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

 

Thailand’s sex industry also concerns boys – Meeting with Alezandra from Urban Light

This week we had a super interesting meeting with Alezandra Russel, founder of Urban Light, a NGO which for with boys from Chiang Mai’s sex industry.

Alezandra came to Chiang Mai five years ago in order to have a vacation and to volunteer. She had heard about Thailand’s sex industry in the US and wanted to get to know more about it. She visited several NGOs working with former female sex workers and was positively surprised about the good support infrastructure for the girls.

 

However, when visiting Chiang Mai’s red light district, she did only see bars where (partly minor) girls offer their services, but also boys and young men. She was shocked because it never occurred to her than a man could prostitute himself.

One must know that all kind of prostitution, especially of minors, is illegal in Thailand and should be severely punished according to the law. We have however learned previously that the laws are bypassed with corruption and that prostitution, also of minors, remains common in Thailand.

 

Alezandra has talked with some of the male sex workers and saw how blatantly old foreign men look for a date for the night. Her search for NGOs that take care of the boys remained, however, unsuccessful.

After her holiday was over and Alezandra went back to the US, she should not forget the discussions she had with the boys. She wanted to do something, but does not speak Thai, has no experience with NGOs and at this time no financial possibilities. It seemed difficult to get involved. Nevertheless, after discussing the issue with her husband, Alezandra sold her wedding ring as a starting capital and three months later she went back to Thailand.

She founded Urban Light which is Chiang Mai’s first and so far only NGO that works with male sex workers. The goal of Urban Light is to give support, help and an open ear to the boys. Urban Light works today with 300 boys and young men, most of them minors.

 

Many of the boys come from the hill tribe villages in the North of Thailand and earn money for their families by prostituting themselves. Alezandra thinks that many families are aware how their sons earn the money. But as poverty is high in the North, many consider this the only possible way, the “lesser evil.”

Not all boys, Urban Light works with, want to leave the sex industry. There a many reasons, among which the above-mentioned financial reasons. Alezandra also talked about “emotional and psychological chains” which keep the boys in the sex trade. Some consider there is no alternative which allows to earn enough money, others stay because they have to pay for their drug addictions.

 

We have also asked Alezandra about the structures of Chiang Mai‘s sex industry. While female prostitution is mainly organised by a network of pimps, many boys work for themselves. They have however regular bars and are protected or exploited (that depends on the perspective) by the bar owners.

The boys pay the bar owners and can offer their services in return. Many bar owners however drive the boys into drug dependence in order to tie them to the sex industry. Loans are given to the boys for the same purpose. Thus, the bar owners create a financial and psychological dependence which is difficult for the boys to escape.

When the boys are older and “less desirable” some start to recruit younger boys themselves. In that regard Alezandra talks about human trafficking. Even though most of the boys are not physically forced to prostitute themselves, they are introduced to the environment with the exertion of power and manipulation.

 

The immediate goal of Urban Light is not necessarily to make the boys leave the sex industry. This would be unrealistic. In a first step, Urban Light is more concerned about the boys’ security and health. Alezandra and her team of five also want to show the boys that there are alternatives to prostitution, if they want to leave the sex industry.

Urban Light has rented a house close to Chiang Mai’s red light district. The boys can come and relax (many are homeless), watch TV or make music and sports. Further, Urban Light offers computer workshops, English lessons and legal support. A doctor takes care of the boys’ health. Some of them come on a very regular basis, others don’t.

 

Some of the boys have health problems which are linked to their work, like HIV and other STIs, but the doctor also takes care of wounds, eye or skin infections, fight injuries etc. Urban Light takes the kids to the hospital in case of more severe problems. One important part of the team’s work is the discussion with the boys. It is important to make them understand that they are not left alone and that there is a shelter if they need one.

Most of the boys do not come to the Urban Light facilities. Hence, four members of the Urban Light team go every night (!) on the streets and in the bars in order to give the boys medical treatment and to distribute condoms and clean needles. Urban Light has 15 hotspots where the team distribute health kits.

 

Alezandra further told us that Urban Light urgently needs a trained psychologist. The problem is that there are no psychologists in Thailand and most of the boys do not speak English or not enough to follow a therapy in English. The Urban Light team talks with the boys about their daily lives and when the trust is built up about their problems, but they are not psychologically trained.

One form of therapy are the workshops of Art Relief International, a NGO we have reported on last week (read article). Many of the boys are traumatised by the prostitution itself, but also by drug use, physical and emotional violence and the uncertainty of their situation. For example, Alezandra told us that many of the boys do not identify themselves as homosexual. They sleep with old men, but have a girlfriend. Many are uncertain about their own sexuality, but have nobody to talk to.

