Children of the
He sold his house in Australia to fight slavery. His group rescues children from armed captors and sweatshops. But you probably haven’t heard of Michael Brosowski OAM. How did a schoolteacher who grew up poor in rural Australia become a force for good in Vietnam?
At one point, Michael Brosowski’s face became uncontrollably, rapidly, self-consciously hot. It was even a little awkward to watch. He was discussing the problem of human evil.
“There are men,” he explained, “who go out of their way to meet a young woman here. He starts dating her, they go out for dinner, he takes her to bed. Then – they plan a holiday together, to China.”
“He knows all along that this person he is sharing a bed with will, when they arrive in China, be taken... [and] locked in a room with some men. That he will then leave.
“That the men will probably start laughing as they explain to her that she will be kept as a sex slave in a brothel; she will then go on have sex with at least 15 men a day. She will never, ever see her family again. She will die in China.”
Thirteen years ago, when he was 30, Michael Brosowski quit his job as a teacher at a western Sydney high school. He sold his house. He came to Vietnam to teach English and, he says, for the “easy life”. To get away from an Australian culture “full of pressure to succeed, the pressure to be constantly busy”.
A foreign English teacher in Vietnam can live well working just 20 hours per week and is often chauffeur-driven to work. But it didn’t take long for Michael discover that his new home nation, an often very conservative place, had an underbelly and underclass which he had never imagined: pristine parks which at night filled with homeless kids and swarming paedophiles, side-streets with wandering child labourers.
And parents being approached by strangers, telling them they can enrol their child in a boarding school – only for that child to be taken to sweatshops and never to see their parents again.
Michael’s response to this human evil was a retaliatory, passionate, super-charged dose of human good: he started his own NGO, called the Blue Dragon Foundation. Since 2004 it has rescued 500 women and children from brothels and sweatshops. Blue Dragon has helped get 600 Vietnamese children off the streets and back to their families, into schools, soccer teams, even yoga or painting.
“This is the worst of the worst of humanity, the absolute pit of humanity.”
The Blue Dragon gives children their own section of a vegetable garden to look after, so they learn how, with the right care and nourishment, you can watch something grow from nothing.
Many of these children are now young adults who have also received training with local business that partner with Blue Dragon. Former slaves are now chefs, social workers, beauticians, motorbike repairers, mobile phone mechanics and salespeople.
“People often think that the slave trade is about poverty,” Michael says. “That isn’t necessarily the case.”
Many human traffickers are rich, he says. They traffic again and again, selling each person at between US$5000 and US$8000.
“I have been poor, I grew up poor [but] I have never trafficked anybody in my life – I would never dream of it,” Michael says, shaking his head, as if trying to remove that unfathomable thought chain from his brain.
“This is the worst of the worst of humanity, the absolute pit of humanity.”
Visiting Michael in misty, noisy, motorbike-busy Hanoi, I began to feel that this polite, understated, gentle man was driven by a feeling that a casual observer might not see in him: anger.
I had only just begun to understand what makes him tick.
The day I met Michael Brosowski, he had a limpet attached to his legs, torso and neck: a small Vietnamese boy, no older than six. As Michael walked towards us, the boy wrapped himself even tighter around the man, as if they were crossing crocodile-infested water.
“This boy is trouble,” Michael said.
Off a main highway, down an alley full of motorbikes and pho soup stalls, just outside Hanoi’s city centre, is the Blue Dragon Foundation. As we entered its headquarters, a dozen or more kids were inside a fishbowl room next to us on the ground floor – some painting, some eating lunch.
Four years ago, the six-storey building was home to an accounting firm. Today, it serves free meals, provides shelter for the homeless, runs educational classes and administers a special stay-in-school outreach program.
You can see Michael in our photos. He is 42. I can also tell you he is tall, unassuming and often flushed with expression – usually satisfaction. With his strong voice and smooth, sensible-sounding Australian accent, the former English teacher is articulate, efficient and clear in his choice of words. To the attached limpet, he is also a terrifying cuddle monster.
I asked the little boy’s story, bracing myself for what I was about to hear. The boy’s journey into Michael’s arms would not have been a nice one.
