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Getting Vietnam's Kids Off the Street

By Laura Sheahen

*Names have been changed.

"I would climb a tree to sleep in the branches," says Vu*, a 16-year-old boy living on the streets of Vietnam's capital, Hanoi. "If I slept on the ground, people were walking by, and the police might taser me." He shakes his body jerkily to demonstrate. "You know? That buzzing shock."

Young

In Asia, young children and teens are often forced to make garments for low or no wages. Child's face has been obscured to protect identity. Photo courtesy of Blue Dragon

Vu had run away from his family's farming village in the mountains—"I was bored"—but had nothing to do in the noisy, crowded city. So, for weeks he evaded the police, begged for money, and spent it on food and video games at an Internet café.

Around him, hundreds of street kids were begging, selling candy and gum, or shining shoes. If they were lucky, they were also avoiding the city's junkies.

Sucked into Violence or Addiction

"Most of my older brothers are in prison. They're heroin addicts," says Nam*, a spiky-haired boy who is also 16. "My mother went to prison for selling heroin when I was around 6 years old."

Nam says he's never tried heroin, but the drug has affected every other part of his life. When he lived on the streets, heroin-related violence was all around him: addicts who used razor blades to cut the pockets of sleeping street kids and steal money; addicts who beat them up for money.

Kids like Vu and Nam are balanced precariously over an abyss. Without help, they could disappear into it.

Prey for Traffickers

"Kids whose parents are in prison, kids who are involved with gangs, kids who are getting beat up, these are some of the kids we reach out to," says Claire Groves. Claire is a coordinator and psychologist volunteering with Blue Dragon, a Catholic Relief Services partner that helps Vietnam's street kids.

Children aren't just in danger once they're on city streets. Human traffickers—criminals who exploit vulnerable people and trick them into forced labor—target youths in rural areas, too. "Typically a trafficker might find the most dilapidated house in a village," says James Murdoch, Blue Dragon's communications director. "The trafficker might offer to take the kid to work and train in a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, maybe offering a small monetary sum to the parents. Sometimes, if the parents are illiterate, they are tricked into signing contracts they cannot understand."

"Then sometimes the children are trafficked into garment factories," James continues. "The kids work up to 15 or 18 hours a day, they're beaten, they get little food. They might be paid $20 a year."

Food, Shelter and School for Children at Risk

Blue Dragon fights the complex array of threats facing children: hunger, poverty, trafficking, drugs. At the Blue Dragon drop-in center in Hanoi, kids can get a hot lunch, play a game, attend catch-up classes, or simply take a nap—in safety. The staff identify responsible relatives who can give the children at least some care. But for those who have no relatives to stay with, there's a shelter that children can live in long term.

Boy playing with dinosaurs

At Blue Dragon's drop-in center, vulnerable children have a safe space where they can play and learn. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Blue Dragon outreach workers go into the streets and talk to kids. "We have to build up trust over time," says Claire. "Street kids are wary of authority and will often lie to us about their situation."

"We start off by helping them with their basic needs: We might buy them shoes or clothes and food," she continues. "They might start coming for lunch, or to play at our pickup soccer games on Sundays. Then, later, when they get to know us, they become involved with our programs."

"At Blue Dragon, I learned some English," says Nam. Blue Dragon got him off the streets and back living with his grandmother. He's also going to school and taking part in art and music activities. "I like painting the most, and singing. I like pop stars from Korea," he smiles.

Social workers create a plan for each child. In Nam's folder: He has to pass a class. No fighting. He has to do his homework. The folder also includes a list of items Blue Dragon is providing, including sandals, schoolbooks, a uniform, a summer outfit and a winter one.

'I Feel Better Here'

On a typical day at the drop-in center, a small girl builds a tower of wooden blocks and a little boy plays with toy dinosaurs. Four teenagers play Uno, while a volunteer and three others try their hand at Vietnamese Monopoly. Colorful murals cover the walls and mobiles hang from the ceiling. Upstairs, a classroom stands ready with English and math books for the catch-up classes and, in another room, children learn computers.

"Street kids never really think they're going to become anything. They don't have dreams for a future," says Claire. But each year, Blue Dragon changes that for more than 1,000 children—Nam and Vu among them.

"Sometimes my grandmother and I go to visit my brothers in prison," says Nam. "My brothers say I should listen to Blue Dragon and my grandmother, and go to school."

Vu met another boy on the streets who brought him to Blue Dragon. "I am in the shelter now. I feel better when I sleep there," he says. With luck, his days of sleeping in a tree are behind him.

"I go to school, and the staff is nice to me," Vu continues. "I feel very happy here. Everyone respects me and loves me."

Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Cambodia.

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