Rewriting the "Tale of Kieu' with a happy ending

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"I can help, so I should help" - simple dictum sees Australian expat give thousands of disadvantaged Vietnamese kids a chance to do better

Michael Brosowski with one of the many children rescued by Blue Dragon in Hanoi during the Mid-Autumn festival in 2012. Photo courtesy of Blue Dragon

Whether he knows of the classic Vietnamese epic or not, Michael Brosowski has his own "Tale of Kieu" to narrate.

He was sitting at a restaurant in downtown Hanoi one night when he saw Kieu, a 13-year-old boy working as a waiter.

The boy was burning red with fever as he stumbled around in the crowded restaurant, responding to the continuous stream of orders from his boss. He was dressed in rags although it was winter and very cold in the city.

Not able to ignore the boy's suffering, Brosowski asked Pham Sy Chung, a Vietnamese friend with him, to ask the boss for permission to take the boy to a nearby pharmacy and get him some medicine. The boss agreed.

When they went out, they asked the boy about his situation and learned that Kieu's family in Nam Dinh Province was very poor, and he had to quit school to work in Hanoi.

Brosowski, then working as an English teacher, decided to help Kieu go back to school. He and Chung asked the boss to let the boy go and the boss did not agree, so they had to make a different plan.

They spoke to his family in the countryside and explained his situation, also presenting their offer to help Kieu go back to school and let him live in a shelter they were renting. The parents agreed and called the boss.

Kieu went on to become the head chef in a restaurant, and recently left to open his own bakery in his hometown.

"He has done very well for himself," Brosowski said.

So his "Tale of Kieu" had a happy ending, but for Brosowski, it was the beginning of a new chapter in his life.

He put it very simply though.

The Australian, who came to Vietnam in 1999 as a tourist, and came back in 2002 to live and work as an English language teacher, said Blue Dragon "just came along the way.

"I was living and working here, and I met people who needed some help. Blue Dragon just grew from there."

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Lost and found

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The Blue Dragon Children's Foundation that he co-founded with his friend Chung in 2003 picks up children from the streets, restaurants, sweatshops and brothels to either send them back home or shelter them at the foundation.

Vietnam government figures in 2006 showed that at least 23,000 children were living in the streets, most of them landing in big cities from very poor homes in the countryside.

Now 39, Brosowski and 65 other staff members have helped more than 2,500 such children go to school, rescued nearly 300 trafficked children and helped about 120 teenagers get jobs.

Brosowski said that after his meeting with Kieu, he started to pay more attention to children out on the street and saw them fending for themselves by picking up garbage, shining travelers' shoes or doing some other work.

He thought he could help them earn more money by teaching them English. He asked Chung to approach the children and invite them over to the room he rented out.

The class grew fast as the children enjoyed his simple and humorous teaching, also because they did not have to pay anything.

Early 2003, Brosowski quit his university job to concentrate fulltime on street children, using savings from the job and money from selling his house and belongings in Australia.

He met another Vietnamese friend, Ta Ngoc Van, then a law student, at a mid-autumn festival for blind children in Hanoi, and they soon set on a mission to rescue children and reunite them with their families.

The duo traveled to meet up with parents, mostly in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue and Dien Bien Phu in the northern highlands, and informed the latter about their children's plight. Then they had to persuade the children to come home, sometimes having to put them on the phone to hear their parents out.

"It was a hard job to bring street children home, especially when they had left deliberately," said Van, now chief lawyer at Blue Dragon.

He said the children need to feel their sincerity and sympathy, before they accept to listen to lessons about families and love, and understand how their parents want them at home.

"Michael really knew how to build people's trust, because he was simple and friendly," Van said.

He said he did not have to help the Australian much in connecting with people, so he takes care of the legal issues and others that crop up, especially when they need to take underage children away from their bosses, which directly affects their business.

"Some bosses have threatened us, attacked us and even accused us as the bad guys, so we need to be very careful, both legally and emotionally, to win support and understanding from the public."

Van said they were even doubted by people in the children's hometown, where a Westerner and another stranger with a different accent were looked upon warily.

But things have worked out and they have received help from government agencies, xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers who know many behind-the-scene stories, and local residents.

Brosowski said the children are victims of a group of people who are taking advantage of "extremely poor" parents to use child labor.

"This is an odious crime "¦ They are preying on the country's most vulnerable citizens, and Blue Dragon is dedicated to putting them out of business forever," he said.

The most complicated task was to rescue little girls who'd been trafficked, sometimes to brothels in China, in which case they had to seek help from both Vietnamese and Chinese police.

Brosowski said their role is to respond to calls for help, as sometimes girls who are enslaved in China are able to use a phone and get a message to their families, who later call them.

"We then go looking and find a way for the girl to get home."

Blue Dragon has so far rescued 239 children from child labor in Ho Chi Minh City and another 62 young women from forced marriages or brothels.

The foundation also helps the children after rescuing them by sending them to school, providing psychological counseling and vocational training.

Some children have graduated and become volunteers at Blue Dragon. Several are now in universities, and one has won a scholarship to study in Singapore.

Van said one girl rescued from a Chinese brothel three years ago recently contacted him saying she has a job now and would not take more support. She also invited him to her wedding.

Other children staying at Blue Dragon's house in Hanoi lead secure lives now, having fun with regular activities like football games.

"The children deserve all basic rights," Van said.

Once Blue Dragon was registered and became official, more people came to help including Vietnamese volunteers, cash donors, and Alison Kember, wife of the New Zealand ambassador, who stopped by the English class regularly to teach language and life skills.

Brosowski told Tuoi Tre that the name for the foundation came from a "street" student, with blue for the color of the sea surrounding Australia and dragon for the legendary father of Vietnamese people.

The foundation is now a safe haven that children know about and come to in search of help. It currently supports around 1,550 children between six and 20 years of age, raising money from around the world and also receiving local cooperation like school fee reductions and free birth certificates.

It is currently aiming to raise US$192,000 by July 15 for its "Whatever it takes" appeal that seeks to rescue and reunite more children with their families next year, as also provide education, meals, housing and clothing to many in need.

Hero at home

Brosowski's story has drawn a lot of attention from local and international media, and earned him a spot among CNN Heroes in 2011. The following year, he received the Order of Australia, a national recognition for meritorious service.

In an interview with CNN, he said: "It was just a case of I can help, so I should help.

"I grew up in poverty and I often used to think what good I can do with my life, if only someone would come and give me that chance. Now I am the guy who can help these kids and give them a chance."

He used to live on a remote farm without tap water or power, 600 kilometers from Sydney and 30 kilometers from school. He had no toys except for the goats that he grazed for his parents.He said he regrets not doing much for poor children in his own country.

"I encourage people to look at their communities, at where they are right now, and see who they can help. You don't need to travel to another country to help someone."

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