I met Nhan on the streets when he was 14.
He was working with an aunty who sold flags and trinkets at a major intersection in the city. All day long, motorbikes, cars and trucks raced by – a constant chaos of honking horns and traffic jams.
It was late at night and I was just walking by, but Nhan stopped me with a huge smile and a friendly greeting. I stopped to chat, and immediately it was clear that this kid had something special about him.
His life was clearly very hard, and as I learned in later weeks his relationship with the aunty was not very warm. Nhan desperately wanted to go to school, but she wanted him to earn money. It broke his heart, but his mother had left years ago and his father struggled with alcoholism. He simply had no other means of support, so he did his best to make it work. From time to time, he eased his pain with drugs.
When Nhan learned about Blue Dragon he decided right away that he wanted to join us. He knew it was a way to turn his fortunes around and get back to school. Nhan’s aunty wasn’t too happy about it, but she agreed to let him live in our shelter so that he would be off her hands and someone else could look after him.
Nhan did everything to make the most of his time with us. He joined every activity and took every class at the centre. But he lived with the trauma of his childhood: the poverty he had been raised in, his years working on the street, and the grief of not knowing his mother. Even though he was still a child, he felt guilty that he couldn’t fix his family’s problems.
After some years, Nhan was ready to take some steps toward independence. He joined a training program where he was studying to become a chef, and he moved out of the Blue Dragon shelter. He was excited to be starting a new chapter in his life.
But it wasn’t long before things started to go wrong. Nhan found it difficult to keep up with classes and spent his nights remembering the pain of his childhood. Finally, he turned back to drugs to dull the pain and soon after dropped out of his training.
Life spiralled downward very quickly. Blue Dragon was still in touch with him, but Nhan felt that he had failed and wanted to hide. When he needed a caring hand more than ever, his shame drove him into solitude and he left the city. Before long he was in a drug rehabilitation centre, where he spent the next two years. He was angry and disappointed with himself. He was sure that his life was over – that there was no way he could ever be happy again.
When he was released from rehab, life continued to throw obstacles and challenges at him. Nobody would employ him so he borrowed money to start a business, which then failed. Despite another blow, Nhan refused to let this bring him down. He was determined to do things differently, so he reached out again to Blue Dragon. He was a young man by now and no longer a child, but he wanted to reconnect. Like any of us, he needed to know he still had people who cared for him and who wouldn’t judge him by his past.
So we invited Nhan to return to Hanoi and made plans for him to work in a farming project outside the city. It wasn’t exactly what he wanted, but it would give him an income for a few months in a nurturing environment, and we could provide as much counselling and support as he needed.
But still Nhan was to face one more challenge. He was staying in Blue Dragon’s emergency accommodation preparing to head out to the farm when the COVID pandemic returned to Vietnam. A lockdown was called, and Nhan’s plans were on hold along with everybody else’s.
It seemed like yet another blow to a young man who had struggled all his life. Yet this time, Nhan was stronger.
Instead of being stuck at the emergency shelter, he saw it as a chance to shine. This wasn’t a setback; this was a time to help others, just as Nhan had received help when he needed it.
Unable to leave the building anyway, Nhan joined with the staff to look after the boys at the shelter. He has become the big brother of the home, and spends his days taking care of everyone.
Nhan has put his training as a chef to work, cooking up incredible meals day after day, and teaching the kids along the way. He sits and listens to the boys share their stories of hardship and homelessness; and he shares his own, showing them that they don’t need to be ashamed. He can relate to their experiences, and they can relate to him.
In the early mornings and late evenings, when the summer days cool down, Nhan organises games and sports in the yard. You could easily mistake him for one of the kids, laughing hysterically and joining in the fun. But the kids look up to him with a deep respect and if he calls them out for speaking rudely or playing roughly, they quickly apologise and return to the game.
Being in lockdown isn’t fun for anyone. For a group of teenage boys who were meant to be in an emergency shelter for only a few days, these weeks have been exceptionally hard. But having Nhan there, cheering them up and encouraging them to do their best, has made a world of difference.
There’s no sign yet as to when the lockdown will end, but Nhan is in no hurry. He’s now wondering if he should focus on becoming a social worker so that he can spend his life caring for others.
Nhan has had a rough start in life, and this is no fairytale ending. He still faces many challenges in the future and has yet to resolve some family issues that weigh on his shoulders. But it’s clear that this crisis has brought out the best in Nhan. He’s risen to the challenge and found a calling, even in these hardest of times.