47 women and girls escaping violent exploitation in Myanmar have returned safely to Vietnam. But this is not the end of the story.

When the flight touched down in Hanoi, a massive sigh of relief spread through Blue Dragon.

For months we had been working quietly to bring home the 47 women and girls who returned on Wednesday. As young as 15, they had all been exploited in the most horrifying conditions in northern Myanmar.

Forced to work far from home, they were used and abused by criminal gangs running illegal gambling operations and brothels.

A police operation in Myanmar to raid an illegal brothel in an area renowned for human trafficking.

One of the young women is 8 months pregnant.

Their repatriation to Vietnam means that they are finally safe. While their suffering is far from over, they can now receive help to heal and recover. Soon they will return to their families and their lives.

Blue Dragon’s involvement doesn’t end here, of course. We are in constant contact with them while they wait out their period of mandatory COVID quarantine, planning for the next step to freedom. Some of the 47 will want only a helping hand to travel back to their home towns. Others will want support with medical expenses and seek counseling, shelter, or assistance to return to school and training.

One by one, we will find a way to help them through the coming months and, perhaps, years.

While we do that, the next operations are already in the planning. Calls for help from Myanmar and China continue to reach us. And here in Vietnam, our street outreach workers are still out every day looking for homeless children and teens in need of care.

This work is difficult and dark. Every day, we meet young people who have been abused or neglected. For many, their trust in others is so badly damaged that they find it impossible to believe anyone really cares for them. Blue Dragon is often in a race against time with traffickers and pimps; when we know of someone who needs help, there’s always an urgency. Sometimes it’s life or death.

COVID, of course, has had a significant impact on our work. Restrictions on travel mean that reaching people who are homeless or enslaved is more difficult than ever.

Despite this, during 2021 we have rescued or repatriated 301 trafficked children and women – so far. And we have delivered emergency assistance to more than 30,000 people in desperate need.

Although the holiday season is imminent, there’s no time for a break. Our work continues as ever.

It can seem that the needs of the world are overwhelming and neverending. We can heal someone today, but tomorrow another person will be waiting for help.

Put simply, there’s no state of final perfection that we can reach in life, when everything is neatly finished. As long as we live, we will always have something more to do: a change to make, a crisis to resolve.

And life doesn’t just keep getting better on a constantly upward curve. Moments of joy may be followed by times of despair. That’s not a cause to give up in resignation; that’s simply the human condition.

Our challenge is not to accept the hardship, but to turn it into hope. Just like the many girls and boys of Blue Dragon have done over the years. Just as we’ve all done this past year in the face of a global pandemic.

This will be the final Life Is A Long Story post for 2021. A look back over the stories we’ve shared this year give plenty of reason for hope. These stories are not always happy. Very often, they are exactly the opposite. But in every story there is a reason to see why the effort to care for others is always worth it.

Thank you for being a part of the Blue Dragon story this past year, and see you in 2022 as the story continues.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

A light in the darkness

Set free after 2 years in slavery, Nhat’s hope for survival is fading. How can we end this crime that has destroyed her life and the lives of so many others?

The fight to end human trafficking is like trying to catch a shadow.

You know it’s there. You can hear the voices of its victims; feel the pain that it causes. But it remains intangible, something that you can never fully define or pin down.

Two weeks ago, the Blue Dragon blog shared the story of Nhat. At age 14, Nhat was trafficked from Vietnam to China where she was sold as a bride. The man who enslaved her tortured her to the point that her return to Vietnam was in a wheelchair.

Blue Dragon took Nhat from the border crossing to a hospital for emergency treatment. Several days later we took her home to her parents’ house high up in the mountains. Now that her period of COVID quarantine is over, on Friday we accompanied Nhat and her family back to the hospital for further assessment.

On Friday, Nhat returned to the hospital for further checks and treatment.

Despite all this, there is much we don’t know about what happened to Nhat. Barely able to communicate, she has not told the story of what happened during her 2 years away.

