Quiet

This weekend I have been visiting my family in rural Australia. It’s been some years since I was last here, and I have forgotten how quietly paced life is in the countryside.

In Vietnam, life never seems to slow down; there’s never time to take a breath. In part, this is the nature of the crisis work we do at Blue Dragon; but it’s also a reflection of the country itself.

Even while I am travelling, there are rescues underway of girls who were trafficked to China, and our street outreach team has been looking for 2 missing children in Hanoi. The emergencies continue, and this place of quiet where I am now seems to be a world away.

Charities working in crisis situations often feel frustrated in conveying to the world the urgency and depth of the need they are faced with. This is why they resort to ‘poverty porn’: parading the poor and desperate in front of the world in order to attract donations. It’s a despicable way to raise money, but the frustration that leads organisations to do it is not surprising.

Life in Australia – even in the cities – is calm and peaceful compared to the immediacy of life in Vietnam. People in Australia are comfortable; they generally have what they need, and most people aren’t faced with daily questions of how to eat or how to find a missing child. There is undoubtedly poverty and hardship here, too, but it is far less common; it is exceptional and unusual rather than normal.

Although I have taken the weekend away, I’m travelling to meet with supporters and talk about Blue Dragon’s work. My stories are mostly of kids who have been abused but, with some help, have turned their lives around. People are always interested to know how we conduct rescue operations, and how the kids survive when they are so profoundly traumatised.

To me, these stories have become a part of my ‘normal’. I am still often deeply touched, and sometimes shocked, by what I see, but I sit and talk with traumatised young people every day; their stories are part of my daily life. To people in other countries, these stories can seem surreal. Such trauma and suffering among children is unimaginable.

Standing with feet in both worlds, I feel torn about where I belong. I am drawn to the idea of a quiet life; I dream of living as a hermit, out in the bush away from the crowds. But I feel a pull towards a place where life has more immediacy, more demands: and in Vietnam I know that there is still a huge need. I have a place there. I don’t see how I could settle in to the quiet life when I know that such suffering continues.

And so I will take this moment to breathe, and by the time I return to Vietnam I hope to have some new energy. The quiet life will always be an option; for now it is only a reprieve before returning home.

 

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Past and present

It would be easy for me to think I’ve seen it all.

My team here at Blue Dragon has rescued Vietnamese girls from brothels deep inside China. We’ve travelled to the border of Mongolia to find women sold as brides, and brought them home. We’ve met kids on the streets of Hanoi so entangled in pedophile rings, so deeply scarred, that we doubted we could ever get them out – and yet we did. We’ve founds children locked into sweatshops, missing for years, with no more than a gut feeling to guide us to their location.

We’ve seen some terrible stuff. But this week a couple of photos brought me to the verge of tears.

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I met 13 year old Sanh a few weeks ago, almost by chance. I was sitting outside a cafe when some street kids I knew walked by, along with a boy I hadn’t seen before. Sanh looked both cocky and frightened all at once, and it was immediately clear that he had something to hide. He wasn’t going to let me know who he was or where he was from; but he was completely open about wanting help.

It took us more than 2 weeks of working with Sanh before he agreed for us to take him home. Legally, we have to do that; Blue Dragon has no right to keep kids in our shelters or centres without their parents’ knowledge.

Sanh was telling the truth when he said his family had no phone number. We had to drive several hours to get to his village; and what we found was shocking. His home, in the photos above, looked abandoned. You don’t need me to describe it; take a moment to imagine living there yourself.

My staff, who normally take countless photos to document their work, put their camera down after just a few shots. There was something wrong, invasive, about taking photos of this.

The house was empty apart from a timber bed. Nothing else. No electricity or water. No doors or windows.  Just nothing.

How could a 13 year old boy be expected to live like that?

I was thinking about how I could explain this on my blog. I had a working title in mind: The house of no hope.

But then came the weekend, and with it the wedding of Duong, one of our ‘old boys’.

I travelled out to Bac Ninh province for this wedding. Duong is a tall and handsome young man; he works as a driver but he’s highly skilled with mechanics and can do anything that he puts his mind to. He stood tall and proud at his wedding; it was such an honour for him that a bus load of Blue Dragon people turned up to take part.

