Going back

For children living in extreme poverty, the start of a new school year is a time to make a momentous decision.

It’s a difficult and dangerous moment. A turning point.

Decisions made now will have ramifications for life.

No, this is not a reflection on COVID. This is the reality of starting the new school year.

When schools reopened across Vietnam at the start of September – virtually for most and in-person for some – not every seat was filled. Many students who should have returned to the classroom simply weren’t there.

The start of a new school year is a time when many students simply don’t return to their studies. Not because of laziness or lack of interest; not at all.

Rather, children growing up in slums in the cities, or remote villages high up in the mountains, or on river boats in the delta, face a grossly unfair decision.

Do they go back to school and keep working toward the long-term future? Or do they stop now and help their family survive?

Hanh was one of those kids faced with a choice.

She lives in a Black Thai community high up in the mountains. Life is hard for many people there, and for her it’s been especially tough. Her father died when she was young and she’s grown up watching her mother toil away day and night to care for her and her little brother.

When she finished Grade 9, Hanh stopped going to school. It was a heartbreaking decision for her because she loved studying. Being with her friends and her teachers was the highlight of every day. But when she thought of her mother travelling around the countryside looking for odd jobs, often on building sites or in hard manual labor, she just couldn’t allow herself the luxury of an education. She had to help.

Hanh’s story is very familiar to Blue Dragon. We meet young people all the time who left school to help their families, just as Hanh did. Sadly, we often come across them sleeping rough on the streets of the cities, or calling desperately for help from places of slavery.

Girls in particular face huge challenges when they leave school early. Dropping out of education is a ticket to a lifetime of poverty. Human traffickers routinely target girls and young women who have left school and are looking for ways to help their families. Their desperation makes them easy to prey on with promises of training and employment and a happy future. The reality, of course, is exactly the opposite.

When we heard that Hanh had not returned to school, Blue Dragon went to visit. It was a long trek up the mountain, but sitting inside Hanh’s home we understood why she made such a difficult decision. Her life was so much harder than any child should have to bear.

Hanh was determined. With all our offers of support, we could not convince her to return to school.

So, for a year, we stayed in touch. We kept track of where Hanh was going and called to chat from time to time. We dropped in to see her and her mother.

A year later, the new school year was starting. Hanh had been working and earning money for her family; she had listened carefully to our warnings about how to avoid danger and never forgot her long discussions with us about the future.

Would Hanh return to school now?

This time, she agreed. As long as we could promise her that her mother and little brother would receive some help, Hanh was happy to get back to the classroom.

That was two years ago, and just this month Hanh has started Grade 12. She has stuck with her education, and Blue Dragon has continued supporting her family. Now she’s dreaming about going to university.

Keeping kids in school is vital. When children are studying, they are safer from human traffickers, and their prospects of breaking out of poverty are vastly higher.

Working in some remote corners of Vietnam, Blue Dragon has developed a model that we simply call Back To School. You can read about this model and its results in a short report on the website. Essentially, it involves talking in person to families and finding out what specific support they need to get their kids back into the classroom.

It’s a simple and powerful intervention.

For Hanh, it means that she is a lot safer now, and her future is a lot brighter. Going back to school has changed the course of her life.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

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