The ‘R’ word

Among charities that work in the field of human trafficking, there’s a particular word which is considered highly contentious.

My own organisation, Blue Dragon, started using the word 10 years ago. I didn’t even know that there was controversy around its use.

The word? Rescue.

It’s controversial for some good reasons. In places, organisations have ‘rescued’ people who didn’t want to be rescued, or used it as a euphemism for ‘imprison’. There are stories of NGOs raiding brothels or night clubs and taking out adult sex workers who didn’t consider themselves slaves, and keeping them in ‘safe houses’ against their will.

In light of such incidents, ‘rescue’ has been branded by some as a dirty word. But I still believe that rescue work is a critical tool in the fight against human trafficking.

It was 10 years ago, in April 2006, that Blue Dragon conducted our first ‘rescue operation’. We travelled from Hanoi, in Vietnam’s north where we are based, to Hue in central Vietnam to talk to parents whose children had been taken to work in Ho Chi Minh City, in the south of the country. The parents had been told that their children were going to study, but they were not; they had been taken to sell flowers on the streets or work in garment factories. They were slave labour: unpaid, working up to 14-18 hours per day, and threatened with violence if they objected.

When presented with the facts of what was happening to their children, the parents asked us to find them and bring them home. The traffickers tried to stop us, so we took the children in the face of aggression.

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Meeting with parents in rural Vietnam to talk about child trafficking

Ten years on, when we conduct such work we normally have police or government officials by our side, but either way we are rescuing children from slavery. There’s no other word to describe it. The kids have been trapped and held against their will; we find them and get them to safety. That’s a ‘rescue’.

While we have rescued over 400 girls and boys from slavery within Vietnam, Blue Dragon is probably better known for the rescue of over 120 girls and women trafficked from Vietnam to China. Again, the convention is to avoid using the ‘R’ word, but ‘the Big R’ is exactly what we do.

My staff receive calls for help from girls and women who have been duped into travelling to China. The trafficker is normally known to the victim: a boyfriend, a neighbour, a family friend. These are not women who have wanted to go to work in a Chinese brothel and then changed their mind; they are sold against their will, and call for help at the first opportunity. Blue Dragon staff locate them, and then either work with Chinese authorities to set them free, or find another way to help the trapped person escape and run for their lives back to the border.

Vietnamese women are not only being sold into brothels; there is also a significant market in selling women as brides. The buyers tend to be Chinese men living in remote rural areas. Last year alone we rescued 35 such women who called for help after being trafficked and sold as someone’s wife.

One problem with the ‘rescue’ word is that it has emotive connotations, and the world of international development prefers to use a more academic and passive language. I understand that concern; but the truth is that rescues are powerful and, yes, emotional events. Conducting a rescue involves weeks of slow and deliberate planning; sometimes days of tedious travel and search; many hours of heart-pounding terror as the rescue plan is enacted; and finally the intense joy of being set free after months or years of captivity.

So I acknowledge all the problems with the ‘R’ word but I won’t be shying away from it any time soon. If we are to make any inroads against human trafficking, it’s not enough just to raise awareness and ‘build capacity’. People who have been trafficked deserve to have their calls for help answered. There is very great need for more rescue work to be done, and we should never be apologetic for that.

If only

Ton and Viet are neighbours in a village about two hours drive from Hanoi. The roads turn into alleys and then into dirt tracks, winding through the hills towards the quiet settlement that they call home.

Both boys are aged 15 now. Both are the only child in their family; both have grown up with just their mother; and both live in houses so dilapidated that they are beyond being fit for any person to inhabit.

With all this in common, both boys ran away from home together more than a year ago, and both found themselves targets of pedophile rings in Vietnam’s capital city.

Ton had been to Hanoi before. He had lived on one of the city’s bridges, surviving by scavenging at night and hanging out with gangs of teens who live by stealing. When he fell afoul of one of the gangs, he was beaten almost to death and left, bleeding and naked, by the river. He was just 13 then. One of the Blue Dragon social workers found him, took him to hospital, and nursed him back to health.

