The Decision

The Decision

Written by Michael Brosowski

Tung’s early years had wonderful moments of joy.

He has some very happy memories of his mother. They travelled together on holidays, and when she was sick he stayed with her at their home, nursing her through the long nights of her fever.

When she died, Tung’s world turned upside down.

He was still just a child, barely a teenager. But the extended family looked to him as somehow to blame for the bad luck that had fallen on the household. A mix of superstition and long-held resentment bubbled to the surface, and Tung was driven from the house into a pig sty where he slept alone.

His carefree childhood was gone.

Phuong’s situation looked almost impossible… and anything that’s “almost” impossible is possible.

Michael Brosowski Not For Sale Vietnam Director

Tung knew he had to fend for himself. He refused to be treated so badly by his uncles and cousins, so he decided to leave. With nothing in his pocket, and no need of a bag, he hopped on a bus to the city.

He had never thought that he might one day be a ‘street kid’. In fact he’d never heard the term before. But his new life was exactly that: sleeping rough, living from day to day.

Tung was smart and quickly connected with other teen boys like himself. They too had traveled to Hanoi from their villages in search of a better life. They too were broke, homeless, and desperate.

Sometimes Tung was lucky. Sometimes he would find a job on a building site or with a work crew, and earn enough to get by. But there was always someone who would make trouble, or demand too much of the little boy. None of the jobs ever lasted very long.

After some months, when he thought he was at rock bottom, life took an even worse turn. Tung was spotted by a pimp and became the target of a ring of men exploiting homeless kids.

Tung was a good looking boy, and became a favourite for the men. At first he followed them out of a desperation to survive – he simply needed money so he could eat and have a place to sleep.

As time went on, going with the men was a way to punish himself. Tung hated what they did to him. He hated their lies and their manipulations. He hated the way they treated him as an object to be used and discarded. But he began believing that he deserved the pain, that it was payback for all his life’s failings. And so he kept going.

At the time Not For Sale Vietnam partners Blue Dragon met Tung, as an organisation we were overwhelmed with similar cases. Most of the homeless boys we met on the streets of the city had been abused, and their stories were horrifying.

We were in the early days of exposing the networks of pimps, and working with the authorities to change the law so that abusing boys was clearly forbidden. We feared that the harm done to Tung might be more than we could help with.

Tung was damaged – there’s no other way to say it. He lived in a cycle of harm and self-loathing. He wanted our help, but couldn’t accept that he deserved it.

Sometimes we meet kids on the streets and they instantly become a part of Blue Dragon. For some kids, like Tung, it’s a much longer process. Tung would be at the centre some days, and then disappear for a week. He’d be the happiest kid at the shelter one night, and then be fighting with everyone the next, before walking out and heading back to the streets.

Tung needed someone to believe in him – no matter what. He needed someone to stand up for him, to go out looking for him when he didn’t come home, and to see him for who he was, not for what he had done. He found all of that in Blue Dragon.

Over many months, Tung would come and go. Everything would be fine one day, and the next he would be gone. From time to time the police would detain him for getting into a scuffle on the street, or some minor offense, and they’d call Blue Dragon to come pick him up.

On one of these occasions, Tung was in custody for some days. The morning of his release, one of the Blue Dragon staff rode down on their motorbike to pick him up.

As they headed towards the shelter, the staff took some money from their pocket and handed it back to Tung with a simple offer: “You can take this if you like and head back out to see your friends. You’ll always be welcome at Blue Dragon and you can come see us any time. Or we can go back right now to the shelter and start over. It’s your choice, and we’ll always be friends no matter what.”

This stint in custody was to be Tung’s last. His mind was made up. “I’m staying with Blue Dragon,” Tung told the social worker. “Please take me home.”

It took several years for Tung to settle down and return to school. He eventually did some training and then got a job in music and hospitality – which he’s brilliant at. It was a bumpy ride, but he got there in the end.

When Vietnamese law changed, his main abusers were arrested and imprisoned. Seeing justice served was important to his healing. Eventually Tung found his freedom, while those who harmed him have lost theirs.

As time goes by, the pain of his past has washed away into distant memory. Tung is a young man now, leading a happy life that he has defined for himself: he has not let those terrible years on the streets dictate what his future will be like.

And earlier this month, Tung reached a beautiful new milestone in life. He is now a father.

As he held his son for the first time, Tung’s eyes shone with a brightness that has been missing since he was a child himself. In becoming a parent, Tung dreams of giving his boy a life that’s safe and loving and free from all the hardships that he has known.

The cycle of pain does not have to continue. Tung has broken it, and in his son’s new life, Tung has a chance to make the world a better place.

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Almost Impossible

Almost Impossible

Written by Michael Brosowski

Phuong disappeared 3 years ago. She was offered a chance to work in a restaurant in another town, and followed someone she thought was a friend.

At the time, Phuong felt lucky. As a child, a terrible motorbike accident severed one of her legs, leaving her with a permanent disability. She doubted whether she could ever find a steady job and lead an independent life.

Phuong did all she could to turn her life around. At great expense she had a prosthetic leg fitted and worked hard to be mobile again. But nobody would employ her.