As I sat amidst the festivities, my mind turned back to the early days of knowing Duong. He too had made his way to the streets of Hanoi, running from family problems that are now long in the past but at the time were all consuming.

This young man who now seems so strong and stable once lived in despair, too. When I met him, he was living in a tree. Nobody would know that now; I’m sure most people at the wedding would have no idea of the struggles he went through as a teenager.

And if Duong could turn his life around and make something great for himself, then why not Sanh? His story can have a happy ending too. It won’t be easy but it can happen. Sanh just needs a lot of love and care, and above all time to heal and find wholeness.

This is not a story without hope; I just don’t know the ending yet. The one thing for sure is that Sanh doesn’t have to live in an abandoned concrete box any more, and nor does he have to live on the streets of the city.

Hope for Sanh begins today.

 

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Carry me

A popular idea among charities working with disadvantaged people is that of ‘mutual responsibility.’ It can take various forms and is given different names; these days the concept of ‘paying it forward’ is well known, but it can more simply be the idea of someone being obliged to volunteer or donate after they have received help to get back on their feet.

The idea itself is terrific, and many inspiring stories have developed from this principle of reciprocity. In an organisation like Blue Dragon, this can be much harder to implement as we are open to young people from all ages, backgrounds and with all sorts of needs; most have experienced pretty severe trauma by the time we meet them, so requiring them to repay society for the help they’ve received is a very tall order.

The upside of this, however, is that when our kids do ‘pay it forward,’ they are doing so solely from their own will. The absence of an obligation, or a formal expectation, means that when it happens it’s being driven by the young person’s own heart and mind.

A couple of examples of this have really struck me in the past week.

Among the children at our Hanoi centre are quite a few kids with disabilities and health issues. One of those children is a little boy, Tran, who lost a leg in an electrical incident and has a few problems with some internal organs. He’s one of the bravest kids I’ve ever met; I’m sure he doesn’t think of himself as ‘disabled’ at all. Even with just one leg, he joins in skateboarding, rock climbing, and absolutely any other activity on offer. Try to hold him back at your own peril.

And so it really says something about the Hanoi summer that Tran was having difficulty getting back to Dragon House one afternoon; the heat was extraordinary and he was struggling along on his crutches. Another of the Blue Dragon boys was with him, and totally unprompted he picked him up and carried him back to the centre.

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This was a complete act of selflessness. There was no duty being filled, no ‘service points’ being earned, and nobody would even have known but that a staff member passing by saw this and snapped a photo. The faithful friend has himself been through an incredibly difficult life, and until recently has never had a home where he could feel safe and loved. Yet he somehow has the inner strength to care for people less fortunate than himself. Imagine how different our world would be if we were all like that.

Back at the Blue Dragon centre, the kids have come up with their own plans for summer activities, and this has included community service which the girls and boys have designed themselves.

In short, they raised the idea that families at a local pediatric hospital might need some support; carried out some simple research on what was needed; and concluded that children at the hospital, all being extremely impoverished, were in need of some care and attention.

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Their solution? Organise events such as a film afternoon to give the ill children something to do.

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Again, this was not Blue Dragon staff telling the kids what to do; it was the children organising themselves and expressing a desire to do something for others.

These examples of selfless care, sparked by an internal drive, are really all around us. We need to take the time to stop and look… and to be inspired by what we see.

 

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Untamed goats

Our world is a wonderful, inspiring, horrible disaster.

In any one moment, we can see both the best and the worst of humanity. And the past week has given us all plenty to look at.

World politics has never been pleasant, and right at the moment it seems particularly nasty. Brexit is the prime example of this.

People voted for the UK to break away from the EU largely because they either thought they would get a terrifically well funded health system (a promise that was called a “mistake” the next day) or because they believed that they would be able to end immigration to England (which is both incorrect, and terribly inward-looking).

The very day after the referendum, people who voted ‘leave’ were quoted broadly across the media as regretting their choice and saying they didn’t think it would actually happen. So financial markets are in chaos, the EU is faced with a huge mess, and the UK is likely to suffer for many years to come – but a good number of people responsible didn’t actually mean it. Oops.

