Breathing Fire Into the Darkness: Spotlight on Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation
During the summer of 2018, I went on a solo backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. My growing interest in and support for global nonprofits (which stemmed out of my work at Vitamin Angels) inspired me to give more purpose to my trip: rather than travel for the sake of traveling, I wanted to use the opportunity to share the stories of NGOs in the areas I visited. The team at Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, located in Hanoi, Vietnam, warmly welcomed me into their world and shared the moving stories behind their life-changing work.
The epithet “Land of the Blue Dragon” traces back to ancient Vietnamese folklore.
According to oral mythology, the people of Vietnam are descendants of a fairy and a dragon. But Thanh Nguyen, the Communications and Fundraising Manager at Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation in Hanoi, revealed that the organization’s name does not reflect the legend.
“Blue is the color for peace, and the color for where Michael [Brosowski], our founder, is from—Australia has very blue oceans and skies,” she shared. “And the dragon is a symbol of courage and bravery in Asia.”
She related the dragon’s attributes to those that Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation serves: street children, victims of human and sexual abuse/trafficking, and individuals missing legal papers. But courage and bravery are also apt descriptors for the organization’s employees, who regularly risk their own safety and well-being to carry out the organization’s mission.
Now in its fifteenth year, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation has expanded to not only impact the lives of over 50,000 children and families, but to also address and change the systematic, underlying problems that contribute to their circumstances.
“At Blue Dragon, first we work with individuals who call for help. Through the individual stories we see the big problems in the law,” Luong Lê Thi, the Anti-Trafficking Coordinator at Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, explained. “So then we work with the communities and the government authorities to treat that. Of course, it takes time.”
An alarming—and growing—issue that the foundation faces is one that requires greater intervention.
“Notably in the last few years, we’ve dealt with a lot more cases of kids being sexually abused, especially boys,” Nguyen noted. Initially, Lê Thi added, “In Vietnam, for the rape of a girl who is under age 13, the offender may receive a death sentence. But until this year, the punishment for abusing a boy was a maximum of 12 years’ imprisonment.”
In efforts to increase and equalize the penalties, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation has worked with the government for several years to implement changes in the law. Recent significant changes in the penal code marked a notable step forward, and testified to the foundation’s indefatigable work.
“As of January 1, 2018, there are significant changes to the provisions of sexual crime acts in the new penal code,” Lê Thi said. Amongst other amendments, “The revised law means that those prosecuted with rape or having sexual intercourse with children, male or female, can be convicted for a crime that has a punishment with sentences that include the death penalty.”
“The calls for help we’ve received have been increasing, last year by 150 percent.”
But while Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is helping to make changes for the better, the threats they pursue are adapting for the worse. Due to the expansion of new industries and technologies, attackers have even more resources at their disposal.
“Traffickers are very cunning because it’s such a lucrative industry. They change the way they’re working; they build the trust with the victims. It can be a boyfriend, a friend of a cousin, a neighbor—even classmates sell their friends,” Nguyen said. “A lot of them nowadays use social media and target the girls online, and pretend to be their boyfriend.”
Contrary to the stereotypes, though, not all predators are male.
“Women do it a lot; they pose as a kind neighbor or acquaintance,” Nguyen pointed out. “It’s actually a lot easier to believe an older woman than a man. So a lot of traffickers are a woman, or a couple.”
This chameleonic approach often proves profitable, allowing traffickers to easily source victims in Vietnam’s urban and rural areas. Whether they’re used for domestic or out-of-country exploitation, the victims typically end up sold as brides, brothel workers, or laborers. Although the circumstances are not exclusive to boys or girls, males are traditionally recruited for the latter.
“Before it’d be more so garment factories that we’d rescue them from, but gold mining is a whole new world with a lot more money involved,” Nguyen said. “Often they’re being drugged, and the mafia leads the mines, so it’s a lot more difficult to find them. We’ve rescued 20 kids or so from the gold mines. But recently, we’ve rescued more boys being trafficked for labor in plantation or forestry in China.”
In regard to girls, “The calls for help we’ve received has been increasing, last year by 150 percent,” Nguyen disclosed. One woman, Lê Thi’s first case, contributed to that growing statistic.
“We support not only children, but all who are victims,” Lê Thisaid. “This woman had three children and had to raise them by herself. Someone invited her to go to China for a job so she could earn good payment for her children. But she was sold as a bride.”
The memory was from years prior, but Lê Thi recalled it vividly.
“She contacted her family and we rescued her, but when she came back she was pregnant—so now there’s one mother, four children,” she continued. The rescue occurred in 2014, but Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation doesn’t put a time limit on their advocacy.
“We keep supporting her little by little, and hope one day she can be strong enough to be independent,” Lê Thisaid. While the story’s ending is still unwritten, she is optimistic. With every case, “When you see just a little transformation from him or her, it’s a reward.”
“The police in Vietnam often think their job is to fight against the crimes, not to protect the victims.”
But Nguyen and Lê Thi agree that preemptive measures reap their own recompenses.
“The challenge with anti-trafficking work is that we can only identify the case when it’s already happened. They get ahold of a phone or internet and make contact back to Vietnam. But we still feel reactive, and we want to more proactive,” Nguyen said.
Part of that goal, Lê Thi shared, involves collaborating with entire communities, law enforcement officials, and governments on a fundamental level.
“We do not rescue the kids alone. We always work with the partners before we conduct a rescue so we try to get everything ready, and with the rescue we’ll invite the local police or the local officers from where the child comes from to raid the factory,” Lê Thi said. But as of late, they’ve made a point to engage their partners outside of the rescues.
“We work with the government partners and conduct on-the-job training. The police in Vietnam often think their job is to fight against the crimes, not to protect the victims. But through our communications and the ways we support the victims, the police see that,” she said.
“At present, we are conducting assessments and surveys in each province about their challenges, difficulties, and what they need to end human trafficking in Vietnam. We work not only with victims as individuals; we see provinces where there are many victims, so we work with the whole communities to help them be more resilient to human trafficking.”
By staying aware and educated, tourists can contribute to the end of trafficking and abuse as well.
“If you buy something really cheap, like garments, question how it is made,” Nguyen suggested. “It’s best that we find out the origin of our products, so we don’t enforce that kind of exploitation.”
Aside from donating, supporters of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation’s work can also fundraise on their behalf.
“We do all our work based on the needs we see. Not because we work on A, B, and C and only have kids with ABC; everything we do is around what that kid needs,” Nguyen said. “If you want to help with nutrition, it’s $3 per day for one child. Education normally is around $300 per year for one kid. The average cost for a rescue is $3,000, from investigation all the way down to reuniting the girl with their families. Or a counseling session is twenty-five dollars...”
The seemingly endless list of options is evidence of the foundation’s dedication and scope. But ideally, Nguyen shared, it won’t be exclusive to the organization for much longer.
“We want to build the model and prove that it works, so that the government can replicate it to other provinces and locations. From the start to the end we identify cases, do prevention, rescue directly, and we provide psychological care to help them recover,” she listed.
“Many organizations focus on one or two steps, but we do all of that. So we want to make it as a model and trial the model in one specific province. From there, if we can prove that it works, then it can be replicated to other provinces in Vietnam, so we can work on it together.”
Their endeavor is noble, albeit lofty. But then again, so are dragons.