Happy children at the Blue Dragon’s Children Foundation

After being six weeks in Hanoi and flooded with work, I finally found the time last week to visit one Hanoi’s NGO. I met with Trịnh Thanh Hiếu, Communications Officer at the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, in their headquarters in Hanoi.

Started in 2003, Blue Dragon is an Australian charity that works with children in crisis. Blue Dragon kids are street kids, children with disabilities, children from rural families living in extreme poverty, and victims of human trafficking and slavery. In Hanoi, Blue Dragon has established a day care centre for street children, which I could visit and was really impressed with.

Who are the Blue Dragon kids?

The day care centre of Blue Dragon is a place to go for children that live or work on the street, or live in difficult family situations. In Vietnam, the trafficking of children and women remains an issue, but not all children have been forced away from home.

Read article about trafficking in Vietnam here

A lot of the children coming to the day centre do have families in Hanoi, which with they live, but the family situation is sometimes so difficult that the kids need a place to go, a place where they get a meal, can talk to social workers and play with friends. Some of the children used to work on the street, mostly selling stuff, or in restaurants. Some children also ran away from home, due to drug addiction and violence in their families, most come from the countryside but not exclusively. For these kids, Blue Dragon can provide a permanent home in one of their shelters.

Blue Dragon has an outreach team to approach street children in Hanoi. The head of the current outreach team is a former street kid that was taken off by Blue Dragon. However, spotting street kids has become more difficult. With an increased police effort to prevent children from working on the streets (which is definitely a good thing), the kids have learned how to hide better and many now work hidden in restaurants or shops.

What does the day care centre offer?

I was really impressed by the size and the offer of Blue Dragon’s day care centre in Hanoi. Blue Dragon provides for basic needs, like lunch. From Monday to Friday, Blue Dragon gives out around 80 meals every day and makes sure of a balanced nutrition. Tuesday is veggie-day!

Around 20 social workers, all Vietnamese, are employed at Blue Dragon in Hanoi. The social workers are a contact point for the children, if they need to speak, but also communicate with the children’s families. Many families need their children to work on the street in order to gain extra money. With the help of the social workers, Blue Dragon assesses the families’ situation and provides support if necessary, for example in food supplies or paying part of the rent.

Blue Dragon also organises workshops for children and parents about domestic violence, how to talk to a teenager or simply cooking classes. In addition, there are vocational trainings for children and families to help them find a well-paid job and secure their incomes without their kids working. In some cases, Blue Dragon can also pay for school fees and provides catching-up lessons for children if they want to go to school again. For this purpose, there is a big learning centre with an extensive library at the day care centre.

In order to make the day care centre attractive for children to come, Blue Dragon also offers many recreational activities. Thus, I bumped into an aerobics class, which is offered in Blue Dragon’s gym. There are dancing, drama and music classes. Hiếu told me that the hip-hop class has been a great success and a good way for the children to express themselves and to process traumas. The children can also come to Blue Dragon to meet friends, relax

Volunteers needed!

In order to provide such a huge offer of workshops and classes for the children, Blue Dragon is in current needs of volunteers. The volunteers are required to commit for a minimum period of six months, which is to guarantee some stability for the children. If you have a special talent or hobby and are in Hanoi for at least six months consider to contact Blue Dragon.

 

*The pictures of this article have been provided by the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation

 

The sad reality of child trafficking in Vietnam

Last week, I met with the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation and talked to Trịnh Thanh Hiếu, who told me a lot about the problem of children’s and women’s trafficking in Vietnam.

The issue of child traffic seems to be twofold in Vietnam. Children are being trafficked into child labour, working in various sectors of the Vietnamese industry. Another angle are young women that are kidnapped and sold into marriage or brothels in China.

Child labour in Vietnam

Even though child labour is prohibited in Vietnam, it remains an issue in the entire country. Many children are being sent away with the consent of their parents and finish working numerous hours in factories, restaurants or as vendors on the street.

Traffickers target poor families and convince parents that they will take care of their children. The parents of families with low income often work a lot and do not have much time to take care of the kids. They are vulnerable to listen to traffickers’ promises to provide vocational education, food and shelter, and a little bit of money for their children. The children are sent into different cities and sold into, at least that what it sounds to me like, slavery. They work shift of up to 17 hours per day and night, earn very little with the money often kept by the owner.

