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Village Havens for Prisoners' Children
Children are a vulnerable group in society and this is especially so for the kids of prisoners. For eight years Zhang Shuqin a 54-year-old prison officer, has been working tirelessly to raise funds to set up children's villages to take them in.

"If I had started helping the prisoners' children say fifteen years ago, questions would have been asked and I would have been called upon to give a formal explanation," Zhang said.

Eight years ago at the age of 45 Zhang established the first children's village to help the criminals' kids in Shaanxi Province. Now at 54 she has three children's villages.

At the end of 2000, she set up a children's village in Shunyi District in Beijing. This served to demonstrate how such villages could be used to provide support for the prisoners' children who are at the heart of her mission.

Over the past eight years, Zhang and her children's villages have through very considerable efforts managed to help more than 300 prisoners' children. But even if they could continue in the same way for another 30 years they would only be able to help something over 1,000 of these children.

Currently some 70 percent of inmates are married. The total number of children across the country would be enormous if each married prisoner had just one child. Faced with such an awesome social need, Zhang has real concerns about the ability of non-governmental organizations with their limited resources being able to cope.

The first steps have been taken and the feasibility of the children's village concept has been demonstrated. When she first started, Zhang had little in the way of resources other than good wishes. Now with eight year's experience behind her she is in a better position to carry forward her goal. She is applying for the registration of the "Beijing Sun Village Special Children's Support and Research Center." It would aim to develop academic study in the field and offer professional guidance to those involved in the work of the children's villages. Zhang would consider her eight difficult years well spend if they could have helped provide a focus that might lead to the government bringing in measures to protect the children of inmates.

An unfair world

After graduating from senior high school, Zhang spent three years living in the countryside. Following this and by then accompanied by her daughters, she went on to become a nurse in a county hospital. Later she was transferred to a hospital in a mountainous area and spent her days travelling about the countryside. Thirteen years later she became a prison officer at Shaanxi Prison. She took charge of running the in-house newspaper and so began her contact with the world of the inmates.

"My working life was spent first with people who were ill and then moved on to bring me in contact with those who had offended against society. The patients and the prisoners were to show me the unhealthy aspects of life, physically and mentally respectively. It was to be an experience that would lead me to feel a strong sense of mission.

For the sake of their children some female prisoners broke jail. Others committed suicide of fell into the grip of depression. Some watched their hair turn a premature white. Some even lost their sanity," said Zhang.

As a mother herself, Zhang could understood them and feel compassion for their forgotten children. On one occasion she proposed that the jail should initiate inquiries about the prisoners' families. She held the view that handcuffs, jails and loss of liberty could only be part of the story. They were the stuff of punishment but reeducation called for a different approach, it needed human care.

A mother in prison is still a mother. If she didn't know where and how her child was, how could she be in the right frame of mind to benefit from reeducation? She would strain against the system complaining about the police, the jail and society itself. Her proposal was however not adopted for it was quite unprecedented.

When she first put up the idea of setting up a children's village, she met with stiff opposition. People said "China has so many children from decent families, like orphans and kids who had to drop out of school. Why don't you care for them? Why do you only care for the children of the prisoners?"

Traditionally, people have always looked down on criminals and their offspring and discriminated against them. "People admire martyrs and are grateful for their sacrifices. This leads them to transpose these positive feelings onto their children. But with the children of criminals they have nothing but hate and abhorrence to transfer. It's not fair to the kids," said Zhang.

Indifference follows the prisoners' children wherever they go. Some of them have no residence cards, some don't go to school, some even beg on the streets while their relatives and neighbors turn a blind eye. Zhang said that she was neither a Party member nor a do-gooder. It was because she was a mother that she couldn't bear to see the children roving the streets.

In a village in Shaanxi Province, an honest man was pushed beyond the limit of his endurance. He killed his wife who had been unfaithful and then gave himself up. Back home were three children and a grandmother in her 70s.

The children had three uncles and an aunt but not one would take them in. Zhang came to their house and found the children bare-footed and with rotten persimmon all over their faces. On the table were a half pumpkin and a pot of dirty water.

Outside the door a crowd of onlookers stood with folded arms. Zhang couldn't hold her tongue. She said to them "I guess you are much better off these days from the look of your clothes and houses. As neighbors in the same village, how could you not spare a kind thought for these children and this poor granny?"

