When Hoang Anh was cruising around flower gardens in Hanoi’s Tay Ho District at around midnight one day, he saw two boys in warm clothes and a middle-aged man sitting around a fire and decided to approach them.
At first glance the man looked like their father. But noticing that the boys seem tired, Anh and a friend decided to walk over and say hello.
“Can we sit here and talk to you guys?” he asked, and they looked up at him with suspicion.
Sitting down next to the fire, Anh looked at the two boys and said: “It is such a chilly night. Do you guys need any help?”
Two homeless boys sitting by a fire in a park in Tay Ho District, Hanoi, on January 21, 2021. Photo courtesy of Hoang Anh.
The boys, one skinny and the other chubby, remained silent while the man abruptly stood up, said he was taking his dog for a walk, and left.
Anh tried to make friends with the children and introduced himself.
“We belong to the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, which helps homeless children. I can help you guys find accommodation and a place to play football and get health checks. It is unsafe for you to be out this late at night since there are many bad people on the streets.”
He told them about some of the situations he had seen and warned them of the dangers lurking on the streets, and showed some pictures of the street children he had helped.
After seeing there were some kids they knew in the pictures and his friendly way of speaking, the boys gradually lowered their guard and opened up.
The skinny one said his identification papers had been stolen when he was sleeping in the garden a few days ago. Now he could not find a job, but still did not want to go back to his hometown. The other, who was 14 years old, said he was from the northern Bac Kan Province and his father was in prison.
Anh said: “I can help you guys find a safe place to sleep tonight. If you don’t like it, I can bring you back here.”
But they had been living on the street for long, and their survival instincts possibly kicked in, and they refused his offer immediately.
He then gave them some money to find a place to sleep and his contact information and told them to meet him at the same place the next morning.
The chubby boy turned up the next morning, and Anh took him to the foundation. He can decide to stay there with other similar children if he likes it or go and live with a foster family.
Four members of the street outreach team scouting around the capital’s My Dinh Bus Station on January 16, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong.
Anh, 27, is the captain of the street outreach team at the Hanoi-based charity that has been assisting children in crises since 2003.
The team goes out into the streets every night to look for destitute children under bridges and in parks, bus stations and other places.
It has seven members and a large support staff. In addition to its main task of finding homeless children, the team also helps children living at the charity’s boarding houses and organizes physical activities and health checks for them.
The team members also take street children back to their homes.
The main aim is to ensure destitute children are not dragged into committing crimes and are safe from bad influences.
Earlier that night Anh and his colleague had gone to four Internet cafes in nearby My Dinh in Nam Tu Liem District to look for children and told the owners to let them know if they come across children who need assistance.
Here they gave a jacket to a boy who had run away from home in another province.
“Many homeless children from other provinces show up around the My Dinh area, especially during summer and around Lunar New Year,” Anh says.
“They are easy prey for pedophiles and job brokers. Since they have just arrived in the capital and have a little money and tend go to Internet cafes to play games.
“We always try to reach the children before they encounter bad people.”
After three years as a member of the street outreach team, Doan Cong thinks he is doing a “meaningful” job.
One day late at night in August he and his colleague Minh Hai spotted two children sitting at a bus stop near the My Dinh bus station and a middle-aged man hovering over them.
Since the children looked tired and wore stained, tattered clothes, Cong decided they were not familiar with the city. He parked his vehicle and approached them.
He found out that the boys, aged 15 and 17, had left their hometown in Ha Giang Province and worked for half a month in Hanoi before their employer closed down due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Both had used up their wages of VND400,000 ($17.3) while searching for new jobs, but had not been lucky.
After roaming the streets for three days, they ended up at the bus station.
They looked at the man and whispered to Cong: “He told us he would give us each VND100,000 if we touch his genitals. We refused, but he was insistent and is waiting for us to change our minds.”
Cong and Hai took the boys to an Internet shop, got them food and told them to spend the night there. The next morning Cong returned, reassured that their families had promised to pick them up after he had informed them.
He gave the pair some money and his contact information in case they needed help.
The young social workers have had to confront dubious people to protect homeless children. Two months ago Anh had to fight off two pedophiles who were asking three boys to go home and sleep with them.
Minh Hai, who has been on the team for two years, shares a story from last winter. One night, on a curb behind the My Dinh bus station, he saw a boy with a backpack and a cap who looked he had little strength left. He got off his motorbike and slowly walked up to the boy.
He asked him: “You look tired. Have you had dinner?”
The boy looked scared, and his eyes kept darting around.
After he walked behind him for around two kilometers, the boy became less scared of him. Hai gave him a box of sticky rice and the boy gulped it down.
After eating he revealed that he had been lured into a debt collection gang about a month ago. He was instructed to work out to look strong and go collect debts.
He managed to escape from that gang, but was now afraid its members would catch with him and mete out punishment. He also did not know where to go or who to ask for help.
Doan Cong helps out a homeless kid under a bridge near the My Dinh Stadium, Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Blue Dragon.
On average, the street outreach team helps around 100 children each year. Many of the children have returned to their families or have been put in school. Many of them now work at restaurants or hotels, in tourism and others.
About 10 percent of Blue Dragon’s workers were themselves children rescued by the charity. Having been there before, now they help children who are in a similar situation.
Anh says: “I think my job is like that of a filter: kids we rescue have the ability to rebuild their lives, but if we do not, they are easily caught up in bad situations.”
Recently the two boys from Ha Giang called Cong to say they had returned home and work in the fields with their parents, and are waiting until they are old enough to get proper works.
The team members say there are always children being pushed out into the streets for various reasons, and there are many traps awaiting them. That is why the team has been out on the streets for the last 17 years.
Blue Dragon has helped 607 street children reunite with their families, rescued 1,000 trafficked kids and helped 5,259 children go to school or get jobs.
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