This is what it’s all about

After a terrifying year enslaved in a brothel, Linh is home. Her rescue reminds us that there is much we can do to end human trafficking.

For a few moments, 13-month-old Bi looked mystified as he stared at the woman before him. She was both familiar and foreign, leaving him lost in a haze of confusion.

But as she held him to her body and cried his name, understanding dawned on Bi’s face. This was his mother.

Linh and Bi, reunited.

Bi’s mother Linh left their home in southern Vietnam almost a year ago.

She didn’t want to leave her son but felt that she had no choice. Her little boy, then just 3 months old, was growing fast and Linh knew that she needed an income. In their quiet village in the Mekong delta, there were no factories or businesses with jobs on offer. So she set out to find work further afield, leaving Bi with his grandmother.

Linh just wanted to earn enough so that she could send money home each month for her mother and her child to survive.

Thinking that she was on her way to northern Vietnam for a job in a restaurant, she was instead trafficked to Myanmar and sold into a brothel. For almost a year, life was a constant hell. The only thing that sustained her through the pain and terror she endured was the hope that she could hold her child again one day.

Blue Dragon went in search of Linh. Following a complex operation, we brought her home last week, along with other women who had suffered similar fates at the hands of the traffickers.

Home again

Most likely, Bi will grow up remembering neither his year without a mother nor the day she returned home. But the pain of separation and the joy of their reunion is certainly something that Linh will never forget.

Blue Dragon has rescued more than 1,500 people from places of slavery: brothels, sweatshops, forced “marriages” and forced labor. We’ve brought home people who were tortured, shot, operated upon, raped and beaten.

While it’s the rescue that seems most dramatic, it’s the moment of reunion that is the most powerful.

Some journeys home end with tears of devastating grief. There are people we’ve rescued who were away for many years and returned to find their parents have died, never knowing what fate befell their missing child.

Some journeys end in shock, like the teen we rescued who had no idea she was pregnant with twins.

And some journeys end with the true joy of a family reunited, of hope restored.

Life is a long story and continues well beyond the rescue operation.

The children, women and men we bring home invariably struggle with trauma, feelings of shame and the hardship caused by months and years lost to slavery. But by far, most go on to write their own story of survival. Some pick up where they left off while others start over anew.

Perhaps the deepest cruelty of human trafficking is that it denies its victims the control of their own life, their own story. People in slavery have little agency over their day to day; “tomorrow” is beyond imagination.

Right now, there are so many more people awaiting rescue. We must find them and bring them home, while at the same time doing all we can to end human trafficking forever.

To see Linh back with her family, once again the author of her own story, is what drives us on to do this work.

In a world where the news is filled daily with stories and images of tragedy out of our control, this is something that we can do.

If you can, please consider a gift to Blue Dragon’s urgent appeal. All funds raised will go toward operations to rescue people trapped in slavery.

Will this ever get better?

Trinh feared she would never see her family again. Today, she is safely home. What can we do to end this crisis once and for all?

On Saturday morning, Trinh walked across the border back to Vietnam.

It was a long journey home for the 31-year-old. Almost a year ago, she was trafficked to Myanmar and sold into a brothel: a violent, terrifying place where she believed she would surely die.

Trinh had the courage and good fortune to one day be able to call for help. This set in motion Blue Dragon’s rescue operation which came to fruition on the weekend when she finally reached her homeland.

Trinh on the journey from Myanmar to Vietnam.

The path home was long and dangerous. Trinh and the rescue team crossed rivers and jungles, taking boats, motorbikes and buses to escape danger and make it home safely.

And Trinh’s rescue isn’t the only one we’ve been working on. As I write this, we have 8 more operations underway, bringing home a total of 17 more people.

As we complete them, new operations will begin immediately.

Calls for help

Blue Dragon is on track this year to rescue from slavery double the number of people we rescued in 2020. That’s a rapid and deeply worrying growth in the need for our services.

So we’ve just launched an emergency appeal, asking friends around the world to donate to this work.

The problem is: We did the same thing last year.

Does this mean we’ll be calling for urgent help like this every year?

I want to believe that the answer is ‘no’. Looking forward, there’s hope that this crisis in human trafficking will eventually peak and recede. I shared my thoughts on why I remain optimistic in this post just a few weeks ago.

But I also know that human trafficking isn’t a problem that will disappear any time soon. While Blue Dragon is working on a big picture initiative to reduce its incidence across Vietnam, we know that it will take a long-term effort to really make a difference.

And as a charity, the only way we can make anything happen is by asking for support from the global community.

All of which means that we may well be calling again for urgent help. Not because we want to, but because that’s the only way we can respond to the children, women and men in slavery who are desperate for someone to rescue them.

As we rescue, we’ll keep on working to strengthen communities so that people are safe from being trafficked in the first place.

We have to believe that one day this work will be over. When there’s no more need to rescue another person, Blue Dragon’s job will be done.

Thank you to all who have already donated. If you can, please consider a gift to Blue Dragon’s urgent appeal.

Where are we now?

Human trafficking and slavery continue to take new forms, constantly staying a step ahead of attempts to keep people safe. Is there any light at the end of this tunnel?

