Busting the boundaries

When Blue Dragon first started, many believed we were destined to fail. Had we listened to them, life for vulnerable children would be very different today.

​You might have heard that it’s Blue Dragon’s 20th birthday this year.

We don’t often stop to celebrate milestones or achievements in Blue Dragon. But this time, we’re taking the opportunity to reflect and celebrate what we’ve done over the years.

A question that often comes up is: what do we consider our biggest achievements?

There are certainly a few successes that stand out among the many. Some of them are very clear. Our 1500 rescues of people from slavery is a key accomplishment that we are acknowledging this year.

And some of them are less easy to define. One such achievement is what I want to write about today.

Although Blue Dragon is well-known now as an anti-trafficking organisation, in our early days we were focused solely on protecting street kids.

Hanoi shoeshine boy, 2004

It’s hard to remember and even harder for people to imagine what that work was like 20 years ago.

As a group of volunteers and friends who were doing our best to get kids off the streets and back to school, we had some good support. But we also had some extraordinary obstacles and opposition. 

I can’t recall how many times people told me that street kids weren’t worth helping. One foreign embassy worker said to me: “Those kids don’t want help. They just want money.”

And then there were those who didn’t believe that we had any chance of succeeding. One well-respected aid worker spat down the phone at me: “You’re not an expert. This work should be done by people who know what they’re doing.”

The problem was, there were no “experts” to be found other than those sitting in offices writing reports. Hanoi simply didn’t have programs for street children. There were some excellent vocational training programs, but they relied on the kids being a certain age and academic level, and interested in a particular course of study.

For kids who were under age or had dropped out of school early or were traumatised from abuse, there was basically nothing.

Girl selling food by the road, 2004

So the idea of “leaving it to the experts” essentially meant: do nothing. Let the kids try to survive on their own.

Today our work protecting street kids is not controversial at all. We have won awards for it, both locally and internationally.

We have a center and shelters for street kids and we routinely advocate for the needs of children we meet on the streets.

What was considered outrageous and risky 20 years ago is mainstream today.

And that is one of the successes that I’m most proud of. It’s also something that nobody really notices, because the shift has been so gradual.

The people who tried to discourage me all those years ago probably don’t even remember it that way. They may look back at that time as giving me practical advice which was helpful to my development.

I look today at the thousands of kids we’ve helped to get off the street, back to school and home with their families. Many are now in great jobs, have families of their own, and some even work or study in other countries.

The ripple effect in those children’s families and communities is immeasurable.

What would have become of these kids had I let the criticism and discouragement stop me? It’s unthinkable what life would be like for street kids today if Blue Dragon had never begun.

Rented room where street workers, including kids and adults, lived together, 2004

In every corner of the world, there’s an accepted way of doing things. A socially acceptable set of boundaries that everyone is expected to work within.

Those boundaries serve a purpose. They unify society and set cultural norms. At times, they keep us safe.

But they can also stop us from fighting for what’s right, like protecting street kids when nobody else will do it.

This was a difficult time in Blue Dragon’s history. As volunteers on the frontline, we were standing up for what we knew was right and persisting even when people thought we were wrong.

We defied expectations, pushed past conventional limits and spoke up for people who had no voice.

It wasn’t easy. But sometimes, that’s the only way to make real change.

Thanks for following the story of Blue Dragon. You’re invited to join me and my colleagues on Tuesday March 26 for a webinar about human trafficking, including how it impacts street kids. Sign up here.