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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