The offer from her friend was the best news she’d had in years, coming shortly after she had given birth to a baby girl. Her fear of how she could afford to raise her child led her to take the job offer immediately.

Phuong’s situation looked almost impossible… and anything that’s “almost” impossible is possible.

Michael Brosowski Not For Sale Vietnam Director

It’s a common and deeply cruel trick of the traffickers: find people who are desperate to improve their lives, and prey on their hope. We see this in virtually every case of trafficking that we encounter.

Phuong’s hope turned to horror and then despair. She was taken to China and sold to a man who wanted a wife so he could have children to carry on the family name.

Through all the hardship of her life, Phuong knows a thing or two about courage. She refused to give up hope. Every day was a new chance to escape.

Three years passed. The terror of being bought and kept as a possession became a daily reality. But Phuong continued looking for a way out.

She took the chance to make a call for help one night when everyone else was sleeping. The message reached Blue Dragon soon after, and we could see that this rescue operation would not be like others we have done.

In most rescues, we rely on the victim to communicate with us through text message on a smart phone. But Phuong is illiterate. We had to talk directly on the phone, knowing that every phone call creates a risk of being overheard and caught.

We also rely on the victim being mobile enough to run, or at least to move quickly, during the escape. Phuong told us clearly that this would be out of the question. Her prosthetic leg is old and poorly fitted; this rescue would need to be taken slowly and gently.

It was as though the trafficker had prepared for a rescue attempt in advance. Phuong was deep inside China, far from the safety of the border. Once Phuong was with us, we would have a long, slow journey ahead.

But this is what Blue Dragon does. We find people in crisis situations – people who may have nothing but the slightest fragment of hope – and we bring that hope to life.

Phuong’s situation looked almost impossible… and anything that’s “almost” impossible is possible. After months of planning we sent a team to find her and get her out. Following two weeks of travel within China, Phuong crossed the border back into Vietnam.

A rescue operation is never the end of the story. Much remains to be done.

Phuong will need years of care and assistance to recover from this ordeal. The traffickers must be caught. Phuong is in quarantine now, and when she is released we will take her home to meet her 3 year old child, who has grown up not knowing anything about her mother.

For Phuong to finally have a good life, she’ll need a new prosthetic leg and some help to learn a trade and start a new job – when she’s ready.

The road ahead is long and winding. But for today, we can celebrate that Phuong is free, and for the first time in a long time has a chance for something better in life.

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A Little Boy Found

A Little Boy Found

Written by Michael Brosowski

It was about a year ago that Dak first came to Not For Sale Vietnam partners Blue Dragon.

His journey to Hanoi, where he met a social worker on the streets, is one of those incredible stories that could well be made into a film one day.

He had run away from home in the southernmost point of Vietnam, Phu Quoc Island, and over many months made his way to the north. Dak never had a plan or a sense of where he was going; he had nowhere to be and noone to see. So he just travelled.

Whatever money he had in his pocket, he would use to buy a bus ticket. When he could go no further, he would spend time in the strange new town or city, living alone on the streets and surviving by begging or working.

As Blue Dragon social workers took turns to sit by his bedside in the hospital, holding his hand and wiping the sweat from his face, he knew that he had found his family.

Michael Brosowski Not For Sale Vietnam Director

Life on the road might sound romantic, but Dak was only 13 years old. Being alone was hard, and he regularly went hungry.

On the night he met Tinh, a Blue Dragon social worker, at a Hanoi lake, Dak hadn’t eaten in days. He was desperate for a place to lay down and sleep without fear of harassment. The Blue Dragon safe house was an oasis – all the food he could he eat and a soft bed all his own.

For social worker Tinh, the meeting was also a memorable event. Tinh had been working for Blue Dragon at that time for just a few months. The chance to help street kids was his dream job.

Growing up in a remote mountainous region in an ethnic Tay community, Tinh knew hardship. Despite his family’s own poverty, he had been determined to study and get through school, even though that meant leaving home at age 14 to live in boarding houses while he studied.

Putting himself through university to earn a social work degree was another major challenge – but he did it, and when he graduated from his studies and joined Blue Dragon it was precisely so that he could help kids like Dak.

But this was not to be a ‘happy ever after’ story – not yet.

As Dak regained his strength with some rest and good food, he set his mind on hitting the road again. He simply didn’t believe that Blue Dragon, or any person, would really care for him. His life was littered with rejection and hardship; he figured he would be better on his own.

Such is Dak’s personal ethic that he didn’t just leave. He came to tell us he was going. We tried to change his mind, but his decision was made, even though he had no plan and didn’t know what would come next. All we could do was give him some money so that he would have food in his belly for a few days, and let him know he could come back any time.

The next time we saw Dak, everything was different.

Several months had passed. Vietnam was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. A nationwide lockdown was imminent. Dak was back on the streets of Hanoi, and he was very sick.

The hospital diagnosed him with Influenza A, but for a few worrying hours we feared he might have coronavirus. He was weak and thin, coughing badly and struggling for breath.

Dak was glad to be found again, and as Blue Dragon social workers took turns to sit by his bedside in the hospital, holding his hand and wiping the sweat from his face, he knew that he had found his family.