Blue Dragon goes to places like factories and brothels and physically rescues people from traffickers and hardened (sometimes armed) criminals. This includes children as young as 10, who have been taken against their will, or tricked into thinking they are going to training and jobs, who find themselves working all day for no money and who are told by Blue Dragon workers to make a dash with them, as the traffickers look away.
The foundation’s staff have also come to the aid of kidnapped or trafficked women who have managed to get their hands on a mobile phone (or whose family members contacted Blue Dragon after being contacted themselves).
“Kids don’t say ‘hey, I am feeling crap’, they show you in other ways"
Going as far as southern China, Michael’s staff have driven cars up to brothels at pre-arranged times and waited for girls to make a run for it. They have pretended to be customers and whispered escape plans in sex slaves’ ears. Sometimes they go in with police, sometimes on their own.
“What happened to this boy?” echoed Michael, pulling his lips together as he looked over the would-be limpet, who was back in the arms of a Blue Dragon worker. “Actually, we are just trying to figure that out. He was brought here to us by somebody two days ago.”
“We are trying to work out what his issues are, but I suspect at the very least he is being neglected at home,” Michael explained, as the boy tried to rip a bit of paper out of my book, to get some attention.
“I was a pretty bad kid at school,” Michael added. “I was a very unhappy teenager.”
“Kids don’t say ‘hey, I am feeling crap’, they show you in other ways. It’s also about testing. I see it with kids here… For the first time they are safe and happy: ‘will you chase after me?’, ‘will you still love me if I do this?’ So they push the limits.”
“I was acting out at school because I was very unhappy.”
Yes, the same man who took out a CNN Hero award in 2011 and a Medal of the Order of Australia was an unhappy, lonely teenager in the 1980s, always getting into trouble.
He blames the TV program A Country Practice.
Michael grew up in the then industrial suburb of Botany in NSW, 11km south of Sydney’s CBD. His parents were factory workers: his Dad migrated from Germany as an 18-year-old after the Second World War.
Growing up, he began to think both his parents were “crazy” when the family moved 600km away (inspired by A Country Practice) to a 130 acre block of land in the New England tablelands. It was one hour’s drive to the closest town of Bundarra – which itself had a grand total of 331 people.
Michael says he was “an outcast”. His family was “dirt poor” and his parents, despite having no trade or farm experience, survived off the land and built a house from scratch.
"I saw the importance of reaching out to someone no matter how badly they might be behaving."
Young Michael was “extremely unhappy” on the farm and this was reflected at school. He claims he was also bad at sport and became very withdrawn in most of his classes.
Then he met Mrs Mac, a “tall, kind woman who was highly insightful and lit up the classroom with her smile… [She] was the sort of teacher who didn't need to be strict, because the whole class was just naturally attentive”.
“She was someone who really, really believed in me. She really reached out to me,” Michael said.
“She was my saviour. I came good after that, and I saw the importance of reaching out to someone no matter how badly they might be behaving”.
A few years later, Michael went to the area’s senior high school, in Inverell, where he encountered some Vietnamese girls. They were war refugees.
“I remember seeing one of the girls sitting there crying at recess one day. I thought, ‘gee, I can’t walk past that’,” Michael said. “She had hands in her face. I knew what it was like to feel isolated in this town. I could relate to that, so I sat down next to her and asked what was wrong.
“She told these stories of pirates attacking her boat, and rape, and all these terrible things. I couldn’t believe it. I had been so caught up in myself and here was somebody who had it far worse than me.
“It really got me out of myself – I had no idea about any of these things – meeting people far worse [off] than me.”
Most teenage boys wouldn’t do that, I suggested. Some might even antagonise the girls and make them cry more.
“Well, I guess it’s the benefit of being an outcast,” Michael replied.
“I think most teenage boys would want to stop and ask. It would just be socially unacceptable to do so [but] as the outcast, those social expectations didn’t apply to me.”
As he finished his sentence, the six-year-old limpet returned, trying to pull the camera from the photographer’s shoulder. Following him was a 25-year-old guy named Do Duy Vi, who was all smiles. “Oh, you have to meet Vi,” Michael said. “He is a great, great person.”
