Tides of change

This week, Blue Dragon’s Kim Miller writes a guest post for Life Is A Long Story. Her journey – and the challenge before her – are an example of true courage.

By my desk sits a postcard that starts with the words: ‘Pick the path that lights you up.’

I’ve come to believe that happiness and fulfillment, the ‘light’, doesn’t arrive in neat packages of peace and contentment. 

Rather, I feel most alive and alight in the moments of grit; when I’m being challenged, when I’m working towards something new, and when I can see a way forward that’s possible, but not necessarily a given, that it will be successful. 

Since 2014 I’ve felt that feeling of fulfillment most through my work with Blue Dragon. 

Every person on our team inspires me in their own way and makes me want to be a better person. 

I’ve seen the worst of what can happen when vulnerable young people are left to fend for themselves. I’ve also seen the powerful impact that a single person can have when they provide the care and scaffolding needed to support a young person to go from surviving to thriving. 

And the power of us working together to create the sort of change needed to do something as momentous as ending human trafficking? Unstoppable!

In 2020, yes mid-pandemic, I left Vietnam, where I was living, to return home to Australia. I still work for Blue Dragon, but I commenced a new hybrid role working mostly remotely from Sydney. 

I felt joyful to be closer to my Australian family and friends and I was excited about the impact I could have for Blue Dragon by collaborating alongside our Australian supporters… But I was left with a Blue Dragon sized hole in my heart from the absence of living and working at the epicentre of the action. 

In time, I learned to (mostly) fill that hole with ocean swimming (combined with semi-regular trips back to my Hanoi home).

Only in the ocean do I find the same level of immersion, challenge, perseverance, mindfulness and grit that I feel through my work. 

Qualifying for the English Channel swim involves spending long hours in frigid waters to prepare for the gruelling conditions in reality.

So what better way to combine these two passions than to use my passion for swimming to keep vulnerable young people safe from human trafficking? 

This July, I’ll swim 34 kilometres across the frigid water of the English Channel for Blue Dragon. I’m aiming to raise $200,000 AU, which is enough to protect 70,000 people from the horrors of human trafficking. Right now, I’m close to halfway towards that goal.

And when the swimming gets tough, as I know it will, I won’t stop, because it’s such a privilege to be able to choose our challenges in life – a privilege that victims of slavery and human trafficking aren’t afforded by the people who exploit them.

I want every stroke and action I take in life to bring someone else a little closer to that same freedom. 

You can donate to Kim’s Big Blue English Channel Swim here; and you can follow her blog, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram or email: kim@bdcf.org.

This is what it’s all about

After a terrifying year enslaved in a brothel, Linh is home. Her rescue reminds us that there is much we can do to end human trafficking.

For a few moments, 13-month-old Bi looked mystified as he stared at the woman before him. She was both familiar and foreign, leaving him lost in a haze of confusion.

But as she held him to her body and cried his name, understanding dawned on Bi’s face. This was his mother.

Linh and Bi, reunited.

Bi’s mother Linh left their home in southern Vietnam almost a year ago.

She didn’t want to leave her son but felt that she had no choice. Her little boy, then just 3 months old, was growing fast and Linh knew that she needed an income. In their quiet village in the Mekong delta, there were no factories or businesses with jobs on offer. So she set out to find work further afield, leaving Bi with his grandmother.

Linh just wanted to earn enough so that she could send money home each month for her mother and her child to survive.

Thinking that she was on her way to northern Vietnam for a job in a restaurant, she was instead trafficked to Myanmar and sold into a brothel. For almost a year, life was a constant hell. The only thing that sustained her through the pain and terror she endured was the hope that she could hold her child again one day.

Blue Dragon went in search of Linh. Following a complex operation, we brought her home last week, along with other women who had suffered similar fates at the hands of the traffickers.

Home again

Most likely, Bi will grow up remembering neither his year without a mother nor the day she returned home. But the pain of separation and the joy of their reunion is certainly something that Linh will never forget.

Blue Dragon has rescued more than 1,500 people from places of slavery: brothels, sweatshops, forced “marriages” and forced labor. We’ve brought home people who were tortured, shot, operated upon, raped and beaten.

While it’s the rescue that seems most dramatic, it’s the moment of reunion that is the most powerful.