The parents often do not realise into which conditions they have sent their children. Traffickers make sure that the family receives happy pictures and good news.

According to Hiếu, many children are taken from the Central Vietnam and sold to Ho Chi Minh City, but child labour also exists in other areas of the country. Recently Blue Dragon rescued two boys of the age of 15 and 17 from a gold mine in Northern Vietnam. The boys are part of one of the ethnic minorities in Northern Vietnam and were forced to work in the mine. They had to buy their food with the gold they find, which means in return that if they did not find any, they were not fed.

Blue Dragon has rescued over 380 children from child labour and returned them, if possible, to their parents. The foundation closely works with the local authorities and organises workshops on anti-trafficking in order to create awareness about child labour and slavery.

Women’s trafficking into China

I have heart from several Vietnamese that the trafficking of women into China is a huge issue in the parts of Vietnam close to the border. So far, I have been sceptical about the stories, and was concerned that they are part of a general anti-Chinese resentment here in Vietnam.

However, Hiếu confirmed that young Vietnamese women are sold into marriage with Chinese men or end up in brothels in China. According to Hiếu, one reason for this is the one-child policy in China, which has led to an imbalance in gender.

I was shocked to learn that, in some cases, the women are trafficked by people they know, like friends, classmates or boyfriends. Blue Dragon recently rescued two young Vietnamese women from a brothel in China. The women were hold against their will and were forced to sell themselves. They had no access to smartphones or other ways of communication and could not alert the authorities or their families about their situation.

In the rescue of kidnapped women, Blue Dragon also cooperates closely with Vietnamese and Chinese authorities. The women were rescued, have returned to their families and continue to be closely followed by Blue Dragon.

*The pictures of this article have been provided by the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation

 

Chào bạn Hanoi!

Hi everybody,

I have arrived in Hanoi nearly three weeks ago, but have been totally overwhelmed with work, unfortunately not for Omakua. Lesly is still in France (also for work) and will join me in Asia next month.

I hope to soon find the time to meet up with some NGOs and write interesting articles for you. Two of my housemates are involved with NGOs, one taking care of dogs that have saved from Vietnam’s dog meat industry, and the other working for an agricultural NGO. So, there are some interesting articles ahead 🙂

Lisa

Meeting with Roelien from the Asia Center Foundation

Last week we have met with the Director of the Asia Center Foundation (ACF), Roelien Muller. Roelien is from South Africa, and has been in Phuket for many years. After her husband and father passed away, Roelien found herself at a point of life where she decided to do something useful. She has been enrolled in charity in South Africa, but decided to do more and to travel to Thailand with a friend from her church. She has stayed and worked on Phuket since that day.

Roelien wanted to work with children in Phuket, after she visited the slum in Patong where she taught English to children. To read out article about the humanitarian situation in Phuket, please follow this link.

After her friend, who initially brought her to Thailand, went back to the US, Roelien took over ACF. She kind of jumped in at the deep end, but managed to get her very first project proposal accepted by the World’s Children Fund. Today, ACF is an officially registered NGO in Thailand, with multiple projects and 18 staff members. Roelien and some of her children even got to meet the Queen of Thailand, which she describes as an “amazing experience.”

ACF currently has five major programmes: The Jumpstart Learning Center for Burmese children, the Patong Child Center, a scholarship programme, a youth programme for disadvantages children and the Safe House which currently hosts ten children that cannot live with their families for different reasons. Read more about the ACF programmes on their website.

The Patong Child Center

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Roelien took us to the Patong Child Center, which is within walking distance from the ACF office. We were welcomes very warmly by the 50-ish girls and boys between three and seven years old. The kids were not shy at all, came to hug us, and gave us high-fives and fist-bums.

The Child Center is a pre-school for children from the slum and/or difficult family and living situations. Some of the children would not have the opportunity to learn something, have a hot meal and be in a safe and clean environment if they would not come to the center.