Eventually Ton went home, but his self esteem was through the floor. Home life was miserable: in a house with no electricity, no comforts to speak of, and holes in the wall, he was embarrassed to mix with other kids his age. Only Viet, living down the road, could share his feelings, and so it’s no surprise that they made a plan to run away together. They dreamt of excitement and a better life, as teens do.

The predators in Hanoi have their tentacles everywhere; they are constantly on the lookout for new kids, both girls and boys, arriving in the city and in need of cash. Fuelled by their sense of worthlessness, Ton and Viet succumbed to the offers of money and, over the course of a year, became the disposable playthings of dozens of men, both Vietnamese and foreign, who would pay them from $1 to $10 for sex in parks, hotels, and houses.

Some kids who experience this abuse feel compelled to find an escape as soon as they can. Others, like Ton and Viet, just give up all hope and let it happen. They allow themselves to be exploited, seeing it as a punishment they deserve to suffer. They ‘work’ for a few hours at night until they have enough money to last the next day, and drown out the pain with meth and computer games.

My staff at Blue Dragon spent many months caring for Ton and Viet before they would agree to receive our help. Social workers would meet them at the parks, or go to the internet cafes where they slept, and invite them out for a meal. Building trust took a long time, and critical to our approach was showing the boys that we would not judge them, no matter what they did.

Finally Ton and Viet agreed to go back to see their mothers. Ly, one of our social workers, and I traveled with them, doing our best to allay their apprehension at going home.

Sitting in Viet’s tiny, half-collapsed house, Ly put into words the feeling I had in my heart: “If only someone had helped these children a few years ago, maybe they would never have run away from home… And maybe none of this would have happened to them.”

Her thought was simple, yet profound. If only. All of this mess that has engulfed their lives could well have been avoided. If only someone had cared.

Ton and Viet are doing well now. They have worked hard to break out of the cycle of abuse they were caught up in. I don’t know how they have found the strength to do so, but their progress has been remarkable. I see them fairly regularly and they are adjusting as best they can to a ‘post-exploitation’ life.

And yet I can’t get it out of my mind: If only. How different their lives could have been.

We can’t change the past. If we could, Ton and Viet might now have very different lives. But for these 2 kids, it’s too late. The damage has been done.

It’s not too late, though, for someone else. There are so many young people out there, in Vietnam and throughout our world, who desperately need someone to care for them before disaster strikes. It’s not too late to prevent a similar cycle of abuse for another boy or girl who is living in misery and dreaming that life could be better.

We can’t allow more children to be trapped like Ton and Viet because the alternatives seem no better. We can’t allow ourselves to say “If only” for any more children.


Of all of Blue Dragon’s work with kids in crisis, it is our involvement in rescuing people trafficked into the sex industry that attracts the most attention.

Our rescues are in response to specific calls for help. Vietnamese girls and women who have been trafficked to China for sale as brides or into brothels call home for help; the message gets to us and we send a team to find them and bring them home.

Among the questions I am asked most about this work is a question of blame. How could the girls be so stupid as to go with the traffickers? Surely the families are complicit in this?

Such questions seek to place the responsibility for the crime on the shoulders of the victims.

Human trafficking is a lucrative business. A young woman from Vietnam can be sold into China for an up-front price of $5000 – $8000; or for a smaller up-front cost but with an ongoing commission of about $1500 per month. A trafficker can reasonably earn over $100,000 a year if he or she traffics just one victim every month.

With such massive profits awaiting them, the traffickers are prepared to put in time and energy. We’ve come across cases where traffickers have built a relationship with the victims for months  – even up to a year – before putting their plan into action. Trafficking is not about men grabbing unsuspecting women off the street and driving them across the border to China. It’s about someone building up a relationship of trust over an extended period of time: through friendship, or employment, or romance. Traffickers can be young men; old women; business people; neighbours. There’s no single type of person who can be identified as a trafficker. All they have in common is a willingness to deceive others and sell them into slavery.

After building up a relationship, there will come a day when the trafficker says: “Come with me on a holiday to China.” Or alternatively: “I need to go up to the border for some work – and I could really use your help.” By this time, the trafficker and the victim are acquainted. They’ve helped each other. They’ve eaten together. They may have slept together. And the victim, normally a young woman or a teenage girl, has no reason to think that she may be falling in to a well crafted trap.

