Undocumented street kid gets first chance in life, begins to ‘dream’

By Phan Duong   May 11, 2024 | 08:00 pm PT
Despite having two cooking certificates, Tuan, 18, still found himself facing rejection after rejection while hunting for a job. He felt as if all doors were closing on him.

A few months ago Tuan was spending sleepless nights in a nondescript motel room in Phuc Xa Ward in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh District, fretting about his undocumented status, which prevented him from getting a job.

For years his grandmother and half-brother have been making a living on the streets around Sword Lake by day and paying to sleep in shelters by night. "My life was at risk of heading towards darkness, going down the same path as my other family members," the young man from Thanh Hoa recalls with apprehension.

Tuan in his seven-square-meter room in a poor working area in Phuc Xa, Ba Dinh District, Hanoi, April 18, 2024. Photo by Thu Huong

Tuan in his seven-square-meter room in a poor working area in Phuc Xa, Ba Dinh District, Hanoi, April 18, 2024. Photo by Thu Huong

Born into a family that has made a living around the lake for three generations, Tuan’s life on the streets began the moment he could walk.

When he was 13, he was approached by Blue Dragon, a non-governmental organization that provides support for children and families in crises and offers them a chance to turn their lives around through practical solutions which enable long-term systemic change.

Blue Dragon wanted Tuan to attend classes to acquire knowledge and skills, and also take part in extracurricular activities, but it was not easy for him to break away from his existing lifestyle.

The adults in his family prioritized earning money above all else. To them, nothing was more important than securing their next meal and a place to sleep at night. Blue Dragon persisted for more than two years, and Tuan was finally attending classes.

He gradually warmed up to the environment that Blue Dragon offered, with games, tasty food and even air-conditioned rooms.

He was also intrigued by the transformation of other street kids who used to roam the streets like him but could now speak English, dance hip-hop and play soccer.

"The look in the eyes of street children is very haunting," Luong Thu Huong, a social worker at Blue Dragon, says. "It is a call for help and a yearning for love."

After dropping out of school at the end of fifth grade, instead of accompanying his grandmother to Sword Lake to earn a living, he continued to spend time at the organization to get training as a cook.

Simultaneously he gained experience working as a commis chef in two restaurants. On turning 18 earlier this year he moved out to live on his own.

In March, armed with his two culinary certificates, he attended a job interview at a large restaurant on Xuan Dieu Street. However, he was rejected. He lacked any kind of identification document.

A few days later he applied to a smaller restaurant in the old quarter. He got the job but was let go after only one shift due to the same problem. "I felt frustrated and lost," he says.

This was not the first time Tuan faced disadvantages due to his lack of identification documents.

Three years ago he was chosen by Blue Dragon to study English for a month in Singapore, but could not go due to the document problem. "I missed at least four opportunities to travel to Singapore, Thailand, South Korea, and the Philippines. I got many opportunities to study and work abroad, but I didn’t have one single document to prove my identity."

He could not travel by train or plane. During car trips with Blue Dragon to other provinces, he was constantly in fear. "I was always afraid that if someone asked me for my documents and I couldn’t provide them, I would be taken away and locked up somewhere."

Tuan during a football match in Da Nang, April 20, 2024. Photo courtesy of Tuan

Tuan during a football match in Da Nang, April 20, 2024. Photo courtesy of Tuan

Huong acknowledges that Tuan’s lack of identification papers was a big problem for many years.

Enrolling him in a school was always difficult, even impossible. "Even his qualifications are still not official because of the lack of identification paperwork."

Many other children at Blue Dragon are also similarly undocumented. Many were born to parents who were in an unregistered marriage or failed to pay hospital fees, leading to non-issuance of birth certificates.

Many of the parents themselves are illiterate, some with legal issues in the past, making them fearful of contacting authorities.

As a result, the lack of documentation continues from generation to generation.

It was challenging to find Tuan’s birth information too since his mother had remarried and moved on with her new family, and they could only rely on his 80-year-old grandmother, who had been living away from her hometown for nearly 50 years.

She said Tuan had a birth certificate in Thanh Hoa, but it was unfortunately lost.

Recently, with the help of some experienced individuals, the family wrote a letter asking for help from authorities in their hometown.

After making countless trips between Hanoi and Thanh Hoa and coordinating with authorities and relatives to prove Tuan's identity, they finally resolved the problem.

"Holding the ID card in my hand, I felt like there was a light illuminating everything around me," A gleeful Tuan says. "From then on I knew I could go anywhere and do whatever I wanted."

His grandmother too got an ID card. "This is like a miracle," she says. She believes getting an official identity will allow her to enjoy many civil rights she hitherto could not.

Tuan prepares materials for a board game event for Blue Dragons children, April 26, 2024. Photo by T.H

Tuan prepares materials for a board game event for Blue Dragon's children, April 26, 2024. Photo by T.H

Speaking at an event in 2023, Minister of Public Security To Lam said while issuing identity documents for people authorities discovered there were millions of people without such documents, most of them belonging to underprivileged sections.

"From the boy who grew up polishing shoes in Hanoi to street vendors and domestic helpers, many people’s lives are just about getting through the day, seeking shelter at night in hostels or under bridges," Lam said. "Their children are born into their parents' fate, without any household registration or any documents, and thus having no chance of going to school."

According to Huong, with every member making a living on the streets around Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake, Tuan’s family is caught in a vicious cycle.

Social workers want to reach out and support them so that children born into families like these can break out of the cycle and earn a chance to make a better future, she says. "Helping Tuan required a lot of time and resources, with efforts made by not just one organization but by the whole of society."

Immediately after obtaining his ID Tuan flew for the first time in his life to Da Nang to play in a friendly football match.

For a while now, besides working as a cook, he has also been teaching football to students in Hanoi.

The night before his departure to Da Nang, the 18-year-old could not sleep from the excitement. "There are so many things ahead of me that I can finally dare to dream of and make them come true."

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