Relentless hope

In the face of endless suffering, how can we keep helping those in need?

People often ask me how I manage to keep going.

Blue Dragon’s work is intense. It’s rare for a day to go by without us receiving a desperate call for help from someone in slavery or meeting a homeless child in a terrible situation.

The numbers tell a slice of the story.

Since the start of this year, we’ve rescued 118 people from slavery: brothels, forced marriages, and forced labor.

In the same time, we’ve helped double that number of street kids – about 240 so far.

It’s only human for the constant exposure to traumatised, terrified people to affect us deeply.

Meeting children in desperate situations is both traumatising, and what keeps us going.

And it does. Among the staff of Blue Dragon – the social workers, psychologists, lawyers, counselors – there’s often someone experiencing their own stress or even burnout. On occasion, people need to take time off work or seek professional help to deal with their own emotions and psychological responses.

Both as individuals and as an organisation, we try our best but we have our limits.

Finding the way forward

Taking care of ourselves in the face of constant stress is the only way we can keep going. Being there for each other as a supportive team makes a world of difference. From an organisational point of view, there’s much we can do to provide for staff wellbeing and support people when they need it.

But in the end, the most important thing of all is hope.

We keep going because we believe it makes a difference. It’s worthwhile.

Even when we fail; even when we encounter cases that we’re unable to help; we know there’s still someone else waiting for us who we can help.

Should there come a day that I no longer think my contribution matters, I know I wouldn’t be able to continue.

What drives me – what drives all of us at Blue Dragon, from our frontline staff to our donors and partners around the world – is our relentless hope that our world can be better.

And so, no matter how hard things get, we continue.

Thank you to all who make Blue Dragon’s efforts possible. While our work continues, I’m taking a break from writing the weekly blog during July. I’ll be back with more stories of hope on August 4.

The truth about street kids

Years after coming to Blue Dragon, Long and Giang are leading lives they love. Their success challenges the misconceptions of who street kids really are.

Long and Giang were street kids when I met them.

Both were from provinces near Hanoi and came to the city as teens. They each had loving families at home but were looking for something more: an escape from the hardships of their daily lives.

Their experiences in the city were very different. Giang teamed up with a friend from his hometown and they were on the streets for many months. Long was a street kid for just a short time before he met Blue Dragon. A week later, he was happily home with his parents.

However, calling them “street kids” is a little complicated. It’s a label that summarises a whole set of traumatic childhood experiences, while saying nothing about the person.

Perception and reality

Whenever I speak in public about Blue Dragon’s work, I come across many different views of street kids.

Some people assume that they must be from dysfunctional families; others believe that they’re bad kids who just need some discipline. Of course, some show great sympathy, seeing street kids as victims of family breakdown.

So what’s the truth?

After 20 years of meeting and caring for street kids, I can confidently say this: Street kids are regular young people, no different to anyone else.

I’ve met street kids who are intelligent, ambitious, kind. Some are passionate about sports, or love music, or enjoy hanging out with friends. And yes, I’ve met some who are bad tempered, spend too much time playing online games and get into trouble with the law.

All of which makes them no different to any other teenager.

At the same time, I don’t deny that street kids do have one fundamental difference to others, and that’s their time living without the proper care and protection of a home.

That experience is traumatic for any person. For children who spend time separated from their family – or out on the streets with their family – the trauma of living in danger and poverty can stay with them for a long time. This is why getting help and care to street kids is a matter of urgency. The longer kids are exposed to risk and harm, the harder it will be for them to heal.

The next chapter

Long and Giang have been “street kids,” but their lives are not defined by that experience.

By chance, both Long and Giang – now in their early 20s – caught up with us at Blue Dragon in the past week.

Long (on the left) catching up with Blue Dragon co-CEO Vi Do.

Long has started a small business of his own, designing and installing shop interiors. Giang works in Japan, but was back in Vietnam for his engagement ceremony. He’ll be getting married in a few years, and until then will keep working abroad with his fiance.

Neither has forgotten their time on the streets. Both have worked hard to overcome the challenges of their teen years and make something great of their lives.

Being a “street kid” doesn’t have to be a life-defining experience. Because Long and Giang received the right help at the right time, their days on the streets have become a chapter in their lives – not the whole book.

Every child deserves to be safe and protected. Then, as they grow up, they can be the author of their own story and not be defined by any label.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is on a mission to end human trafficking. Protecting street kids is a vital part of our work.

Ready to receive

Nam was in danger on the city streets. But the offer of help led to some unintended consequences and even greater danger.

I knew he was in danger the first time I saw him.