The situation for the children in the slums is more than difficult. The low standard of living and lack of hygiene are not the only the problems. Many parents work a lot and cannot take care of their children; some are addicted to drugs. Roelien said that even though she cannot change the situation at the childrens’ home, at that she is sometimes worries when they go back after school, she re-assures herself that the children have at least eaten and have spent time in a safe environment.

We had a very good impression of the child center. The furnishing is simple, but loving and the children seem happy. Here are some of our impressions:

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The Child Center is admission-free, but has such a good reputation that families offered the ACF money to get their children into the center, which Roelien declined. The purpose of the Child Center is to support the poor. Before a child is admitted to the Patong Child Center, an ACF staff member visits the child’s family to have an idea of the family’s living conditions. Further, there is a follow-up with the families, which are visited yearly by a staff member.

Plans for the future

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Roelien also told us about ACF’s plans to construct a new school and youth center in Kathu. The ACF already has the land and funds to start the constructions of the pre-school building, the cafeteria and a new ACF office, but needs to raise more funds to finish this amazing project. If you want to donate to ACF, please click here.

The center will include a school and a youth center which Roelien considers can be used as a community center for different occasions. Further, she wants to build accommodation for some of the children and staff on site, a football field and a swimming pool so the kids can learn how to swim. The school is to attend to 250 children from poor and broken families.

The religious aspect

ACF is a Christian foundation, and the religious aspect clearly plays a very important role. The children are taught about Christianism, listen to bible stories and learn how to pray. However, according to Roelien, there is “no heavy indoctrination,” the ACF simply shares information and the children can chose whether to take or to leave it. To us, it does look like missionary work, and Roelien, too, used the term once or twice during our discussion.

Religion plays an important role in the Thai culture (mainly Buddhism, but also Islam), When I asked if the children, and parents, are receptive for the Christian religion, Roelien said that the way Buddhism is practiced does not help solving the problems. Thus, said that the children are generally open to the Christian religion. The parents sometimes have questions when the children start praying before eating at home. Roelien is happy to answer these questions, and to reassure the parents’ concerns.

Roelien stressed that, especially in a difficult environment like Phuket, with money, alcohol, drugs, sex and mafia around, the children, but also the parents, need spirituality and something to guide them. She considers that Christianism gives more answers to the people’s struggle than Buddhism does. Having faith into something bigger helps the children to accept things they cannot change, and pray to god for help.

Phuket – Between slums and five star resorts

Many of the NGOs on Phuket work with children and women. We have met with Roelien Muller from the Asia Center Foundation, who gave us insight into the humanitarian situation on Phuket.

Read our article about the Asia Center Foundation here.

Phuket is one of the favourite tourist destination of many foreigners that come to Thailand. Beautiful beaches, good food, cheap prices and a pulsing night life are why many “get hooked” on Phuket. But Phuket also has its dark sides. While cruising around the island, Lesly and I came across the poorer neighbourhoods on Phuket. Dirty apartment towers and slums co-exist with five star hotels and beautiful villas, drawing a contrasting picture of Phuket.

Roelien told us that when she arrived in Phuket, there was one big slum close to the Patrong area. However, a road has been built through the slum, destroying the accommodations and forcing the families to find a new place to life. Today, there is not one big slum on Phuket anymore, but several smaller ones that are dispatched around the Patong and Katu area. On the spot of the former big slum is now a shopping mall.

After the slum has been destroyed, efforts have been made to build low-cost accommodation for the poor. However, the apartments are relatively expensive, with three to four thousand Baht per month, according to Roelien, which is seventy to one hundred euros. The apartments are not maintained and have started to rot away years ago. Some families don’t even have a bathroom!

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Many of the families living in Phuket’s slums are not originally from Phuket, but come from Myanmar or other, poorer regions of Thailand, like the North-East. The situation of the Burmese in Thailand is a difficult, complex and important topic, which will be treated in a different article.

Many of the Thai migrants that come to Phuket are unskilled. Phuket is an expensive island to live on, compared to the rest of Thailand, and many families struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes the women start working in bars, out of lack of alternatives. From there on its “downhill,” like Roelien said, meaning prostitution. Some parents also recycle garbage to gain money, are motorbike taxi drivers, cleaning ladies, have laundry services or fruit cars. However, the income remains very low.

