Dirty Word

Dirty Word


Phuong had to pretend that she was sleeping.

Every second was more terrifying than the last. She had a chance to call for help, but everything depended on the family being asleep. She had to act in complete secrecy.

The risk of being caught was high. The consequences could be deadly. But after three years in slavery, Phuong was desperate.

She had been trafficked from her home in southern Vietnam and sold as a bride to a man in China. Back home, she had a child. She lived in extreme poverty and had never been able to find a steady job because she was illiterate and physically disabled. A trafficker took advantage of these multiple vulnerabilities and tricked her.

Phuong had thought she was going to find a job. Instead she became a slave. And every moment of her 3 years was consumed with the question: How could she get back home?

That night, when the house was in complete silence, Phuong slipped out of the bedroom and made a frantic, whispered phone call. It was her first contact with her family since she had been taken.

Not For Sale Vietnam partners Blue Dragon received the call from her family the next day, and within a week we had set in motion an operation to rescue Phuong and bring her home.

This might require bravery from our staff, but the real hero of the rescue is the survivor. The act of calling for help, as Phuong did late one night last November, requires a courage close to super human.”

– Michael Brosowski

Every week, and sometimes every day, we receive similar calls for help. These are typically from the families of girls and women, and sometimes boys and men, who are trapped in slavery. They are people who were tricked and manipulated; made to think they were going to a good job or traveling with a trusted friend.

In every case, they are desperate.

And so Blue Dragon conducts rescue operations to bring them home. So far we’ve brought over 1,000 people home from slavery.

However, in some circles “rescue” is a dirty word.

It implies bravado and danger. It reeks of a “savior mentality”. And sometimes, it’s just plain confusing. Various people and organisations use the word “rescue” to describe many different activities: providing scholarships to vulnerable girls, meeting and counselling homeless people, or even distributing emergency food supplies.

Because of this, the word “rescue” has earned a bad reputation.

But for Not For Sale and Blue Dragon, the act of rescue is a vital humanitarian tool. We are responding to a call for help; finding people who are reaching out and need a hand to escape their situation.

This might require bravery from our staff, but the real hero of the rescue is the survivor. The act of calling for help, as Phuong did late one night last November, requires a courage close to super human. She is safely home now, but the risk she took to make that call could have led to her being beaten, resold, or even killed. (You can read more about her rescue and return home here).

Blue Dragon’s rescues are not raids and we never use violence. We find the safest way possible to get someone out of danger, and back to the safety of their home.

And that’s not the end of the rescue. Even once someone is home, with the violence and danger far behind them, Blue Dragon continues providing support in every way we can: legal representation, psychological counselling, medical treatment, schooling… even help to start a small business or find a job.

This “follow up care” is not as dramatic as the initial rescue, but it’s vital to ensuring that the rescued person is really, truly safe. 



The Pinky Friend

The Pinky Friend


Mai is seven years old, and has always lived in fear.

Her mother loves Mai and her younger brother and sister very much, but their home is dominated by their grandmother, whose violence has ruled their lives since birth. Their mother is powerless to protect the three tiny children.

Domestic violence in Vietnam is often seen as a private matter, for families to sort out for themselves. When children are the victims, it may be seen just as a matter of harsh but necessary discipline – and the right of the parents, or grandparents, to decide.

Mai and her siblings endured severe beatings every other day. The neighbors and community around them simply could not look away. When a call came to NFS Vietnam partners Blue Dragon asking for help, the children bore bruises on their faces and bodies that spoke of deeply disturbing abuse.

Through our daily work, we often see young people in desperate situations. But the sorrow on Mai’s face was like nothing else.

Police came and started the process of investigation. Statements from the children. Interviews with the mother and grandmother. Reports from the local community.

Mai and her brother and sister had entered the very adult world of criminal investigation and judicial processes… but they are safe.

Taken into Blue Dragon’s care, they had their first proper sleep in many months. Nothing to fear, no screaming and no beatings. And most of all, each of them slept for the first time with a new friend – soft toys that they clung to through the night.

“All that has happened, and all that is yet to come, may be too complex and horrible for Mai to understand. But with her pinky friend in her arms and a safe bed at night, she knows she is going to be OK.”

– Michael Brosowski

For Mai and her little brother and sister, these dolls are more than just toys. They are friends to hold onto, to see them through the many changes that they are now going through. A new home. New beds to sleep in at night. New people around them, speaking with quiet and calm words that are unfamiliar to them.

Everything is different. But Mai’s friend, a soft pink toy dog, goes with her everywhere.

In a play session one day at Blue Dragon, Mai told the psychologist: “I will bring my pinky friend wherever I go as she makes me feel that I am not lonely. But she has a hole… Can you help me with that?”