Nam was begging by the road, in the shadow of a giant statue overlooking one of Hanoi’s many lakes. He was 16 but looked much younger. Many passersby on motorbikes, stopped at the traffic lights, took pity on him and threw money into his outheld cap.

In the blistering heat, dressed in dirty rags, Nam looked pitiful. And his reason for being there was tragic. His mother had died many years ago and his father was brutally violent.

As a beggar, Nam could make good money each day. Even though it was boring and repetitive – and his daily income was dependent on the weather – he felt free. He didn’t have to care about following anybody else’s rules. If things ever got difficult at his begging spot, he could simply go elsewhere and start again.

Nam felt safe, but I knew that he wasn’t.

As a boy out begging on the street, he was extremely vulnerable to gangs, pimps, and traffickers. Many kids just like him had been taken advantage of: used, abused and spat out. Often left with drug addictions, sexually transmitted diseases and physical injuries.

A boy begging on the city streets. Children working like this are highly vulnerable to harm and exploitation.

And so I did what I could to help. Over time, I got to know Nam and urged him to accept Blue Dragon’s offer of help.

I persuaded and cajoled. I wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

Until finally, Nam relented. He agreed to stay in a Blue Dragon shelter while we helped him move on to training and employment.

Getting Nam to leave the streets was a great success. But it soon turned to disaster.

Nam fought with other kids at the shelter. He stayed out overnight whenever he felt like it and nobody knew when he might return. He sat in the bedroom smoking and swore at the staff when they told him to stop. Nam missed the freedom of the streets and he had never been in a home with clear rules and expectations before.

Nam was safe, but this wasn’t his decision. He had agreed to join the safe house because of my persuasion, not because it was what he really wanted.

A hard lesson

My mistake was one that many of us make at some time.

When you know that someone is endangering themselves… when you can see that they’re going to come to harm but you have no power to intervene… what should you do?

After a few weeks, Nam left the shelter and went back to the streets. As predicted, he met with a lot of trouble and ended up involved in some petty crime. He was lucky that he didn’t go to prison.

Only much later, when he saw for himself the danger he was in, did Nam come back to Blue Dragon. This time, he asked for help. And of course, it was freely given.

This was a powerful learning moment both for Nam and for myself. 

Pushing someone to accept help is rarely successful. Helping them see how it might change their life, and keeping the offer open for when they are ready, is sometimes the only way.

But it’s a hard lesson to learn.

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

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.

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.

The best

​There’s not much good to be said about living through a global pandemic, but experiencing such hard times has one silver lining: it brings out the best in us all.

I met Nhan on the streets when he was 14. 

He was working with an aunty who sold flags and trinkets at a major intersection in the city. All day long, motorbikes, cars and trucks raced by – a constant chaos of honking horns and traffic jams. 

It was late at night and I was just walking by, but Nhan stopped me with a huge smile and a friendly greeting. I stopped to chat, and immediately it was clear that this kid had something special about him. 

His life was clearly very hard, and as I learned in later weeks his relationship with the aunty was not very warm. Nhan desperately wanted to go to school, but she wanted him to earn money. It broke his heart, but his mother had left years ago and his father struggled with alcoholism. He simply had no other means of support, so he did his best to make it work. From time to time, he eased his pain with drugs.

When Nhan learned about Blue Dragon he decided right away that he wanted to join us. He knew it was a way to turn his fortunes around and get back to school. Nhan’s aunty wasn’t too happy about it, but she agreed to let him live in our shelter so that he would be off her hands and someone else could look after him.

Nhan did everything to make the most of his time with us. He joined every activity and took every class at the centre. But he lived with the trauma of his childhood: the poverty he had been raised in, his years working on the street, and the grief of not knowing his mother. Even though he was still a child, he felt guilty that he couldn’t fix his family’s problems.

After some years, Nhan was ready to take some steps toward independence. He joined a training program where he was studying to become a chef, and he moved out of the Blue Dragon shelter. He was excited to be starting a new chapter in his life. 

But it wasn’t long before things started to go wrong. Nhan found it difficult to keep up with classes and spent his nights remembering the pain of his childhood. Finally, he turned back to drugs to dull the pain and soon after dropped out of his training. 

Life spiralled downward very quickly. Blue Dragon was still in touch with him, but Nhan felt that he had failed and wanted to hide. When he needed a caring hand more than ever, his shame drove him into solitude and he left the city. Before long he was in a drug rehabilitation centre, where he spent the next two years. He was angry and disappointed with himself. He was sure that his life was over – that there was no way he could ever be happy again. 