We know the barest details of how she was trafficked or what she experienced at the hands of her abuser. What we do know is that her family lives in extreme poverty. Their house has a dirt floor and little furniture – not even a proper bed. Since returning home, Nhat has barely slept because of her pain and discomfort. Only now that she is back in hospital has she been able to sleep for more than a few hours at a time.

Even her medical condition is something of a mystery. It is now becoming clear that in addition to her physical injuries she is in the advanced stages of cancer. So far the doctors are saying that her cancer is too widely spread to treat. They can only reduce her pain.

This raises so many questions – when did her cancer begin? Did she know, while in China, that she was sick? How and why did someone torture her when she was clearly already in pain?

The truth is, we may never know the answers.

Much of Blue Dragon’s work is like this.

Every night we are on the streets talking to children, mostly boys, who have come to the city to escape trouble at home. Some kids open up immediately and tell us about abuse or harm that has been done to them. Others bury their secrets in shame or distrust.

Quan was one of those boys who was in a terrible situation but wouldn’t let anyone help him. Just 14 years old, he was sleeping on the pylon of a bridge across Hanoi’s Red River in the day and begging on the streets at night.

Within a week of arriving in the city, a pimp approached Quan. The man first abused him and then began selling him to others. Quan hated every moment of it but refused help from social workers for almost a year. Nobody knew the full extent of what he had suffered for a very long time.

Today he’s safe and stable; he is 18 now and has a job that he loves. But even after all this time, he carries with him the darkness of what happened out on the streets.

We are commonly asked how many street children are in Hanoi, or how many people are trafficked each year. We don’t know the answer to either of those seemingly basic questions. Nobody does. There are estimates, and we have a sense of the enormity of the problem, but it remains uncertain and unclear.

Like trying to catch a shadow.

It might sound impossible to achieve any real progress. Can we really heal a wound when we know so little about the symptoms or the cause?

While this seems like an extraordinary problem, the past two years have been like this for the whole world. The COVID pandemic has taught us how little control we really have of our own lives; how little we really know about what’s coming next.

Each of us, no matter who we are, has been living with the same unpredictability. We have all had to make decisions and choices knowing that events tomorrow might change everything.

It’s frustrating and often creates real hardship, but we can do it.

Blue Dragon’s work of fighting human trafficking may seem an impossible task. How can we make a lasting change in the face of such vast uncertainty?

Nhat and Quan are victims of circumstances. They didn’t ask to suffer through the terrible events that have overtaken their lives. The poverty that they were born into set them on this path to suffering and exploitation. And they cannot wait for us to fully understand their problems before we help.

Human trafficking is elusive and destructive, so we must keep working to bring a light to this darkness. We owe it to children like Nhat and Quan.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

A lifetime away

Human trafficking is a crime that destroys the lives of its victims and their loved ones. We must do all that we can to end it.

On Friday, Mai and her brother San held each other for the first time in 27 years.

Mai was 21 when she left home in search of work. Her parents and her siblings trusted that she would be safe, knowing that their family survival depended on Mai finding a job. They were desperately poor and could see no other options.

But for Mai’s parents, it was to be the last time that they saw their daughter. Instead of finding the job that she dreamed of, Mai was taken into China and sold as a bride.

Her mother and father both died without knowing what had become of Mai. All that remains of Mai’s family now is her brother, who has lived all these years believing that his sister, too, must surely be dead.

When Mai was found by police and set free from her forced marriage, she returned to Vietnam but did not know how to find her family. Over the years, they had moved from one province to another. After 27 years away, Mai did not know where her home was.

It took Blue Dragon more than a month to track down her surviving brother. On Thursday we travelled to southern Vietnam with Mai, and on Friday we finally brought them back together.

Mai and her brother San, reunited after 27 years.

Mai has been a lifetime away, and the joy of being back with her brother was beautiful to see.

Nothing can make up for the years that Mai has lost. She had given up hope of ever returning to Vietnam and for years did not imagine that it was even a possibility. Now, almost suddenly, everything in her world has changed.

When travel restrictions are eased, Mai and her brother will travel to visit the tomb where their parents lie. For now, they have a lifetime to catch up on.

Read more about how Blue Dragon is working to end human trafficking on the website.