Her psychologist ensured her that they could patch up the hole to make her pinky friend beautiful again. Mai smiled happily and told the soft creature, “You don’t need to worry. I will protect you just like you protect me.”

All that has happened, and all that is yet to come, may be too complex and horrible for Mai to understand. But with her pinky friend in her arms and a safe bed at night, she knows she is going to be OK.


Behind the story

Behind the story

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The first time I saw him, Tan was standing alone on a street staring into nothing.

He was down the road from the Blue Dragon centre (Not For Sale Vietnam partners), and everything about him signaled a child in distress. His face showed no expression; his shoulders slumped forward. His arms hung limply by his side.

Just 14 years old, Tan had been neglected and abandoned by his family, forcing him to leave home. Once on the streets of Hanoi, he was abused repeatedly by pedophiles who traded him like an object.

Today he is a very different young man to the boy I first saw on the street. He has a job and a circle of great friends; he has started rebuilding the relationship with his parents; and his eyes shine with hope and joy.

Not For Sale Vietnam Director

Once he was with Blue Dragon, Tan’s healing took years of care, counselling, and legal representation to find justice against those who had harmed him. Today he is a very different young man to the boy I first saw on the street. He has a job and a circle of great friends; he has started rebuilding the relationship with his parents; and his eyes shine with hope and joy.

Last week, Tan joined in Blue Dragon’s annual Tet celebration, called Tet Awards.  We hold this party for children in the lead-up to Lunar New Year, and many of our ‘old’ boys and girls come back to see us.

Tet Awards is one of the few big events we hold; our work is much more focused on dealing with day to day crisis than with organising ceremonies and parties.

For kids like Tan, this annual event has a significance beyond it being a great night. Dressing up, meeting old friends and enjoying hours of singing and dancing takes the kids away from the hardships of their daily lives.

The delightful chaos and laughter of a children’s party will never replace the need for long-term care, shelter, legal advocacy and psychological therapy. But a moment to forget the pain and turn instead to friendship and the simple joys of life is a precious moment indeed.

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Leap to freedom

Leap to freedom

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Hoa was not yet 17 when she was trafficked.

How it happened is a very familiar story. She was facing hard times. Someone she knew offered to help. She left home thinking she was on her way to start a new job, only to find it was a trick.

What happened next is even more devastating.

Hoa found herself in China, sold twice before eventually being sold to a man with an intellectual disability. He wanted a wife so he could have a child, and for him that’s all that Hoa was: a vessel for a baby.

In the 6 months that followed, life was hell. Hoa had no chance to escape. She was locked into an apartment in an unknown city. She knew nobody, and had no way to call for help.

When Hoa could take it no more, she made a breathtaking decision. She jumped from the apartment, 2 storeys high, determined to either have freedom, or death.

At times Hoa’s situation seemed impossible. She could see no way out. To overcome this as she has, is an incredible feat of bravery.

Michael Brosowski Not For Sale Vietnam Director

Hoa survived, but she was severely injured. The fall damaged her spine, leaving her unable to move the lower part of her body. The pain was unimaginable, but her captor didn’t want to seek medical help – because he didn’t want to pay the expense. Instead, he took her back upstairs and kept her for another 4 months before finally admitting her to hospital.

In the safety of the hospital, Hoa was able to try again for freedom. The staff realised something terrible had happened and called the police. Now Hoa was safe from her captor; but she was not yet home. It would be another year, following extensive treatment and making statements to police from her hospital bed, before she could finally return to Vietnam.

Not For Sale Vietnam partners Blue Dragon assisted with Hoa’s return, and since then have continued working with her. But how can anyone heal from such a traumatic episode?

Hoa is now fully reliant on her wheelchair for mobility. She will never walk again.

And the memories of the horror she experienced – tricked by a friend, sold into a waking nightmare, leaping from the building, then left for months to lay motionless with a serious spinal injury instead of receiving immediate treatment – will never go away.

In her darkest days, Hoa showed extraordinary courage by jumping for her freedom. This same courage has carried her through the months of psychological and physical therapy, wheelchair training, and learning to live independently with her disability… until finally Hoa was ready to return to her studies.

Hoa’s story doesn’t end there. Because this week, she has started a whole new chapter in life: her very first job.

When she left home at age 17, that was all she wanted. Employment. An income. A chance to live a life free from poverty.  Someone took advantage of her need, and the impact on Hoa’s life was catastrophic. But she isn’t going to let that stop her.

She now works in an IT firm. It’s an entry-level job in a company that has great policies for employing people with disabilities. They hired her because she’s smart, brave, and beams with optimism about the future.

At times Hoa’s situation seemed impossible. She could see no way out. To overcome this as she has, is an incredible feat of bravery.

Life will never be what it could have been. But it will be what she makes it.

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The Decision

The Decision

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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

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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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