Some in the crowd blamed the kids themselves after all they had stolen from others. Zhang answered, "It is because they have nothing to eat! They might go on to climb up onto your house and steal your tiles and bricks. Perhaps in a few years they will become real robbers." Zhang took the two younger kids to the children's village.

In the children's village in Beijing, there was a 14-year-old boy from Xi'an City who couldn't afford to go to school. His mother was doing time for abducting and trafficking children and the whereabouts of his father was unknown.

At first he lived in his uncle's home but his aunt was a nasty piece of work. He was a stubborn boy and was always getting beaten. Finally he was beaten so badly that he suffered actual brain damage. The injury was to his cerebellum and his sense of balance and psychomotor skills suffered. He walked with a limp and couldn't put the food into his mouth properly when he tried to eat.

His uncle sent him to his mother's sister. But all day long her husband nagged her threatening divorce. The boy was eventually deposited at the gate of the jail. Zhang was heart-broken and quickly took him to Beijing for a specialist consultation.

Safe haven

When rural parents go into prison, their children can make a living herding sheep and cattle. In the city, homeless children can find their way into criminal gangs. Having been exposed early in life to the bad influence of their parents and now finding themselves in a world of hardship, it would be no surprise to find them learning how to hate.

Once on the streets their growing sense of alienation is fed by the contempt of members of the "normal" society. Just to survive they have no other means but to steal and rob. This has been a group neglected by society and which falls outside any government safety net. The emotional barriers they encounter in their lifestyle lay the foundations for a life of crime.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the children's village, Zhang promised to offer a safe haven for the kids where they would have food to eat, a school to study in and medical attention when they needed it. They could escape from their emotional trauma and enjoy the same rights that every other child enjoyed.

One of the children told Zhang after class, "Granny Zhang, my classmates make fun of me because my dad is a prisoner."

Zhang said, "You must tell them that is not your fault, it has nothing to do with you."

"What can I do if they don't stop?" he replied.

"Tell the teachers what they are doing and if they carry on a second and a third time, explain it to them with your fists," said Zhang, a woman of strong character and integrity.

When Zhang first got involved in setting up children's villages, her detractors accused her of being motivated by thoughts of personal or political gain. She just carried on, unmoved in her resolve to see things through from beginning to end.

The second children's village in Shaanxi started with the opportunity to make use of some retirement apartments. It took a lot of time and energy to raise the funds needed to fit out the accommodation. Halfway through construction the funds ran out, there was just 600 yuan (about US$70) left. Zhang was preparing to raise a mortgage on her own family home. The very next day she received 150,000 yuan (about US$18,000) from a charitable organization in Hong Kong. She has always believed that with heaven's blessing any difficulty or obstacle might be overcome.

In order to prevent a funding crisis happening again with the children's village in Beijing, Zhang decided to develop some income generating activities.

Two years ago she approached a farming enterprise for a donation. Though the boss said they were short of funds themselves he did have a suggestion to make. She would lease 100 mu (6.67 hectare) land. The enterprise would provide fast-growing poplar cuttings free of charge and buy back the one-year-old plants at one yuan each.

A quick calculation showed this to be an exciting opportunity as it could raise some 300,000 to 400,000 yuan (about US$36,000 to 48,000). Without hesitation she leased a tract of land from the town where the children's village is located.

On planting day, more than 200 people from all walks of life came to help. The media were there to cover the event. But she was to find out later that there would be more to this than meets the eye for she had taken no account of risk factors. Unfortunately many others also rushed into growing the poplars and flooded the market.

Zhang didn't want to impose on the company boss and there was no one else to buy the plants. She had to sell her poplars off as firewood to cover the rent of the land. Then she got everyone organized and they cleared the land in order to grow beans and maize instead, and they got another 100 mu to grow corn and jujube trees. So land that had once been unproductive became a garden.

A better way

The children have plots for tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables. After classes all are expected to work, each within their own capabilities.

Zhang's priority for the children of the village is that they should learn self-reliance. They need to develop a spirit of hard work and self-denial, otherwise they wouldn't return to their parents having turned over a new leaf.

She tells the children, "Don't make comparisons with the children of the rich and the one-child families. Face the fact that you grew up in a different sort of family to these."

Zhang was asked what her greatest wish was for the children of the village. Her reply was realistic, "To be able to support themselves, to contribute something of value to society and not to commit crime like their parents."

