Every day in the sweatshop was exhausting. Some days were terrifying.
Tieu and Nguyet had grown up in the mountains. Their village was little more than several timber houses on stilts.
Tieu was a few years older than his girlfriend Nguyet. They had gone to school together, staying at a boarding house in the nearest town. By the time they both left school, they already knew they wanted to marry.
But first they needed to save up some money. To have a traditional wedding was not cheap and they wanted to get their lives together off to a good start.
So they both felt very lucky when the strangers came through their village, offering jobs as tailors.
The jobs were in Ho Chi Minh City. Neither Tieu and Nguyet, nor anyone in their village, knew how far away that was. They shrugged their shoulders and accepted the good fortune, boarding a bus to take them to the other side of the mountain.
Tieu and Nguyet’s dreams took a dark turn. Ho Chi Minh City was over 1,200km from their home – a journey by bus of several days. Never in their lives had they travelled so far.
As soon as they set out, their phones were taken from them. As people of the Khmu ethnic community, their fluency in Kinh language skills – what we normally call the Vietnamese language – was limited. They didn’t know what to do.
For four years, they were put to work in a factory churning out cheap clothes. Night and day, they sat at the machines or on the concrete floor, cutting and sewing fabric.
One day, the factory owner came to speak to Tieu. Now a young man, the owner wanted to send him away. Keeping children in these conditions was one thing; as they became adults, they were not so easy to threaten and control.
Finally Tieu had his chance to go home. This was the moment he had been dreaming of: except for one thing. The owner was not yet ready to release Nguyet.
Tieu refused to leave. He would only go home when Nguyet could go with him.
And so they stayed.
By chance, it was around this time that Blue Dragon heard about Tieu, Nguyet, and almost two dozen other children and teens from their community who had gone missing.
When we found the factory and all of the ‘workers’ were set free, none were happier than Tieu and Nguyet.
We travelled home with them to make sure they could all return safely to their families. In the years since then, we have continued working with their communities to keep people safe from trafficking and exploitation like this. Factories like the one that forced Tieu and Nguyet to work are now rarely to be found.
So what became of Tieu and Nguyet?
Within weeks of returning home, they made a call to Blue Dragon, inviting us to join their wedding party.
It wasn’t the grand affair they had once dreamt of, but they had their families and friends – and their freedom. That was more than enough.
Valentines Day is a day to celebrate love. Blue Dragon is working every day to keep children and families safe, so they can lead the lives they dream of.