Keeping hope

In the face of human trafficking, we must keep hope alive and refuse to give in. Sometimes, that’s hard to do.

The call came on a Saturday morning.

At first it seemed like good news. Chinese authorities had found and rescued Nhat, a Vietnamese teenager who had been trafficked across the border two years ago.

Nhat’s family was elated. Their daughter was only 14 when she followed a friend into a trap that led her into China, where she was sold to a man who wanted a wife.

This is known as “bride trafficking,” a term that fails to capture the horror of the experience.

When a girl or a woman is trafficked as a “bride,” she is being sold like a possession. The man who buys her doesn’t actually marry her, although sometimes there is a ceremony or party. But it’s rarely an official marriage; it’s just a show for family and friends.

The “bride” is then in the hands of this complete stranger, and often his extended family too.

She has no freedom. No rights. She is their slave, and even if she is treated well, she is still a slave.

Occasionally, women who are sold in this way report that their “husband” was kind to them and tried to look after them – short of letting them go free, of course.

Nhat’s experience was not like that at all.

In the hands of the man who bought her, Nhat was the subject of brutal violence. Her return to Vietnam last weekend was in a wheelchair. Blue Dragon arranged for Nhat to go straight to hospital for emergency treatment.

Nhat arrives at a hospital shortly after crossing the border back to Vietnam.

Right now, Nhat’s outlook is grim. She is permanently paralysed and her injuries are extensive. Doctors are unsure if she will recover. Unable to treat her further, the hospital has released Nhat into the care of her family. Blue Dragon is continuing to support her and her family through these very dark days.

Her rescue and journey home should have been cause for great excitement. Sadly, Nhat’s ordeal is far from over and there is a strong possibility she will not survive.

Human trafficking is brutal. Nhat’s story, like the stories of all the millions of people in our world who experience slavery, must inspire us to take action.

It would be easy to give up, overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. Or to fall back into platitudes and empty words of sympathy.

But sympathy isn’t enough. That’s why Blue Dragon is doing all we can, every day, to end this terrible crime.

We’re rescuing people who call for help from slavery. In partnership with other agencies around Vietnam, we are running activities and programs to address the causes of trafficking at the root. And we are making sure that human traffickers are caught and penalised for the horrors they inflict on their victims.

Nhat deserves to live in a world free from slavery. None of this should have happened to her – this should not be her story.

We will not rest until every child and every person is safe from human trafficking. We must keep the hope that this is possible.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

When the student becomes the teacher

As a child, PK sold trinkets to tourists on the streets of Hanoi. Now a young woman, she spends her days teaching children their daily lessons while Hanoi schools remain closed.

It’s more than 10 years since Blue Dragon first met PK.

She was a little girl at the time. She spent her days and nights walking around Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem lake, greeting tourists with her huge smile in the hope of selling postcards or chewing gum.

Visitors to Vietnam react very differently to street kids like PK. Some find them annoying; some are taken by their charms and want to interact with them. Others see street children as mere objects to exploit.

In reality, life on the streets is horrible. Especially for a child.

PK was one of those kids who wanted something better for her life, so gladly took up Blue Dragon’s offer of assistance. At first she would only come to occasional social events. Then she joined the Blue Dragon Hip Hop crew, and since then has been a part of the Blue Dragon family.

PK as a teenager.

Over the years, this little girl has grown into a strong, determined young woman. During 2020, with COVID raging around the world, she was in Australia on a year-long scholarship to learn English with Langports College. Despite all the uncertainty ahead, she bravely chose to stay and finish her studies.

Now that she’s back in Vietnam, PK has done her best to find work, but there’s very little to be found. And so she has returned to Blue Dragon – this time, not seeking help but offering it instead.

With most schools in Hanoi (and around the country) still closed, PK is helping out every day with a group of children who are facing particularly difficult times.

The kids are aged from 4 to 8. Without schools or kindergartens to attend, they have no place to go.

Their parents are out working on the streets all day just to get by. That leaves the families with a dreadful choice. The children can either follow their parents as they collect scrap or sell fruit on the street, or stay home alone.