Part of the genius of this approach is that the victim believes she has been complicit. She went willingly with the trafficker; she wasn’t forced against her will. The traffickers make their targets feel that they are responsible for what happens to them next.

But blaming the victim is letting the trafficker off the hook. These girls are not going off to China on a lark and then changing their minds. Their families are not selling them – in over 500 cases we have dealt with, I am yet to see a single instance of this happening.

Assuming that the victim or to their family must bear some of the responsibility only shows our deep-seated prejudices, akin to judging a woman who is beaten by her husband.

In human trafficking cases, let’s not start by assuming the victim is at fault. The blame has to go to the one place it belongs: the trafficker.

The player

An old friend came to soccer this morning.

Nam is 28 this year; he and his wife both work as chefs in Hanoi, and their beautiful son is 18 months now. But when I first met Nam, life was very different for both of us.

The oldest son in his family, it was Nam’s duty to quit school and earn money when his mother fell on hard times. Nam left his home in Thanh Hoa province and traveled to Hanoi, where he started work shining shoes on the streets.

We met by chance in 2003. At that time, Blue Dragon was just in its infancy and we had started a weekly soccer game for street kids. Our goal was to give the city’s homeless and working children an hour of no-strings-attached fun, some healthy food, and an introduction to our services.

Now called Blue Dragon United, we originally named ourselves Real Betis Vietnam. Just 3 kids turned up at our first game; 60-80 now come every week, and we’re close to playing our 2000th game. The football team has come a long way.

Of all its achievements and milestones, the real success of Blue Dragon United has been in meeting kids like Nam.

As a teenager, Nam was fiercely devoted to providing for his family, and equally dedicated to improving his situation in life. Although he lived across town, Nam turned up every week for the games, taking every chance to get more involved in our organisation as we started to grow. He stood out from the crowd with his quiet integrity and determination. He also happened to be a really amazing soccer player.

Over the years, Nam has come a long way. With an introduction from Blue Dragon, he started out working as a kitchen hand for Hanoi restauranter Donald Berger and rose to the position of sous chef. He’s now head chef at a restaurant overlooking Hoan Kiem lake, and is a winner of the Iron Chef Vietnam competition. And he has used his opportunities in life to get jobs for his younger siblings and his mother. Nam has moved his entire family out of poverty, and now his own son is growing up with chances in life that Nam simply never had as a child.


Nam, in the yellow singlet, at football 

Nam works such long hours that he rarely comes to football any more; today was a terrific surprise. After the game, we went for pho and coffee, and chatted about how much our lives have changed since that fateful meeting on the street so many years ago. Then he had to head off to his restaurant to prepare for the lunch crowd.

Like so many of the young people I meet, Nam has had every excuse to fail. He could easily have been bitter about his lot in life. He could have given up trying, could have blamed his mistakes on the hardships he grew up with. But he has never done that.

Instead he has used his tough beginnings as motivation to work harder, to learn more, to help those around him get ahead.

Both on the field and in life, Nam is a great player.

In the end

Over the weekend in Lakeland Florida, Angela McGrath passed away in her home.

Angie was a friend of the most special kind: someone who cared and loved with a genuine passion.

I first met Angie through Facebook. She had come across Blue Dragon after reading John Shors’ novel Dragon House, and started following our work. Even though I had never met her, Angie immediately became a friend – not just a ‘supporter’ or a ‘donor’.

Angie’s interest in our work wasn’t something new for her; as a mother of two, she and her husband Jim had made the decision to adopt a baby girl from China. A year later, they adopted another. But bringing two new children into their home wasn’t enough for Angie and Jim; they still kept thinking of all the kids around the world who didn’t have a family of their own.


Angie and her grandchild, February 2016


In her own community in Florida, Angie was a dynamic force for good. Through her church, Crestview Baptist, and of her own volition she would simply ‘adopt’ people – even whole families! – who needed someone to care for them. I remember laughing with Angie as she told me the story of driving through a hurricane to find a family who were huddled in a school hall because they had nowhere to go until the storm had passed. The mother was heavily pregnant, and her children were just toddlers… but Angie brought this entire family of strangers to stay in her home for a few days. There simply aren’t many people in our world who would ever do that.