When he was released from rehab, life continued to throw obstacles and challenges at him. Nobody would employ him so he borrowed money to start a business, which then failed. Despite another blow, Nhan refused to let this bring him down. He was determined to do things differently, so he reached out again to Blue Dragon. He was a young man by now and no longer a child, but he wanted to reconnect. Like any of us, he needed to know he still had people who cared for him and who wouldn’t judge him by his past.

So we invited Nhan to return to Hanoi and made plans for him to work in a farming project outside the city. It wasn’t exactly what he wanted, but it would give him an income for a few months in a nurturing environment, and we could provide as much counselling and support as he needed. 

But still Nhan was to face one more challenge. He was staying in Blue Dragon’s emergency accommodation preparing to head out to the farm when the COVID pandemic returned to Vietnam. A lockdown was called, and Nhan’s plans were on hold along with everybody else’s. 

It seemed like yet another blow to a young man who had struggled all his life. Yet this time, Nhan was stronger. 

Instead of being stuck at the emergency shelter, he saw it as a chance to shine. This wasn’t a setback; this was a time to help others, just as Nhan had received help when he needed it. 

Unable to leave the building anyway, Nhan joined with the staff to look after the boys at the shelter. He has become the big brother of the home, and spends his days taking care of everyone.

Nhan has put his training as a chef to work, cooking up incredible meals day after day, and teaching the kids along the way. He sits and listens to the boys share their stories of hardship and homelessness; and he shares his own, showing them that they don’t need to be ashamed. He can relate to their experiences, and they can relate to him. 

In the early mornings and late evenings, when the summer days cool down, Nhan organises games and sports in the yard. You could easily mistake him for one of the kids, laughing hysterically and joining in the fun. But the kids look up to him with a deep respect and if he calls them out for speaking rudely or playing roughly, they quickly apologise and return to the game. 

Boys at the emergency shelter making the most of lockdown.

Being in lockdown isn’t fun for anyone. For a group of teenage boys who were meant to be in an emergency shelter for only a few days, these weeks have been exceptionally hard. But having Nhan there, cheering them up and encouraging them to do their best, has made a world of difference. 

There’s no sign yet as to when the lockdown will end, but Nhan is in no hurry. He’s now wondering if he should focus on becoming a social worker so that he can spend his life caring for others. 

Nhan has had a rough start in life, and this is no fairytale ending. He still faces many challenges in the future and has yet to resolve some family issues that weigh on his shoulders. But it’s clear that this crisis has brought out the best in Nhan. He’s risen to the challenge and found a calling, even in these hardest of times. 

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

A personal mission

Vi is an unlikely hero on the streets of Hanoi.

In the evening, Vi finishes eating dinner with his family and says goodbye before putting on his mask and heading out to the streets.

Vi works for Blue Dragon, leading a team of over 30 social workers who help street kids. Despite being in a formal management position, he insists on staying involved in frontline work.

Every day he’s at the drop-in centre with kids and at night he’s in parks and under bridges looking for homeless young people. He will never admit it, but he’s a hero to many of the kids.

For Vi, this work is very personal. Because as a teenager, Vi was a street kid himself.

He left his village home in 2002, taking a bus to Hanoi where he found work shining shoes on the streets. All day he would walk through the city, polishing people’s shoes in return for a few cents before heading back to a dorm room where he slept, crammed in with 20 other people who also worked on the streets.

Vi at a game of football with Blue Dragon in 2003.

It was a lucky break for Vi to encounter the founder of Blue Dragon one day while out shining shoes. He immediately accepted an offer to join an English class, and before long Vi was living in a group home, going to school, and had left his days as a street kid behind.

Some people who escape a difficult situation – like being a street kid – would be happy to never look back. After his studies, Vi found work in one of Hanoi’s top restaurants and became a stellar barman. He had a great career in hospitality to look forward to.

Vi loved his work, but had a yearning to give back. So he returned to Blue Dragon, and for 10 years has been protecting girls and boys on the streets of the city.

Vi at the Blue Dragon drop-in centre in July 2021, teaching a child to play ping pong.

And now the city is in a state of crisis. With a wave of COVID-19 leading to lockdowns around Vietnam, people in poverty and living on the streets have it harder than ever. So Vi and his team have stepped up to the challenge.

Since Hanoi called for people to stay home and for non-essential services to close, Vi and his social workers have been delivering food during the day to families without incomes and handing meals directly to homeless people through the night.

As they go from home to home and person to person, they’re checking on people’s health and seeing what else they need. Some families need help to pay the rent so they don’t get evicted. Others need medication. One mother with a newborn needed a fridge – so Vi went to the Blue Dragon centre and took the fridge from the office!