Some journeys home end with tears of devastating grief. There are people we’ve rescued who were away for many years and returned to find their parents have died, never knowing what fate befell their missing child.

Some journeys end in shock, like the teen we rescued who had no idea she was pregnant with twins.

And some journeys end with the true joy of a family reunited, of hope restored.

Life is a long story and continues well beyond the rescue operation.

The children, women and men we bring home invariably struggle with trauma, feelings of shame and the hardship caused by months and years lost to slavery. But by far, most go on to write their own story of survival. Some pick up where they left off while others start over anew.

Perhaps the deepest cruelty of human trafficking is that it denies its victims the control of their own life, their own story. People in slavery have little agency over their day to day; “tomorrow” is beyond imagination.

Right now, there are so many more people awaiting rescue. We must find them and bring them home, while at the same time doing all we can to end human trafficking forever.

To see Linh back with her family, once again the author of her own story, is what drives us on to do this work.

In a world where the news is filled daily with stories and images of tragedy out of our control, this is something that we can do.

If you can, please consider a gift to Blue Dragon’s urgent appeal. All funds raised will go toward operations to rescue people trapped in slavery.

Will this ever get better?

Trinh feared she would never see her family again. Today, she is safely home. What can we do to end this crisis once and for all?

On Saturday morning, Trinh walked across the border back to Vietnam.

It was a long journey home for the 31-year-old. Almost a year ago, she was trafficked to Myanmar and sold into a brothel: a violent, terrifying place where she believed she would surely die.

Trinh had the courage and good fortune to one day be able to call for help. This set in motion Blue Dragon’s rescue operation which came to fruition on the weekend when she finally reached her homeland.

Trinh on the journey from Myanmar to Vietnam.

The path home was long and dangerous. Trinh and the rescue team crossed rivers and jungles, taking boats, motorbikes and buses to escape danger and make it home safely.

And Trinh’s rescue isn’t the only one we’ve been working on. As I write this, we have 8 more operations underway, bringing home a total of 17 more people.

As we complete them, new operations will begin immediately.

Calls for help

Blue Dragon is on track this year to rescue from slavery double the number of people we rescued in 2020. That’s a rapid and deeply worrying growth in the need for our services.

So we’ve just launched an emergency appeal, asking friends around the world to donate to this work.

The problem is: We did the same thing last year.

Does this mean we’ll be calling for urgent help like this every year?

I want to believe that the answer is ‘no’. Looking forward, there’s hope that this crisis in human trafficking will eventually peak and recede. I shared my thoughts on why I remain optimistic in this post just a few weeks ago.

But I also know that human trafficking isn’t a problem that will disappear any time soon. While Blue Dragon is working on a big picture initiative to reduce its incidence across Vietnam, we know that it will take a long-term effort to really make a difference.

And as a charity, the only way we can make anything happen is by asking for support from the global community.

All of which means that we may well be calling again for urgent help. Not because we want to, but because that’s the only way we can respond to the children, women and men in slavery who are desperate for someone to rescue them.

As we rescue, we’ll keep on working to strengthen communities so that people are safe from being trafficked in the first place.

We have to believe that one day this work will be over. When there’s no more need to rescue another person, Blue Dragon’s job will be done.

Thank you to all who have already donated. If you can, please consider a gift to Blue Dragon’s urgent appeal.

Where are we now?

Human trafficking and slavery continue to take new forms, constantly staying a step ahead of attempts to keep people safe. Is there any light at the end of this tunnel?

It’s been a few months since I wrote my last post.

What’s changed since then? Nothing. And everything. All of it.

Blue Dragon’s rescues continue. Continue to grow in number, continue to grow in urgency. That’s not new.

But the numbers calling for help are new. In the second half of 2023, we rescued 7 times the number of people we rescued in the first half. Looking ahead to the coming months, those numbers are still growing.

Crossing a river during a rescue operation.

And the urgency of every call is beyond what we’ve seen before. Messages are coming to us along the lines of:

“Please help my sister, she is in Myanmar and the trafficker plans to take her kidneys.”

“I am desperate. All night I hear bombs and gunfire. I don’t want to keep living.”

“Send help, please! We are being tortured. They used an electric prod on me and now I cannot walk.”

Trafficking in all its forms is horrible, but these new levels of barbarism are shocking nonetheless.

