Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Younger, more destructive

Hieu* first came to Blue Dragon 3 years ago, aged 12.

He had run away from an unhappy home in the countryside. Both of his parents had died and he was being raised by uncles who resented him. Everything Hieu did seemed to turn out bad. Nobody believed in him, so he gave them what they expected. He stole from them, dropped out of school, and eventually left to live on the streets of Hanoi.

Once in the big city, Hieu drifted. He met Blue Dragon's Outreach Workers one night, and spent some time in our emergency accommodation before we helped him contact his family again. But it didn't work out. Shortly after, Hieu was arrested and sent to reform school for a series of petty thefts.

Despite that, we believed in Hieu. He was a good kid. His theft was not from people, but of unused items in a public park. Even though he was doing the wrong thing, he was careful that he didn't hurt anybody.

Hieu spent 18 months in the reform school, and we stayed in as close contact as we could. When he was released, he visited us briefly, but then vanished.

We learned later that Hieu had been caught up with some extremely unsavoury characters: a group of adults here in Hanoi who were exploiting street boys. The moment we offered Hieu a way out, he accepted immediately. He's been with us ever since.

Hieu's story is not unusual. Lots of the Blue Dragon boys have similar stories.This is why, during May and June, we appealed for donations to expand our crisis work.

But Hieu's story is far from over at the moment he accepts our help. Far, far from over.

Hieu, and the many children like him who we meet, have a long road ahead to recover. Some never do.

From what I have seen, there are 3 noticeable phases that the kids go through shortly after they come in to live at Blue Dragon.

First, they become younger. Physically, they change. Years drop away from their faces. It's an extraordinary thing to see. A month or two after Hieu moved in to the Blue Dragon shelter, he looked a couple of years younger than his actual age. And psychologically the kids go through a transformation. These street-wise, hard-living tough guys start to laugh, play with toys, and in so many ways start behaving like children half their age.It's not unusual to spot them sitting on the floor of our drop-in centre cuddling soft toys.

This can take weeks or months. But it doesn't last.

Next, the kids start reflecting on what they've been through. They wonder about who they are. Being at Blue is great - but why aren't they with their families? The love and care they receive from our staff becomes a painful contrast with what they should have from their own relatives.

The kids go through a period of self-destruction. They test us meticulously. Will we still care for them if they steal this bicycle? Will we kick them out when we catch them carrying a knife? How will we react when they don't come home for a few nights? Will we notice the swear words they have carved into their arm with a razor?

Sometimes their behaviour becomes dangerous. Sometimes they start to cut themselves and burn their own skin with cigarettes. They get into destructive relationships and won't listen to anyone - until it all falls apart.

Just how long this phase lasts, and how bad it gets, depends largely on the children themselves. Blue Dragon's role through this can be to guide, discipline, and counsel; and as a last resort, we may assign one staff member to simply be the 'anchor' who keeps up the relationship with the child while they go wild. At times I have served as the anchor for a couple of kids, but mostly this is a job for our younger local staff who have great relationships with the kids and really know how to 'get through' to them.

Being the anchor for a child who is going through this phase can mean meeting up at cafes, or on the street; it can mean staying in touch over Facebook or by phone. It takes a little creativity, a very thick skin, and a truck load of patience.

When kids get to the end of this phase of self-destruction, that's when their lives have finally turned a corner. The third and (hopefully) final phase is one of stability. But it's not always a straight-line progression - sometimes kids will lapse back into self destruction for a little while - and it also doesn't mean the kids grow angel wings. Some do. Some don't. But that's not the point. Rather, the goal is that they work out for themselves who they are, and feel comfortable with their identity.

That's where Hieu is at the moment. He's just coming out of his phase of self destruction. He's an incredibly bright kid, with a strong sense of empathy. He's finding it difficult to accept that he has no loving family outside of Blue Dragon, and I suspect he will always struggle with that. Hieu is a deep thinker.

I wish I could say that the kids have fairy tale endings when they meet Blue Dragon. They don't. For many, their first meeting with us is only the start of a long and difficult road. But that road to self acceptance and understanding is worth going down, and we are proud of the many fine young people who have walked that road with us.

* Nope, that's not his real name, and identifying information has been changed.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Street kids have family, too

On Sunday morning, almost 100 adults - aged from the mid 20s through to the early 80s - gathered on the rooftop of Dragon House.

These are the parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties, and foster parents of Blue Dragon kids in Hanoi. It's often forgotten, and sometimes overlooked, but street kids have families too.

When Blue Dragon was starting out, back in early 2003, our biggest mistake was in failing to connect with the families. We met kids on the streets, and we worked directly with them. We certainly had some success, but there was always something missing, and it took us some time to work out what that was.

Our first lesson was that we could be far more effective if we had the support of the children's families. And so we began including them in discussions and decisions, which was often hard to do because they tended to live outside of the city while their children had migrated in to Hanoi. Our volunteers and staff spent a lot of time taking public buses out to rural villages.

And then came our second lesson. We were more effective still if we supported the children's parents - and not the other way around. To answer the question "How can we help this child?" we had to respond with another question altogether: "What does this child's family need?"

Of course, it's rarely so simple. We currently work with hundreds of children in Hanoi, and yet only 100 family members joined in today's meeting. Not all families want to be involved. Some are very open about not wanting their children. Occasionally we meet families who ask the police to take their kids to reform school - a kind of 2-year detention camp - just to take them off their hands.

Even in those cases, though, family is important. With care and effort, we are often able to reunite children with their families, and encourage parents to understand their children's needs. For those kids who simply cannot be reunited with their family, we have long term shelters where they can live while they study or find jobs. In a very real way, Blue Dragon becomes their family.

Family members enjoying a game - grown ups can have fun, too!

Families are important, but for some Blue Dragon kids families represent an unattainable dream. We'll continue working closely with family members whenever we can, and we'll be there for those who just don't have a loving family to care for them.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Saturday morning started with a phone call.

An 18 year old Vietnamese girl had crossed the border from China, handed over by Chinese authorities who found her bleeding and screaming for help on the streets. The girl, "Thuy," was frantic and in great pain, but her story was not immediately clear. By now we've been able to piece most of it together.

In October 2011, Thuy was lured from her home by a friend offering her a well paying job in China. Aged 16, Thuy believed she had been offered a great opportunity. She would sell clothes in a shop not far from the border, earn a great income, and easily be able to visit her home in northern Vietnam from time to time.

But once across the border, there was no clothes shop. Instead, Thuy was taken inland and sold to a brothel. We don't yet know much about where she was, or exactly what happened; but Thuy was now a sex slave, unable to escape or call for help.

A few nights ago, however, Thuy took a chance. It was 4am, and she believed she could make a run for it. She took to the streets, running blindly, but within minutes was tackled by 3 of the Chinese brothel keepers. They attacked her with knives and then, as far as we can tell, stuffed some kind of drug into her wounds, and left her. Presumably they thought she would soon be dead.

Some locals witnessed this and called the police, who promptly got her to a hospital.

Yesterday Thuy was handed over to the Vietnamese police. She is in a very fragile state now, and we're just starting to put the pieces together to work out where he family is. It seems her mother has long been gone, so we are trying to find her father.

Safe in the border area, Thuy awaits reunion with her family

Thuy is much calmer now, and staying in the care of Blue Dragon. In coming days we'll assist her to make a statement to the police, go out to her home town to locate her family, and take her to hospital to treat her wounds. We can do all that pretty easily. But the hard part will be what cannot be seen: dealing with the extraordinary psychological trauma that this teenager is now facing.