Vi was working on the streets shining shoes when he met Michael. “He offered to teach me English and I thought this would help me because I could shine shoes for foreigners,” Vi explained.
“But when I came to Blue Dragon more regularly, I learnt how to use Word and Excel. I learnt IT. I got a job in a big restaurant and made lots of money.”
Today, Vi heads up Blue Dragon’s street rescue team. He works nearly every night, taking mainly young boys out of parks and into shelters.
Having found his life’s rhythm earlier than most of us – in the middle of his teenage years, living in the middle of nowhere – Michael Brosowski followed the beat: he went to university, to train as a high school English teacher.
Soon, he went to Vietnam with friends. They were hiking near the Cambodian border when Michael fell sick from food poisoning. The group wanted to climb a hill, but he stayed behind, only to be approached by some kids from a local village who asked him to help with their homework.
“They had no idea I was a teacher,” Michael said. “They saw only a white face and they asked me for help.”
He helped. One of the children's mothers came out to thank him, even offering him money, “and yet they were so poor, so impoverished… I remember seeing other tourists from foreign countries walking past them, not doing anything,” Michael said. “That’s not a criticism, but the disparity between rich and poor in our world really dawned on me”.
He returned to Australia with the event playing on his mind. It altered his perception of his environment and he began to feel guilt, then a fundamental emptiness about his “comfortable life” in Sydney.
Michael took a Master’s Degree in Education and went to Ho Chi Minh City, where he taught at a University. When a job came up in Hanoi, he took it. At first, he found it too hot, too humid and too conservative.
One day, when walking through the city, he came across some boys aged 12 to 14, who were shining shoes for money.
“As I talked to them for a little while [Michael was now fluent in Vietnamese], the reality of their lives starting forming in my mind,” he said. “They weren’t in school, they had no opportunity, they were homeless for various different reasons or supporting their family, they walked the streets all day trying to get enough money to survive.”
“This was going to be their entire life… and it just seemed so blatantly unfair. I remember feeling this righteous, indignant anger.”
Michael began teaching those boys English – about half a dozen of them. Then he enlisted the help of one of his university students, Pham Sy Chung, and the pair began teaching the group of about 10 shoeshine boys maths, art and yoga.
Blue Dragon then “happened, bit by bit”, Michael explained, “Nothing was really planned… we started doing things as needs arose.”
That included recreation needs. After he began teaching the shoeshine boys, Michael organised a Brownies group in Sydney to fundraise money for bicycles.
Meanwhile, more and more children and teenagers around Hanoi began to hear about Michael and Chung, seeking them out for help. By the end of 2003, Michael and Chung decided to form an organisation: the Blue Dragon Foundation was born in 2004, named after the “vast, magnificent, mysterious blue Australian sky”.
By its first year, the foundation had created a residence for six former street kids. After several questions and several evasive answers, Michael reveals that he used his own money, after doing nothing less than selling his house.
Soon, Michael and Chung began offering a free lunch every day. They formed a kids’ soccer club. Because Michael began to see school drop-outs as a core part of the problem, Blue Dragon launched a sponsorship program to keep kids from poor families in school and off the Hanoi streets.
"The difference between good humans and bad is the level of care they show for other human beings."
Like many in Vietnamese cities, these streets were filled with insipid human traffickers and with parks which became paedophile havens at night. A year later, they began rescuing children and women from the streets. By 2007, their work became so regular and involved that they permanently broke down one of the region's largest trafficking rings.
Indeed, it did “just kind of grow bit-by-bit” from there: more money came in from private donors and places like the New Zealand embassy. Today, Blue Dragon has 65 staff and cares for more than 1,500 children in North Vietnam at any one time. It feeds hundreds of people free each week. The organisation has rescued just over 600 women and children from traffickers. Michael received the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).
Remarkable? Inspiring? Here are some of Michael’s key ideas:
On good and evil: “I see the worst and best of humanity. Many boys who come here have done terrible things, but, once given a chance, their good shines through… The difference between good humans and bad is the level of care they show for other human beings. So greed, for instance, that is the epitome of evil.”