Blue Dragon has stepped in to offer daily classes – and someone to care for the children. PK is part of that team. She comes to classes with her trademark smile and energy, leading lessons and comforting the little ones when they’re feeling down.

PK helping one of the little guys with his studies.

PK understands what it’s like to be little and out on the streets. She doesn’t want any child to go through that experience. So she’s putting her values into action and giving back.

We all have a part to play in caring for those around us. But when a young person who has needed help in the past comes back to lend a hand, there’s something extra powerful about that.

Her personal motto says it all. PK’s social media carries the tag line: “You can’t choose where you were born, but you can choose where you succeed.”

On Saturday, Vietnam celebrated Teachers’ Day. This is a national occasion to appreciate those who dedicate themselves to teaching others. PK doesn’t have a degree, but to the children of Blue Dragon she’s the teacher who inspires them every day.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

It means the world

As the world prepares for a season of celebration and gift giving, it’s important to remember those who are left behind.

Prang was 21 when she was trafficked and sold as a bride in China.

She grew up in a tight knit village in Vietnam’s central highlands. Her home was among the mountains, where her M’nong community has always lived and worked.

When Prang left home with a friend and didn’t return, her family feared that she had died.

Prang had been targeted by traffickers because she was living in extreme poverty. Her mother passed away while Prang was still a child. Of her two younger sisters, one has cancer and one has an intellectual impairment. Her younger brother was born with defects caused by Agent Orange.

Prang’s home in central Vietnam. All the neighbors gathered when she returned home.

Blue Dragon took Prang home after she was found and rescued by police. The whole family and community were deeply relieved. They had never imagined that this could happen to one of their own.

Every day, Blue Dragon meets and helps young people who have fallen into harm’s way. Like Prang, many are trafficked and enslaved. Others are children who leave their homes in the countryside to find opportunities or safety in the cities, and instead are exploited.

Throughout 2021, Blue Dragon has asked for help, and our community of supporters has answered every time. To provide for families during the worst of COVID. To rescue people from slavery. To care for children and teens in the most difficult of circumstances.

Young women like Prang need ongoing assistance, not a one-time rescue. Children sleeping rough on the streets need daily care, not just an occasional visit.

With the end of the year coming up, and all the festivities of the season – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the new year – we need to ask one more thing.

If you’re thinking about your year-end giving and would like to share a gift that really counts, please consider a donation to Blue Dragon’s Christmas appeal.

Every dollar donated goes to providing food and meals for children and families who need that extra helping hand to get through the coming months. You can even make it a monthly gift, so that every month for the next year you’re providing food for someone in need.

If you can, a donation of $15 will feed a family for a week. An extra gift on top of your Christmas shopping. It will mean the world to a family in Vietnam.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

Rescue flight

Dozens of women and girls rescued from slavery in Myanmar have returned to Vietnam on a rescue flight over the weekend.

On Saturday afternoon, Lang disembarked her flight and stepped into Vietnam for the first time in 6 months.

Lang was one of 49 women returning home after a terrifying ordeal in Myanmar.

49 survivors of human trafficking prepare to board the flight from Myanmar to Vietnam, November 6 2021.

Each has their own story about how they were trafficked from Vietnam. Most believed that they were on their way to good jobs in China or travelling with friends they trusted.

Each of them was horrified when they learned the truth: that they had been taken to northern Myanmar where they were sold into brothels.

The traffickers operating this ring are sophisticated, well organised, and deadly. They do not tolerate dissent or complaints. There are credible reports of Vietnamese women being killed in the brothels for trying to escape.

Lang thought that she was going to China to work in a factory. She didn’t even know that she had crossed into Myanmar. She trusted the people who were leading her and the other young women who shared her fate.

There was something else of great importance that Lang did not know when she was trafficked. She was pregnant.

Getting back to Vietnam is particularly important to Lang. Her time in Myanmar has been deeply traumatic; her only wish is that she can bring her child safely into the world. Now that she is on her way home, she can do that.

