I had dinner with Tay a few nights ago.
Every now and then, he calls me up and invites me for a meal. He’s in his mid-20s and works in a restaurant. I’ve known him since he was a teenager, when he was homeless on the streets of Hanoi.
Tonight, Tay has something on his mind. He shares with me at length about problems he’s having with his girlfriend, Ninh.
Tay and Ninh have been talking about getting married for some months. But things aren’t going right, and Tay shares with me that they keep having arguments over insignificant issues.
When I ask him about Ninh’s family, I realise we’ve gotten to the core of the problem.
“They don’t like me,” he says. “Ninh tells me it’s better that I don’t visit them too often.”
“Why not?” I ask, even though I can guess the answer already.
“They don’t like that I used to be a street kid,” he tells me. Yep, just as I suspected.
He goes on: “They don’t think it’s a good life for their daughter to marry someone who used to be so poor. They think that street kids are bad people.”
I’ve heard this many times before, and every time it infuriates me. It’s one of the reasons that so many of the Blue Dragon kids want to hide their own true history as they grow up, afraid that they’ll experience this discrimination and prejudice.
For the girls, it’s even worse.
Most of the girls and women we rescue from slavery have been sexually exploited. They’ve either been sold as brides or forced into brothels.
Finding them and getting them to freedom is just the beginning of their healing.
Once home, these girls have extreme trauma to deal with. While I am amazed at how many return to their homes and start their lives over, I know how unbelievably difficult it is. I am painfully aware of those who are shunned by their own communities – and sometimes their own families – and will never be able to hold their head high again.
I think it’s worth adding that this stigma isn’t unique to Vietnam or to Asia. Street kids and victims of sexual crime in every country are looked at with judgment and suspicion. (Surely you could have just stopped it or called for help… And what were you doing wrong in the first place that you ended up in that situation?)
But here’s the thing.
Tay is a wonderfully kind, clever, hard-working young man. I can’t imagine the inner strength that he needed as a child to leave an abusive family, survive on the city streets from the age of 13, and then turn his life around when finally someone offered help. Once he met Blue Dragon, Tay returned to education and later got a job that he loves. He lives with such dignity; his experiences have strengthened him, not made him weaker.
And then there are the girls we rescued from trafficking.
The courage that they have to call for help is superhuman. Those who make that call and then trust us to find them and bring them home are taking a huge risk. They can be killed if the trafficker knows they plan to escape.
After all they’ve been through, I don’t know how they have the strength to keep going. But they do, and their bravery should win them awards, not scorn.
It’s sad that these kids grow up to face discrimination when they deserve admiration and respect. These young people are an asset to society: resilient, creative, determined.
Yes, they are victims of a crime, but they are also heroes who have overcome extreme hardship.
Kids who have been through traumatic events deserve our support to take back control of their lives. Those events may shape them, but they don’t define them.
And above all, a terrible experience – like homelessness or trafficking – does not make them bad people.