is law, and to maintain that air of superiority doctors often won’t ask anything themselves or let patients know what’s happening.

So when one of our kids lands in hospital, we know it will take some determination and focus to ensure they are getting looked after properly. Knowing that Do had a head injury made this situation even more serious.

One of the things I love about Blue Dragon is the way everybody cares; not just in words or grand statements, but in real actions. By the time I got to the hospital, 3 social workers were there, including one of my longest serving team members, and one of the older teens was there as well. The doctors sure knew that Do had an army of supporters, and we made certain he received the care he needed.

Every child needs to have an army of supporters; or to borrow a line from Philps and Lahutsky, every child needs to be the centre of somebody’s universe.

Imagine if we could set that as our standard for every person we met: not just to care, but to give exceptional care, the same care we would demand for ourselves and for our family. Every child, and indeed every person, hopes for and deserves no less.

Do is just about back to normal now; he’s his usual smiling self once again. He knows he is the centre of our universe; and not just during a crisis, but every day.

Looking for impact

Thao and Tin’s rescue from a sweatshop in southern Vietnam changed the course of their lives.

Thao, a 13 year old girl, and Tin, a 14 year old boy, had been locked into the upstairs of a garment factory for over 4 months by the time we found them. They had left their village in the north-west, close to the border of China, believing that they were on their way to a vocational training opportunity.

Neither they nor their families had any idea they were to be used as slave labour in a home-based factory 1,200 km (745 miles) from home.

Both Thao and Tin are home now, and back at school where they can get on with just being kids and enjoying life. With help from Blue Dragon they’re doing well, and their families are getting some extra support for their siblings.

The question remains, though: How can we stop this from happening again? How can we help other kids just like Thao and Tin so that they never have to be trafficked in the first place?

With a problem as complex and multi-faceted as human trafficking, there’s no single answer or magic bullet. And yet, there’s a lot that can be done that we know will have an impact.

Blue Dragon’s rescue work stands out as one of the most powerful activities we do. On pretty much a daily basis, we receive calls to help people who have been trafficked and sold; and through our interventions we find missing people and get them home. Just like Thao and Tin.

And while this may be the most exciting part of our work, it’s only one part of the fight against human trafficking. (Which, by way of a shameless self promotion, you might like to learn more about in my Ted talk).

Apart from the individual rescues and the follow up that takes place (such as arresting and prosecuting the traffickers) a major tool to push back against trafficking is, very simply, working with communities.

Every community that has lost people to trafficking has its own set of vulnerabilities. In some villages, people may be illiterate and have no access to television, and so know nothing of human trafficking. Elsewhere, extreme poverty may make a community ripe for exploitation.

Many people who are trafficked have been easy targets because they lack basic paperwork: they may have no birth certificate or ID card, and so are ineligible to attend school and can never get a proper job. One initiative that Blue Dragon runs is the concept of the ‘registration campaign’ in which we go out to rural areas where this is an issue, and work with the government to register people en masse. This weekend just gone, we have registered 893 people in one area of central Vietnam, bringing our organisational total to over 8,700 people.

That simple bit of paperwork makes them much less likely to be trafficked, and much easier to help in case they do get trafficked.

We’ve found that working with schools, too, is critical in preventing human trafficking. Too many times, the children we rescue from perilous situations have dropped out of school because they couldn’t afford the fees, or they didn’t think education would help them in the future. And once they have dropped out, they become invisible; nobody notices that they are gone.

In one area of Vietnam, we’re working with schools to develop an ‘early warning’ system. As soon as a child drops out of school, a notification is made and someone checks up to see what has happened. It’s simple, but incredibly effective.


Training teachers to understand and prevent child trafficking in Vietnam 

Organising registration campaigns in villages and training school teachers to notice danger signs just don’t sound as exciting as rescuing kids from brothels or from factories. And they don’t have the immediate impact that a rescue has. There’s no doubt getting little Thao and Tin home has changed their lives and brought significant relief to their whole family and village.

It’s also much harder to prove the success of the school and community approach. How can we ever know how many kids would otherwise have been trafficked?

And yet, these local interventions are keeping kids and communities safe. The impact might not be as obvious as for Thao and Tin, but it’s just as real and just as important.

Plans and endings

We all dream of fairytale endings at some point in life.

Especially when it comes to working with street kids and people who have been trafficked, we love to think that if we do our part, if we give our time or our money, there’ll eventually be a “happily ever after” – and who wouldn’t want that?

Sometimes there is. On my old blog, 2 years ago today, I wrote of such a story: the very first girl and boy who we rescued from trafficking (in separate operations) married. Since then, their story has only gotten better. Ngoc now works for Blue Dragon, helping children who would otherwise be trafficked just as he was. Seriously, it does not get sweeter than that!

Here at Blue Dragon, not all of our stories end so happily but it sure is nice when they do!

On Saturday, Blue Dragon’s Outreach team set out with a plan. There were 4 children we’ve been working with at our Hanoi Drop-in centre who needed to go home to their families in the countryside. They weren’t from the same districts but their families could be reached within a few hours of each other.

The team made a plan to meet the 4 kids in the morning. One didn’t show up. One had a phone and turned it off when the staff rang them! One hid in an internet cafe. Only one boy, 13 year old Sanh, showed up; and he brought a friend to go with him. (I wrote about Sanh back in July).

So the trip was rather different to the plan; the entire day had taken on a new trajectory. What to do?

Rather than cancel the trip, the team turned it into an awesome outing for Sanh and his friend. Sanh did get home and see his family, but along they rowed a boat down the river and even visited an animal park.


There’s still plenty of work to do with the other 3 kids, but Sanh and his mate had a day to remember!

Life doesn’t always end with a “happily ever after”and it doesn’t always go to a plan. It’s nice when it does; but even when it all goes wrong, there’s still a chance for good to come of it.