It’s been a few months since I wrote my last post.

What’s changed since then? Nothing. And everything. All of it.

Blue Dragon’s rescues continue. Continue to grow in number, continue to grow in urgency. That’s not new.

But the numbers calling for help are new. In the second half of 2023, we rescued 7 times the number of people we rescued in the first half. Looking ahead to the coming months, those numbers are still growing.

Crossing a river during a rescue operation.

And the urgency of every call is beyond what we’ve seen before. Messages are coming to us along the lines of:

“Please help my sister, she is in Myanmar and the trafficker plans to take her kidneys.”

“I am desperate. All night I hear bombs and gunfire. I don’t want to keep living.”

“Send help, please! We are being tortured. They used an electric prod on me and now I cannot walk.”

Trafficking in all its forms is horrible, but these new levels of barbarism are shocking nonetheless.

So is there any hope at all?

When talking about human trafficking, I’m always careful of two things. First, I never exaggerate how bad things are. This includes sharing rumours or speculating. And second, I never give false hope when there’s really none to be had.

But despite all of these developments, I do believe there’s still hope. There’s light at the end of this tunnel.

Life is getting harder for the traffickers who are luring people into Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, where they are violently enslaved and forced to scam people online.

People are hearing about their tricks and are less likely to fall for them.

International pressure is causing some of these scam operations, which have enslaved over 200,000 people in south-east Asia alone, to close.

Police from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos have been pursuing the criminals behind the trafficking and scams, reportedly arresting thousands of people involved.

And rebel armies in northern Myanmar have sworn to shut the scams down as they take control of new territory.

Although the situation right now is worse than it’s ever been, we’re seeing signs that maybe, just maybe, the tide is starting to turn.

I hope I’m not speaking too soon. But it’s definitely too soon to give up hope.

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

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.

Mother

A life of hardship and tragedy could not stop Vy from dreaming that she would one day have a family of her own.

Vy has lived a hard life.

She’s always been poor. She has usually been unemployed. And in recent years, she has been homeless.

But there’s something else that she has always wanted to be:

A mother.

Collecting scrap on the streets with her partner, Vy shares the same dream that we all share: a happy future with people she loves. So the first time she fell pregnant, she was delighted and hopeful that brighter days were ahead.

When she lost her baby in a miscarriage, she was devastated. And more than a year later when she was pregnant again, a second miscarriage seemed to spell the end of her dreams.

Blue Dragon met Vy in January when Help Hanoi’s Homeless, an awesome local volunteer association, contacted us. Normally Blue Dragon focuses our attention on people who have been trafficked and street children; supporting homeless pregnant women is a little outside our regular work.

But Vy’s situation was dire. 38 weeks pregnant and living on the streets, she was unsafe and unwell. And the risk of a third miscarriage was just too great.

Working with the volunteers, we rented Vy a room and supplied her with some basic needs to see her through. Seeing the mix of joy and fear in her eyes was heartbreaking. Vy’s final weeks of pregnancy were filled with both hope and dread. She faced every day wanting nothing more than to have the chance to be a mother, and hold her baby in her arms.

This is a story with a happy ending. Vy’s dream has come true. Her baby girl was born safely in hospital. Ha Chi has every chance of leading a healthy, happy life. Vy is over the moon.

Vy’s newborn girl, Ha Chi.

Now that she has a child, Vy doesn’t want to work on the streets any more. We’ve helped her stay stable through these first months while Vy’s partner starts in a regular job and begins earning an income. We’re also helping to get a birth certificate for the baby; Vy is from southern Vietnam, so needs some extra help to make that journey and get the paper work done.

Of course, Vy’s story isn’t over. It isn’t always easy for people who have experienced years of homelessness to return to a more stable life. But this is what Vy wants and has fought for; and more than anything, she wants to give Ha Chi the life that she wishes she had had.

Vy may have been through a lot in life, but she’s going to be a wonderful mother.

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.

Glimmer

After 21 years in slavery, Duong is home. How can anyone survive such an experience?

Duong was 17 when she was trafficked from Vietnam to China and sold into slavery.

That was 21 years ago, but she remembers every detail like it was just last week.

Her rescue last month and her return to her home in Nghe An province a few days ago seem almost miraculous. Her family believed that she was long dead; after so many years of absence, they never thought they would see their daughter again.

Duong and her mother, reunited after 21 years in slavery.
Duong and her mother, reunited.

It was a joyful reunion, but Duong’s homecoming was shrouded with sadness. Her parents have divorced. Her younger brother died in an accident. Her grandmother passed away.

So many major milestones and events that she has missed – that she’s known nothing of until now. The home she is returning to is not the home that she was taken from two decades previously.

During 2020, Blue Dragon has seen a marked increase in the rescues and repatriations of women who were trafficked long ago – 10 and 20 years ago, or more.

It bends the mind to imagine that any person could live so long in slavery. How can it be?

While every case is different, there are some similarities that help us understand how Duong could survive so long and still dream of returning home.

On first being trafficked and enslaved, any person will put up a fight – they know it is a fight for their lives. Some will succeed and find a way back to freedom quickly. Others, like Duong, will be beaten and tortured until the hope of escape seems a fantasy.

