A war without glory

A war without glory

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Conversations about human trafficking often use the language of war.

We’re fighting slavery. Combatting human trafficking. And anti-trafficking movements – like anti-war movements – abound.

If the fight against trafficking really is like a war, it is a war without hope of any glory.

The world is taken at present with the example of Ukrainian people, whose courage and determination to fight is inspiring. Stories like those of parents and grandparents arming themselves with molotov cocktails, or farmers stealing tanks, make us all wonder if we could be so brave should we be in the same situation.

But for victims of human trafficking, the fight for freedom does not always look so heroic.

Surviving is often a matter of waiting and looking for an opportunity – perhaps holding on for years. While many do resist, it is often safer to succumb, to submit, while secretly keeping alive the hope that one day there will be a chance for escape.

Those who do survive trafficking are likely then to find themselves blamed for their own ordeal. I wrote recently on the blog about this issue, and how even people meaning to do well may be putting survivors through renewed trauma.

Last week, Ly’s ordeal of slavery in Myanmar came to an end after two very long years. She was 19 when she was tricked into following a friend, believing they were off to find a job in a restaurant.

Her time locked into brothels in the Shan state of Myanmar was brutal. Added to the constant violence and threats was her personal shame at being deceived; her failure to provide for her family by finding a proper job; and her guilt at obeying her captors despite the horror she felt.

Not For Sale’s partner Blue Dragon helped Ly and two other young women to escape and return to Vietnam by traveling overland. They arrived at the border on Tuesday evening and are now reunited with their families.

 

“Last week, Ly’s ordeal of slavery in Myanmar came to an end after two very long years. She was 19 when she was tricked into following a friend, believing they were off to find a job in a restaurant.”

– Michael Brosowski

But this is no glorious victory against human trafficking for Ly and her friends. It is a victory – given all that has happened, they can be proud just to be alive. Calling for help as they did was a massive risk, and they showed extraordinary bravery to undertake the long journey back to Vietnam.

However, their fight is not over. Being safely home is not the end of Ly’s war. She will live with this trauma for the rest of her life; we can help with that, through counselling and material assistance, but nobody who survives the experience of slavery can simply put it behind them and ‘move on’. The war lives with them, under their skin, for a very long time.

Our world needs peace: an end to war and a start to people living respectfully with each other. Even though the battle that Ly has fought might not have a glorious ending, she should nonetheless inspire us all – simply for surviving.

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More than just a game

More than just a game

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The headline figures are pretty exciting.

Over 1,000 people rescued from slavery. That means: children who were in sweatshops; women and girls who were forced into prostitution or sold into marriages; young men sold onto fishing boats or into gold mines.

Almost 6,000 kids back in school. That’s boys and girls from extreme poverty in every grade from pre-school through to university.

And then there’s more than 600 homeless children reunited with their families. That means children who ran away from home or went in search for work but ended up destitute, now back with their parents and communities.

Not For Sale’s partner Blue Dragon’s work is best known for these serious, life changing acts of charity that have the power to transform lives.

But there’s another figure that’s equally important. Since we began, Not For Sale’s partner Blue Dragon has played over 3,000 games of football.

This can seem a little out of place. If we’re rescuing kids from such terrible situations and helping them find sustainable, long-term solutions to their problems, where do these games fit in to the big picture?

In fact, football has always been a part of our organisation. We began playing football with street kids even before Not For Sale’s partner Blue Dragon was officially registered. It was a way to meet street kids on their own turf. From there, they could access our help and services.

Nam was one of those kids who came to Not For Sale’s partner Blue Dragon in our early days. He didn’t want help to go back to school because he needed to earn money. Everything he earned was for his mother and younger brothers in the countryside. But he was a passionate football player and agreed to come to our weekly games.

It was his only leisure activity each week and he never, ever missed it.

The Sunday games that Nam attended allowed him to make new friends and build trust with those of us who were starting Blue Dragon. When we offered to help him have surgery to fix a problem with his throat, he was thrilled. His mother came to the city and sat by his hospital bedside as he recovered. She was immensely grateful that her son was finally receiving medical attention.

After a year of playing football, Nam trusted us enough to seek our help. He still needed to earn money so he wanted to find a job rather than a training program. We introduced him to a man named Donald Berger, one of Hanoi’s best restauranters, and Nam’s life changed forever.

Nam went on to win awards as a chef, and for a few years he worked part time for Not For Sale’s partner Blue Dragon, cooking up the meals we serve to the kids every day. These days he’s the head chef for a company that has 7 restaurants, so his hands are quite full.