The months that she spent in captivity, being raped over and over, will scar her for the rest of her life. But for now, she is elated to be back in Vietnam. Once she has completed her mandatory quarantine, she will report to the police with assistance from Blue Dragon.

Then she will either return to her family home or stay with Blue Dragon to receive further assistance. Lang and many of the women will need psychological counselling, healthcare, and practical help to return to education and jobs, or to start small businesses.

Many more Vietnamese women and girls await rescue and repatriation in northern Myanmar, where there has long been a nature of lawlessness, far from the capital city Yangon. Every person held in slavery in this area is under constant threat to their life. We believe that there are many hundreds more women enslaved in the brothels.

Lang’s group, returning to Vietnam after many weeks of delays because of COVID, is the tip of the iceberg.

Blue Dragon was able to bring the women back thanks to a donation for the operation, and support from the Vietnamese Embassy in Myanmar.

This flight has brought Lang and many others safely home, but the work is far from done. Blue Dragon will continue working until every trafficked person is set free.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis. We’ve just launched our annual Christmas appeal, and ask for your help to provide meals to children and families.

It takes a village

Just 13 years old, Van Anh’s life was exceptionally harsh. To turn her fortunes around, Blue Dragon called on an entire community for help.

At age 13, Van Anh carries the world on her shoulders.

Van Anh’s family, from the Black Thai ethnic community in the northern mountains of Vietnam, has always been poor. Their home is a makeshift tent with a bamboo frame. The winters are freezing and the plastic covers barely keep the rain out.

The house where Van Anh and her family have been living.

Blue Dragon met Van Anh earlier this year, shortly after her father had died. Her situation seemed almost too terrible to be real.

Her mother, Thuy, works far from home and can rarely visit – a day’s rest means no income, and no income means no food.

Van Anh has an older sister who has an intellectual impairment. She’s never had any education or any assessment of her abilities. Before and after school every day, Van Anh looks after her sister as best she can.

Despite all the hardships of her life, Van Anh has done her best to continue with her schooling. After the Lunar New Year holiday in February this year, she didn’t return to class because she just couldn’t afford to – but that was when we met her, and she’s been happily back at her studies since then.

Van Anh’s whole family is clearly facing very special hardship. And so, along with helping out Van Anh and her sister and mother with their health, education, and livelihood, several months ago we had some more great news. A wonderful donor agreed to pay for a whole new house to be built for the family, at a cost of about $3,300.

Van Anh and her mother Thuy were thrilled at the offer of help. A new house! With a proper roof, stable electricity, and a solid floor!

But despite their initial excitement, the whole project stalled very quickly.

Thuy was simply overwhelmed with all that needed to be done. She needed to find land where she could build, and of course complete some paperwork with the local government. Even with Blue Dragon’s support, it all seemed too much.

And so Blue Dragon called together the local community and explained the problem: “Van Anh’s family is in need of help. We have the money to build a house, but that’s not enough. They need moral support. Help to find the land and fill in the paperwork. In short, they need the whole village to work with them on this.”

In a single day everything changed.

The community saw what they needed to do and threw their support behind the family. Some of their help has been very practical – like helping Thuy decide how she wants the new house to be designed and talk to the village leaders about her plans.

Most of the help, though, is much less tangible. By having the community show their support, Thuy now has the confidence to move ahead. She no longer feels overwhelmed or incapable: she’s surrounded by people willing to help.

Youth volunteers arrived in force to help Van Anh’s family start their building project.

Last week, construction on the new house began. It’s just a start, and in a few months time Van Anh will have a whole new home to live in along with her mother and sister.

Construction begins!

Van Anh has grown up with a level of hardship that most of us could not imagine. Now the future is finally looking better, and it took support from around the world, as well as close to home, to make this change.

Like the saying goes, it really does take a village.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

The second chance

A motorbike accident pushed Bao into extreme hardship. Generosity from the global community changed his fortunes, and the recent COVID lockdown presented him with an opportunity to give back.

When Bao broke his arm in a motorbike accident, his fragile world fell apart.

Bao had always lived in poverty. He grew up on a floating house along the banks of the Red River in Hanoi with his father, who was rarely able to work because of his poor health.