Further, drug addiction is a big problem in Phuket’s slums. Whether the drug addiction leads to living in the slum, or whether the living and working conditions, as well as the low income and life quality lead to drug addiction is not important. Many people living in the slums struggle with addiction to alcohol or other drugs.

The life in slums is especially hard for children. Often they are neglected because they parents work all day or are drug addicted and cannot take care of their children. Even though school is mandatory in Thailand until age 15, a lot of the slum’s children drop out of school when they are old enough to do small jobs and earn money. Or the parents do not care if the children go to school, or they take their kids out of school on purpose for them to work.

It also happens that the children are abandoned or raised by relatives. Some parents are in prison, others run away because they cannot deal with the pressure. Roelien also talked about a high suicide rate. According to the WHO, in 2002, nearly 5,000 people killed themselves in Thailand. I have, so far, not heard that suicide is a big problem in Thailand and will inquire on this topic.

Conclusion

While Phuket is a holiday island of cheap fun for some, it also is the hard reality for others. There is nothing wrong with enjoying yourself, but keep in mind that you are lucky and try to do something for the less fortunate while you are here. If you want to make a donation to the Asia Center Foundation, click here.

Arrived in Phuket!

Hi everybody,

Just to let you know that we are back in Thailand, and will stay in Phuket for some weeks.

Phuket is known to be one of Thailand’s main tourism destinations, with heavy partying in Patong Beach (this is not where we stay 😉

We have already contacted several NGOs working in different fields and are curious to learn more about the humanitarian and environmental stakes in Phuket.

You will read more soon,
Lesly & Lisa

The situation of the mentally and physically disabled in Bali

We were not surprised to learn that the situation of mentally and physically disabled in Bali is similar to those in Thailand. Sarah Chapman, who is part of the outreach team of the NGO Yayasan Solemen Indonesia, told us some of her experiences, and it sounded pretty much like what we have heard in Thailand.

Karma

The main religion in Bali is Hinduism. The Balinese religion and culture is rich and beautiful: All the temples, ceremonies, sarongs, and flower offerings. It is stunning. Ok, there are also parts of Bali religion, we do not appreciate, like animal offerings.

Just like the Thai Buddhists, the Balinese believe in Karma. Thus, being born with a physical disability means bad Karma, and disabled people are hidden (sometimes locked) away. They are considered a shame for the family

Read this article to learn more about the situation of the disabled in Thailand.

Education

But Karma is not the only reason why people hide their physically, mentally and psychologically disabled family members. There is also a great lack of education about these diseases. Many do not know that psychological illnesses can be treated with medication. People with psychological disorders are often locked away because they are a threat to themselves and to others.

Traditional believes

Further, many Balinese prefer to rely on traditional medication and rituals to treat mental and physical diseases. Even though, one should not underestimate the power of traditional and natural remedies, certain diseases cannot be treated this way.

Infrastructure

Besides Karma and education, another main problem is the health infrastructure. Sick people are often not taken to a doctor or a hospital, because the village is too remote. Sometimes, the village people do not know where exactly the next hospital is, and how to get there. Most of the times, the journey to the hospital is too expensive. The families do not know where to stay close to the hospital, and simply cannot afford to stay away from work for a couple of days.

Solemen does field trips to reach the remote villages, and to help the families bring the ill to a doctor. To read more about Solemen click here.

Being barefoot with Solemen

Sarah Chapman, a nurse in the UK, has travelled through Bali when she came around a young local girl, skinny and sick, in a remote mountain village. The girl, eight years old and 6.4 kilos, was too short and too skinny for her age, and obviously had severe health issues. Sarah knew she had to do something to save the girl’s life. She posted a picture on facebook, asking people what to do.

This is how Sarah met Robert Epstone, the co-founder of Yayasan Solemen Indonesia.

With the help of Robert, the young girl was taken to a hospital, and her health improved. She put on more weight, and was close to the 12 kilos she needed for a life-saving operation, but she passed away before the surgery was done. Sarah still had tears in her eyes when she told us the story, and so did we.