He did, however, introduce us to another great chef to take his place: a woman named Trang, who just happens to be his wife. She’s as passionate about serving up meals to homeless children and survivors of trafficking as Nam. She’s also an award-winning chef in her own right.

 

“Looking back at Nam’s story, we can see how much his life has changed. And it all started with a game of football.”

– Michael Brosowski

Looking back at Nam’s story, we can see how much his life has changed. And it all started with a game of football.

There are many kids like Nam once was: not yet ready to take the plunge and commit to changing their lives, but glad of the chance to play some football.

Blue Dragon United, as the team is known, has an important place in our work. It doesn’t grab the headlines like a rescue from a brothel or a child trafficker arrested and imprisoned, but for the children who play, these games mean so much.

They’re more than just a game. They’re a chance to be a child, to laugh and play despite everything else that’s happening in the world. And that game of football might be the moment that changes a life forever.

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Real freedom

Real freedom

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The rescue operation went exactly to plan.

We located Sẻng in China, about 500km from the border from Vietnam. A team was able to get her back to an official checkpoint within 24 hours. Shortly after, she was safely back in Vietnam.

Sẻng’s terrifying 4 months in slavery as a forced bride were over.

But what happened next was a little unusual.

Once across the border, Sẻng asked if it was ok to NOT give a statement to the police.

Normally we accompany trafficking survivors to meet the police and make a formal report, so that their traffickers can be caught. Under Vietnamese law, victims of crime have the right to refuse to make a statement, but usually survivors are eager to report the crime.

When asked why she was reluctant, Sẻng explained that she wanted nothing more than to be at home with her family. She feared that if they knew what had happened to her, she would be judged and cast out of the community.

Sẻng thanked us for responding to her call for help and bringing her back to Vietnam. But, in a quiet, nervous, voice, she asked us to now let her go home alone and to not contact her again.

Sẻng knew that we could offer legal representation, emergency shelter, counselling, and assistance to go back to school or get a job… but all she wanted was to forget the nightmare she had just escaped and return to her home. She had already planned in detail how she would explain her absence to her family; they would never know that she had been trafficked and sold, or that she had ever stepped foot in China.

Respecting her wishes, we handed Sẻng the bus fare back to her home town. With a little extra cash to buy new clothes and some food, Sẻng stepped onto the bus and said farewell. With our number programmed into her phone, she was welcome to call any time should she change her mind. The decision was hers.

 

Sẻng’s story reminds us of how important it is to listen to women and girls who survive the experience of human trafficking – and not to listen to the biases we’ve learned over the years.

– Michael Brosowski

Sẻng’s desire for total anonymity – her desire to put the experience of slavery completely behind her as though it never happened – is a little unusual, but it isn’t surprising.

Sadly, Sẻng feared that her return home after trafficking would be marred by the weight of expectations heaped upon her.

It doesn’t happen to everyone we rescue, but it is common. Neighbours, relatives, and even complete strangers feel they have the right to weigh in with their opinion.

“She should have been more careful.”

“Maybe she wanted to marry a Chinese man and then changed her mind.”

“Such a stupid girl.”

Some people will quickly blame her family: “They must have sold her.” This myth is one that media and even some international NGOs often perpetuate. It’s rarely true.

Still others, often with good intentions, will lay their own expectations on her: “She should speak up and be an advocate for survivors.”

“She should share her story to help other girls avoid being trafficked.”

Women and girls who survive the ordeal of human trafficking have so much to deal with. It’s common that their trafficker makes them feel responsible for what has happened; they may blame themselves for being the victim of a crime.

Having friends, family, and everybody else chime in to add to this burden is more than some can bear. Sẻng knew this, and just wanted to be free. Even though that would mean she was denied any help to recover from her ordeal.

Every year when International Women’s Day rolls around, a theme is chosen to highlight a particular issue. This year, that theme is “Break the Bias.”

Sẻng’s story reminds us of how important it is to listen to women and girls who survive the experience of human trafficking – and not to listen to the biases we’ve learned over the years.

The experience that each survivor has had, and the assistance that they need to recover, is very individual and very personal. No two people are the same.

Whatever story we once read online, or whatever anecdote we heard a friend share, shouldn’t shape our judgement of women who have been trafficked. We have no right to ask them to meet our expectations.

Sẻng made the decision that she believed was best for her. She has every right to do so; but she should never have had to fear as she did.

To be truly free from slavery, women and girls also need to be free from the biases and judgement that are so frequently cast upon them.

