Michael Browsowski calls it his "mountain bottom experience" — a wry acknowledgement that fate calls in unexpected ways and unscripted places.
He was ill, sitting half asleep against the base of a tree in Chau Doc, in a far southern corner of Vietnam, while his cohorts on a tour of the country had taken off to ascend a nearby mountain. As his thoughts and concentration wandered, Browsowski was approached by a group of children. He reached into his pocket, expecting a request for money.
They were actually closer to youths, 13 to 15 years old, and their request was not for money, but knowledge. They were facing an examination in English that afternoon, and correctly recognized Browsowski as someone who spoke the language.
Browsowski, who worked with gifted children in a teaching program run by the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, found himself immersed in instruction. Before he knew it, his touring party had returned. "I didn’t want to get on the bus," he recalled. "I didn’t want to leave. I was in the deep south of Vietnam. I couldn’t speak the language, and I couldn’t stop thinking about those kids."
It was January, 1999. For the next three years, Browsowski divided his life into six-month increments: His Sydney time and his Vietnam time, working with the local kids during his vacations, and feeling the connection with Australia’s wartime enemy from the Sixties and Seventies grow ever stronger. Finally, in March, 2002, the call could no longer be resisted. Then 28, Browsowski sold his apartment and car, gave away his other belongings and moved to Vietnam, "just to see what happened."
Hanoi was what happened. Six months after starting a job teaching English to advanced economic students at a university in Ho Chi Minh City, he was offered a transfer to Hanoi. Browsowski accepted the transfer, reluctantly. Ho Chi Minh City was Hawaiian shirts; Hanoi was the olive drab of military uniforms and Browsowski withdrew from social life. The friends he made were the locals, more especially, the street kids from the countryside.
The street kids and the expatriate Australian found a common element. Both were from somewhere else. "Hanoi was not their paradise," Browsowski said. "I wanted to be back in Saigon, they wanted to be back in their village."
The kids were in the city to earn money for their destitute families. "Noble young people," Browsowski called them, working to send brothers and sisters to school. He began teaching them English, from his home. Soon he was joined by one of his former university students, Chung. A maths teacher volunteered to help. Instruction followed in art, then yoga.
Within six months it became clear that the project — which was what it had become, in all but name — needed a longer term focus. This meant setting up a charity, under Vietnamese law. The charity’s name was Blue Dragon.
Ten of its participants were assembled and asked if they would be prepared to live in a group home and be sent to school at the cost of the money they had been making working the streets. Instead, they would be given a US$15 monthly stipend to send to their families.
Browsowski made the argument to families that the money foregone was an investment in their children’s futures. The parents agreed. One of them moved from the countryside to take a job running the group home.
Half a dozen children took up the offer. Two of them now work for Blue Dragon. In all, 42 of the children who came under the charity’s care have or are attending university. Blue Dragon runs two large group houses, home to 50 of the former street kids.
Browsowski is a youthful 37 now, clean-cut and enthusiastic, with emerging bags under his eyes. He was a member of panels addressing Poverty and Hunger Alleviation at the recent Festival of Thinkers event in Abu Dhabi.
In the eight years since its establishment, Blue Dragon has grown into an enterprise that now assists more than 1,200 children. In June, 2011, CNN named Browsowski one of its Heroes of 2011. The journey from teacher to hero was fraught and inspiring, not least because it sent Browsowski in an entirely different direction.
In 2005, taking a break in Ho Chi Minh City, he noticed a boy selling flowers in a restaurant. Now fluent in Vietnamese, Browsowski recognized that the boy’s accent marked him as from the country’s central region.
His name was Ngoc. His parents were poor and illiterate, living in a shack on the coast. Ngoc was one of dozens of children who had been taken from the settlement and had been put to work in Ho Chi Minh City. Through "threats and bluffs," Browsowski and one of his workers, Van, a law student, were able to arrange Ngoc’s release. The experience proved that Vietnam’s garment industry was a major beneficiary of this human trafficking. "These kids were working 100 hours a week," Browsowski said. "It was slave labor."