Politics in the US is more toxic than anyone can remember (a statement that nobody thought could be uttered again, given the Tea Party backlash against Obama a few years ago). And Australians appear to be on the verge of voting for the incumbent party despite it opposing any real measure at dealing with climate change or giving marriage equality to all people, and also despite the most tone-deaf campaign imaginable (if you’re not Australian, go to Twitter and look up #faketradie. And yes, I know that #faketradie turned out to be #realtradie, but that only made things worse, didn’t it?)

And this list is entirely anglo-centric. I’m not mentioning the children being killed in Syria, decades of extermination of humanity in North Korea, conflict in the East Sea…

It’s a pretty depressing list – if you let it be.

But here’s what I would prefer to think about.

On Friday, while Britain was waking up to an “Oh sh— what have we done?” morning, it was evening in Vietnam and 25 kids were gathering in the Blue Dragon centre.

Among them were girls and boys of all ages. Some were homeless until we met them and took them in. Some have no known family at all; and some have no family able or willing to look after them. Many have been labelled trouble makers, and yes a few may have seen the inside of a prison cell.

They came together of their own volition, for something they organised themselves: a martial arts class. It started with the teacher – a young man they found and approached themselves – grabbing everyone’s attention with his silence, dropping his voice to a near whisper, and telling the kids: “All we have in this life is our body, and it’s up to us to care for it.”

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While entire political systems behave like untamed goats, the kids of Blue Dragon chose to organise, focus, and learn something new.

It would be easy at this time to feel despair about our future. There’s plenty going wrong. But there’s plenty going right, too; and if we take a moment to reflect, much of the hope for our world rests in our young.

I don’t know if Britain will be able to turn things around any time soon; and I don’t know if the people of countries like the US or Australia will find a way to register their discontent without trashing their great nations. I don’t believe there’s any end to the wars around the world.

However, I do know that whatever happens, there is real hope for humanity in the people around us. Political systems won’t save us; that power is entirely within ourselves.

 

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Whole

On Sunday, Blue Dragon’s Rescue Team set free 4 children from slavery in sweatshops.

Two girls and two boys, aged 11 to 13, had been trafficked from their homes in central Vietnam 6 months ago. Living in extreme poverty in a rural village, their families were easily deceived when some kind women came to their home offering training and education in the big city to the south.

I can’t post photos showing their faces; if I did, you would not believe that they are aged 11 to 13. They are tiny.

But of course, when they actually got to Ho Chi Minh City there was no training and education. Just constant work in home-based garment factories, all day and well into the night, 7 days a week. There wasn’t even any salary: after all, this was “training.”

When we found them, they were tired, dirty and hungry. One of the boys has a bad cough and a bloody nose – he hasn’t had any medicine or a trip to the doctor. No care at all. The only concern has been whether his illness might slow down his productivity on the sewing machines.

Now the 4 children are safe. They spent Sunday night sightseeing through the city where they have been held captive, and on Monday they are heading home. Soon they will be back with their families, who we’ll support to re-enroll their children in school and see what else we can do to make their lives better. Things are looking good for a happy ending.

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Set free: Leaving the factory. 

And yet, a ‘happy ending’ is an odd thing. The children should never have been trafficked in the first place. Their families should never have had to make the decision to send away their children; they should never have had to face such hardship that this could even seem like a reasonable thing to do.

The 3 factories that enslaved the 4 children also should never have considered the idea of taking these little boys and girls away from their families, deceiving them into thinking they’d have a better chance in life, and then treating them like soulless machines.

Even if the story ends well, there’s something wrong with the world that any of this ever happened.

There are many wrongs in world, many crimes. It’s tough competition for the title of ‘the worst,’ but human trafficking surely is a contender. Trafficking a person – be it a child, woman or man – is forcing them into constant abuse. Trafficked people are not exploited several times; their lives are taken from them while they still live, and every breath belongs to someone they never chose to give it to. The damage done to the psyche is deep and long lasting.

As if that’s not enough, human trafficking impacts the natural world as well. These 4 children were being held in garment factories; do we think those factories upheld good standards of environmental protection? Did they have a sustainability policy, use renewable energy, and dispose of their waste thoughtfully? The hell they did. If they’re happy to exploit a child, they couldn’t care less about the earth.