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Child v. Child

Child v. Child

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The call for help reached Not For Sale Vietnam’s partner Blue Dragon early last year. It was gut-wrenching.

In the remote hills of Bac Kan province in northern Vietnam, a sexual assault had been reported to the police. The victim, Xi, was a 7 year-old girl and the offender was a child himself – he had just turned 15.

Both children had grown up in extreme poverty. Both are members of an ethnic minority group living far from government services, schools, and jobs.

This crime shattered their small community, where rape is a taboo topic and there is little understanding of children’s rights and the law.

Blue Dragon was called upon to provide legal representation to Xi and her family. Straight away we knew they would need much more than that.

Experiencing such a devastating incident means that they need long-term counselling to cope with the trauma, as well as financial and material assistance.

 

“Experiencing such a devastating incident means that they need long-term counselling to cope with the trauma, as well as financial and material assistance.”

– Michael Brosowski

Over the past year, we have helped the family and the community to start recovering from this horror. And back in February we stood in court representing Xi against her teenage abuser, who was sentenced to 6 years in prison. Because he is a juvenile, the sentencing was relatively light for a crime of this severity. An adult could have received life in prison.

This is a case where there will be no tidy ending; no satisfactory resolution. Xi and her family have strong support from Not For Sale Vietnam’s partner Blue Dragon and their community, but will always live in the shadow of this abuse.

Her abuser, too, will live with the guilt of his actions all his life. In any crime where children are the perpetrators, punishment is never a satisfactory resolution. What drove this boy to commit such an act? What has happened to him in his own life that he would do this to another? Sadly, there are no easy answers.

Although the court case is resolved and justice has been done, the lives of Xi, her family, and her abuser will be tainted forever.

Life doesn’t always give us happy endings or silver linings, so we must be strong for those who are hurting. We must do our best to care for others even when we know our effort may not bring complete healing.

And so it is with Xi. We cannot undo what has been done. We can only do our best to create a much better future for her to grow into.

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From Street Kid to CEO

From Street Kid to CEO

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I met Vi on the streets of the city in a chance encounter one Sunday afternoon.

He was walking along an alley, shoe-shine kit in hand, as I walked in the other direction. I could see the anticipation in his eyes as he plucked up the courage to practice on me the only words he knew in English: “Hello, shoe shine?”

It was 2003, and I had been in Vietnam for less than a year. I was teaching English to Economics students at a university and in my spare time had started running classes for street kids.

Some of my university students, as well as a handful of foreign friends, pitched in and on the weekends we had classes and soccer games that Hanoi’s shoe shine boys could join for free.

At that time, there was no “Blue Dragon” or “Not For Sale Vietnam” – we didn’t even have an idea to start a charity. We were all volunteers, doing something good for the kids.

Vi was typical of the city’s street kids at that time. Aged 15, he quit school and left his home in the countryside to come and earn money for the family. His mother worked in Hanoi as well, selling fruit or collecting scrap for recycling. Everything they earned was keeping Vi’s siblings in school.

What started as a chance encounter turned into a much longer story. Vi just wanted to shine my shoes but instead I invited him to join an English class.

Six months later, the idea for starting a charity called Blue Dragon had formed and we were getting ready to open our first shelter. Vi was one of the original six residents, and we employed his mother to look after all the kids.

“What started as a chance encounter turned into a much longer story. Vi just wanted to shine my shoes but instead I invited him to join an English class.

– Michael Brosowski

Not wanting to return to the classroom, Vi joined various training programs, starting with IT and English. Then an opportunity came up to work in one of Hanoi’s finest restaurants, and Vi’s career as a barman began.

He could have had a long career in hospitality but after 6 years Vi came back to work at Blue Dragon. We needed someone to work on the streets at night looking for homeless kids, and Vi was eager to help. But with one caveat: just for 6 months, he told me.

More than 12 years later, Vi is still with Blue Dragon. He’s built up a team of social workers who go out on the streets every day and night of the year to find children who are sleeping rough. He’s moved into a senior management role, leading a team of almost 40 professionals caring for children who have been abused, trafficked, or neglected.

And now, he’s about to take on a whole new challenge.

Not For Sale Vietnam partner’s Blue Dragon is a little unusual in that we have two CEOs, as a way of handling the complexity of our work. For the past two years, Skye Maconachie and I have been the co-CEOs leading our organisation through the turbulence of COVID.

We have an incredible team of 115 staff and as an organisation we directly assist over 10,000 people a year, all around Vietnam. I am immensely proud of our impact, of the team and its many leaders.

