Starts here, continues there.

Alone in the shadows, San had no idea how he would survive. A chance encounter changed that; but his story is far from over.

San was sitting alone, just out of the glare of the streetlight.

Blue Dragon’s social workers are trained to spot street kids among a crowd. But San was easy to identify: sitting in the shadows, his shoulders slumped, a backpack by his feet.

Hai, the social worker, has an easy going nature. Kids instinctively trust him. He pulled his motorbike over, introduced himself to San, and within minutes they were chatting away like old friends.

Social worker Hai, on the ground, chats with 14-year-old San.

With some street kids, it’s hard to build trust. San, however, was different. He’d only recently come to the city and very quickly realised that he had walked into a terrible situation. He just wished he could go home, but he didn’t have the few dollars needed for the bus fare.

San is 14 and from the northern mountains of Vietnam. He and one of his younger brothers have already dropped out of school. His youngest brother, in Grade 4 now, doesn’t plan to go back after the coming summer holiday.

A familiar story

Their family story follows a pattern we hear all the time.

Dad was in an accident and now suffers from poor health. He drowns his sorrows with rice wine and then quarrels with his kids. Their studies have suffered and they just don’t see much reason to keep going with their education.

Finally, San decided to head to the city and look for a job. At last that way, he could send money home for his parents to survive and he would avoid arguing with his father.

But the dream of going to the big city and earning money is just an illusion for young people from the countryside. They leave home hoping to find paid employment, but in reality there are few jobs to be found for young, untrained workers. It’s much more likely that the kids will be tricked and exploited.

And so San found himself homeless, broke and hopeless. Until he met Hai.

Where to from here

San stayed at the Blue Dragon shelter a few days to catch up on sleep and food. Then he was ready for the long journey home.

When Blue Dragon reunites young people with their families – whether they’re street kids or survivors of human trafficking – we don’t just put them on a bus and wave them off.

A couple of social workers get on that bus with them and travel with the child. These journeys can take a couple of days in each direction, so they are a significant investment of time and resources. And they are always worthwhile.

It’s only when we meet the family ourselves, talk to the community leaders, and go visit the child’s school, that we can fully understand how to help.

San and a Blue Dragon social worker walking home.

And when all the key people in the child’s life know us, it’s a lot easier to get things done.

Through long discussions over shared meals, the Blue Dragon staff learned about the challenges that San and his family are facing.

They have critically little income – so we will help with some money for a few months to see them through. While we do that, we’ll work with the community to buy a few farm animals that San’s parents can raise to begin earning their own money.

San’s school teacher advised that he will need to reapply to go back to study, but knowing what he’s been through, she was very supportive and we’re confident he will be back in class shortly.

And on it goes

So is that ‘happily ever after’?

No. They take a bit longer than a week!

Helping San, his brothers and their parents will take sustained effort over the coming years. They might not need very much help from Blue Dragon, because they have a supportive community around them who is ready to help now that they understand the situation.

San’s family home.

We will stay in touch over the phone. We’ll check in with San’s teacher from time to time. And San knows that, should he want to leave home again, he can call us to discuss or ask for help.

With just this effort, San is no longer in danger of trafficking and exploitation on the city streets and his whole family has hope for the future.

But this story isn’t over. It started on the streets and it continues in a remote village, high up in the mountains.

Whatever happens next, Blue Dragon stands ready to help however we can.

The good work of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is possible only because of our amazing supporters around the world. Thank you to all who donate, volunteer, and cheer us along. Without you, San’s outlook would be very different.

Bringing out the inner entrepreneur

It’s easy to talk about ‘breaking the cycle of poverty’. But for a person who has spent their whole life in poverty, what does it take to make a change?

She was nervous at the start. By the end, she was beaming.

Linh has never really felt in control of her life before. She’s always been poor and always at the mercy of others.

As a single mother raising 3 kids, her whole life is about providing for her family – as with most parents. But with no savings, no home of her own and no support, getting by is a daily struggle.

When you live in such extreme poverty, it’s impossible to get ahead. Linh only ever has enough money for a day at a time; planning for the future or saving for a ‘rainy day’ is just a fantasy.

Blue Dragon has been getting to know Linh for the past year. Her kids are at our Hanoi centre every day, joining classes and activities as they prepare to go back to school. Now we’re finding how we can help Linh directly so that she has the dignity of providing for her children without the need for charitable help.

Tools for the future

And so we’ve been working with Linh to uncover her dreams and aspirations. What is she good at? What does she enjoy doing? What kind of work would she like for the future?

Nobody has ever asked her these questions before, so the answers didn’t come naturally. But with some time and guidance, Linh has identified that she’d love to have a food stall, selling dishes like dumplings and sticky rice.

Work like this will allow her to prepare the food at home and sell at a stall or market during hours that she’s in control of. This will give her the flexibility she needs to look after the kids.

Last week, Linh’s training for her new business kicked off. She is spending time at Blue Dragon with a chef who is showing her how to make the dishes she wants to sell and teaching her the basics of food hygiene.

Turning up for her first day of training, Linh was visibly worried. Would she be able to master this? Did she really have what it would take?

But her ability wasn’t the issue. It was all about confidence. Once she got started and could see that food preparation came naturally to her, Linh was beaming with pride.

Linh making new dishes with her chef trainer.

