After 17 years and 1,512 lives transformed, Blue Dragon’s program in Bac Ninh province is closing down. And that’s good news. Economic development and initiatives like Blue Dragon’s to support vulnerable families have helped an entire generation of disadvantaged children to break out of poverty. This is the story of that transformation.
In 2004, Blue Dragon volunteers and social workers were meeting children from Bac Ninh province wandering the streets of Hanoi on a weekly basis. Escaping dire poverty at home, these children travelled to the nearby capital city hoping to earn a living shining shoes, selling souvenirs to tourists, collecting scrap metal… Any job that could help them improve their lives. But life in the city didn’t turn out as they expected. Many of these children became homeless, and were at great risk of falling prey to street gangs, and other exploiters.
This alerted Blue Dragon, which was then a very small organisation, to the urgent needs of children in Bac Ninh. In response to this, Blue Dragon established a program in the province, our first intervention outside of Hanoi. Nearly two decades later, over 1,500 children have completed their education through this program, many of them all the way through university, and their families’ lives have improved substantially.
Supporting education to break the cycle of poverty
Now heavily industrialized, 17 years ago Bac Ninh was just beginning to develop, but poor rural communities were not reaping the fruits of that newly blossoming economy. At that time, the average monthly income in the province was just above $50 USD, and that figure was even lower in impoverished households in the countryside.
“These families were very, very poor. Their income came mainly from working in their fields, and what they produced was barely enough for their own consumption. They didn’t have enough land to get a lot of income from it,” recalls Tuyen Tran, who led Blue Dragon’s Bac Ninh Program from 2009 to 2021.
One of those families was Hien’s, who was 11 when she first met Blue Dragon. Hien and her mother, who was raising her alone, lived in a very old house that barely provided any shelter. Half of the roof was missing, and the doors and windows were badly damaged.
Through this program, Blue Dragon provided support for Hien and many other children from the two poorest districts in Bac Ninh province to help them stay in school.
In these rural areas, children had to walk up to 5 kilometres to get to school. “With no income to afford other transport, walking was the only option for many kids. They would walk to school in the morning, walk home for lunch, walk back to school to get to their afternoon classes, and then walk back home again. They spent hours walking, even in the scorching summer heat,” says Tuyen.
Because of these long distances, difficulties in paying schooling costs, and a widespread belief that children didn’t need education when farming was their only employment option, many children in this province couldn’t complete their education. And this was perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
Hien, who is now 29, says she is “not confident” she would have finished school had she not received support through Blue Dragon’s Bac Ninh program.
Thoan was also 11 when she joined Blue Dragon’s program in the province. “Without Blue Dragon, probably I would have found a job as a factory worker and married early,” she says.
Ngat, whose family began receiving support through this program when he was 16, remembers the struggles too. “Every time the teacher reminded us to pay the tuition fee, I was always the one to ask for a late payment. However, I knew my mother raised me and my sisters to study and didn’t want anyone to drop out of school, so I really tried to study. I told myself I had to at least finish Grade 12.”
“The program was a response to this,” says Tuyen. Blue Dragon partnered with the provincial Red Cross Society to connect with schools and reach out to students who were struggling. Blue Dragon’s Bac Ninh program assisted families by covering school fees, books, stationery, and bicycles for students to travel to school, as well as organising educational activities for children and their families. In addition, Blue Dragon built classrooms, libraries, and toilets for schools. “We improved the quality of the schools, so children had more chances and a better environment to learn. And we supported the education of children from Grade 5 until they finished high school, and all the way through university if they wanted,” adds Tuyen.
At its peak, the program provided access to education to over 800 children. Initial funding from the Embassy of New Zealand in Hanoi got the program started, and hundreds of individual sponsors around the world donated to keep the children in school. Grants from the Jochnick Foundation and the Hanoi International Women’s Club allowed the number of children receiving assistance to grow rapidly.
Ngat vividly remembers the first time he arrived at school “with a brand new set of books and a backpack provided by Blue Dragon. “For Thoan, the skills workshops and training days with Blue Dragon are her most cherished memory, “because in addition to learning necessary knowledge and skills, I met new friends and always ate good food,” she says.
As for Hien, she says she cannot choose just one stand-out memory. This is because Blue Dragon went beyond just the school costs. The program provided families with everything they needed to keep their children safe and in school. For Hien and her mother, this meant not only a bicycle for Hien to cycle to school, tuition fees and new books; they also needed a home where they could live in safety. And so, in 2005, Blue Dragon built a house for them.
“I was so happy when we got the house. I had my own place to stay safe. I was no longer scared of the rain. Thanks to all this support, I was able to stay in school and complete my studies,” she reminisces 16 years later.
Transforming mindsets to foster change
Along with houses for families living in hardship and new facilities for schools, Blue Dragon also built a new culture in these communities. “Many families didn’t think education could help their kids. They used to think children could always just work on the farm,” says Tuyen.
That perception, however, gradually changed as Blue Dragon and the government “emphasised the importance of education,” she explains. “Little by little, many families saw that by completing school their children were able to get better jobs. The skills and knowledge gained meant that those who graduated had higher incomes, and that had an encouragement effect on the community.”
This wasn’t the only mindset that changed. Tuyen explains that when the Bac Ninh program was first established, “single mothers were seen as something really terrible.” She particularly remembers two children whose mother was a widow. To provide for her children, she had to temporarily move to another province to find work. When she returned, “the community judged her badly.”
“When Blue Dragon started supporting them, little by little, we helped change the mindset of the people around them. Now, one of the children is a university graduate and the other one is studying to become a restaurant and hotel manager. When we assisted very poor families, the community around them could see the changes, and they reassessed their approach. It was wonderful to see how much they started to care about each other.”
As this was happening, Bac Ninh province was undergoing its own transformation. International companies chose this province to set up their factories and produce technology, footwear, garments, and other products to export around the world.
This had great impact on the province’s economy, where average income is now five times what it was when Blue Dragon first began working there. The industrial development also had a positive effect on the children and families who were part of the program.
“Because of this economic development, the support provided by Blue Dragon and by the government, the families had more resources to pay the school fees. And when the factories were set up there, those children who had completed their education had higher chances to get better jobs,” says Tuyen.
This set of circumstances meant that farming was no longer the only option for young people in the province. “Now families have more income and, along with initiatives from the local government, they can face those expenses without Blue Dragon’s assistance. Children have more opportunities, more choices. These changes are what enabled us to phase out our program in Bac Ninh, so we could focus on other areas where many children still need assistance to stay in school.”
The last cohort of students supported through this program graduated in the 2020-2021 school year, and this October three of them enrolled in university with a tertiary scholarship from Blue Dragon.
Blue Dragon’s tertiary education program was also Ngat’s choice. He attended Hanoi’s University of Technology and is now a new graduate interning as a software tester for a national IT company. Thoan is also a Blue Dragon scholar who graduated in accounting. Although she lost her job to COVID a few months ago, she is confident she will be employed soon, and is grateful for her health and the extra time she had to herself during lockdown, which allowed her to “discover a new passion for painting.”
Hien, who is now married and has a six-year-old boy, graduated in international trade with a scholarship from Blue Dragon. She now works in a Taiwanese company in her province, close to that home built when she was 12 where she could finally feel safe.
“I remember all the moments. How happy I was when I had a bicycle, how happy I was that I had a house, how happy I was that I could go to school, that I could finish high school and go to university, how happy I was to receive gifts from Blue Dragon every Lunar New Year. No words could ever express my gratitude.”
Blue Dragon continues to provide access to education to hundreds of children across Vietnam every year. Find out how you can support these efforts here.