Sarah has now been working for Solemen for over three years, and could give us a very interesting insight into Solemen’s work when we met her in Kuta. Solemen was formed in 2010 with the goal to support the disadvantaged in Bali. Robert declared his intention to be barefoot until Solemen had raised one million US Dollars.  The reason for being barefoot is “to be in solidarity with those who don’t have a choice to wear or not wear shoes,” he says.

Today, Solemen works with 140 children and adults, and mainly supplies medical care for people in the remote areas of Bali. Nearly every day, Sarah and her outreach team are out on the field, taking care of people in need. She told us so many incredible stories, most with happy ends but some without.

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If you want to read more about the situation of the mentally and physically disabled in Bali, click here.

Sarah told us the story of a man who has been living in a cage for two years. The man is mentally ill, and has repeatedly threatened his family and neighbours with a knife in order to get coffee and cigarettes. After people became scared of him, the family decided that there was no other choice, but to put him in a cage. When Solemen found the man, he was barely talking or moving. They took him to a hospital, got rid of the cage and renovated his house. The man now takes medication, and has returned to his home village.

Another sad story with a happy ending are two disabled boys, Komang and Wayan, who have been kept locked away in their house by their families. Their parents told them that they will die, if they leave the house. Solemen found the family in extreme poverty, provided food, clothes and regular therapy for the boys. They also provided customised wheelchairs for the boys, and created a permaculture garden to provide food for the family. The boys now leave the house and are happy to spend time ouside in their wheelchairs.

Solemen works with children and adults with many different kind of diseases. Hydrocephalus, skin diseases, mental and psychological patter. Many of the diseases are treatable, but the lack of education and the difficult access to medial infrastructures in remote areas transform diseases into fatalities.

Sarah is part of the Bali outreach team. Every day, they go into the remote areas, talk to the Banjars (the heads of village) and try to help people that need help. When possible, they are treated on the field, but in many cases it is necessary to transport the patients to hospitals in urban areas.

After the patient has been treated, Solemen tries to keep contact with the people, mainly via phone calls. Sarah said that once the trust is established, it is easier for the patients to ask for help again if they or somebody they know need it.

In the long term, Sarah dreams about a medically equipped car and hope that Solemen will eventually be able to pay a full time doctor. Further, she stresses education in the villages, and a better access to medical care in the remote areas. If you want to support Solemen, you can make a donation to the NGO directly here.

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Give Chakrii a second chance!

We are super happy to present our new project! 🙂

Chakrii needs our help to get off the streets! Being without his family, he has been living on the streets for many years. Help him to leave the streets of Chiang Mai’s red light district, and to get back to school.

Click here for more information.

How travelling has made me eco-conscious

I started travelling pretty young. First with my parents in Europe, than in a school-enrolled programme to Mauritania. After that I could not stop, I have returned to Mauritania, been to Cameroun and Central America. I currently live in Bali and have travelled other countries in South-East Asia. Each country and culture I discover has impacted me. This is my story of how travelling has made more humane and more eco-conscious.

Why I have reduced my waste production

When I started diving and hiking, when I visited the nicest beaches and went through amazing cities, I started realise that waste is everywhere. I saw plastic bottles swimming in the ocean as if they were fish, and I saw plastic bags flying through cities and forests as if they were butterflies (sadly, that is how plastic backs are called in Nouakchott: Mauritania’s butterflies). I really don’t want to see the waste and more important: I don’t want it to be there. I want to see real fish and I want to see real butterflies. When I explore nature and cities, I want to see the beauty of it, not trash mountains. Even though in certain parts of the world much waste is recycled, big parts of trash always end up in the oceans and forests. For me, reducing waste has become the only way to keep the oceans and the forests clean.

Why I have reduced my general consumption

When travelling you realise that you do not need much. Everything I actually use fits in my backpack. I have come to realise that I do not need most of the objects I used to possess. Why do I need a smartphone, a tablet and a laptop? It takes space in my backpack and it’s heavy. I have also learned that a pair of hiking shoes and a pair of flip-flops is more than enough. I do not need a whole wardrobe of cloths. It is ok to wash your cloth more often and wear them every week! Why do I need a new bikini every year? It is expensive and I rather spend money paying for a local guide that shows me a secret track in the forest than for a new handbag.

