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.

Behind the story

Coping with trauma and crisis, a 14 year old street kid finds hope for the future.

The first time I saw him, Tan was standing alone on a street staring into nothing.

He was down the road from the Blue Dragon centre, and everything about him signaled a child in distress. His face showed no expression; his shoulders slumped forward. His arms hung limply by his side.

Just 14 years old, Tan had been neglected and abandoned by his family, forcing him to leave home. Once on the streets of Hanoi, he was abused repeatedly by pedophiles who traded him like an object.

Street kids in Vietnam, living under a bridge.

Once he was with Blue Dragon, Tan’s healing took years of care, counselling, and legal representation to find justice against those who had harmed him. Today he is a very different young man to the boy I first saw on the street. He has a job and a circle of great friends; he has started rebuilding the relationship with his parents; and his eyes shine with hope and joy.

Last week, Tan joined in Blue Dragon’s annual Tet celebration, called Tet Awards; we shared some photos of this on Facebook on Sunday. We hold this party for children in the lead-up to Lunar New Year, and many of our ‘old’ boys and girls come back to see us.

Tet Awards is one of the few big events we hold; our work is much more focused on dealing with day to day crisis than with organising ceremonies and parties.

In fact, Tan inspired the creation of this very blog at a Tet Awards party several years ago. Looking out over the crowd and thinking how much his own life had changed since he met Blue Dragon, Tan shared his astute reflection: Life is a long story.

For kids like Tan, this annual event has a significance beyond it being a great night. Dressing up, meeting old friends and enjoying hours of singing and dancing takes the kids away from the hardships of their daily lives.

The delightful chaos and laughter of a children’s party will never replace the need for long-term care, shelter, legal advocacy and psychological therapy. But a moment to forget the pain and turn instead to friendship and the simple joys of life is a precious moment indeed.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis while advocating for greater legal protections and policies. You can read more of Tan’s story and how we changed Vietnamese law to protect boys here.

Old Boys, New Year

A year-end wedding brought together a crowd of Blue Dragon ‘old boys’, whose journey reminds us that there are always better days to come.

Blue Dragon’s year finished with a wedding.

This was a particularly joyful event, with kids and staff heading out to the countryside to take part in the ceremony. The groom was a Blue Dragon staff member, and not only that; he is one of our ‘Old Boys’.

Diep was one of the original Blue Dragon boys back in 2002, when we were just beginning. He came to the weekly football games for street kids and joined the English classes, and then headed out to the streets where he worked shining shoes.

He was only 14, but he carried the burden of supporting his family who lived in poverty. They couldn’t afford to send him to school, so he volunteered to go and work in the city.

When we opened our first shelter, in 2003, Diep was one of the 6 teens who lived there. When he was old enough, he started working in a restaurant. Within a few years he returned to Blue Dragon as staff to help look after the children we were caring for.

Diep in 2003, with a friend.

He’s been on the social work team ever since, assisting street kids and helping to run the weekly football games that still take place (over 3,000 games so far!). Diep has a quiet, gentle way about him that makes children feel safe and cared for.

His wedding on the final weekend of 2020 was a cause of great celebration. And of course, many attendees were young men who had been a part of Blue Dragon at the time Diep was ‘one of the kids’.

Diep and his wife Chuyen at their wedding, December 2020.

All are in the late 20s and early 30s now. Most are married and some have children of their own. Their lives are in stark contrast to when we first met them, working on the streets of Hanoi hoping to make enough money to get through each day. Most survived by shining the shoes of strangers for a few cents.

Tuan was there; he flew up from southern Vietnam where he works as a chef. Binh has his own bakery. Hiep runs an electrical repair business, which is booming. Kieu owns a pizza and pasta restaurant. Nam is an executive chef for a large company. Thinh has a motorbike mechanic shop. Doan runs a building supplies company. Vi is a manager at Blue Dragon. Tinh has a mobile telephone shop. Duong works as a welder.

Each was a street kid at one time. Each has found his own way in life. For some, it took years of assistance from Blue Dragon to get them there. Others needed just a small boost to get them back to their family or back to school, and then they were on their way.

These occasions when they reunite and celebrate the success of ‘one of their own’ really are joyful days. Blue Dragon has grown and changed a lot since then; we now work with girls and boys around the country, and have expanded our scope to help people escape human trafficking.

But our vision of giving young people the care, assistance, and resources to overcome their hardship and build the life that they choose remains exactly the same.

At the end of a very difficult year, Diep and Chuyen’s wedding was the perfect way to finish off 2020.

Seeing all the ‘old boys’ gathered together served as a reminder that no matter the difficulties we face today, there is always hope for a better tomorrow.

The new year has arrived, so let’s get started on creating the ‘better tomorrow’ that we are all dreaming of.

Blue Dragon rescues children and young people in crisis.

