Van’s office is his motorbike.
In the morning he wakes up with the sunrise, completes his morning chores, then sets out for the day travelling from village to village among the mountains of northern Vietnam.
Van is a volunteer Social Worker with Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, helping kids in crisis throughout one of the poorest regions of the country. But as a child, Van faced a crisis of his own.
Van’s memories of his childhood are very happy, but life was tough. His family belongs to the Thai ethnic minority community. His parents are farmers, earning a tiny income each month. And his younger brother was born with a severe hearing impairment.
Elsewhere, Van’s family could have found support to fit a hearing aid or teach his brother Vietnamese Sign Language. In their remote village, no such assistance can be found. No school could accept the little boy, so even before his teens Van took on the duty of caring for his brother while his parents worked in the fields.
By the time he reached Grade 9, Van couldn’t see the point in studying any further. There just seemed no reason to keep going.
So when a distant relative approached him with a job offer, Van was thrilled. This wasn’t just a chance to earn some money for his family; this was a job in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), almost 2,000 km (1,200 miles) away by road.
What an adventure!
As Van tells the story in his own words:
In March 2013, I hopped on a bus with the relative and went to Saigon without telling my parents. I didn't think much at that time. I just wanted to go to Saigon to see the big city. I did call my parents on the way to share about my plan. They tried to persuade me to come back to study but my decision was made. Going to Saigon was the only thing on my mind.
It was all so exciting… until they arrived at their destination.
The job in the garment factory was very difficult and far different to what I expected. I had to work from early morning until late night, sometimes even midnight. My job was to print images on T-shirts. I was really young and most of the time I missed my mother and father. I just wanted to go home.
Dreaming of a brighter future, Van had been deceived into thinking his life would be better. But it was too late; there was no way to leave.
However, Van was in for a change in his fortunes. In 2011, Blue Dragon had started working in his province to find children who were trafficked into sweatshops and bring them home. Van was in the factory just two months when Blue Dragon turned up with police, demanding the return of the children.
This marked a turning point for Van. Taking him home was only one part of our intervention; once he was back with his family, our assistance continued.
Van returned to school and finished Grade 9… then kept going through to the end of high school. His younger brother started receiving specialist care to cope with his impairment. And the whole family had our support to deal with the many hardships of their lives.
For Van, a massive burden was lifted from his shoulders. Getting an education was now achievable. And something else became clear to him: the importance of helping others.
Every month, a Blue Dragon social worker arrived in his village on motorbike to catch up and see how Van and his family were doing. Between visits, staff would call to check in on them. If they had any problem, as they sometimes would, help was swiftly offered.
Van was inspired, and set himself a new goal in life. He started to dream of becoming a social worker.
Once finished with high school, Van enrolled in a college where he could study a basic social work course. Blue Dragon continued helping both him and his brother, who now was becoming fluent in sign language and had hearing aids fitted.
And when the training course was over, Van offered to join Blue Dragon. He could see nothing better than caring for other children just as he had once received help to turn his life around.
In his own words:
I realized I wanted to help other children who were from difficult backgrounds just like me. I want to bring hope to others the same way Blue Dragon gave me hope.
Van has grown into a young man who wants to give back. He has allowed the experience of his hardships, and the assistance he received to overcome them, to shape his own life and his dream for the future.
In a year that has been difficult for all of us – a year of difficulty and of change and of loss – Van reminds us that in the end, we can turn the bad into something good.
Are better days really ahead? The answer is up to us to make it happen.
Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is working to end human trafficking and slavery. Please donate to this important work if you can.