Why I don’t eat meat and fish

I stopped eating fish when I started diving. I enjoy to see the fishes underwater so much that it started to make me sad to see them on my plate. Little by little, I got the same sadness when I saw meat on my plate. I remember when I was travelling in Cameroun, I had a piece of meat in a laid-back jungle village for dinner. I do not know what kind of animal I ate and if it is was an endangered species. I felt really guilty afterwards and started to decide that I will not eat wild animals any more (later I became a vegetarian). In my first years of travelling I wanted to taste everything new. Now I think sometimes a new taste is not worth it, if I don’t know if it is a right thing to eat.

Why I don’t go to the zoo any more

I used to love to go to zoos and aquariums. I have always been a great animal-lover and seeing all these cute and exotic animals, looking at them and studying their behaviour was something I really enjoyed. I have been to zoos in many parts of the world and I think I decided to stop going to the zoo when I was in a public zoo in Merida, Mexico, where animals live in tiny cages and are visibly psychotic. It made me really sad to see them and I realised that it is not right to keep another living being in a cage, even if it is big and well equipped. Instead of going to the zoo, I prefer going to animal sanctuaries now. The animals are still not free, but I like the idea of supporting associations which rescue animals out of terrible keeping conditions. It is always better if the animals can be released into the wild, but sometimes it is not possible. I have been to this amazing camp in Northern Thailand where formerly badly treated and tortured elephants were given a peaceful life. This is the kind of “zoo,” I want to support. Most of all, I enjoy seeing wild animals during my hikes. It is difficult to find them and sometimes I have been disappointed by not seeing any, but when I see a wild animal it is so much more exciting. The best wildlife I ever saw were spider and howler monkeys during a hike in Guatemala. When spotting a wild animal, it is always a kind of achievement that gives me a special thrill. There are many animals you cannot see in wild, because they are difficult to find or they are dangerous. But I rather not see a tiger in my life again than go to one of those tiger attractions in Chiang Mai where animals are probably drugged and badly treated.

Why I ride a bicycle as much as possible

I have always enjoyed to ride a bicycle. It is free, it gives me a little exercise and it makes me explore my city much better. However, in Chiang Mai I have started to wear a mask when riding my bicycle. Air in Chiang Mai is very bad and sometimes (depending on the season and weather) it is hard to breathe, even though the city is located in the middle of nature. This has encouraged me to rethink my way of transportation. When travelling, taking a plane is often unavoidable. But now, I will rather take my bicycle than my motorbike – even when it is hot. If possible, I will rather take the train than the plane – even though it takes longer. As I enjoy breathing fresh air and riding by bicycle without a mask, I felt that I should adapt my way of transportation.

Why I use organic cleaning and body products

Many times when I have travelled, I saw locals (and tourists) soaping themselves in rivers, lakes and seas, leaving behind them a puddle of foam. I saw water evacuations spilling used water right into the nature. I have been to a beautiful lake in Guatemala which is – how I learned afterwards – completely polluted and close to die. I have been to waterfalls in Thailand which could have been mistaken for foam parties. I realised after one month that the used water of our house in the middle of Chiang Mai, goes directly into our garden. This is when I decided to use organic cleaning and soaping products. My house, my laundry and myself have never been cleaner.

Why I started being a humanitarian

I am not only concerned by nature, but also by other humans. When travelling to Western Africa, Central America and South-East Asia, I have not only seen stunning nature, but I have met amazing people. Some of them helped me and some of them needed help – sometimes both at the same time. Lesly and I have created Omakua in order to support persons, families and villages in particular needs. This is my way of giving back to the people whose countries I enjoy travelling through. Travelling and being immersed into different cultures also made me more tolerant and sensitive to other people’s problems. Sometimes it is difficult to understand and accept a local tradition and I have to admit that I have come around traditions I do not personally approve of. But everybody and everything on this planet is unique – humans, animals and plants – and everybody and everything deserves a place to live safely and happily. For me it is differences which make our planet so special and enjoyable.

Why I am much happier like this

When I started exploring the world, my way of travelling was different from how it is now. All the experiences made me understand things, and I think that travelling has made me a better person. It is not only travelling and the amazing things I see that make me happy. It is also the values I have acquired through travelling. It has been a process and I am sure that I have not reached the end of it.