Son is 12, but if you saw him you’d swear he’s just 8 or 9.
He’s a tiny kid, and bursting with personality. His favorite shoes are bright red with spikes on the sides, and he has a confidence that strikes everyone he meets.
Son is a victim of COVID-19. Not that he was infected – neither he nor his family have contracted the virus. Rather, he has ended up on the streets of Hanoi because of the hardships the lockdown created.
Long before coronavirus, Son’s life was overwhelmingly difficult. He grew up in a remote village more than 5 hours from Hanoi, in the Tay ethnic minority community. He never knew either his mother or father. Only the love of his grandparents sustained him as a child.
His grandparents loved him deeply, but their care could never compensate for the love of his missing parents. Son could never understand why he was abandoned as an infant, and an aggressive uncle living in their communal stilt house kept him constantly in fear.
When the coronavirus came to Vietnam and school was cancelled, Son was at home all day every day. The uncle’s violence, and his grandparent’s lack of understanding of his needs, became too much to bear.
Son took the keys to a small motorbike and headed to Hanoi. He didn’t know what he would find there, but he hoped that life would somehow be better.
But life on the streets of the city is no paradise. Blue Dragon meets children every day who have been approached by pimps and gangs, wanting to recruit desperate kids into sex rings or schemes that sell them to forced labor.
Son knew that he was facing great danger.
Fortunately he was on the streets only a short time before he met a Blue Dragon social worker. Our staff are out every night, walking around the lakes and parks looking for young people who need a hand. Son was only too happy to receive some help.
After a few days at the emergency shelter, Son agreed to go home with a social worker to see his family. He let us know that he was nervous, but that he was willing to give it a try. This took enormous courage; he had left because of fear, and now he trusted us enough to return to his family.
The journey home was long. Son and the Blue Dragon staff travelled by bus, with Son’s stolen motorbike strapped to the roof. When they finally neared his village, high up in the mountains, Son was agitated but wanted to continue.
As they reached his home, Son backed down. He was just too frightened. He asked the staff to go ahead and talk to his grandparents and uncle, but he needed to stay outside. He sat shivering, despite the heat, reliving all the trauma he had experienced as a child.
Our staff went in and met with the family. They introduced themselves, explained why they had come, and listened as Son’s extended family poured out their hearts. They were relieved beyond measure that Son was safe and wanted to know he had been cared for in the weeks of his absence.
Son was loved after all. And yet, the violent anger of his uncle was quick to surface. It was clear that home was a dangerous place.
Waiting outside, Son knew that he couldn’t stay. The motorbike he had originally taken to Hanoi was right there, and he immediately knew what he had to do.
When the Blue Dragon staff went out to look for him, Son was long gone. As was the motorbike.
This has happened to us before, and it will happen again. Since Blue Dragon began, we have successfully reunited almost 600 homeless children with their families. But of course we cannot always succeed. Some families are far too torn. Some children are far too traumatized.
Our job is to heal emotional wounds. Some can heal in a single day; others take many years. There’s no magic wand to fix all the world’s woes.
Two days later, the social worker was back in Hanoi and set out to look for Son. We could guess where he might be, and we knew his motorbike would be in need of petrol. It was just a matter of hours to find him.
Son was glad to be found. At first he was shy to return to the Blue Dragon centre, but knowing that we were worried about him and wanted to keep him safe was all the encouragement he needed. Son was back at the centre for lunch and a shower, as though nothing had ever happened.
So what’s next for this bright, restless 12 year old?
Living at home again is a long way off in the future. The violent uncle and the tremendous generational gap between Son and his grandparents mean that there’s no chance they can stay together – for now. They do love each other, though, and that’s the key to get them started.
As soon as Son’s grandparents knew he was with Blue Dragon again, they made the long journey to the city to see him and to visit the shelter where he is staying. Their affection and concern for him were clear.
We’ll keep working with Son, and build the relationship between him and his family back in the village. It will take time, but we’ve started and the most important thing is that Son is safe while we help him figure out the next steps.
We all want to see a happy ending for children who are homeless and abused. But happy endings don’t come easy. They take time and effort, and loads of love. Life really is a long story.
Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis. Please consider donating to care for children like Son.