What touched me most, though, was how Angie helped me personally through a deep crisis of my own. In early 2012, I lost somebody very close to me, and it was during the following months that the very best of humanity was brought out in everyone I knew. I experienced incredible support and care from many people; but Angie’s care stood out because, at that time, we had still never met. Simply through our online connection, she reached out shared my grief – and in the weeks and months that followed, she kept in contact and showed her concern in simple, human ways. She shared a song that she had heard. She wrote a letter. She emailed to just ask how I was.

All from a woman who I had only ever chatted with online.

In mid 2012, Blue Dragon was preparing to move to a new centre in Hanoi. Angie decided that she would help, and set about planning a trip to come to Vietnam and get involved. But without any warning, Angie’s own world fell apart. At work one day, she started feeling and behaving strangely; an emergency trip to the hospital revealed a massive cancerous growth in her brain. Surgery removed most of it, and just days later she was messaging me on Facebook to apologise that she wouldn’t be able to come to Hanoi and help.

Instead of Angie coming to Hanoi, I went to Florida. Angie sent us the money that she had saved for her trip so that I and Diep, one of my staff, could go to the US for our first ever fundraising trip there. I met Angie getting off the plane in Tampa. As I walked down the ramp, it occurred to me that I had no idea who I was going to meet – was she some crazy woman planning to abduct me!? Later I found out that she was wondering the same thing about me and Diep. But no: Angie, Jim and their family were the most gracious, hospitable, loving people I had met.

Diep and I spent a week in Florida making presentations, speaking in churches and schools, and getting to know this extraordinary family. Angie and Jim even took us horse riding and to Disney World; it’s a week I’ll never forget.

Last year I was back in the US. Angie was well, but I could see she was tired. This time there was no fundraising or presentations; it was  a trip to reunite and, although none of us said so, to see each other for the last time. We ate together, we chased a crocodile, we drove around town and saw the house where Angie and Jim first lived together. It was a precious time.

Angie chose to stay at home for her final days, surrounded and cared for by her family. The past few years were difficult; the last few days were painful.

All that is over now. For Angie, there is no more suffering, while for everybody else the grieving has just begun.

Death is a horrible thing. There is no good in it. It leaves in us a hole that can never be filled. The only ‘but’ that I can muster myself to say is that death gives all of us pause to reflect on life.

We all wonder, at some time, about our own death and what we will leave behind. Some of us want to leave behind a family, or an empire, or a name that will be known for years to come.

Death has been unfair to Angie, but I hope that in her last days she could see that her life was well lived. She didn’t amass a fortune, or build an empire. Most people reading my blog will have never heard of her before. But she knew that none of this mattered.

In the end, all that matters is how much you love, and Angie loved endlessly. She loved her family to bits. She loved her friends and all the people she met as a nurse in hospitals and homeless shelters. She loved kids in Vietnam whom she had never even met.

We all hope that death will be kind to us, but there’s really not much we can do to affect that. What we can control is how we live. And if we live a life like Angie did, with so much love and concern for others, we can be sure that in the end we will have no regrets.

20 years away

Nga walked across the border from China to Vietnam on Friday, 20 years after she was taken across by a gang of traffickers.

Nga is in her 50s now. Most of the rescue operations that we conduct at Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation are of children and teens; but in reality we never say no to any call for help, no matter what age the person.

Aged 33 when she was taken, Nga had a 6 year old son and a family who loved her very much. Her disappearance was a cause for deep concern: nobody knew where she was or what had happened. Eventually, everyone assumed she must be dead. They could never hope to see her again.

Nga, too, lived a life without hope. After falling pregnant to the Chinese man who bought her, she had a miscarriage so was beaten and sold to another family. The new ‘husband’ treated her even worse, and for well over a decade she lived a life of misery and horror.

When she was finally able to run away, Nga didn’t know where she was or who to turn to for help. Her experiences had left her disoriented and estranged from everyone she had ever known. After spending time living on the streets, she was taken in by a friendly man who could speak some Vietnamese and wanted a wife. He was kind to her and cared for her – yet was still her jailer. Nga didn’t believe she could ever return home, but still dreamt that it might happen.