 

Even though Urban Light does not push the boys to leave the sex industry, it supports those who want to stop prostituting themselves. Thus, Urban Light pays school and educational fees for boys that want to change their job. Further, Urban Light supports drug-dependent boys that want to follow a detoxification programme.

 

Urban Light also has a housing programme for boys that want to leave the sex industry. Criteria for an apartment which is financed by Urban Light are abstinence from drugs and the will to follow a school or professional education. For one year, Urban Light supports the boys not only financially, but also in organisational matters and offers advice. After one year, the boys have to pay for the apartment themselves. According to Alezandra the programme has a success rate of 90 percent.

Urban Light currently offers three boys accommodation and support. Alezandra wants to do more, but Urban Light’s financial possibilities are limited. Prostitution of male minors remains a topic which gets little attention. We can only call for a donation for Urban Light (donate here). Alezandra and her team are incredibly dedicated and do what they can to help the boys.

 

Omakua has decided to support one boy in the housing project. We will soon present the project on our website. Supporting a young man to change his life for the better is an incredible thing to do and we hope for many donators.

Our meeting with Alezandra was very inspiring. Alezandra shows that it is possible to make a difference, even without experience or money. In end, the only thing one needs is determination.

 

A “gleam of hope” for hill tribe children in Northern Thailand

Last week-end we have made a trip to Phrao in order to visit the Children Home Phrao for children from hill tribes in Northern Thailand. We were very warmly welcomed by Günter Oppermann of the German association Hoffnungsfunke (gleam of hope) and his team. Our day at the children home was very interesting and pleasant. We were amazed by what Günter has built in only seven years.

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The children home currently accommodates 109 children – girls and boys, but the waiting list is long. Children Home Phrao has a very good reputation and is handled as the “best children home” in the region. The reasons for the children to stay with Hoffnungsfunke are manifold: Certain are orphans, others come from difficult family situations including drug abuse, violence or forced prostitution; another part of children simply stays at Children Home Phrao, because they come from remote villages and have no access to education.


If the parents want to visit their children, they can come on Sundays when Children Home Phrao invite the families for lunch. The contact between the children and their families is very important for Günter. However, some children cannot see their parents for obvious reasons. Some even cannot go back to their villages during the school holidays.

Hoffnungsfunke is a Christian organisation and thus there is a prayer before eating. Günter however stresses that the children are encouraged to carry out their religious beliefs and indigenous traditions. Hence, every Sunday a mess is hold at the children home for which the children dress up in the traditional cloths of their villages. Günter, too, has got the respective costumes made and wears a different one each Sunday. Unfortunately we were not there on Sunday, we would have loved to view the spectacle.

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Seven years ago, Günter has bought the land and built everything from scratch. Still today, we have the impression that the Children Home Phrao is all about self-reliance. Thus, there is a bakery, a repair shop, a fruit farm, a vegetable garden and more. When the children have a particular wish, it is discussed and implemented, depending on Hoffnungsfunke’s financial and material resources. Hence, a dance hall has been built at the wish of the children. During the construction works, the older children are involved and help with the constructions.

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This self-reliance is well linked to a sort of professional education or work introduction for the children. Thus, children interested in needlework can learn how to sew in a sewing workshop. They also create the main supply of cloths, sheets etc. for the children home. Children which are interested in mechanics can go to the repair shop and in the bakery, the children learn how to bake bread.


In addition, there are a very well equipped music room where the children can learn how to play traditional or modern instruments, the dance hall, a playground as well as football, basketball and takraw fields.

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A very nice idea is the little shop where the children can by sweets. Every child receives a weekly pocket money which they can spend how they want. This is to teach the children how to handle money. In the shop there is also a donation box. Günter wants to teach the children that even though they do not have a lot, they can always donate and share. Once the donation box filled, Günter doubles the amount and the children can chose for what the money is used for. They have decided to support a children home in Myanmar.


Teaching the children sense of responsibility, self-reliance and brotherly love is an important part of the daily life in the children home. Every child has a weekly task, for example kitchen duty. The children cook, wash and iron for themselves and the others – under surveillance of course. A nice side effect is that the children from different village tribes dissipate ancient dislikes. Certain mountain villages have quarrels which have been going on for years. In the children home, they live, eat, play and go to school together. This promotes the understanding of other cultures.

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The day we were visiting, one of the team members celebrated her birthday and was given a beautiful cake. Günter tries to bring workers from Germany to the children home in order to improve certain manual abilities of the staff and the children. Thus, a German baker is currently living and voluntarily working at the children home for one month.

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We had the impression that the children are happy in the Children Home Phrao. Despite over hundreds children living there, everything is very neat and organised. Regarding Günter, we had the impression of a loved and respected father. The children will come and hug him, but be all quiet as soon as he talks.

