My last Australian Christmas was in 2001. Since then, I’ve been in Hanoi for every Christmas Day, including today.
I’m not a very traditional type of person, but there is one tradition I’ve kept for the last 15 years: a Christmas meal with the Blue Dragon kids. Although I’m far from my family in Australia, there’s a real joy in spending the day with my Blue Dragon family here in Vietnam.
I still vividly remember that first Christmas in Hanoi, when Blue Dragon was so young we didn’t even have a name yet. There were as many volunteers as kids at that first Christmas party, but it was a wonderful day and most of the children who joined us for lunch are still in touch with us now, all grown up and with families and businesses of their own.
This afternoon I was chatting online with one of our ‘old boys’ who grew up in Blue Dragon and now lives abroad, where he has been studying and working. While he’s Vietnamese to the bone, he’s accustomed to western traditions and understands the significance of Christmas in our calendar. He was worried about me always being in Vietnam at this time of year, and wondered if I regretted being so far from home. Such a thoughtful young man. I assured him that this was not the case – but his question left me wondering.
When evening came, I met up with a group of the Blue Dragon kids and we had a terrific meal together followed by some ‘sinh to’ (fruit shakes) and juice. These are all teens I’ve had a close involvement with: kids who were homeless and in various states of crisis when I first met them, and who I was able to help through to safer ground. There are a lot of kids at Blue Dragon who I can’t take any credit for helping – I have an incredibly capable team that works miracles every day – so these were just the handful of kids I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with and help in recent years.
We had a lovely meal and at the end everyone headed home satisfied and relaxed.
Shortly after, one of the boys, Tong, sent me a message. Roughly translated, he said: Thank you Michael very much for this evening.
Tong is almost 18, and I’ve known him for about 4 years. He’s one of the few kids who I honestly (and to my shame) doubted we could help.
When he first came to us, he was in such despair that he had no belief in himself; no love for himself at all. He inflicted pain on himself because he believed he deserved it. Whenever we gave him a chance, he blew it – on purpose. He didn’t want us to care for him, so he tried everything he could to push us away.
He was the saddest child I had ever met, and I couldn’t see a way through.
We didn’t give up, though, and step by step Tong underwent a beautiful transformation. The pain is still in his eyes, but he has found life. He goes to school now, he lives in a stable home. He’s a normal teenager in so many ways even though the horrific ordeal he has lived through – and for various reasons I can’t recount it here, but it was horrific – is barely more than a year behind him.
Tong’s brief message, unprompted and so sincere, was the most wonderful Christmas gift I could imagine. I cannot regret being here for Christmas; not when there is such purpose and hope. These simple words of thanks remind that whatever happens, it’s all worthwhile.
Here’s to believing that we can help many more kids like Tong in the years to come.
And a happy Christmas to all.
Read more of Michael’s blog here.