Earlier this year, some Vietnamese people passing through the village met Nga by chance and learned her unbelievable story. When they returned to Vietnam, they informed the police and word reached the Blue Dragon rescue team. With some effort we were able to locate Nga and bring her home – to everyone’s astonishment.

Nga’s son is now in his late 20s and has a wife and child of his own. Her son is overwhelmed to be reunited with the mother he has grown up believing was dead.

The impossible has suddenly happened: Nga is no longer a slave, no longer a commodity to be bought, sold, and abused. She has a new life, and it will not be easy for even a moment but it is a life that she has secretly yearned for all these years.

I can’t say that this is a happy ending, as Nga’s life will always be filled with pain; but it is still an ending that gives Nga a chance for some happiness.

And it makes me wonder: How many other people are out there like Nga, thinking their life is all but over without any hope of making it home?

Bringing out the best

A few weeks ago, Vietnam celebrated an annual day to honour the Kitchen Gods. Right before Lunar New Year, legend has it that the Kitchen Gods ride to heaven on the back of a fish to report to the other Gods about how things are going down on earth. To mark the day, Vietnamese people release a live fish into rivers and lakes.

As with many traditions, the custom of releasing the fish has been given a modern slant. Men and women riding their motorbikes to work in the morning buy a fish in a clear plastic bag, and as they drive by a lake or river hurl the fish, still in the bag, out into the water. In some places, enterprising children stand by the shore to pluck the bags out and resell the fish to other customers.

What started as a quaint custom of setting an animal free has morphed into a national day of polluting waterways.

This year, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. Riding to work across Hanoi’s famed Long Bien Bridge, I passed dozens of university students armed with hand-made signs urging people not to throw plastic into the river. It was a freezing day – the wind was particularly icy – but these students stood their ground,  smiling pleasantly and politely while ensuring it was only fish, and not plastic, that was tossed into the river.

How they were organised and where they were from is a mystery to me. All I know is that they saw an ongoing social issue and decided to take action, for no reward other than the satisfaction of making their city a little better.

On a much larger scale, something similar has been happening in Australia. Tens of thousands of people have been rallying around a call to “Let them stay,” a tag-line referring to people applying for refugee status who are shipped offshore to detention on Manus Island and Nauru. While the Australian government has a policy of sending all refugee applicants who arrive by boat to offshore detention, community opposition is increasing both in number and in passion. Protests are popping up everywhere: churches, hospitals, schools, unions, and of course social media is playing an active part.

These are two examples of everything that’s right with our world: people stepping up and taking action to right a wrong in their own community. Apart from the fact that such actions tend to lead to great results, there’s something inherently right about ordinary people accepting responsibility for the problems around them and trying to create change. Even if their action lead to no result at all, there is still real worth in trying.

Throughout our lives we see over and again that terrible situations can bring out the best in us. Think New York in the weeks after 9/11: never before had the city’s citizens come together with such unity. In my own life, I have experienced incredible support and kindness from people during times that I have been grieving or suffering some exceptional hardship. I see it, too, in the people I work with at Blue Dragon: it’s just a matter of course that people will work through the night, or travel hundreds of miles along bumpy roads, to rescue someone in danger or care for a sick child. A few years ago, when we were moving into our new centre in Hanoi and were overwhelmed with the enormity of the task, family members of the children we help came out in force to clean, scrape paint, and wash down walls. These are all people with their own serious problems, but seeing our need they didn’t think twice before volunteering.

This capacity to step up when there’s a need is a wonderful human characteristic. It leaves me wondering, though: why do we need a crisis to bring out such generosity? Is it possible that we could always stand up for others, and always go that extra mile to care for our community, even when there isn’t a major event to rally around?

Is it possible that we show the people around us that extra love and care in ordinary circumstances, and not only when they are suffering?

Imagine what our world could be like if we didn’t need a crisis to bring out the best in us.