On predation: “Paying teenagers to lure other teenagers is quite common. Even kids under our care continue to be targeted. Paedophiles use teenage kids; they would pay them to come here… Nobody was being arrested for it and no consequences. [Instead] Blue Dragon makes you go to school.”
On what we can each do: “I think keeping track of which companies are using goods produced by child and slave labour is useful. So too, sending any of those companies a social media message about the issues… you can always volunteer or donate money as well.”
On anger: "If I get angry about something, I think about ‘what can I do?’ You can't fix everything at once, but if you see a wrong, you can immediately make a start. When you do, start celebrating the small victories.... Take little steps, control your anger, help it motivate you. Anger can spur you on along the way. By taking action and celebrating the little successes, you can make it productive rather than destructive."
I began writing about Michael Brosowski as “the man who can teach us something about anger”. At first, describing anger as his driving force seemed to sum him up – but now it seems not only reductive, but just plain inaccurate.
I couldn’t describe Michael as being someone possessed by even the ‘positive, productive’ anger he explained, because whenever he talks even about horrible things and people, he instinctively draws himself back to trawling over details of what he likes about people who work for him. Despite the evil he witnesses and hears about every day, Michael is less German physicist Albert Einstein: “I love humanity, but I hate humans”, and more German poet Bertolt Brecht: “The human race tends to remember the abuses to which it has been subjected, rather than the endearments. What's left of kisses? Wounds, however, leave scars.”
Maybe I am not used to writing about great deeds and wonderful people, but I found the extent of Michael Brosowski’s humanity inexplicable. There’s a kind of “vast, magnificent, mysterious” about him. I decided to give one person a call. Someone who might surely know, who might even be the cause of some of it: Mrs Mac herself.
Her first name is actually Shirley. Shirley McCoombe is long retired from teaching and now lives in Canberra.
“Michael was a very shy boy,” Mrs Mac said. “Not naughty – just very withdrawn, but I saw in him somebody with some real literary gifts and an inquiring mind.”
“I know he credits me for a lot of what he has done in life and that is very flattering, but all I did was just be a good teacher and I was able to give him specific work he was interested in. He just slowly blossomed, bit by bit, over time, into a wonderful human being.”
But why does Michael seem to feel other people’s needs as his own? “I think perhaps [his] ability to imagine enabled to him to think about what it must be like for people in difficult situations and compelled him to help,” Mrs Mac said.
Do Duy Vi told me he thinks that Michael’s good deeds come from “his troubles as a teenager, and being poor and lonely”.
“Nothing mysterious good about Michael,” he said. “I think because he just a nicest person in the world, that’s all.”
"A few years ago we raided one factory” Michael Brosokowski said. “We figured out that 14 people work, sleep, eat in a small room with the machines. They worked from 8am until 11pm. The factory owner only let them go to the bathroom for eight minutes a day, including brushing your teeth, washing, going to the toilet."
Australian businesses have become increasingly reliant on overseas manufacturing in the last decade. Between 2003 and 2012, there was a significant decrease in domestic manufacturing and a 91 per cent increase in imported goods – mostly from Asia. Clothing has experienced the biggest change over the last decade. The number of goods Australia imports from Vietnam has risen more than two-fold.
Several non-government organisations rate companies on their outsourced and overseas ‘labour credentials’: whether they provide adequate information about which factories make their products, and whether they have policies in place related to labour standards, such as an inspection of the factory to ensure there are no slave or child workers.
According to these reports, which companies operating in Australia officially ensure their goods do not involve slave or child labour?
YES: Coles, Kmart, Target, Cotton On, Zara, H&M, Country Group, Etiko.
NO: Just Jeans, Jay Jays, Dotti, Lowes, Best & Less, Industrie, Valley Girl, Portmans, Quicksilver, Rip Curl, Summit Sport.
Sources: Oxfam Australia, Baptist World Aid’s Australian Fashion Report 2015, The Australian Council of Superannuation Investors’ Labour and Human Rights Risks in Supply-Chain Sourcing: Investment risks in S&P/ASX200 Consumer Discretionary and Consumer Staples companies and Shop Ethical.