Now Vi is planning another challenge. He’ll be walking on September 19 as part of the Blue Dragon Marathon Walk to raise money for the very kids he works with each day.

If you’d like to be involved, you can sign up and walk wherever you are in the world: bd-marathon-2021.raisely.com.

Or, if walking a full or half marathon is not your thing, you can sponsor Vi to show him your support: bd-marathon-2021.raisely.com/vido.

Vi has even declared that he’ll walk an extra 30km if he reaches his fundraising target.

For Vi, his work may be a very personal mission but he’s not alone. His dedication to the kids is shared by many, from the staff on his team to Blue Dragon’s donors near and far who keep us going.

And as long as there are kids out on the streets in need of help, our world will need people like Vi to keep them safe.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

Spider Boy

Just 10 years old, Thang has grown up on the streets of Hanoi. But now, his life is taking a turn for the better.

In more normal times, Thang spends his days on the streets.

Thang is only ten… or maybe nine. He’s not really sure. He’s never been to school, so he follows his mother around the city while she works, collecting scrap that she sells for recycling.

Even though he has never studied or sat in a classroom, Thang is a bright boy and has taught himself enough to read comic books. He doesn’t have many friends – when you wander the streets all day, it’s hard to have friendships. But he knows what he is missing out on and dreams about being like all the other kids he sees.

Right now, Vietnam is experiencing a wave of COVID unlike any other we’ve seen. Across the country, cities and provinces are in lockdown; businesses are closed and people have been asked or ordered to stay home.

Thang and his mother don’t really have that option. Staying home means staying hungry. They live day to day, with no savings. If they don’t earn money today, they have to move out of their rented room tomorrow. It’s as simple as that.

Thang and a friend in Thang’s rented room.

And Thang isn’t the only child living like this. Across Hanoi and throughout Vietnam, many girls and boys are spending their early years like this. Too poor to go to school, and with no extended family to care for them, they roam the streets every day with a parent or relative.

Now that COVID has upended all of our daily routines, their lives are impossibly difficult.

So now Thang has a new routine. He spends his days at the Blue Dragon centre, along with a growing group of girls and boys who, just like him, would otherwise be out on the streets or locked into tiny, makeshift homes.

It’s a whole new world for Thang and his peers. Being in a centre, having healthy meals at fixed times and playing together as a group are all new experiences.

Even more important, Thang is now learning. He has formal lessons in the afternoons, but in fact his whole day now is about learning. How to make friends. How to be nice to others. How to sit down for lunch and share a meal.

Turning Thang’s life around will take time. We’re working with his mother, to see how we can help her find a more stable income. And of course through this latest lockdown period we are helping her to pay the bills so she can get by.

It’s not easy for Thang or his mother, but finally they have someone to help.

Thang is so excited, and so growing in his new confidence, that this week he arrived at Blue Dragon as the alter-ego of Spider Man.

Spider Boy loves comic books!

His own day to day life is far from that of a super hero, free to go anywhere and with power to command respect.

Thang hasn’t had the best start to life, but he still dreams like children all around the world.

Maybe he won’t really be able to become Spider Man when he grows up, but with some love and care, and a helping hand for his mother, there’s no doubt that his dream of a brighter future can still come true.

To help Thang and children just like him, please consider a donation to the Blue Dragon COVID Emergency appeal. All funds raised will provide food packs to families who have no income during the current lockdown.

Back on the streets

Vi Do left home at age 15 and became a ‘street kid.’ Now he has devoted his life to helping other homeless teens to turn their lives around.

Whenever there’s a headline in the news about kids in Hanoi getting arrested, Vi is on alert.

He scans the article and checks the photos. He worries that he will know one of the young people in trouble.

Vi was a street kid himself as a teenager. With some help from Blue Dragon, he escaped the street life and had a promising career in hospitality, but decided to return to the organisation that helped him so that he in turn could help others.

Now he’s a senior leader at Blue Dragon, working with psychologists and social workers and lawyers to protect children from being abused, misled and exploited.

Just last week, one of Vi’s fears was realised. One of the young men arrested for his involvement in a huge gang fight – with swords and knives and metal bars – was Tu, one of the Blue Dragon boys not so long ago.

Tu is an orphan and as a child he learned to fend for himself. By the time we met him, he was already in his mid teens and hardened in his ways.

But Tu always had a soft side; in moments of quiet, he would share his regrets and his dreams, wishing that life had been very different. He would wonder aloud if he had any chance of turning his fortunes around.

