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Beijing Students visite AIDS Orphans

The 18-year-old Beijing middle school student was nervous but determined as she traveled from the nation's capital to an AIDS orphanage in the village of Shaodian not far from here in Henan Province earlier this month.

Chi Heyan soon realized that her angst was misplaced as she quickly developed a deep emotional connection with a 14-year-old resident of the orphanage.

When Chi saw the younger girl flush with excitement at her arrival she knew they would get along just fine.

The orphan, who will remain unidentified to protect her privacy, lost both her parents to AIDS after they contracted HIV after selling their blood in the 1990's.

She has cried a river of tears in the two years she has lived at the orphanage called Sunshine Home.

On this day, however, the visit from another teenager brings a grin that stretches into a pretty smile which can be seen even in her eyes. She immediately latches on to her peer who has come all the way from the big city.

Four other Beijing middle school students have come to see first hand what has happened to the children of the hundreds of victims of China's tainted-blood tragedy. The China Children's Press and Publishing Group (CCPPG) has organized the tour for the Beijing teens who will write about their experience in a nationally circulated student newspaper.

Liang Hongsong, who heads the Sunshine Home, says it was built in 2003 and is now home to 41 AIDS orphans. There are seven other Sunshine Homes in the area. In the 1990's hundreds of people were infected with HIV after selling their blood at unsanitary blood clinics in the region.

Almost as soon as they arrive, young Chi Heyan is led away by the younger girl on a tour of her room, which she shares with two other girls, then off to the garden where she shows off a bit. "Look, this is eggplant and that is pepper. Guess what's coming up in that row?" she asks with a smile.

Chi has brought her new friend a couple books and a fan with a funny frog cartoon.

"She is a lovely girl, and I don't see any difference between her and I," said Chi. The two girls both like to sing and adore the same pop star.

Chu Rui, director of the Activity Department of the publishing group was glad to see the budding friendship between the two teens. Every year Chu leads young people from Beijing to the Sunshine Home under the "Children Heart and Red Ribbon" program. It's the third time the publisher has sponsored such a visit to Henan's AIDS-stricken villages.

Chu hopes the visits will build a bridge between the privileged urban children and their AIDS-affected rural peers.

"Few urban kids have a chance to see what AIDS is about with their own eyes. Once they do, they gain a deep understanding and they spread the word to their friends back home," she said, adding that peer-to-peer sharing of experiences is more effective than a mass media campaign in raising awareness of young people.

Chi Heyan admits she had her trepidations about meeting people who had been so deeply affected by the deadly disease. She says she tried to keep her trip a secret but it was leaked to her schoolmates who immediately showed their own prejudices.

She overheard someone from another class say they wouldn't play with her after she returned because they thought she would be infected with AIDS.

Before her trip to Henan Chi spent a whole evening surfing the Internet to find out more about AIDS and HIV. None of the children at Sunshine Home are infected with HIV so Chi knew she didn't have to worry about her new friend. "She's healthy and can't harm us. She's the one who needs our help."

Chi says she will not only write about her experiences for the student newspaper but will share them in a face-to-face meeting with her classmates.

Another Beijing teen on the tour, 17-year-old Li Xiang, also developed strong views about what should be done to help not only those infected but also those who have been affected by AIDS.

He thought the tour was like giving alms to the poor and that it was not enough. Li now hopes to change the views of society and call on their help to support the victims of AIDS.

Lu Geng, vice director of the local Youth League Committee hopes the AIDS-affected children will also benefit from the visits of the city kids so they can "shake off the shadow" of their tragic past to lead happier and successful lives.

According to research conducted by the Caring for the Younger Generation Committee in 2004, 67,000 children throughout China have lost at least one parent from AIDS. It also estimates that more than a million people have been directly affected by a relative or close friend who is carrying the HIV virus or is suffering or has died from AIDS. In the three years since the launch of the "Children's Heart and Red Ribbon", 15 urban teens have seen what AIDS leaves behind during their visits to the Sunshine Home orphanages.

Although organizer Chu Rui says the writings of the young people have reached tens of thousands of children, she, too, admits it only scratches the surface of the need to raise awareness. "We still have a long way to go," she says. As the afternoon winds down and the city kids are about to get on the bus and return to Beijing, the children from the Sunshine Home are lined up to see them off. Chi Heyan's new friend whispers a request. "Can you give me a photo of yourself?" she's asked. "Of course," says Chi as she gives her new friend -- perhaps a lifelong friend -- the picture and a big hug.

(Xinhua News Agency June 19, 2006)

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