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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May’s Story

May’s Story

Written by Michael Brosowski

Mrs Do and her husband An were working in the fields the day May disappeared.

When they came home for dinner, their daughter was gone.

At first they thought she might be playing with some friends. Or maybe she had gone to the nearby market. Surely she would be home soon, they told themselves.

But May had vanished. As night set in, their only child did not return and a deep panic gripped Do and An. Every parents’ worst nightmare had come to life in their tiny village, high up in the mountains of north-central Vietnam.

This is the reality of human trafficking: lives turned upside down, families destroyed, childhoods stolen. And this is why we must continue to fight against trafficking and slavery in all its forms, wherever it exists.

Michael Brosowski Not For Sale Vietnam Director

The rumours and speculation began almost immediately. May was not the only person missing: a woman from a neighboring house was also gone. Was there a connection?

Gradually it became clear that May had been visited by the neighbor, and that they went together to the bus station. The police set out to find them, but they were long gone and nobody knew where they went.

May had been taken by a trafficker. It was 2009.

The inexplicable loss of their daughter destroyed Do and An. They blamed themselves: if only they hadn’t left May alone. If only they had asked a relative to look after her. If only they had told her to stay inside and not go out with anyone. If only they had taken her to the fields that day…

They searched and searched, but found nothing. Was May taken to China? Or to Laos, which is not far from their village? Was she even alive?

As the days turned into weeks and months, Do and An were torn between grieving their daughter and hoping she would come home unharmed. Needing to dull the pain, An turned to drugs, finding relief in the numbness and punishing himself for his failure as a father.

May’s mother wanted to believe that all was not lost. For the first five years, she spent every Lunar New Year at the bus station, hoping that a bus would pull up and May would step down into her arms. But after five years, she could take it no more. Do went to the bus station one last time and boarded a bus to Ho Chi Minh City. She could no longer torture herself with hope and watch her husband slowly kill himself with heroin.

The years passed, and still there was no news of May. At one time Do, working in the south of Vietnam, heard that the neighbor who took her daughter was now living in Laos. An continued to descend further into his addiction, until finally he was arrested and sent to a drug rehab centre.

And then, a miracle: in July this year, May made contact through social media.

After 11 years in slavery – first as a wife and then resold into domestic servitude – she finally met someone who showed sympathy and gave her a smartphone. May went online to search for her family. She couldn’t locate her parents, but found an old school friend who raised the alarm.

Not For Sale Vietnam partners Blue Dragon sent a team to find and repatriate May in early August. Her rescue was further complicated by the travel restrictions caused by COVID-19, but we got her back to Vietnam safely and she entered mandatory quarantine along the border.

Mrs Do could not believe it. May’s return to Vietnam had seemed impossible. As soon as we told her that May was alive and safe, she left her home of the past six years and returned to her village to await May’s release from quarantine.

May was 12 when she was taken – a girl wondering what joys life would hold for her. Today she is 23 and has already lived through more terror and fear than most of us will know in all our lives.

But she is home. On Saturday, May and her mother Do held each other for the first time in over a decade. In that moment, all the pain they have been through was washed away.

This is not a happy ending – not yet, anyway. We will work with May and her mother to set things right: to find the trafficker, wherever she is, and bring her to justice. To reunite May with her father An, so that his pain too can find some release. And to give May a chance at having the life she deserves.

It will be a long, long road to healing. Much of what May and her family has lost can never be recovered.

This is the reality of human trafficking: lives turned upside down, families destroyed, childhoods stolen. And this is why we must continue to fight against trafficking and slavery in all its forms, wherever it exists.

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Morphing

Morphing

Written by Michael Brosowski

Has COVID-19 slowed down the global trade in human beings?

With the world reeling from the impact of the coronavirus, we should be seeing a glimmer of hope in this fight against trafficking.

After all, in this current situation the movement of people is much more difficult. If ever there was a time that trafficking would slow down it would be now… right?

Except that it’s not. Trafficking IS much more difficult at the moment, so traffickers are finding new ways to exploit people.

Instead of trafficking ending, it’s morphing.

Ending human trafficking may take many years. We must be relentless and ever on guard. Organisations set up to fight trafficking must be agile by design, ready to shift and change gears just as the traffickers do.

Michael Brosowski Not For Sale Vietnam Director

In the past 4 months, Not For Sale Vietnam partners Blue Dragon have assisted 7 pregnant women who were being trafficked to China for their babies to be taken and sold.

This week, Vietnam’s border guards intercepted a ring that was taking 6 pregnant women.

What’s the big picture here? It seems that the traffickers have done their own ‘strategic pivot’ to keep up with the changing times. It may be harder to sell women, but they can more readily sell babies.

We’ve come across surrogacy trafficking before, but what we’re seeing now is more consistent and targeted. It’s looking like a surge in this form of exploitation is underway.

And separately to the trafficking of pregnant women, we have seen a sudden spike in underage girls being taken from rural villages – usually ethnic minority communities – and sold within Vietnam to brothels, or to businesses that are fronts for brothels.

These incidents show us that traffickers just won’t stop. They will keep adapting, keep finding new ways to harm people, keep exploiting loopholes.

And that might make the fight against trafficking sound hopeless, but it’s not.

As long as the traffickers morph, we must too. For every loophole that they find, we have to close it.

Ending human trafficking may take many years. We must be relentless and ever on guard. Organisations set up to fight trafficking must be agile by design, ready to shift and change gears just as the traffickers do.

And we need a whole range of actions to intervene, not just a single approach. Families and communities need opportunities for employment and education, support to escape poverty, and assistance to bring trafficked people home and to heal. Governments need support for legal reform and for training those who are in a position to make a difference – like police and community leaders.

Combating human trafficking is complex and dynamic. What worked yesterday may not work today.

The traffickers can keep morphing, but so can we. And if we continue to adapt to the constant changes, we will win this fight against human trafficking.

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