So is there any hope at all?

When talking about human trafficking, I’m always careful of two things. First, I never exaggerate how bad things are. This includes sharing rumours or speculating. And second, I never give false hope when there’s really none to be had.

But despite all of these developments, I do believe there’s still hope. There’s light at the end of this tunnel.

Life is getting harder for the traffickers who are luring people into Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, where they are violently enslaved and forced to scam people online.

People are hearing about their tricks and are less likely to fall for them.

International pressure is causing some of these scam operations, which have enslaved over 200,000 people in south-east Asia alone, to close.

Police from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos have been pursuing the criminals behind the trafficking and scams, reportedly arresting thousands of people involved.

And rebel armies in northern Myanmar have sworn to shut the scams down as they take control of new territory.

Although the situation right now is worse than it’s ever been, we’re seeing signs that maybe, just maybe, the tide is starting to turn.

I hope I’m not speaking too soon. But it’s definitely too soon to give up hope.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is on a mission to end human trafficking. 

The unusual extremes

A 13-year-old sold into surrogacy. Sisters, looking for a job, trafficked to a brothel. These are extreme cases – but are they unusual?

Some days, the stories seem too extreme to be true.

In recent weeks, Blue Dragon rescued two sisters from a brothel in Myanmar. These brothels are the worst of the worst, away from the reach of law enforcement and run by cruel gangsters. Escaping them is exceptionally difficult.

Our operation to find the sisters, aged 22 and 26, took weeks. Getting them back to Vietnam took weeks more.

The women are massively relieved to be home now, although deeply traumatised from their experience. They had simply wanted to find a job to support their family; they had no idea what danger they were in.

The trafficker who sold them had seemed like a friend and was so helpful… Up until the moment they were beaten and enslaved. A terrifying experience that will take years to recover from.

As part of our assistance to victims of human trafficking, Blue Dragon offers legal representation. We can stand in court on behalf of the victim as their trafficker is prosecuted.

And so last week we were in court on behalf of a girl named May, who was trafficked at age 13. Three traffickers took her to China and sold her to be a surrogate mother. May’s job was to bear children for men who wanted a family but didn’t have a wife.

Traffickers being taken away at the conclusion of the case.

It takes a lot to shock me these days, but I too was shocked by this case. I can’t imagine how any person could sell a child for any purpose, let alone for such a dehumanising use as surrogacy.

Justice was served; the traffickers will spend up to 28 years in prison. But that does not even begin to compensate for the harm that they have done.

Extreme – but unusual?

Cases like these are fairly common at Blue Dragon. After all, this dark corner of life is where we have chosen to work. These are very specifically the cases, and the people, we are here to help.

And these are the stories that are most likely to make their way into the headlines or go viral online.

But it isn’t quite right to say that these cases are typical.

Blue Dragon does deal with them regularly – even daily – in our work. But we also deal with many more cases that give reason for hope.

Like the teen boy who grew up in poverty but is now studying English in Australia.

Or the father who, with some counseling and support, was able to express his emotions to his child for the very first time.

Or the young woman who was a street kid at age 15 but is now completing her university degree.

Choosing our focus

People like these are all around us. You and I pass them in the street each day and never even know what’s below the tip of their iceberg.

They might not grab the headlines, but their stories are equally important.

It’s important to see these extreme cases. We must face them, because they are a part of our world. But we shouldn’t let them overwhelm us.

Martin Luther King Jr once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” To put it another way: It may seem like everything is terrible, but in the long run there’s always hope.

What matters most is that each of us does our part to bring that hope to life: to care for others, to stand up for what’s right.

Amidst these extraordinary extremes, we must remember: even in darkness, our brightest moments emerge from tales of resilience, growth, and compassion.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll be interested to listen to this recent interview on The Good Life with Australian MP Andrew Leigh.

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.

Say’s story

Aged 14, Say lived a simple life in the mountains – until the terrifying day her world fell apart at the hands of a human trafficker.

It was meant to be a special day for Say.

She was 14 years old and knew little about the world. Say had never been to school and nobody in her family was literate.

Growing up in a tiny village in the mountains bordering China, Say had led a quiet and simple life. She spoke only H’mong, the language of her community, and spent her days tending the family’s corn crops. In this part of the world, agriculture is exceptionally difficult: the fields are on the sides of steep mountains, and the work is backbreaking.