Heroes among us

Trong has a mobile phone business. He buys and sells second hand phones from a shopfront in a winding alley in Hanoi. All day long, people stop by to recharge their phone credit, or repair their broken screen, or sell the phone they bought a few weeks ago but now can’t afford. It’s a booming business, and in his spare time Trong dreams of opening a second shop so his brother has a job too. But first he hopes to marry his sweetheart – once he convinces her parents to agree to the union.

Lan and Thi’s massage parlour is a 3 hour drive from Hanoi; it’s close to the beach in an area that’s popular with Vietnamese tourists during the summer, but quiet during the cold winter months. These days Lan mostly runs the business alone, while Thi cares for their infant son, but she’ll be back at work soon and in the meantime Lan earns enough to satisfy his family’s needs.

Luong is still at school, now in her senior years and starting to think about university. She is a popular kid in her class; her marks are good enough for her to consider studying law or finance, but her status in school and the community is down to her open and caring nature. She’s friends with everyone –  always has a kind word, always has a smile, embodies all the values that Vietnamese culture prides itself on.

Trong, Lan and Thi, and Luong are following very different paths in life. But they’re all friends of mine; all count themselves as “Blue Dragon kids” and drop by our centre when they can.

Trong’s customers love his phone service, but they don’t know that the young entrepeneur behind the counter once walked the city’s streets shining shoes. After his mother’s death, Trong’s father descended into a drunken stupor, took another wife, and sent his 2 sons away to work. Just 14 years old, Trong had to fend for himself until someone from Blue Dragon met him and took him in.

There’s no question that visitors to Lan and Thi’s massage parlour know that the proprietors are blind. It’s not uncommon in Vietnam for blind people to be involved in massage businesses. But the extraordinary tragedy of Lan, now a proud father who has never seen his own son but as a child had the gift of sight, is unimaginable to most. Growing up in a poor but happy family in the countryside, his world turned upside down when, aged 9, he found a metal ball in the field and brought it home. The resulting explosion, when the grenade left over from the Vietnam-American war detonated, killed his mother, destroyed their house, and left Lan permanently blind. The only family member uninjured was Minh, Lan’s older brother, who had to quit school and make his way to Hanoi to earn money as a street kid. A family once devastated, Lan’s massage business is now central to their economy and keeps them afloat.

And Luong, a high-flying student so popular with her peers: I remember the day her panicked parents came to the Blue Dragon centre to report her missing. Aged 10, she spent the days walking the city streets selling chewing gum alongside her brothers and parents. This one unfortunate day, they became separated for just a few minutes. Luong was picked up and taken to a detention centre without anyone knowing what had happened; it was over a week before one of our lawyers tracked her down and helped her return to her family. That was the last time she worked on the streets. The terrifying incident of their only daughter vanishing was enough to make the family decide that whatever sacrifice was needed, Luong needed to be in school.

Trong, Lan and Thi and Luong live with a degree of anonymity. Most people they meet from day to day cannot conceive of the tragedies and horrors they have lived through. And yet from day to day they succeed in their endeavours; they work, they study, they hold their heads high. Nobody can know the fields of fire they have walked through to get where they are now.

Today as you drive to work, or walk through the market, take a moment to think of the people you pass and chat with. There are so many hidden heroes among us; people whose very ordinariness is a testament to incredible resilience.

We may never know the stories of those we pass in the streets each day, just as others may never know the stories hidden in our own hearts.

Endless night

Cleaning out my desk at home, I stumbled across an old photo. It was taken 12 years ago by a teenager who had just joined Blue Dragon and was learning photography with a volunteer.

The photo is of a little girl aged 3 or 4, living in the Long Bien market of Hanoi with her grandmother. They are squatting in absolute filth beneath a staircase that crosses the dike wall; the entire sum of their possessions is a rotting blanket, a straw mat, and some scrap in plastic bags.

I don’t remember seeing the photo when it was first taken, and I didn’t know the little girl then. I know her now. Today “Thuy” is 16, and in prison for her part in a criminal gang that terrorised the suburbs of Hanoi for a couple of years. Her undoing was her involvement in a gang rape. She tricked another homeless girl into going with her to a room where a group of boys was waiting, and one by one took turns in brutally raping the terrified child.