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The Children Home Phrao has a couple of guest accommodations and we definitely recommend a little holiday there. In addition to the warmhearted team and children which alone are reason enough for a stop, the children home is in the middle of Northern Thailand’s beautiful mountains and surrounded by rice paddies, a very nice and appeasing atmosphere. When we were visiting, a family of five was staying for several days. Fear of contact or language barriers are not an issue. If you are interested in a homestay, you can write an email to Hoffnungsfunke. Hoffnungsfunke also offers children sponsorships.


There is much more to say about our day at Children Home Phrao. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact us or Günter directly.

We have visited a similar project some weeks ago. A shelter for women called Wildflower Home.

The Community Development and Civic Empowerment Program for civil society actors from Myanmar

This week we have met Nang Seng Pin, the Programme Coordinator of the Community Development and Civic Empowerment Program (CDCE) which is located at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Chiang Mai. CDCE has also offices in Bangkok and Myanmar.

CDCE is a three-month programme for society actors from Myanmar which aims at capacity building of young leaders and engaged citizens. It was founded in 2006 by the Vahu Foundation. While CDCE has originally been financially supported by Oxfam, Seng Pin told us that today’s main donator is the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

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Every year, 29 to 35 Burmese NGO workers and society actors are invited to spend two month in Chiang Mai in order to follow classes and workshops from experienced NGO workers, University professors and freelancers. Followed by one month of training in the field.

The programme is a full-time programme which includes accommodation and food for the participants. Classes are held in English or Burmese according to the lecturers’ language skills. The classes concern various topics like community development, financial management and accountability, transparency, empowerment and others. Seng Pin told us that CDCE aims at making the programme as intensive and complete as possible.

There is currently one batch of students in Chiang Mai and we could assist a class from a Burmese NGO worker who has been giving lectures for CDCE for several years. The class was in Burmese and we could not understand much, but the Power Point Presentation was in English which gave us an idea of the overall topic.

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CDCE is missing advisers to work with the students on their project proposals which they present at the end of the programme. As Lisa has studied humanitarian development, she is currently in contact with Seng Pin in order to see how Omakua can support CDCE in that matter. You will hear more about Omakua’s work with CDCE soon.

If you have any questions you can contact us or CDCE.

Women empowerment at Wildflower Home

We had an amazing visit at the Wildflower Home, thirty minutes East from Chiang Mai. Wildflower is a “Good Shepherd” run foundation which offers women in need and their children a place to stay. Wildflower currently hosts nine women and seven children with a maximal capacity of hosting twelve women.

Violence against women remains a severe problem in Thailand, especially because many do not talk about it. We met with Sister Siripawn who told us that many women do not come from the Chiang Mai area itself. It would be embarrassing for the women if their friends and family learn that they feel the need to move out from home into a women community. Most women come to Wildflower by themselves, but sometimes Wildflower is contacted by hospitals.

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We were amazed by Wildflower in so many ways. One main goal of Wildflower is to make women strong and independent. Community is an important point, too. The women work and life together, share daily tasks and look after each other’s children. For women who come from an unstable background this environment helps them to build new self-confidence.

Wildflower is also a farm. The women grow vegetables and fruits. There are pigs, ducks, chicken and fish. The whole farming process is all organic and no chemical products are used. Wildflower is not only good for women, but also for the environment. The institution is pretty much autonomous and can even sell some farming goods.

 

The women learn how to farm vegetables and livestock, but Wildflower also puts a focus on the creative side of the women. The women make embroideries, had bags, create handmade cards and paint. Thus, they learn that they can do something and earn money with it. One volunteer at Wildflower told us however that the marketing process can be improved.

Wildflower further teaches the women English, administrative skills, problem solving, business management and the legal situation of women in Thailand. This gives the women self-confidence and the strength to deal with problems once they have left Wildflower.

Wildflower has a small kindergarten and school. Starting in high school the children can go to the local school in Bor Sang.

Usually the women stay between three month and one year in order to get back on their feet. Sometimes they can go back to their home villages, but sometimes they start a whole new life. Siripawn told us about a woman who lived with Wildflower and has now a chicken farm with 50 animals.

The women have learned about organic farming, recycling and law. When living on their own again they keep these good habits and can even spread the word among the rural population. The environmental impact of farming in Thailand is really bad as there are hardly restrictions on chemicals and no awareness within the population.

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We wondered beforehand if Wildflower, as a Catholic institution, only takes in women with the same believe. Siripawn assured us that religion is no point of criteria for Wildflower. There are currently Catholic, Buddhist and Muslim women living with Wildflower. Everybody can life their believes and is free to pray to their god and celebrate their rituals.

From our visit, we can only say that Wildflower makes a very good job in empowering women. Community and strength are promoted. They offer volunteer positions if you are interested.

We will keep in touch with Wildflower and maybe can support one or more of the women in their future projects.