Since that day, Dak has been with Blue Dragon. He’ll be turning 15 soon and he’s gone back to school to pick up where he left off, in Grade 6.

During the week, he remembered that it was a year since he first met Tinh. So Dak asked a special favour.

He wanted to go with Tinh back to the lake in the centre of town, to the very spot where they first met, to take a photo marking the moment that changed his life.

Dak’s story is far from over. There will be days when he faces new difficulties, and days he will experience great joy.

But come what may, he knows he’ll never be lost again. Wherever he ends up, he’ll always know that he has a place where he belongs.

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An Everyday Hero

An Everyday Hero

Written by Michael Brosowski

In coming weeks, Not For Sale Vietnam partners Blue Dragon will reach the milestone of 1,000 people rescued from slavery.
Many people wonder exactly how we conduct these rescues. While we have to be careful about revealing operational information that might put our staff or others in danger, there are a few things we can say.
Blue Dragon’s approach is non-confrontational. We don’t fight. We also don’t negotiate or pay traffickers off. Instead, we help people escape and flee to safety.
So how do we do that? Our approach, and the implementation of every rescue, is guided by one man: Blue Dragon’s chief lawyer, Van Ta.

We can’t all go out rescuing people like Van does, but each of us can find our own way to make our world better. Whether that’s in our own street, our own school, our own community, or across the planet, we all have a part to play.

Director of Not For Sale Vietnam

Van started with Blue Dragon as a volunteer while he was still in law school. Today he not only leads our rescue work: he also represents victims of trafficking in court and spearheads our legal reform projects, which create a national impact for our protection and advocacy work.

Van is a hero. But he’s also something else: an ordinary human being.
Thomson Reuters Foundation has created an animated film about Van, to share his life and work with a behind-the-scenes look into what drives him and keeps him going.

Take a few minutes to look behind the curtain at the man who has rescued almost 1,000 people from slavery.
Be inspired, but don’t forget: Van is just one person.

We can’t all go out rescuing people like Van does, but each of us can find our own way to make our world better. Whether that’s in our own street, our own school, our own community, or across the planet, we all have a part to play.

We all can be an everyday hero.

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Life After

Life After

Written by Michael Brosowski

When Anh was rescued from slavery in June, she returned to Vietnam hoping to start life over.

Trafficked at age 13, she was held captive in a forced marriage in Inner Mongolia for 5 years. Her rescue was complex and dangerous, and Not For Sale Vietnam partners Blue Dragon brought her home to a deeply emotional reunion with her mother in southern Vietnam.  

But there was something that nobody, even Anh, knew: she was 8 months pregnant. This was only revealed in a medical checkup, and shortly after returning home Anh delivered twins – a boy and a girl. They were premature, but otherwise healthy. More about the story of Anh’s rescue and reunion can be found in our earlier post, A Shocking Revelation.

Life after trafficking will never be normal. There will always be scars, and all that has happened will remain as her history, her memory.  But that doesn’t mean that her life has to be hopeless. With love and care, and the resources to start a new life, Anh has reason to believe that there are better days ahead.

Not For Sale Vietnam Director

Not yet 3 months since their birth, Anh has grown accustomed to being a mother. The terrible shock that she first experienced in learning of her pregnancy has given way to pride and love of her beautiful babies.  But life remains difficult. Her house is in very poor condition; she and her mother have no savings and of course no job; and Anh is adjusting to being home after 5 years of living in terror in another country, while her curious community chats and gossips at the oddness of her situation.

Every survivor of trafficking faces their own unique challenges in going home – or “reintegration” as the NGO jargon coldly calls it. But one experience commonly shared is a sense of no longer fitting in; of having been through something terrible that nobody else can understand. It adds to their isolation and feelings of rejection.  Blue Dragon has been staying in close contact with Anh since her return home, and we’re working with her on how to cope with all the many difficulties she’s facing. Our psychologists speak on the phone with her daily, and the twins see a doctor regularly to check on their progress.

Last week, Anh took a new step in her recovery by starting to work and earn her own money.

Her sister bought a cart that can sit by the side of the road, and Blue Dragon provided money for them to buy supplies to get started making drinks and snacks to sell.

 The sisters share the business, so Anh can work when she wants and know that she’s taking back control of her own life. Her mother is only too happy to look after the twins while she’s working, but in fact the stall is right outside their house so she’s never far away.

Apart from giving her an income, the business is already proving to have another benefit for Anh’s life. One of her great fears since going home has been how to connect with other people; after all, the last time she was at home she was a child herself.

Now she’s finding that the stall gives her a connection to the community. People stop and chat without any awkwardness or judgement; Anh’s side-of-the-road business is just like any other that can be found throughout Vietnam. And Anh is enjoying the casual conversations, which let her mind drift away from thinking about her difficulties and the trauma she has suffered.

For Anh, life after trafficking will never be normal. There will always be scars, and all that has happened will remain as her history, her memory.  But that doesn’t mean that her life has to be hopeless. With love and care, and the resources to start a new life, Anh has reason to believe that there are better days ahead.

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