A very fine apartment, mixing with people of influence, and the chance to travel are some of the perks of life as a diplomat – or a diplomat’s partner.
But for Alison Kember, wife of the New Zealand Ambassador in Vietnam from 2006 to 2009, these were not the things that fired her enthusiasm for life in Hanoi. Nor were they the things she remembers, now that the three-year posting is over.
Twice a week for three years, the Wellington teacher crossed to the “wrong side” of Yen Phu Avenue, where she taught English to a class of six young women at the Blue Dragon Children’s Learning Centre.
There’s one clear rule that applies to all of the children supported through Blue Dragon’s four programmes: they must go to school or be in training. Alison’s students, for instance, all went to school but spent the afternoons at Blue Dragon learning various skills, including English and computing, and receiving support for their academic and personal needs.
Opening doors to more girls
Alison started the English language class as a way of opening Blue Dragon’s doors to more girls. She chose not to ask about the backgrounds of her students: she volunteered her time simply to teach English and to help with fundraising.
Vietnamese staff are employed at Blue Dragon as social workers, and to provide psychological and employment services. What Alison does say is that “Children are not involved in Blue Dragon unless their lives have been seriously dysfunctional.”
Apart from Blue Dragon’s focus on education and training, Alison was attracted to its practical approach. “It’s not about big ideas and thinking that if only we had a million dollars we could do this and this and this. Where there’s a need, Blue Dragon responds to the best of its ability. It never says no to a child who needs help.”
Safe and Sound
ne of Blue Dragon’s programmes is called Safe and Sound. It has two aims: rescuing children who have been trafficked and returning them to their families, and putting an end to child trafficking in Vietnam. To date, Blue Dragon has rescued more than 50 girls and boys, taken from their families and put to work, usually in factories in Ho Chi Minh City. There, they work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for little or no pay.
Along with the teaching, Alison was involved in fundraising. Her networks and efforts resulted in private donations from New Zealanders and fundraising activities by students at WellingtonCollege, Hutt International Boys School and Mt Roskill Grammar School. In addition, a US$1000 donation from Victoria International is supporting a Blue Dragon boy, Nguyen Duc Canh, to study architecture at Hong Bang University in Ho Chi Minh City.
“You can work it out in cups of coffee or new shoes but $150 in Vietnam goes a very, very long way and has a big impact,” Alison says. “It’s just about enough to sponsor a child to go to school for a year, and buy a school uniform, equipment and school lunches. People can be confident that every last cent of their donations goes toward the children.”
Looking back, Alison says that being involved in Blue Dragon transformed her experience inHanoi.
“Without speaking the language, working at Blue Dragon enabled me to interact with local people who aren’t the successful powerbrokers I meet in the course of James’ work as the New Zealand Ambassador. It also gave me some real insights into Vietnamese culture that I wouldn’t otherwise have had.”