A woman working in the corn fields close to the border of China.

So when Say met a young man who was passing through her village and took an interest in her, she was delighted. He seemed smart and sophisticated, and wore nice clothes – everything she dreamed about.

After a few encounters, the young man invited her to meet him at the market in the next town. Say only went to the market town for special occasions; it was a long walk to get there, and it had tall brick buildings and people speaking both H’mong and Kinh, the official Vietnamese language. For Say, the town was exciting and exotic. How could she say no?

What started as a promising day of adventure became a terrifying ordeal. The young man she so admired took her by motorbike on a ride through the hills, laughing and joking until they reached a town where all the street signs were in Chinese.

And then, like the flick of a switch, Say’s crush became her tormentor.

Say realised immediately that she had been duped. It was immediately clear that her life was in danger.

Now a group of traffickers was around her – she doesn’t recall how many. But they clung to her arms, standing over her to menace her into silence. She had never been so frightened in all her life.

Say was given a horrifying choice: go with them and agree to become the wife of a Chinese man, or be sold to a brothel. Even just aged 14, Say knew she had to choose the lesser of two evils. As fists rained down on her, she blurted out her decision. She would agree to become a wife.

The following days and weeks are all a blur to Say. She remembers being taken on a motorbike, with a rider in front of her and a strong man on the back to keep her from escaping.

She remembers riding through the hills as the sun set and the world fell black, but she doesn’t know how long they were on that bike or how far they travelled.

When they reached their destination, Say was handed to a Chinese H’mong man who took her as his wife – temporarily. He planned to keep her as his sexual object for a few months and then to re-sell her. He felt that he had paid a low price for such an attractive young girl, and he believed he could make a profit by selling her to a richer man in the city.

For three terrifying months, Say was his possession. She was locked in to his home and brutalised repeatedly. Every day, she searched for a way to escape. Every night, she cried herself to sleep.

In the end, Say was lucky to be found. Chinese police were on a routine visit to her neighborhood checking in on families in the wake of COVID outbreaks. They recognised that she was frightened and clearly did not belong in the area, and brought her to safety.

Say returned to Vietnam with assistance from Blue Dragon, and we’ve been supporting her ever since. After spending time receiving counselling and medical treatment, Say is back with her loving family.

A H’mong girl in her home, high up in the mountains of northwest Vietnam.

Last week, Blue Dragon represented Say and 5 other girls and young women as their two traffickers faced court. They are part of a highly organised gang, with some members still on the run. We believe that they have trafficked many other victims as well, and we hope in time to find them all and bring them home.

For now, the traffickers are out of action. Say is safe. Her family is restored.

But the reality is that healing is a long journey. Say will need time and ongoing care – possibly for many years – to rebuild her life. And the extreme poverty that made her a target for these traffickers must be addressed.

Blue Dragon will keep working with Say and her community in the months and years to come. They need protection, and they need healing.

For Say, seeing her traffickers sentenced – 28 years and 21 years respectively – goes a long way toward her healing. She has seen justice done. And as she returns to her work in the corn field on the side of the mountain, her dream is simply that she and her family can live a life safe and free.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

Something better

Two teens left their homes wanting to escape poverty and hardship. The dangers that they encountered are a warning to us all.

Troc was sleeping under a bridge when we first met him. He was 14 years old.

During our nightly street outreach, the Blue Dragon social workers spotted him covered in a filthy blanket, sound asleep and all on his own.

Troc had come to the city to find a job. His family live about 120km from Hanoi and relied on the income of Troc’s father, a construction worker. When the COVID pandemic first hit Vietnam, his father lost his job and returned home. The family was broke.

Wanting to do something good, Troc slipped away at night and hitchhiked to the city. He was sure that he could find a job and send money home to his family, but soon realised how wrong he had been.

The city was shut down. The streets were empty and the businesses closed. Ashamed to call his parents and tell them the truth, Troc found himself homeless and hungry.

Asleep on the pylon of a bridge in Hanoi.

Nu’s story is not all that different, but her journey was even more frightening. From the mountains of north-central Vietnam, a stone’s throw from Laos, she was almost 16 when the pandemic hit.