Now I’m ready for a change. I am not leaving Blue Dragon; simply stepping into a new, more focused role of Founder and Strategic Director. And in making that move, an opportunity for a new co-CEO has opened up.

Among a field of excellent candidates for the job, Vi stood out. He has the skills, the passion, and the vision to be our next co-CEO along with Skye.

Everything about Vi’s story is inspiring. He’s overcome incredible hardships in life and every step of the way has sought to help others. During his first interview for the co-CEO role, our first question was: “Why do you want this job?”

His answer: “So I can help more people. As a CEO I know I can have more impact.”

Vi’s journey from a street kid to a CEO reminds me how much potential there is in every child. That chance encounter on the street almost 20 years ago has led to countless lives changed for the better.

His vision for Not For Sale Vietnam partner’s Blue Dragon? In his own words: “I want to inspire and empower passionate leaders within our organisation and society. We need to create a safe, agile environment and a culture of staff sharing, caring, and standing up for what’s right. And we need to connect with the world, sharing our mission so that we will inspire the world to act.”

Alongside Skye, Vi is going to be an inspiring and visionary leader. Most exciting of all: I know that Vi is already looking out for the child who is homeless or in slavery today but might be taking over from him in the years to come.

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Love Finds A Way

Love Finds A Way

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Mảy didn’t fit the typical profile of a victim of human trafficking.

Happily married and with an infant son, Mảy was excited about the future. She and her husband, Sinh, lived in a small town high up in the spectacular mountains of northern Vietnam. Many families around them were poor, but Sinh was a school teacher, so their lives were stable and their future looked promising.

Looking after their little boy all day, Mảy started to think about getting a job. She simply wanted to contribute more to her family’s income. With her own mother living there in the same house and able to help with childcare, it seemed sensible that she might at least try.

So when she met someone on Facebook who was offering to connect her with a job in another city, Mảy was curious. At least, she thought, this was worth looking into.

He knew that his wife had not abandoned him – and was determined to find her. He committed to doing everything he possibly could to bring her home.

– Michael Brosowski

One day while Sinh was at work, Mảy’s online friend messaged her unexpectedly with some surprising news. She was travelling through a nearby city – not very far from Mảy’s home!

Mảy was suddenly excited. Her home life was so quiet and predictable; she rarely had visitors or chances to make new friends. Without hesitation, she set off to the market to meet this lovely person she had been communicating with. Mảy left her son sleeping under the watchful eye of her mother.

That night, Mảy did not come home. Her loving husband, Sinh, returned from work with no idea where she had gone or might be. Mảy’s mother was very worried and their little boy was distressed. But from Mảy, there was nothing. Only silence.

In the coming days and weeks, Sinh did everything he could to find out what had happened. Had Mảy left him and abandoned their son? He refused to believe it possible – they were so in love. They were happy together.

The days of not knowing where Mảy was, if she was dead or alive, filled Sinh with terror.

And then, one day, the phone rang.

Mảy was in China. Her call to Sinh was filled with panic and fear.

She had met her online friend at the market, and they had travelled into the hills for some sightseeing. But the friend had other motives: a gang was waiting outside the town to take hold of Mảy and sell her to a man who was willing to pay for a Vietnamese wife.

Mảy fought and resisted, but she was overpowered. It was a full month before she could even find a way to call for help. Making that call put her life in danger, but she didn’t care. Mảy would do anything to be back with her loving family.

This call from Mảy both horrified Sinh and empowered him. He knew that his wife had not abandoned him – and was determined to find her. He committed to doing everything he possibly could to bring her home.

Sinh reported to the police and contacted anyone who might help, including Not For Sale Vietnam partners Blue Dragon. The phone number gave us a clue as to which city she was in and from there we could track Mảy down to an outlying suburb. Armed with that information, we sent a team to start the search.

Sinh called us daily, hoping for news that Mảy was safe. Every day of waiting was a lifetime of agony.

Within a month, we had found Mảy. Locked inside an apartment, she had to wait until the man who had bought her was out shopping, and then break down the front door to escape. It was frightening, but successful. Mảy was free.

We brought her back to the border and after a short stay in COVID quarantine, she was finally back together with Sinh and their baby son. Sinh rode his motorbike over 200km of treacherous mountains to meet Mảy the moment she was released from the quarantine centre.

Mảy’s ordeal of being trafficked and sold will haunt her forever. Now that she is home, she wants nothing more than to be with her family. Love found a way to bring Mảy and Sinh back together, and now every new day is a precious gift of life.

 

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