Seeing the photo of Thuy as an infant reminds me of some lines penned by William Blake, the 19th century English poet:

Some are Born to sweet delight 
Some are Born to Endless Night

Thuy was born into nothing. No hope, no love, no education. Her grandmother had lived such a hard life that she had no affection to share with the baby who was left with her when Thuy’s mother disappeared out the door and never came back.

Her undignified start to life made Thuy feel ashamed. Living in the market afforded her no privacy – not even when going to the toilet or bathing – and no protection. By joining up with a gang, she found power and purpose that her life otherwise lacked.

In the last 20 years, Vietnam’s economy has developed at a staggering pace; most developed nations can only dream of the annual rates of growth that have been achieved, even in the slower periods. Major cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Danang and Hanoi have grown into bustling metropolises packed with skyscrapers and luxury cars.

But inevitably, the gap between rich and poor has widened. Those with nothing – born into “endless night” – want a chance to make it. Too many, like Thuy under the staircase, live on the margins of society until somebody comes along to exploit them or recruit them for nefarious purposes.

Thuy’s situation is not unique to Vietnam. This week in the US, a San Fransisco tech dude made the headlines for his open letter to the Mayor and Police Chief complaining, in large, about having to see poor and homeless “riff raff” around the city. It’s hard being homeless anywhere.

When that photo of Thuy was taken, way back in 2004, was it already too late to help her? Was she already irretrievably on the path to destruction and violence? Or could an intervention, a helping hand, have changed her course?

We’ll never know. But for the next little girl or boy living rough on the streets, there is still a chance to make a change. Being “born to Endless Night” surely doesn’t have to mean a life of hardship, exploitation and pain.

For every child, there has to be hope that life can offer something better.

A major gift

When it comes to fundraising, charitable organisations talk about ‘major gifts’: the grants and donations that are ‘major’ in terms of their size compared to the charity’s budget. They are ‘major’ because of their impact on what the organisation can do.

But another way to look at ‘major gifts’ is from the point of view of the person giving the gift – the donor. A gift of $10,000 might not be a significant sum for a billionaire to donate; but $20 might be a major gift from a retiree or a student.

On the last day of work before Vietnam rested for the lunar new year, a young man came and handed me one such major gift.

It has been a few years since I last saw “Thai” but our first encounter was during one of Blue Dragon’s first rescue missions about 10 years ago. We were looking for children who had been trafficked for labour exploitation and came across Thai walking the streets of Ho Chi Minh City selling flowers and trinkets for a ring of child traffickers. Thai was deeply relieved to meet us and went home very happily to his parents.

Thai’s family was extremely poor – their house was one of the most dangerous and dilapidated homes I have been in – and despite everyone’s best efforts, Thai struggled to fit back in at school and the community, and started acting out. Just 2 years after going home, Thai found himself in serious trouble with the police – serious enough that he was sent to prison for 3 years. He had caused damage to a property in a silly and senseless act of anger.

At the end of his sentence, Thai was ashamed to return home. He moved north and found a job where he could settle down and start saving some money. I only saw him once, briefly, but we stayed in contact by text message and he seemed to be doing fine.

So on the day that he called to say he was passing through Hanoi on his way home for New Year, I was a little surprised. To be honest, I feared he was going to ask me to lend him some money.

Instead, Thai came to the Blue Dragon centre with a gift: equivalent to almost $100US. He had saved this over the last year, and despite needing to support his own family and having significant debts of his own to pay, he was adamant that I take his envelope. “It’s for you to help the children,” he told me.

There’s no way in the world Thai could afford to part with $100. He’s still just a kid, barely out of his teens, and living on a factory floor to save money for his family. But giving this gift was of great importance to him, and we spent some time talking about his dream of helping others so that they can avoid the sort of troubles he has encountered in his own life. At the end I accepted his gift, and committed to using it to care for homeless children during the week-long holiday. I’ll also make sure we get some extra help to Thai’s younger brothers and sisters very soon.

Back when Thai was arrested and charged for his crime, it would have been easy for us to regret helping him escape from trafficking – had we done it all for nothing? A few years on, though, and the outlook is very different. Here is a young man who has made mistakes, has paid for them, and has learned the value of caring for others.

His story will be a long and interesting one for sure.