Nu had been counting the days until she was old enough to leave home and get a job. Her family was desperately poor and she knew that if she stayed in her village she would soon be married to one of the local boys – a fate she simply did not want.

COVID-19 meant that just as she was able to start planning to leave, she had to put everything on hold. So she waited.

A year into the pandemic, Nu was feeling trapped. She spent her days online, chatting with people far and wide. One young woman she met through social media was particularly friendly. She even offered to introduce Nu to a restaurant in Ha Long Bay that was hiring. Finally, a lucky break!

But as happens so often, Nu’s friend was in fact a trafficker. Nu travelled to the nearest city where they met in a cafe and then hopped on a bus. They were on the road for so long that Nu eventually fell asleep, despite her excitement. When she awoke, she sensed that something was wrong.

Instead of heading to Ha Long Bay, they were high up in the mountains near China. Still, Nu held out hope that everything would be OK – but when they got off the bus late at night and started walking through the forest, she knew she was in trouble.

Both Troc and Nu took risks, and both ended up in dangerous situations.

It’s easy to judge young people for getting into trouble, and it happens all the time. People often assume that girls who get trafficked must have been asking for it. If only they had been more ‘aware’ it wouldn’t have happened.

And the same goes for street kids, who are just assumed to be troublemakers. All they need to do is go home and the streets would be safer.

Troc and Nu were setting out in search of the same dream: something better.

In fact, we all do it. For most of us, it’s about leaving home to start at university or a new job in another city. Or it might mean traveling to a new state – or, in COVID-free times, a new country.

For kids like Troc and Nu, their dream of something better isn’t about adventure or a new challenge. It’s about survival. They don’t want to live – or die – in poverty. They want to change their circumstances, help their families, find a way out of hardship.

They’re both safe now. Troc came to Blue Dragon’s emergency shelter for a few weeks, and once the pandemic eased we took him back to his family. We’ve been supporting them since then and Troc returned to school to finish Grade 9.

Nu was rescued shortly after arriving in China. Her trafficker escaped, but Nu was saved from the trauma of being sold as a bride. She’s now doing a training course and in coming months will be ready to start work in a restaurant as a chef.

Troc and Nu are typical of the young people we meet every day at Blue Dragon: good kids who are trying to escape from some difficulty in life.

In many ways, they’re like all of us. They dream of having a good life, free from hunger and hardship. But their poverty means that they have to take risks that most of us would never face – and that’s where things go wrong for them.

What Troc and Nu want is the same thing that we all should be working towards: something better. For all of us.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

A trafficker’s story

Vin committed a terrible crime and received the punishment he deserved. But could this all have been prevented?

Vin was trembling as he stood, head bowed and hands clasped.

He had never been in a court room before today. He’d never even had trouble with the police.

As the judge read out his sentence – 11 years in prison – Vin still couldn’t believe that this was really happening.

And now it was official: he was a human trafficker. He had tricked a girl from a nearby village into taking a ride on his motorbike and handed her to a gang waiting on the border between Vietnam and China.

A trafficker is sentenced by the court.

While he was doing this, he knew deep down it was wrong – but something drove him to do it anyway.

Vin’s life was always hard as a child and teenager. He grew up in a H’mong village and quit school before he was 10 so that he could work full time in the fields. Some months, there just wasn’t enough to eat, so he would travel away with his father and find jobs on construction sites in the towns and cities.

Being out in the world was always a humiliating experience. People laughed at his manners and his clothes. He was embarrassed that he couldn’t speak much Kinh, the mainstream Vietnamese language, like the other workers. Even going to shops to buy supplies was difficult: he could hardly read or write and nothing was familiar.

When he met a wealthy H’mong woman and her Chinese husband one day, everything changed. He was offered a chance to make some easy money – for the first time in his life.

All he had to do was bring them a Vietnamese girl who they would take to China, where she would marry and have children.

She might not like it at first, they told Vin, because she will want to stay in Vietnam. But her life will be much better in China; she won’t be poor any more and her children will go to school. She’ll be glad you did this.

And the sum of money on offer was almost unbelievable. If he could bring a pretty girl aged under 18, he would receive 30 million VND – over $1,300! He couldn’t earn that much in a year, let alone for one day’s work.