Now a young adult, Bao was working as a motorbike delivery driver and was earning enough money to care for his son as well as his father. A road accident in December last year shattered his arm and destroyed his motorbike. Facing a bill of at least $1,300 to rebuild his arm, Bao feared that he would never work again. There was just no way that he could ever earn or even borrow that amount of money.

Blue Dragon shared Bao’s story and the global community responded, donating money and items to get Bao’s arm fixed and to get his life back on track. (You can read the story we shared here).

Since then, Bao’s fortunes have turned around. He’s undergone surgery for his arm, and he’s now back to full strength. Bao has been able to get back to work and is happy to be providing for his family once again. And while he’s been working, he has been learning to cut hair, so that he can have a better career in the future.

And then came COVID.

With lockdowns across the city and the country, Bao’s situation was once again very difficult. But donations for Bao earlier in the year were enough to support him through this time as well.

Bao knew that he was fortunate to have this support. Even when he couldn’t work, he had enough to get by. So Bao volunteered to help others in the community who were less fortunate.

During the two months of lockdown, Bao helped out by delivering food and supplies to others who live on the boats along the river, as well as people in neighbouring homes.

Bao assisting Blue Dragon staff to get food and supplies to families during the COVID lockdown.

These areas were close to impossible to access because of COVID checkpoints. Every day, Bao would collect supplies from the checkpoints and carry them to families who otherwise had nothing to eat.

Blue Dragon and several other charities called on Bao to help. Without hesitation, he was ready to cart supplies all through the fishing villages and into slum areas that couldn’t be accessed from outside.

He also made a point of finding children and families who were in particularly difficult situations, and would call Blue Dragon for extra supplies, or for cash if that’s what they needed.

Knowing how hard life can be, Bao did all he could to help when those around him needed it most.

Now that the lockdown has eased, Bao is already back at work as a delivery rider. As soon as classes resume, he’ll rejoin the training to become a hairdresser .

He’s been through some terrible hardships and is grateful for the second chance he’s been given… All thanks to the generosity of people around the world who cared.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

The bicycle

Luong needed help to go to school. Blue Dragon got involved and gave him a bicycle. Little did we know how much impact that bicycle would have…

Luong was 15 when he faced a critical decision that would shape the rest of his life.

He had grown up in a town not far from Hanoi, surrounded by rice fields. As far back as he could remember, life was difficult. Luong was one of four children. When his father lost an arm in an accident, his mother became the family’s sole breadwinner.

Luong in Grade 9.

For Luong, this meant that going to school was a luxury. He was only in Grade 9, but it seemed his education was at an end. Luong’s family just couldn’t afford the costs of schooling.

By some good fortune, Luong’s teachers recognised the challenge he was facing and introduced him to Blue Dragon. We were able to help out with his school fees, text books, and other equipment he needed right through to the end of Grade 12.

Among that ‘other equipment’ was a bicycle.

Luong with his new bicycle in 2010.

Bicycles might seem like a luxury to some. To Luong this was a prized possession. It enabled him to get to school and back home much more easily, but it was even more than that. The bicycle represented a change in his fortunes; it made him feel like all the other kids at school, and he rode it proudly.

Last  week, Blue Dragon shared a story on social media about giving bicycles to disadvantaged school students.

Luong, now in his mid 20s, saw this post online and the memories of his own childhood flooded back.

Today Luong is a young man with a thriving career. He has his own media company, and although the past two years have been tough he’s still going and the business is growing.

Luong at his media company.

But he’s never forgotten the help he received to finish his schooling… or the bicycle. More than ten years since he received the bike, it’s still used by his family. Luong’s mother rides it to market every day.

Seeing Blue Dragon’s post, Luong reached out and made a donation. He’s delighted to be back in contact with us, and for the staff who first met him over a decade ago, it’s a lovely affirmation of our work.

Luong’s life could very easily have turned out quite differently. All he needed was a little help to get him through, and now he’s a successful businessman employing others and giving back to society.

Who could have known just how far that bicycle would take him?

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.