HANOI, Vietnam: Well-spoken, clean-shaven and good-looking, Do Duy Vi, is the outreach manager cum poster boy of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. The former street kid is one of the earliest beneficiaries of the grassroots charity that reaches out to disadvantaged children in Vietnam, rescuing them from a precarious life on the streets.
“When I finished Grade 9, I didn't go to school anymore,” recounted the 28-year-old, whose parents are rice farmers in Xuan Truong, a rural district 130 km from Hanoi. “My parents asked me to work as a builder or take care of animals like ducks, but I didn't like it.”
At just 14 years old then, he had bigger plans. “Some of the children from the village had been to Hanoi, working as shoe shine boys. It sounded like an adventure to me. Hearing about the exciting big city made me want to go there.”
After saving up for a month, armed with no more than a few US dollars' worth of dong, he hopped onto a bus to Hanoi despite his parents’ disapproval. “I had never been in a car or on a bus before, so I was extremely car-sick. It was horrible,” Vi said of his 4-hour journey from Nam Dinh Province to Hanoi.
Many streets kids come from rural areas, where their parents make a meagre living working on farm lands. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
FIRST NIGHT IN THE BIG CITY
A friend showed Vi where to get his own shoe polish and brushes. “I didn't know the streets, so I was quite scared to go on my own,” said Vi. “I asked my friend to take me out for one or two days, and he said okay.” Barely 30 minutes later, the two boys got lost.
Vi spent his first night in Hanoi in a guesthouse. “I went back to where my friend was staying. I paid about VND1,500 (less than US$0.10) to sleep in the room, but with many other strangers. People who collect garbage, people working on the street. We slept on the floor. The room was really dark and filthy.”
Vi spent the next year working as one of Hanoi’s “shoeshine boys”, earning less than US$0.70 a day in the first six months.
“I really wanted to go home during the first week, but had no money so I couldn't,” Vi said, recalling his days on the streets. “I had never been away from my village. I missed my parents, missed my brothers, sisters and my friends. I decide to continue because I didn’t know what to do if I stayed home, so I kept shining shoes.”
Bird's-eye view of Hanoi. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
Competition was fierce as there were a few hundred boys offering to shine shoes on the streets. Inadvertently venturing into someone else’s territory would result in a “bleeding nose, black eye and broken shoe-shining equipment” according to Vi. “I also lost a lot of money. I learnt a few lessons after getting beat up by other street kids. I got to know the areas that you have to avoid.”
His earnings steadily tripled as he gained more experience. Every couple of months, he brought home whatever money he could save before returning to work in the city.
In 2003, Vi met Michael Brosowski, then an English teacher at the University of Economics.
Do Duy Vi and Michael Brosowski. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
Describing their chance encounter, Vi said: “I was really shy to talk to foreigners because I didn’t know what to say. All I knew how to say was: ‘Hello, shoeshine?’ Michael didn’t speak much Vietnamese at that time. As I was shining his shoes, we talked a little bit. I understood that he was an English teacher, and he had a class for street kids that happened every Sunday, so he asked me if I wanted to come to class.
“A week later, I came to his class with another shoeshine boy, because I wanted to learn English. I wanted to shine shoes for foreigners because they always have money, more so than Vietnamese.”
FOUNDING BLUE DRAGON
“In the early days when we started, the kids were looking for opportunities to change their lives. When somebody came along offering to teach them, they were very enthusiastic about that,” said Brosowski, the Australian founder of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation.
Children playing games at the Blue Dragon Children's Foundation Drop-in Centre. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
Brosowski intrinsically understood the children’s hunger for opportunity and success, himself having grown up poor in a farm in Northern New South Wales. Even before he moved to Vietnam, he was working with children of refugees and migrants from Cambodia and Vietnam as a school teacher in Southwestern Sydney. It sparked his interest in the region.
“I first came to Vietnam in 1998 on a holiday, and absolutely fell in love with it,” said Brosowski. “So I moved here to live in 2002, and started teaching in the University of Economics.
“After work on the way home or on the weekends, I would see young people working on the streets, maybe shining shoes or selling something. I would just sit by the side of the road and chat with these kids, and I found that they had really interesting and compelling stories,” he said.
“I could see that these were good people who wanted something good in life, so for me it was a very easy decision to start teaching some classes and helping out if anybody were sick."
A group of street children living and playing on supporting structure of the Long Bien Bridge. (Photo: Do Duy Vi)
His efforts motivated others to do the same. “Some of my university students found out and they wanted to get involved. So very quickly, me just teaching a bit of English every now and then became this regular activity. We started a soccer club. There were regular classes. And finally, we realised that these kids wanted to get off the streets, so we opened a house for them to live in.”
In late 2003, Blue Dragon was born.
Brosowski left teaching to focus on his work at the foundation. “At first I tried to do both, but Blue Dragon took up my life,” he said. “Australia is still my home, but this is where my heart is. I just live here with my two dogs, Blue Dragon really is my life.”