"It started with one," he added, as was the case with the street kids. With that single child came a question: What can we do?
The question became more compelling and dangerous two years later. A girl who had come under the wing of the charity had been missing for eight months. Browsowski heard that she had called Hanoi, with the message that she was in China and needed help.
With what Browsowski says was no help from the police, Blue Dragon started looking for the girl themselves. Their guesswork led them to a Chinese town, just over the Vietnamese border. Van and a co-worker were sent into China with instructions to find the girl, then make a police report.
The guess was correct. Van saw their quarry, walking with a group of girls. The recognition was mutual and they followed the women back to a house serving as a brothel. Van walked in, asked for the girl and was shown to a room upstairs, where the girl begged for help. Another girl saw what was happening and threatened to scream unless she was taken as well.
Van made an order for the girls to be sent to his nearby hotel, while also calling his Blue Dragon assistant to have the car ready. His intentions were recognized and the brothel owners gave chase as Van and the women hurried into the car. Browsowski listened to this chain of events by cell phone. At one point, Van told him they were surrounded. At another, he said, "Call my wife. Tell her to call the police. I’m in trouble."
Van and his passengers made it to a Chinese military base, where they were arrested and sent further inland. There, they related their story through a Vietnamese interpreter. The brothel was raided and six Vietnamese women released.
"Not how it was meant to go," Browsowski said, with some understatement, "but absolutely fantastic."
The episode earned Blue Dragon friends in high places. In 2010, Browsowski was contacted by the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security. Other Vietnamese girls had called from China, asking for help. The girls were sprung, international red tape was sidestepped, and the Ministry began asking for further help, both with its nationals over the border, and its citizens kidnapped from their villages and forced to work in the factories.
It was 25 years since Vietnam’s wars with foes near and distant had ended, as Blue Dragon began to find its way. Browsowski could see the scars war had left on the country’s culture and its psyche. "The war was a thousand years," he said. "It was China and then the French and the Americans. There’s still a mentality of war with the older generation. Even my staff, in their mid-late 20s remember being hungry as kids.
"Kids now have not grown up with it, so there’s this massive generation gap – parents who carried a rifle, shooting at Americans, and kids who want to play on the internet. The parents’ memories mean nothing to the kids, so there’s a real social rift."
Human trafficking and the plight of Vietnam’s children rouses Browsowski to uncharacteristically blunt, if polite language. "We’ve stopped trafficking from certain villages, so we figure if we can do that in a couple of small spots, why not across a province?" Browsowski said, "so that’s our current mission.
"But NGO’s (non-government organizations) don’t think enough like that: looking toward the end point, how do we stop this altogether. It’s all airy-fairy ‘let’s raise awareness’. I’m just tired to death of awareness-raising programs. They don’t work, even when it’s on MTV. You have to go to villages and talk to them, and offer another form of income."
The CNN accolade will amplify Browsowski and Blue Dragon’s voice beyond Vietnam, giving the charity all-important name recognition as it seeks to increase its annual budget beyond the current US$700,000.
"When the award came to me, that made me uncomfortable, because so much of the work is being done by the Vietnamese people who make big sacrifices," Browsowski said. "They could earn double, working for anyone else, but they make that sacrifice because they think it’s worthwhile. The award was for them as well, and that was a nice thing."
If Browsowski sounds modest, or even uncomfortable with the attention, it may be because he has learnt to make do with not much. His parents moved the family to a remote part of rural New South Wales when Browsowski was 12. Food was whatever they could grow, shelter was the caravan they slept in while the house was being built, with no phone or electricity.
Haircuts came four times a year. When Browsowski went to university, he lived on government aid. "I didn’t appreciate it, but it taught me to do without, and live simply," he said. "My life in Hanoi is probably more comfortable than it was in that caravan. It also left me with the view that life might be really tough now, but in a few years, it might be completely different."