Most of the kids come from needy families. Already the children's village in Xi'an has seen a university student and a soldier come from among its numbers. Under the terms of their adoption, the kids don't need to leave the village until they are 18. Most of them will find it a quite a challenge when they go out to make their way in the world.

Many people have got involved and helped the children's village gradually set up its own tailoring, carpentry and computer workshops. In their spare time the girls learn tailoring and the boys concentrate on woodwork. Everybody attends the computer class.

The purpose of all this effort is not just to feed the children, what Zhang really wanted to do was to find a new and better way.

The children are drawn from many different areas of the country though most come from Hebei Province. Zhang strategically took in children from all over hoping to encourage the various local governments to see the importance of the work.

When local governments find it difficult to resolve problems with prisoners' children, Zhang's position as head of a non-governmental organization means she is well placed to coordinate the efforts of like minded people willing to help. All they need is the financial support. Children come and go in the villages. Their parents collect them when they are released from prison. At one time there were as many as 74 children in the villages. Currently there are 58 with their ages ranging from 3 to 16.

Love, kindness and a sense of being cared for

Zhang has always been fully aware of the effect of her work in facilitating the reeducation of the criminals. She explained, "Knowing of one or more inmates with children safe in a children's village brings a measure of hope to everyone in the prison. Finding that society doesn't despise their children but takes care of them brings not only thankfulness but also improvements in conduct which can in turn lead to a remission in the length of the sentence."

On the wall of Zhang's office there is a list of well-known enterprises and foundations. She regularly writes to them as she is always busy in fund raising activities.

Five years ago, her second daughter came to the children's village to work on her right hand. But recently her daughter said, "I want to have a rest."

Zhang was a little angry and said, "How can you leave your mother to carry on alone?" But she soon regretted the remark remembering the last twenty years. She had hardly been able to create the best of living conditions for her own daughters while she pursued her ideals. They were entitled to have their own dreams and to pursue their own lives.

"Helping the children of prisoners cannot just be left to the kindness of individuals. It should be seen as a social public service. The opening of the village in Beijing was intended to attract the attention of the national media and place the issue under their spotlight," Zhang explained.

Moreover, she has been putting considerable effort into developing the care of the children into a new area of study in its own right. The hope is that this will encourage more people to support the needs of this particular group of children and encourage research.

To date, the children's village has run four training courses. Foreign experts have come by invitation to present lectures for the teachers at the village on the psychological aspects involved. The curriculum has included standard educational theory and legal studies. There has also been a focus on ways of removing psychological barriers and on latent potential for criminal behavior.

The children's village has received visits from many overseas media representatives. It has attracted the attention of international bodies including the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Zhang is happy to have been able to make a difference in her own area. She has another wider dream. She hopes to see the creation of a cooperative network of non-governmental organizations in the field of adoption. The aim would be to regulate management, supervise funding and train staff to promote a better standard of care for the children.

What Zhang has been working for all these years is not just the physical wellbeing of the children but to give them something far more precious. She brings them love, kindness and a sense of being cared for.

When she arrived in Beijing, she checked out all the formal avenues hoping to find an overarching authority for the children's villages and a source of governance, guidance and coordination.

However, the work of the judicial departments was focused on education and making arrangements for the parents when they were released. Their remit did not include the welfare of the prisoners' children. The civil affairs departments also thought it was beyond their scope of responsibility. Some even predicted that Zhang's village wouldn't last a year. But the village carried on tenaciously.

"I can only promise that I won't embezzle money, abduct and traffic children or abuse them. I have no difficulty in accepting the right of others to criticize the work for after all it is in the public domain, but I will carry on regardless," Zhang once said.

Zhang knows well that the children's villages do not belong to her. On the contrary it is she who belongs to the villages. All the assets have come from benefactors. She considers her tenure to be like that of a housekeeper charged for a while with a duty of stewardship. Now 54, if her health permits she intends to work until she is 64, 74 even 84 and beyond.

Meanwhile Zhang finds herself both happy and anxious. Happy that a supermarket in Niulanshan Town has promised a free counter for the children's village to sell the vegetables they produce. But she is anxious for the future of four of her village children. They will soon be ready to enter junior high school and she needs to find them a school where they will get a good education.

(Beijing Youth Daily, translated by Li Xiao for China.org.cn, July 9, 2003)

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