This article, which appeared recently on CNN, makes the powerful point:

“If slavery were a country it would have a population of some 35 million people and the gross domestic product of Angola, in global terms a small and poor nation… [and] it would be the third largest emitter of CO2 (2.54 billion tons per year) in the world.”

Slavery is killing our world. It may be illegal in every country, but it thrives across the planet. This is a problem of ‘wholeness’; people, animals, and the whole of our world’s ecosystem are being damaged.

This is a problem for all of us, whether it happens in our backyard or not.

Today, 4 children are free from slavery. I hope that with some care and assistance, this terrible experience really will just become a memory. And for all those other children, teens and adults who are yet to be found: it’s our duty as humans to commit ourselves to setting them free, too.

There has to be a happy ending for many more people yet. The stakes are high; this is about saving the world.

 

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Deep impact

When I first met ‘Tan’, he was living wild on the streets of Hanoi. I don’t know if anybody had ever cared for him before; every instinct of his body was about survival.

Everyone Tan met was either afraid of him or loathed him – and often both. Even though he was only 12 or 13 years old, his rejection of all social boundaries, all rules, left people shocked. Little kids are supposed to be cute and playful; and when you meet homeless children and offer to help, they should be grateful. Tan didn’t fit the mold at all.

One of the Blue Dragon Social Workers, Vi, took Tan under his wing and spent about 18 months getting to know him. Tan would disappear for days or weeks on end, then turn up again covered in dirt and bruises. He would return from these absences as though nothing had happened at all; Tan was forever moving on. He truly lived in the moment.

Despite the harshness of his life, Tan’s spirit somehow kept an aura of innocence about it. You could see it in his eyes. He may have spent the night sleeping in a drain pipe, eating discarded bread, or scavenging along the river, but when he turned up the next day he would be wide-eyed and innocent. In so many ways he was just like any other child, except that years of fending for himself had given him a toughness that no child should have to develop.

A good friend of Blue Dragon, Vincent Baumont, managed to capture some film of Tan with Vi back in 2011 for a short documentary about life on the streets. The documentary is below; that’s Tan at the 30 second mark, smoking a cigarette.

 

Eventually Tan hopped on a train to the south, made it to Ho Chi Minh City, and didn’t come back. From time to time he would ring Vi – always from a different phone number – just to say hi and chat about nothing in particular.

Last week, Vi was in Ho Chi Minh City and caught up with Tan. He’s all grown up now; not only is he much taller, but he has become a young man in his own right. Tan has a job, and a home, and seems to have found his place in the world. As someone who has always had to fend for himself, there was never any question that he would be able to survive.

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So when they met, what did Tan want to talk about? All he had on his mind was the days he spent in Hanoi hanging out with Vi. He couldn’t stop talking about how much he valued their rides around the city, their meals by the roadside, their drinks at the tea stands. At the time I had no idea how deeply Vi was impacting Tan’s character and outlook on the world; but now, 5 years on, Tan thinks of nothing but how he once knew people who cared for him and loved him.

At the time we wondered if our time and energy meant anything at all to Tan. Now we know it meant everything.

If our work was to be measured only in terms of immediate outcomes and with quantifiable data, we would miss the most important part of all: the long term impact of one human caring for another. No matter how wild or dirty or outrageous we appear, we still all have the same fundamental need to be connected and valued.

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Old friends

Life at Blue Dragon is about constant change and growth.

I may see one of the kids every day for months, or even years, and eventually they move on to develop their life away from the safety of our centre. Just as parents feel the mix of joy and sorrow when their own children start becoming independent and move away from home, my team and I are in a perpetual flux with new kids coming in and – albeit much more slowly – the older kids heading out.

None leave us entirely, though, and this is one of the rewards of our work. While it can be hard to say goodbye, we never really have to. The children might move out of home, but they don’t leave the family.

This past weekend was spent catching up with old friends and reminiscing about days past. On Saturday night, a party for an American friend returning to Hanoi gave me a chance to sit with Doan and Tuan, two young men who once shone shoes on the streets of the ancient city but now work and live on the other side of town. Doan has a shop selling and repairing mobile phones; Tuan drives a rental car.

