Our journey in South East Asia has come to an end. We are sad to let you know that this also means that we will not be able to continue working for Omakua. We have met so many amazing people during our time here, and are very thankful for every minute of this experience.
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.
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
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 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.
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 ?
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.
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
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:
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
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.