BACK HOME AND BACK TO SCHOOL
Blue Dragon also became home for Vi, who by then had been living on the streets for more than a year. “It was a friendly and warm environment. We played games there. For such a long time, we haven't had fun. That made me want to come back, because we felt someone care for us.”
Entrance of Blue Dragon Children's Foundation's Drop-in Centre. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
A few months later, Brosowski asked Vi if he wanted to go back to school, but Vi hesitated. “I said yes, but I needed to make money for my family, so I could not go back to school,” Vi said. “Michael then met my mother and father, and supported them with some money, so I was able to go back to live at home and go back to study.”
Seven years ago, after a successful stint as a top bartender in a five-star hotel, Vi decided to return to Blue Dragon as full-time staff, reaching out to street children whose circumstances reflected his own more than a decade ago.
Where some Hanoi street children find shelter at night. (Photo: Do Duy Vi)
“CHILDREN OF THE DUST”
In Vietnam, children who live or work on the streets are often called “tre bui doi”, which means “children of the dust". It is a nod to their state of vagrancy or them having been abandoned. They move without purpose, like dust.
According to a study by Vietnam’s Youth Research Institute, 75 per cent of street children in Hanoi are boys. Most of them originate from Thanh Hoa, an impoverished coastal province south of Hanoi. Others come from provinces around Hanoi, including Phu Tho, Hung Yen, Ha Nam, Nam Dinh, Bac Giang and Nghe An.
Street children sleeping on the park bench. (Photo: Do Duy Vi)
Statistics on the number of street children in Hanoi vary. The Ministry of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs of Vietnam (MOLISA) estimates that there are 23,000 street children throughout Vietnam and 1,500 in Hanoi. Some independent NGOs suggest higher figures.
Brosowski believes there are more street kids than it appears. “The problem is quite well concealed here in Hanoi. The children may be well-dressed, they may have a place to sleep, but they're still homeless and vulnerable. It's very hard to count them, but the problem is very severe.”
Staff of the foundation have met children on the streets who are as young as 6 and 7 years old. However, most children they meet and serve are teenagers between 14 to 16 years old.
“When the kids first come here, they may be sleeping on park benches, or on bridges. We've met kids who sleep in trees,” said Brosowski.
“But once they form a network, once they meet some other street kids, they might also find Internet cafes where they can sleep. These cafes run 24 hours a day, and as long as the kids are spending money on their computers, they can also sleep there. So the challenge for the kids is how to earn that money.”
Street boy playing on the Long Bien Bridge. (Photo: Do Duy Vi)
While some children resort to scavenging, begging or stealing, others fall prey to drug syndicates or child sex rings - a growing concern for the staff at Blue Dragon.
CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE
“There are a lot of people who will prey on the children, to prey on that vulnerability that they need money to survive. One big concern recently is this issue of children being caught up in selling sex,” said Brosowski. "It's a relatively new problem for the city on the scale that we now see.”
MOLISA reported in 2012 that approximately 1,000 children in Vietnam were reported to be sexually abused per year. However, NGOs noted the difficulty of obtaining accurate data on the prevalence of child sexual abuse, which may be under-reported.
Blue Dragon’s own data shows that many cases of sexual abuse of street children involve male victims. In the past two years, its outreach team in Hanoi has encountered 56 such cases. According to the foundation, “the stigma of admitting to abuse easily prevents the reporting of the crime".
In addition, boys are not protected by the laws covering child sexual abuse due to the way “sexual intercourse” is defined in Vietnam. In response, Blue Dragon began to work closely with the police and legislators in 2013 to make arrests and reform the penal code.
Vadim Scott Benderman, a Canadian man convicted of sexually abusing four homeless teenage boys in Hanoi. Police said the man frequented some lakes and parks in the city where he would approach homeless boys and ask them to follow him to his place. He had sex with the boys, aged 13-15, and paid them VND100,000-400,000 (US$5-18) each time. He was sentenced to four years in prison in Hanoi. (Photo released by Hanoi police.)
Their efforts paid off last year when five men, both Vietnamese and foreign, were arrested for abusing boys under the Child Obscenity law. It was the first time paedophiles preying on boys were charged, although sentences are much lower than for sexual abuse.
“We've had a lot of success working with the authorities on the issue of street boys being sexually abused. We've brought attention to that issue from being a taboo topic to a subject that the mainstream media has been willing to tackle,” said Brosowski.
In November 2015, the National Assembly Law Review Panel approved some amendments to the Penal Code to broaden the scope of child sexual abuse law to include male victims. However, It has yet to be signed into effect.
Despite the progress so far, Brosowski revealed that Vietnamese authorities have their hands tied due to limited resources. “The government doesn't have the resources to work carefully and closely with children who might come from a thousand miles away. That's where an organisation like Blue Dragon has an important role to play. We have the social workers and the expertise. We can work in liaison with the authorities, and get those children either home, or to a safe shelter in Blue Dragon.”