Many in that situation learn to live with their horrific new reality. If they’ve been sold as a bride, they might have children and raise them, seeing them through school and into adulthood. They might become friendly with their captor and genuinely have moments of happiness as the years go by.

But in every case that Blue Dragon has seen, no matter how much time passes, there remains a glimmer of hope.

The woman or man may adapt and grow familiar with the life they have been sold into. They may appear to enjoy life. But the dream of freedom never dies.

So it was with Duong. After 21 years in slavery, she has lived longer in captivity in China than she has had freedom in Vietnam. There is so much of her story that she has not told yet, and maybe never will.

But she kept that glimmer of hope alive, and today she is in her family home, in her mother’s arms, where she has always wanted to be.

And that’s why the rescue of trafficked people continues to be such urgent and vital work. Right now, there is one more person keeping alive the hope that someone will come to take them home after years in slavery. One more person dreaming that they too will be back with their family.

Let’s not fail them.

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

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.

Yesterday’s normal

What can we learn from this coronavirus pandemic to create a better future for our world?

We’ve all been in isolation for – how long now?

At this point we’re all thinking about the end of lockdown and social distancing. We just want it to be over and for life to get back to normal.

But… do we really? Is yesterday’s normal something that we aspire to?

Or do we dare to ask: Could we do better?

There will be many discussions about how we should shape the future as we recover from COVID-19. Today I want to share my thoughts on the lessons we can take from this global crisis, because what we learn is critical in deciding what we will do next.

Lesson 1: The most important people are often the least recognized.

Who has been out on the frontline of this crisis? Nurses, teachers, journalists, doctors, cleaners, social workers, couriers, ambulance drivers, shopkeepers… Some of these people are well paid and many are not. They’re all people who serve others in one way or another. In some countries, these jobs are likely filled by immigrants. They’re also more likely to be women.

As we work our way out of this crisis, these people cannot be forgotten. The structural inequality that rewards some and leaves others in poverty, despite how vital they are to a functioning society, has to be addressed.

Lesson 2: Everyone has something to offer.

When we’re all equally in trouble, the normal power imbalances among us become blurred. As I wrote some weeks ago, a boy who has been living under a bridge suddenly assumed the role of an important leader among the kids at Blue Dragon. And this weekend, one of the Blue Dragon ‘old boys’ who is now a (temporarily unemployed) hairdresser offered to go to the shelters and give free haircuts for everyone. His wife is 8 months pregnant, but he doesn’t want any payment – this is a gift that he wants to contribute.

On a global level, Vietnam made headlines this week for donating more than half a million facemasks to Europe. Normally the recipient of aid, Vietnam found that it has been able to give to others who usually aren’t in need, but now are.

We too easily categorise each other – and ourselves – by the strengths we see on display in everyday life. But a crisis reveals the strengths we may have never even known existed. Let’s not forget these as we rebuild in coming months.

Lesson 3: We can rise to any occasion.

You may have seen the heartwarming clips of Italians singing from their balconies during the worst of their lockdown. Then a German community raised their voice in solidarity. And around the world, the joy spread.

There have been more practical displays of communities making the most of their struggles. Here in Vietnam, volunteers have set up free ‘rice ATMs’ so that families without enough can simply go and get the rice they need, no questions asked.

Right now, life is hard. And the response from people the world over shows that when we act as a community, we can face even the greatest challenges.

Lesson 4: People are wonderful.

As a charity, all of us at Blue Dragon have been worried about the future. Calls for our help have increased significantly, but a global crisis inevitably means that resources will be more scarce.

Through these terribly dark times, I have received so much encouragement and support from people, many of whom I have never even met. One person wrote to say that if we had any urgent needs, I could just ask. Slightly embarrassed, I wrote back to say that actually yes, we do indeed have some families who are desperate… and within minutes I had an assurance of a donation to help.

Others have not been in a position to help but have taken the time to write and let me know. One amazing person told me how she’s been knitting and making baby swaddles for new mothers who are doing it tough. How beautiful is that?

I could fill the blog with similar stories. It feels like the generosity and kindness of people around the world has somehow blossomed in the midst of all the sorrow and hardship.

Lesson 5: There is always hope.

I’m not trying to sugarcoat this situation or ignore the reality. The world is in a mess. For many millions of people, there’s not going to be a quick recovery and the coming months are going to be bleak.

And yes, I could equally write about the displays of selfishness we’ve seen on the news: the hoarding, the breaching of rules which have been implemented for our own wellbeing, the leaders who have told citizens to do one thing while they go off and do another.

But the displays of exceptional goodness that we can see far outweigh these. We’re seeing communities, cities, and even nations rally together in ways that we rarely do. We see people sacrificing themselves, going to work even knowing the dangers, to help others.

If we can do all this in the face of a global pandemic, then we can it when times are more stable.

We will get through this difficult time. And we have a chance to consider who we want to be, what sort of world we want to live in. We don’t have to revert to yesterday’s normal.

Let’s learn from what has happened and take the chance that’s before us.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis. We are continuing to work throughout the coronavirus pandemic to rescue victims of human trafficking and get street children to safety.