Lesser known heroes

Young people who lived through homelessness and slavery are giving back by working with Blue Dragon. But their stories are rarely told.

I’m almost asleep when my phone buzzes to life.

It’s Cuong, one of the Blue Dragon “old boys”.

Sometimes our older kids, now with jobs and families of their own, get in touch to ask for help. Sometimes they just want to stay in touch or catch up for a meal.

Cuong’s call is for a different reason. He tells me that he’s on his way to the Blue Dragon shelter with a 14-year-old boy he has just met, sleeping rough on the city streets.

A former street kid (left, in the cap) accompanies a homeless boy to a Blue Dragon shelter.

Cuong works in a cafe and often delivers drinks or meals to customers. A former street kid, he has a keen eye for children hiding in the shadows and knows when somebody is in danger.

He didn’t choose to follow a career in social work and he doesn’t want people to know his history of escaping an abusive family and living under a bridge until Blue Dragon met him. But he wants to help however he can; it’s his way of giving back.

East v West

To a western way of thinking, Cuong can be proud of his journey. He has overcome incredible hardship, beaten the odds, to make something of his life. He’s a fine young man and has no reason to be ashamed.

However, Cuong sees it differently. He fears that people will judge him for coming from such a place of disadvantage. Perhaps people won’t trust him. And he knows that no girl’s parents would want their daughter to marry a former street kid.

Cuong’s way of thinking is not unusual among the Blue Dragon community. Young people who were trafficked, enslaved, abandoned and exploited rarely want others to know what they have been through.

This is more of an “eastern” way of thinking, if I dare to generalise so broadly.

Success stories

Blue Dragon’s co-CEO Vi Do is a well known “success story.” He was once a shoeshine boy on Hanoi’s streets and now, along with Skye Maconachie, shares the senior leadership of the organisation.

But throughout Blue Dragon, there are many staff who also have the “lived experience” of being a street kid, or surviving human trafficking; and most are unwilling to share their story with the world. So of course, we respect that. Their story is their own to keep or to share as they choose.

And then there are those like Cuong, who go out into the world to work and live independently, but keep finding ways to come back to Blue Dragon.

Several of our “old boys” work alongside staff at night on the streets as outreach workers. Their job is to go to places where homeless children might gather and offer assistance.

Our “old girls” similarly get involved as volunteers while they study and into their careers.

Each does this work out of their desire to help others, as they were once helped; and they entrust us to keep their stories confidential.

Survivors as leaders

Within the anti-trafficking sector is a wonderful movement to give survivors of trafficking more voice. “Survivor leadership” has recently emerged as a topic of much discussion.

This concept of “leadership” can take many forms. In some places, it means ensuring that survivors of trafficking have more opportunities to take on roles as advocates and public figures.

In Vietnam, it often takes a quieter, more discrete form. Those who have lived through exploitation and want to give back are more likely to assume leadership roles within their peer group or family – or their extended community, such as at Blue Dragon – than on a public stage.

Young people like Cuong are indeed “survivor leaders” even though the world may never know.

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