Although they both spent time at Blue Dragon in their teens, somehow they never met and so it was fascinating hearing them exchange stories of their experiences and encounters. I found it both amusing and completely understandable that the stories they told were quite sanitised: one of the guys (I’d better not say which!) had at least 3 run-ins with the law and I consider it one of my greatest personal achievements that he never ended up in prison.

More old friends turned up on Sunday; Kien came along to football although he lives in Ho Chi Minh City now, having followed his parents south when they moved for their work. He’s a much-loved player at Blue Dragon United and has been missed, so his return to Hanoi for the summer holidays has been a cause for celebration among his team mates.

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Sunday night, too, was a time to catch up with a young couple who are deeply in love but yet to turn 18. One works as a DJ, the other is training to be a chef. We laughed at photos and videos of the kids from when they were still tiny, from a time before life was so complicated. Both are having difficulty with their families and are desperate to escape from the negativity that they see in their homes; they just want to grow up and move out, and be in control of their own destinies.

Life itself is about change and growth. Life is a long story, and we can hardly ever guess at where the next chapter will begin, let alone how the story will end.

 

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Take a moment

If you’ve been following what’s happening at Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, you’ll have seen the launch of our annual funding appeal. This is the time of year that we plan for the coming 12 months, and ask the world to help us. It’s a nerve-wracking time because so much depends on the outcome.

Part of the approach this year was to make some films about the kids who we’ve rescued in the past. The website has a few good films, including some made by the kids themselves (which is a pretty big thing for the Blue Dragon kids to do! Go Creators!).

In the busy-ness of the day, in the madness of the rush to be productive, take a moment to watch this film:

Tan’s story

I happened to be on the rescue operation that found “Tan” (his name has been changed) and took him home, and I remember him as being a frail little boy who just wanted to go home to be with his family. He’s now a proud, successful young man who has made the most of life.

Prepare to be inspired.

 

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Creators

The words that we use shape our perceptions, as well as those of the people hearing what we say.

As an example, the Australian government’s use of the word “Illegals” to replace the word “Refugees” has shaped the country’s discussion about humanitarian migration.

In my work at Blue Dragon, I sometimes struggle with choosing the right word or expression to describe the kids we work with. Preparing proposals and reports, and even writing for this blog, I sometimes have to stop and ask myself what the right word could be. While I can talk about kids in some contexts, elsewhere I have to be more formal and talk about children; but we also help young adults, families, and whole communities, so children often isn’t precise enough.

A common word to sum up the children in programs like Blue Dragon is beneficiaries. For some reports, I find myself saying “Last month 300 beneficiaries took part…” But beneficiaries just isn’t right. Our kids are more than that. Being a beneficiary suggests you’re sitting there passively with your hand out – and that’s not how Blue Dragon works.

So what about participants? This word that gives the kids more power; being a participant is active, with a more equal relationship. But no: the word overlooks the fact that most of the people we help come to us in a state of crisis. It’s a bit odd to say “We rescued 10 participants from human slavery last year.”

I’m yet to find the perfect word, but yesterday the Blue Dragon kids earned themselves a new term: creators.

Over the past year, kids at our centre in Hanoi have been taking more and more of an active role in decision making about what we do with them and how we serve them. When the Social Workers wanted to give the Drop-In Centre a makeover, they involved the girls and boys to make the plan and come up with all the ideas. Rather than the staff coming up with the plan, or even asking the kids for their input, they handed the whole thing over to a team of kids who chose to be involved. In the end, staff had to sign off on it all, but pretty much all of the kids’ ideas were adopted and our centre is now an awesome hang-out for youth.

More recently, the kids in our street arts group identified that they wanted to be more connected to Hanoi’s hip hop community. As one of them said to us: “All I know about hip hop is what I have learned here at Blue and from the internet.”

The idea evolved that they – the kids themselves – should organise an event for young people to learn more about the hip hop culture and for the Blue Dragon kids to showcase what they can do.

They didn’t want to just take part in an event; they wanted to create one.