The last time that Tu came to see Vi was just last year, and it was an emotional meeting. Tu is in his 20s now and has already spent time in prison; he’s survived a severe bout of pneumonia that almost killed him; and he’s battled with a meth addiction. So he came by the Blue Dragon centre to talk, but instead spent an hour in uncontrollable tears.

Tu said almost nothing. He just wanted someone to sit with him as he unloaded his burden of guilt and shame.

Now he’s caught up again in gangs, and this time he’s facing a prison sentence of at least 5 years. He may be in his 30s the next time he walks free.

For Vi, Tu’s story is too familiar, and very close to home. Vi knows that, as a teenager who worked on the streets alone, he too could easily have followed the path that Tu is now going down.

Vi Do meeting with homeless teens in Hanoi.

In some ways Vi was just lucky. Even though he was a street kid, he had a family back in the countryside who loved him very much. He had a community of people from his village who were also living and working in Hanoi. And he met Blue Dragon before he was on the streets for very long.

All these factors were out of Vi’s control, but along the way he also made some good decisions that kept him out of too much trouble. Now, he can see that the teens who come to Hanoi and end up homeless or working on the streets are in need of that same family support, community and social assistance that got him through the very difficult days he experienced as a teenager.

These girls and boys come from all around Vietnam – from north to south – and come for all kinds of reasons. But they all face the same dangers when they get here, and Vi wants nothing more than to be their shield to keep them safe.

This morning he’ll be checking the newspapers once again, and tonight he’ll be back on the streets with his outreach team, looking to see who needs a helping hand.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation meets and assists 12 – 20 new homeless children every month.

Be

Sometimes it’s hard to see
Who you’re gonna be
So be the young, the brave, the powerful

– James Blunt, “The Greatest”

Ngoc hears a voice, and holds his breath.

He can’t see anything through the blanket that covers him. He feels the breath of Tam sleeping beside him; and no matter the noise from around them, nothing will ever wake Tam.

The voice calls again and Ngoc pulls the blanket from his face.

At first he sees the vast concrete bridge above him, the discarded bathtub beside him. Then he sees the young man kneeling at his feet, calling softly. A friendly face, but a stranger. And a stranger is always a threat.

Ngoc came to the city last year to find a job. At first everything worked out great, but his boss kept delaying his salary. Finally it became clear he was never going to get paid, and when he raised his voice, he was fired.

Now he’s sleeping under a bridge, ashamed to tell his family that he has nothing to show for his months away from home. Every noise startles him. Even when he wakes, he’s exhausted. Fear is a heavy burden to shoulder, and the shame he carries feels like rocks shackled to his feet.

Ngoc never thought of himself as a homeless person. He’s not a street kid. He has a family, a village up in the mountains. At home he is the funny guy. He jokes with his mates. He talks to the village leader as an equal, looks after the ducks in his spare time, enjoys the solace and the silliness of his feathered friends.

How can he let his parents know that he failed? That he’s sleeping on dirt with no money in his pocket? That he’s afraid of everything around him? This wasn’t what he dreamt about as a child.

It’s now mid afternoon on a cold and rainy Saturday, and the man waking him is offering warm food and a place to stay. He’s a social worker, scanning the streets for young people like Ngoc. Is this finally a chance for escape from the sleepless terror of having nothing and nobody? Is this the moment that will light a path for Ngoc to return to his family, where he is loved and safe?

The life of street kids in Hanoi – and in every town and city around the planet – is harder than any of us can appreciate unless we have been there ourselves. At Blue Dragon, half our Street Outreach team were once homeless themselves, just like the social worker who met Ngoc on Saturday.

Children in our world aren’t homeless because of a lack of resources. There’s more than enough to go around.

Sometimes it’s abuse or neglect that forces them to the streets. Other times, it’s not much more than a sequence of bad luck or misfortune.

But it shouldn’t happen. It doesn’t need to happen. It’s simply not right.

Ngoc and his friend Tam are going to be OK. Blue Dragon has met them and can help them get home.

Over the coming days and nights we’ll spend time with them, helping them work through their fears and keeping them safe until they are ready to return to their families. And once they’re back in their village we can keep helping so they get the education and training they need, and then a good job where they won’t be exploited again.

Every child, every person, needs someone willing to stand up for them. It’s not only for governments or for charities to make a difference. This is something we all can do: be the helping hand that we would wish for ourselves. The shoulder to cry on. The understanding smile on the hardest of days.

We don’t have to be overwhelmed by all the world’s hardships. We can start where we are, play our small part, reach out to the person before us. Be the change we wish to see, as someone once said.

Imagine what our world could be.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.