Next we’ll mentor Linh in managing her finances, then we’ll help her find a site to set up business.

For some months, and maybe even a year, Linh may still need financial assistance. Her kids will still need to join Blue Dragon’s classes. This step to independence is just that: it’s a step. It will take time.

But there will soon be a day when Linh is no longer thinking just about survival. She may even have some savings in the bank.

The final product: A hand-wrapped Vietnamese dumpling called ‘banh gio’.

Best of all, Blue Dragon’s work is to draw out of Linh the talents and abilities that she already has. She’s always wanted to work and to be her own boss; she’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Now she has the support to live out her dreams.

With a little time and the right, targeted assistance, Linh might finally have reason to hope for the future.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation works in Vietnam to end human trafficking.

Good – for poor people

When it comes to charity, why do we give people in poverty services and assistance that we would never accept ourselves?

I was sitting in a café chatting to the owner, who asked about my work.

When I told her, she pulled out a plastic bottle stuffed with discarded plastic bags. With a huge smile on her face, she proudly told me that she was involved in a project to collect discarded plastic to build houses.

Fantastic idea! But her enthusiasm gave me pause when she continued: These houses will be good for poor people.

The idea of creatively using waste rather than sending it to landfill is one that I wholeheartedly support. But I have to question why such an initiative is suitable only for poor people. Why not for those who are considered middle class or wealthy?

Would the cafe owner live in such a house herself?

Last year, Blue Dragon built 100 houses for people in extreme poverty.

An architect and a builder designed the houses, with different styles for different regions of the country. In the northern mountains, we built houses to reflect the same style as the traditional houses around them. In central Vietnam, where flooding is common, houses were built up above flooding levels with escape hatches in the rooves to prevent drowning.

Before:

After:

While we had several designs for each family to choose from, they could modify their choice according to the number of residents and their specific needs.

In other words, every family got what they needed and wanted, rather than simply what Blue Dragon decided to give them. The result is that the 100 houses are all unique and match the local conditions. There’s no noticeable difference between the houses of the “poor people” and their neighbours.

And best of all, many families have told us that they now live in their “dream house.” By having input into every stage of the process, from design to construction, their new homes are truly their own.

Building houses, building dreams

Our work with young people follows the same principles.

When Blue Dragon was beginning 20 years ago, it was common to hear people say things like: Disadvantaged boys should learn motorcycle repair. Girls should learn sewing or cooking.

Those same limits were never imposed on children from wealthier families, who had the option to go to university or take on any job they were interested in. 

Of course, some Blue Dragon kids do want to study motorbike repair. Or cooking or sewing. And we make sure they have that option.

But we also offer scholarships for school leavers to study at a tertiary level. Right now we have about 160 kids in college and university.

The point is that every child should be able to find their strengths and achieve their own dream, not just do whatever is considered “good for poor people”.

Luong’s story exemplifies this.

When we found him, he was working in a sweatshop at the age of 14. Now he’s an outstanding pastry chef and chocolatier, working in five star resorts and teaching other young people his skills.

His story features this week on the Blue Dragon website.

In the same way, we’ve had girls and boys study abroad in jobs from engineering to medicine to teaching… And also some who want to work as farmers or stay at home and raise a family.

Whatever the dream, that’s what we’re here for.

Because what’s really “good for poor people” is the same as what’s good for all of us.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation works in Vietnam to end human trafficking.

The Journey Home

After 3 years in slavery and 2 weeks in quarantine, Phuong is finally home. But her hardships are far from over.

Phuong’s rescue from slavery and return to Vietnam defied the odds.

After 3 years held in China against her will, Phuong was desperate to return home to her baby daughter and her mother. At the very first opportunity, she risked her life to make a call for help.

Illiterate and relying on a prosthetic leg, Phuong’s options for escape were severely limited. But Blue Dragon’s operation in late November found her and brought Phuong back to Vietnam, as detailed in my earlier post, Almost Impossible.

After 2 weeks in quarantine and time with Blue Dragon’s counsellors, Phuong went home on Friday.

We all want to believe that going home, a family reunion, will mean ‘happy ever after’. Sometimes it is. But for Phuong, the journey home was never going to be easy.

For a start, the road home is not a road. It’s a canal, winding through the Mekong Delta. Phuong and the Blue Dragon staff accompanying her rowed down the waterway on the final leg of her very long journey home.

Rowing along the canal to get home.

And then came the realisation that Phuong’s home is not a house. It’s a tent.

Phuong’s family home: a tent by the canal.

This is Phuong’s home. This is where she was raised, where she gave birth, and where she now lives.

It’s clear why the traffickers chose Phuong. They saw her as an easy target. Few opportunities. An extremely difficult life. And her family had no resources to go searching when she went missing.

Her family may be extremely poor, but there’s one thing they have plenty of: love. Phuong’s return home was a tearful, joyful occasion. Even though this family has so few material possessions, they are back together and they have each other.

The moment that Phuong and her mother reunited.

Rescue from slavery is never the end of the story. It’s just the beginning of a new chapter.

For Phuong, her 3 year old daughter and her own parents, this family reunion is a chance for a new start in life. They’re going to need a lot of help over a long time, but now Phuong finally has a reason to hope that better days really are ahead.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is working to end human trafficking and slavery. Please donate to this important work if you can.