Sheltering youths from past

SUN JOURNAL

Haven: A Chinese woman has worked to build group homes for abandoned children, many of whom were left after one parent killed the other.

August 15, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - The boy nicknamed Black Bean doesn't like to talk about the past, but his scars tell part of his story. The skin around the boy's mouth is pinched, marking the area where a man who kept him as a virtual slave burned his face with tongs from a fireplace.

There are strips of scalp where hair no longer grows, places where he was beaten with sticks.

Black Bean keeps his most painful wound hidden behind dark eyes that dart about when strangers ask about his family. His father is dead, stabbed and dumped in a well with a heavy stone tied around his neck. His mother, who helped plot the killing, just got out of jail after more than seven years.

Black Bean is 11 years old but looks no older than 6, and says he is happy where he lives now, a communal home he shares with 50 children in Shunyi County, an hour's drive northeast of downtown Beijing. "When I stayed at home," he said, "I felt alone."

He lives in the Beijing Children's Village, a nonprofit group home for abandoned children with especially tragic pasts. Most are here because one of their parents killed the other.

The children's stories are chilling. Some of their mothers and fathers engaged in murderous love triangles. Some subjected their children to savage beatings or sex abuse.

What makes the Children's Village so remarkable, though, is that it exists at all. It is not the creation of a Communist Party committee, but the work of Zhang Shuqin, a retired prison employee whom the children call Granny Zhang.

In a nation where most people are obsessed with getting ahead and would never consider giving money to the disadvantaged, Zhang is a pioneer in her efforts to instill a sense of social responsibility. Her children's villages are among 10,000 nongovernmental organizations in a country where a dozen years ago there were practically none.

Zhang opened her first children's village in 1996 in Western China's Shaanxi province. Now there are three. Zhang dreams of having one in each of China's 33 provinces and regions.

The Beijing village sits inside a brick compound that is the former home of a county health clinic. The walls are painted orange, pink and aquamarine, and the courtyards have a lush lawn plus a basketball hoop and swing set. Photos of movie and pop stars line the rooms where the children, ages 1 1/2 to 16, sleep in bunk beds.

Except for their memories, there is nothing to remind the children of the unhappy lives they left behind.

Xiao Biao, 13, has to live with the memory of waking up to the sound of sawing and discovering his mother and her lover carving up his father's poisoned corpse. Ma Jiadong, 11, lives with the memory of his father strangling his mother. "My father," Ma said, making a gun with his hand and pressing his index finger against his forehead. "My mother," he said, closing his hands around his throat.

Domestic violence is a growing problem in China. The nation's shift from a command economy to one driven by the profit motive has brought prosperity but also accelerated various social ills including violent crime, adultery and drug abuse.

While nongovernmental organizations - or NGOs - have emerged in the past decade to address some problems, the Communist Party makes it difficult for citizens to form independent organizations. The regime fears they could become political and eventually threaten its hold on power.

To avoid government harassment, Zhang developed a partnership with the China Charities Federation run by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. She files reports with the federation, which in turn provides financial support and political cover.

Because China is still relatively poor and the nation's rich give little, the Children's Village and other NGOs rely heavily on help from overseas. Much of the material in the villages are donated, most from foreign firms, embassies and Christian groups.

The village's one-room health center is called the Novartis Clinic, named for the Swiss pharmaceutical company. The International School of Beijing donated several dozen desks.

Granny Zhang runs a tight ship. Children are up at 5 a.m., eating breakfast at 6 a.m. and off to school 30 minutes later, marching in a line down a rural road. After school comes an hour of kung fu practice, supper at 6:50 p.m., homework and lights out by 9. On weekends, the children are allowed to sleep in until 7 a.m.

Children do have fun in the village. They play video games on new Chinese computers. On Saturdays they watch cartoons.

There are problems, especially with violence. Zhang has brought in psychologists to train staff in dealing with the anger the children carry with them.

Fourteen-year-old Gao Tianyang, whose mother killed his father, used to punch doors and attack other children with bricks and chairs. He was forced to stand in front of class while students criticized his behavior, a scene reminiscent of political struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

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