Children playing music at Blue Dragon Children's Foundation. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
KEEPING CHILDREN IN SCHOOL
Doi Moi - or economic reforms - that the Vietnamese government adopted in the late 1980s has significantly widened the disparities between the rich and the poor and between rural and city dwellers. To get by, poor families in the rural areas often send their children to work in the fields rather than to school.
A 2014 report by the US State Department estimated that there are 1.75 million child labourers in Vietnam, of which 80 per cent are in the rural regions, and 60 per cent work in agriculture. Approximately 60 per cent of these child labourers are are male, and 52 per cent of them have dropped out of school.
Such hardship is a significant factor driving children to leave home to work on the streets. To keep more of them at home and in school, some NGOs focus their efforts in the impoverished rural regions. One such example is Singapore-based real estate company CapitaLand.
Students and staff of CapitaLand Nang Yen Primary Hope School, in a group picture with staff volunteers from CapitaLand. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
In 2011, through its charity arm CapitaLand Hope Foundation, the company funded the construction of CapitaLand Nang Yen Primary Hope School in Phu Tho Province, one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam. So far, the foundation has funded the construction of three Hope Schools in Vietnam.
“Now the kids can study in spacious, beautiful classes which are cozy in winter and cool in summer,” said Ho Hai Yen, principal of Nang Yen Primary Hope School. Teachers used to conduct classes here out of makeshift classrooms made from clay and leaves. “Now the children can participate in many activities in a clean schoolyard. Going to school is now a joy,” she added.
Sports Day at CapitaLand Nang Yen Primary Hope School. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
“When we look at areas where help is needed, I think the rural area is where the kids would need a lot more support, so that's where we want to focus our effort,” said Mr Lim Ming Yan, CapitaLand president and Group CEO. “Helping the young kids really is to prepare them for a brighter future, to help them break out of the poverty trap.”
Beyond infrastructural improvements, CapitaLand’s Vietnam-based staff also organise regular volunteer visits to the schools and provide continual outreach to the children. Efforts like these can make a huge impact to poor communities, according to Brosowski. Blue Dragon staff pays frequent visits to villages where the street children come from.
“We found that we've been able to go to some very remote, very poor areas and with a little bit of help, assisted to improve their schools, to build a kindergarten, even to build a road to connect their village to the highway. Sometimes it's a very simple solution that helps communities take control of their own destiny,” Brosowski said.
“We've seen villages that used to have a lot of their children leave to go to the cities, that are now caring places where children do not leave.”
CapitaLand Nang Yen Primary Hope School Grade 5 students. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
DIFFICULT TO BUILD TRUST
Besides extreme poverty, rural kids often leave home because of family or social problems such as death of a parent, domestic violence, or abandonment.
“We have a lot of children who've been abused at home, and can't stay with their family or don't have family to stay with. Building trust with them,” Brosowski emphasised, “is a lot more difficult.”
The United Nations estimated in 2011 that 25 per cent of children in Vietnam were victims of child abuse, as indicated by their mothers during a study on domestic violence.
“One of the saddest things I see is that a lot of kids we meet today don't believe that somebody would do something good for them without expecting something in return. They don't believe that there is that goodness in people. So we really have to show them that our care for them is unconditional - that even if they go wild, even if they do something wrong, we still care for them. When they can see that, then they know they're in a safe place.”
Street children going home for a visit, accompanied by Blue Dragon staff. (Photo: Do Duy Vi)
BIG CITY DREAMS
The rapid economic development in Vietnam today is another major contributing factor to the street kid problem, Brosowski believes.
“Everywhere in the world we talk about a generation gap, but in a country like Vietnam, that generation gap is enormous. Parents may have a 13 or 14-year-old child, who’s got the Internet or television, who can see the world, but the parents may have lived through war and famine. It can be very hard for the parents and children to understand each other,” he said.
“Children might see another family, another village, another town has more than they do. The child may dream of having more. And of course people look at the cities thinking that's where all the good stuff happens. If we go to the city we'll have a good life. So the expectations are very high. Children are drawn to that, thinking it's the solution to their problems. In fact coming to the city may make their problems far worse.”
"In a country like Vietnam, that generation gap is enormous” - Michael Brosowski, founder of Blue Dragon Children's Foundation. (Photo: Doo Duy Vi)
Over the years, Blue Dragon has saved hundreds of children from the perils of living on the streets. “Even though they may grow up and move on, nobody really leaves Blue Dragon,” Brosowski proudly proclaimed.
“We stay in contact with just about everybody. We even have some young people who are now in prison, and we still go and visit them. When they're released, they will probably come here as their first stop before they go home. So we continue the relationships with young people.”
Like Do Duy Vi, three other beneficiaries of Blue Dragon’s programmes have returned to the organisation to bring hope to other “children of the dust”.
Do Duy Vi during a regular outreach at Hanoi's historical Hoan Kiem Lake. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
“I remember when I was on the street, I was always looking for hope, looking for someone to help me, so I want to give a chance to other street kids,” said Vi. “That's what keeps me working here.”