And so they partnered with 2groove and worked with Hanoi Creative City to organise a huge afternoon for the public, with the emphasis on peace, love, unity and fun.

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Blue Dragon kids and staff led the whole event, welcoming 7 different hip hop crews from around the city to join the battles. Some of Vietnam’s best known hip hop artists judged the dancers, and kids join in workshops with pro skaters, graffiti artists, and DJs.

Kids come to Blue Dragon in a state of crisis. When we first meet them, chances are it’s because they’re homeless or have been trafficked or something has just gone terribly wrong in their life.

The transition from ‘victim’ to ‘creator’ is beautiful to see – and gives hope that transformation in people’s lives is a reality, not just an empty phrase.

 

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A good kid

Long was sleeping on the streets of Hanoi when we met him just a few months ago. He’s 16, but a skinny boy who still has his boyish charm.

When we meet street kids, we have to accept that we know nothing about them. It’s easy to jump to conclusions about who they might be or why they might be homeless, and in fact it’s sometimes hard to not start making assumptions.

At first Long was an unreadable book. I couldn’t quite understand him; at times he would light up the centre with his smile and greet me as an old friend, but later in the day he would look blankly through me and seem totally disinterested in talking to anyone.

As the weeks went by, we started forming our conclusions. He seemed interested only in playing. He wanted freedom, and sometimes wouldn’t go back to the Blue Dragon shelter for days, despite us doing our best to care for him and accommodate his whims. He constantly delayed telling us anything about himself: snippets would dribble out but he clearly didn’t want us talking to his family, and he never gave us any reason.

Long did, eventually, agree for a Social Worker to ring his home and talk to his step mother; he needed his paperwork in order to apply for school or a job in Hanoi, so he really had no choice. His step mother was lovely to talk to over the phone; she was concerned that he had run away, glad he was safe, and encouraged him to go home.

Although Long didn’t really want to see his family – and still we couldn’t see why – he one day came and asked for a Social Worker to take him back to his village about 200km south of Hanoi, help him get his ID card and paperwork, then come back to the city. So we arranged transport and lined up the staff to go with him – and he didn’t show up.

Then it happened again. Another no-show.

Long is a lovely kid, but this cat-and-mouse for no apparent reason was starting to wear thin.

Finally, months after we had first met him, Long and his Social Worker headed back to his home to visit his family.

And the reason he had left home to live on the streets was immediately clear: his father was violent and abusive.

Within moments of Long stepping foot into his own home, his father was hurling abuse at him. “I wish you were dead,” he told his son. “Why don’t you just overdose on heroine and kill yourself?”

Long’s lack of commitment, his hot-and-cold friendliness, and his constant avoidance of sharing personal information was suddenly, frighteningly, perfectly understandable.

In fact, we were confronted with the question of why his behavior is so good given the emotional abuse he has lived with for so many years. While I wondered why he didn’t make more of an effort, I should have been wondering why he was such a good kid in the first place, that following years of this abuse he had not become violent or destructive or abusive himself.

We’ve met a lot of street kids over the years; we’ve helped more than 300 leave the streets and settle either back with their families or in Blue Dragon’s own shelters. And yet, every child we meet is different and special in their own way. Their main similarity is how different they all are.

With the clarity of seeing Long’s father, there was no question but that Long needed to return to live in a safe house with people who care for him. As much as his step mother loves him, she is unable to protect him from his father. And so Long has returned to Hanoi to start out with a new chance at life.

Since coming back, there’s been a noticeable change. Long is now settled and calmer; he hasn’t stayed out on the streets for a single night. He’s become a role model among the other kids, encouraging good behavior and looking out for the new girls and boys who come into the centre.

What’s made the difference? I think it’s the fact that he knows that we know him; and we still love him. We’ve seen what his own father thinks of him, and we don’t care. Rather than thinking less of him, we hold him in much higher regard: what an incredible child, to struggle with such abuse and neglect and yet retain such a wonderful character.

Long is a terrific kid and I hope he can see a brighter future now that he’s with us. And I’ve learned my own lesson: there’s always more to someone’s story than we know. My assumptions about Long were simply wrong, and I hope I won’t make the same mistake again.

 

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