Still he knew it was wrong, so he assured himself that this was his only way out of poverty. And why shouldn’t he have that chance? It wasn’t his fault that he was born into poverty. It wasn’t his fault that people laughed at him and joked about how stupid he was.

With this money, he could buy a new motorbike. Maybe one of the local girls would finally want to marry him! This would change his life.

Vin’s story is common among people who traffic others. In the end, his poverty and disadvantage were similar to that of the young woman he targeted and enslaved. They were alike in so many ways, except that he sought to profit from her misery.

Last week, Blue Dragon released an analysis of the profiles of human traffickers. You can find the full report here, and an article in the South China Morning Post that neatly explains the research here. We found that cases like Vin’s are extremely common: most people who end up in court for trafficking are first time offenders from backgrounds of poverty and with low levels of education.

That doesn’t excuse Vin. His victim spent a terrifying 3 months in slavery before Blue Dragon found and rescued her. What he did was unequivocally wrong.

Vin did something monstrous – but that doesn’t make him a monster. Standing there in court, he knew he deserved this punishment. He saw himself as a failure.

And yet, the findings of our research give us reason to hope.

If people like Vin are becoming traffickers because of their low education and poverty, we may be able to intervene. Programs to combat trafficking are often designed to help people who are vulnerable to being trafficked – like scholarships to keep girls in school.

It makes sense to consider that extending those programs to also keep potential traffickers in school, or to help them find legitimate jobs, would reduce human trafficking even further.

Sending Vin to prison is a just and fair decision by the court. But if only we could step in to help people like Vin and his family to find a better path, we would be preventing a human tragedy before it even happens.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

Please note that some details of this story are changed for legal and privacy reasons.

Ashes

Trafficked to China 21 years ago, everyone believed that Liem was dead. But her parents refused to give up hope.

When Liem was 15, she left home.

It was 1999, and she was studying in Grade 9. Life was difficult and she wanted to find a way to help her family through some tough times.

A woman from the neighborhood approached Liem with an offer: a job at a restaurant in Hanoi. She could work there for a few months, save up some money, and return to her family as a hero.

But, the woman warned, Liem would need to keep it a secret. Her parents would never agree in advance – it would be better to send a message once Liem had already started the job.

Liem left with her school bag and a dream of saving her family from poverty. She was gone for 21 years.

Those decades away were a living hell. The woman from her village took her to China, and Liem didn’t even know that anything was wrong at first. By the time she realised, it was far too late.

At first Liem was sold into a brothel, and a year later sold into another. Over the 21 years of slavery, Liem was sold again and again. Her final years in China were as a ‘wife’ to a man who wanted a servant he could control and force himself onto.

The years of extreme hardship took their toll. Liem had a stroke, and was left unable to walk.

Her family knew none of this. On that awful afternoon in 1999, her mother and father came home in the evening to an empty house and wondered where their daughter had gone. The next day they set out in search of her, desperately hoping there was some simple, innocent explanation that Liem had stayed out over night.

Liem never came home. Days turned into weeks and then years. It was as though she had just vanished, like a puff of smoke.

Everyone was sure that Liem had died; there could be no other explanation. But while some families would have built a grave and placed their daughter’s photo on the family altar, Liem’s parents did not. Deep down they continued to hope that somehow their little girl would come home.

Then one day a mysterious phone call came. A woman who refused to identify herself was asking questions about Liem. When the family was able to verify that Liem was indeed their daughter, the woman told them the news that they had waited 21 years to hear: Liem was alive.

With 48 hours, Blue Dragon put together a rescue team and brought Liem back to Vietnam. Unable to walk, we carried her across the border.

COVID precautions meant that Liem was required to go straight to a quarantine facility. In an act of compassion, the border guards allowed Liem’s father to also go to quarantine. After two decades separated from his daughter, he could not wait another two weeks.

Liem is home now. After release from quarantine, she was carried back to the home that she walked away from more than half her life ago.

Liem being carried home after release from quarantine.

For her whole family, it seems that the impossible has come true. The years ahead are going to be hard: Liem will always live with the trauma of slavery, and her parents will always live with the regret of losing their daughter.

But at least they have a chance to start over, and to build a life from the ashes of all they lost.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation works in Vietnam with children and families in crisis. A donation to the Rescue Appeal will provide urgent assistance for the rescue and care of people like Liem.