Being kids

The Blue Dragon kids, along with much of Vietnam and the world, have been through some especially difficult times of late. So this weekend, we took the opportunity to have some fun.

In case you missed it, this weekend was Halloween.

It might seem an unlikely celebration for Vietnam, but in cities and towns across the country, people were dressing up and decorating their homes and their shops with all the familiar ‘spooky’ imagery.

The past month has been a difficult few weeks in a terrible year. The central provinces of Vietnam have been hit by storm after storm, causing floods and landslides and damage to tens of thousands of homes.

And it’s not over yet. One more storm is expected to hit on Wednesday. Reports are calling it “the world’s strongest storm so far this year.

Blue Dragon’s work is always about resolving crisis. This year, coronavirus and the floods have added to the complexity of life for people who are already in crisis, already struggling, already trying to cope with abuse and exploitation.

So when Halloween came onto the horizon, we knew what we had to do.

Throw a party.

In the end, for all the crisis and hardship, kids have to be kids. Fun and play shouldn’t be luxuries for children; they are essentials.

And the Blue Dragon kids know how to have a party. They painted a huge banner, organized a talent competition – “Blue Dragon’s Next Top Zombie” – and spent the whole afternoon dressing up and painting their faces.

We’re all still mourning the loss of My, one of our young women who died in an accident just over a week ago. We’re doing all we can to get aid to flood victims, and help families repair their homes before the next storm hits. And our work of rescuing victims of trafficking and finding homeless children continues.

But for a few glorious hours, the girls and boys at the Blue Dragon centre could put all their woes aside and just be kids, having silly, playful fun.

Sometimes, we all need to do exactly that.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

A leader in the making

There’s really only one good thing about a crisis. It shows us who we really are.

Do we rise to the occasion, or fall into a heap? Do we keep smiling and working toward better days, or do we give up and expect the worst?

For 19 year-old Viet, this global crisis has been his turn to shine.

Not that he knows it. Not that he was looking for it. But a teenager who was living under a bridge just a few months ago, with a metal bar tucked away for protection, is now playing an important role in how Blue Dragon faces the COVID-19 pandemic.

Late in 2019, Australian Masterchef Adam Liaw met Viet under a bridge in Hanoi. Liaw was with SBS Dateline, learning about what life is like for homeless young people in Vietnam. This short clip shows the extraordinary hardship of Viet’s life at that time. And yet, he was stoic and accepting.

Viet has long known Blue Dragon. Sometimes he lives with us, and sometimes he wanders back to the streets when he needs the open sky and the space to be alone.

Shortly after filming, Blue Dragon helped Viet find work on a farm outside the city, where he loved getting his hands dirty, building with stone and bamboo and farming the fields. It was not only great for Viet: most of that food ended up on the plates of children back at the Blue Dragon centre in Hanoi.

Viet at work on the farm

And then the coronavirus started making headlines. As it spread through China and then the world, a crisis enveloped us all.

Blue Dragon has continued working through these months. The children and families in our care are reliant on us at a time like this. They are girls and boys who have been trafficked and sold; children who have escaped violence at home and made their way to the city, only to face exploitation and further abuse.

Caring for so many children is a challenge while schools are closed, public events cancelled, and now all non-essential businesses shut. At the very same time that Blue Dragon’s work has become even more critical for the welfare of children, the nature of this global crisis has meant that donations are drying up and resources are more limited.

And so, many of the Blue Dragon children from our Hanoi centre have moved out to the farm with Viet to be in a safe and healthy environment. They’re helping in the fields a few hours and in their free time they enjoy swimming in the dam or just being in nature. In the evening the kids do their school study online and group activities. 

In this way, they’re safe from the spread of the virus in Hanoi, and able to contribute to Blue Dragon and their own wellbeing at the same time. Had they stayed in Hanoi, they would be largely locked into homes with little to do all day or at high risk of being exposed to the virus if still on the streets with no safe place to stay. 

Suddenly, Viet’s knowledge and experience is tremendously valuable. As the number of other teens on the farm has grown, Viet has quietly stepped into a role of supporting everyone to know their way around, to know what needs to be done, and to know how to cope with the inevitable challenges.

Viet has taken on the special role of being responsible for keeping the farm equipment. Every evening his job is to make sure the hoes and the shovels are back in place; the wheelbarrows are clean; and all the gloves are dry and dirt-free.

What Viet is doing is important. He has a purpose, and he’s passionate about farming. He has the respect of everyone around him.

Has he blossomed into a flawless leader? Of course not. This is no fairytale. Viet is still struggling with his own past trauma and has much to learn in his new leadership role.

But he is learning, and he’s making the most of a very bad situation. Right now, Viet is needed as a leader: and a leader he has become.

Your help is needed to keep essential services going for Viet and children like him. If you can donate the cost of a couple of cups of coffee a month, please consider joining Dragon Wings, an online community of people giving monthly for this important work. Thank you!