Night of heroes

Tet2017

So I failed to write my blog last week.

I had every intention of waking up early on Monday and writing about events of the previous week. Instead I was awoken by a call from a Blue Dragon lawyer some time around 5.

The police had arrested a Vietnamese man suspected of abusing underage boys: to our knowledge, this is the first time that such an arrest has been made without our direct involvement. That’s a fantastic development in itself.

The man – who has yet to be charged, so I can’t give any details – is a man long known to us. Our early morning call from the police was to ask us to bring them any children we know who might be his victims.

Vietnamese law is still struggling with the issue of male-on-male sexual abuse. The National Assembly reviewed the criminal code in late 2015, but the proposed changes have not been signed into effect. We’re almost there, but not quite yet.

And so, to build the strongest possible case against the man they’ve arrested, the police need statements from multiple victims. Over the last 2 years Blue Dragon’s Social Workers have met many kids who have disclosed about this man, and several have already made statements… but those statements were made to branches of the police different to the station that finally arrested him. To ensure the court will hear the case, the police need to build a solid file with all the statements they can.

A marathon day ensued, with the whole team pulling together to contact children and families, see who would be willing to give statements, and support them through the process. It was a long day – some of the kids no longer live in Hanoi – but by midnight we had done all we could.

And then 2 days later the legal team came across an old newspaper article. The same man who has been arrested was in the media a couple of years back after 2 young men broke into his home and attacked him. They’re in prison now, serving sentences of 10 years each. In their defense they claimed that this man had sexually and physically assaulted them both.

The Blue Dragon lawyers tracked down their families, 150km outside Hanoi, and took statements. While those statements can’t be used in court, they will enable the police to go to the prison and take statements directly from the 2 boys, who are now young men.

While this was unfolding, a case of another kind was under way. At the other end of Vietnam, our rescue team was working with the Women’s Union to find 6 children, aged 12 to 14, who had been trafficked from Hue province to Ho Chi Minh City and sold to sweatshops. This kind of trafficking is far less common than it was just a few years ago, but it’s not over yet.

Information about the 6 children first came to us through a very simple intervention we set up in schools in central Vietnam: an Early Warning System for teachers to raise an alarm when children from their classes dropped out or disappeared unexpectedly. This allowed the Blue Dragon team to start an investigation, and just 2 weeks later the kids are now home and safe. Their parents had thought they were going to study and learn trades; they had no idea that the children were just being used as garment factory fodder.

All 6 are back with their families, and will soon be back in school.

Another trafficking case came to us before that first case had finished: a 15 year old boy from a H’mong community in northern Vietnam had been trafficked to China and enslaved on a forestry plantation. After months of abuse, he managed to escape, and was picked up by Chinese police as he wandered the streets. He’s with Blue Dragon now, and will stay in our care until the traffickers who took him across the border are in custody.

He is fortunate to have the chance to be home before Lunar New Year (‘Tet’ in Vietnamese), which is the major national celebration, coming up in just 2 weeks – think Christmas, New Year, and all your annual holidays rolled into one. It’s a very important time to be with family.

And it’s perhaps because of the looming Tet that we’ve been inundated with calls for help from Vietnamese families whose daughters have been trafficked into the Chinese sex industry. Throughout this past week, Blue Dragon has been working on 15 cases of calls for help – and we’re optimistic that all 15 girls and women will be home for the new year.

It hasn’t been all rescue and police cases, either. Friday evening was the 12th annual Blue Dragon Tet Awards celebration. This is one of our organisation’s few traditions. With support from Social Workers, the kids largely organise and run the event themselves. And it was a brilliant, moving night.

Tet Awards is our way of saying goodbye to the year that has passed and welcoming the new year. It’s a moment for every one of the Blue Dragon kids to stand up and shine; to have the spotlight firmly on them, celebrating their achievements and successes.

For some of our kids, simply being safe and alive might be their greatest achievement. For others, it will be passing their classes at school, or living in a stable home, or learning to love their family after years of conflict. Every individual story is simultaneously heartbreaking and life affirming; and on Friday night, there were 500 stories to tell.

With names changed for privacy, some of the most wonderful moments of the night (for me!) were:

  • Nam, an 18 year old boy approaching me with the hugest grin and hoping I would remember him. I had to search the memory banks… He was one of more than 20 children we rescued from sweatshops in a major case back in September 2011. I haven’t seen Nam since the day we took him home to be with his mother, but Blue Dragon has been helping him to study and now he’s learning a trade. He was so happy to see us!
  • Thuy, a 16 year old girl who has been separated from her family for years, struggling so profoundly with her confidence, getting up on stage and performing as though it was the most natural place in the world for her to be. She owned the room as she danced: hip hop transported her so far from all her troubles, you would never guess how harsh her life really is. It was so beautiful to see.
  • Quan, a 17 year old boy who lives in a Blue Dragon shelter, telling his story to the whole of Blue Dragon, sharing the sorrows and struggles he has faced, and the hope he has for the future. Quan is a very timid boy, but he insisted on doing this at Tet Awards and he spoke so eloquently that he had the entire audience spellbound in silence. (They weren’t silent during my speech, I can tell you that!) Quan’s speech is worth publishing  here, so I’ll post it in a follow-up blog on Tuesday night.

Tet Awards is just one night, just the briefest moment in time, and yet it brings into focus all the goodness and joy of children who have every reason to be angry at the hand this world has dealt them. I could write much more about the night, about the girls and boys who stood so heroically to sing or dance or receive awards. If you’re on Twitter, do a search on #TetAwards2017 to see the photos we posted during the event. They say much more than I can with mere words.

It was a night that capped an extraordinary week: a week of fighting for the freedom of children and young people throughout Vietnam.

This is surely a fight worth fighting.

 

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