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June 28, 2011

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Fostering hope

MANY children with disabilities are abandoned at birth by poor parents, but mothers in one north China village have made it their mission to foster these children. Tan Weiyun finds out who fosters the mothers.

Villager Zeng Cunhua had never been to Shanghai but now she and her friend Wang Guohong - both from a village of cave dwellings on the Loess Plateau - are in a local hospital for free cataract surgery.

The free surgery is provided by the hospital to foster mothers in Sancha Village, known as China's nuniang cun, or Foster Mother Village, where around 200 mothers have reared 1,300 orphans with disabilities over the past 43 years.

Around 290 orphans with disabilities are cared for today in the village in Shanxi Province, at the foot of the Cailiang Mountains in northeastern Datong City.

All were abandoned or left at Datong Orphanage by parents who could not afford to care for them. More than 90 percent of the children were born with cleft lip and palate, missing limbs, blindness, deafness, lack of speech, cerebral palsy and other ailments.

Zeng, 53, gets a call in the Shanghai hospital from her foster daughter, 16-year-old Xiao Feng who tells her everything at home is fine, not to worry about her and have a good rest. She gives a smile and a sigh of relief.

Farmer Zeng has raised 15 orphans over nearly 20 years; the oldest is 19 years old. Wang, who is 41, has raised nine children since 2001, ranging in age from 7 to 12 years.

Zeng's foster daughter Xiao Feng was born with a spinal deformation, corrected by surgery, and now she is in high school.

"I brought her home when she was only 10 months old; now she is a big girl," the mother says.

Zeng has three biological children, two daughters and one son, all grown up today. Wang has two biological children, boys 16 and 21.

"We are mothers. It's a mother's nature to protect a child," Wang says. "It hurts so much when I see them sick and deserted. They are so poor and badly in need of care and love."

Many other women in the village have become foster mothers since the 1960s. They breast feed and bring up these children as their own, build houses for them after they grow up and prepare weddings for them with their own savings.

Sancha Village, around 20 kilometers from Datong City, is a typical small village comprised of yaodong or cave dwellings, common in North China's Loess Plateau.

At night a patrol team of six village volunteers and their dogs are on watch night and day against any strangers or possible human traffickers.

"Sancha is the village that has fostered the most orphans and has the most foster mothers," says Shi Derong, deputy director of the Family Foster Office of the Datong Orphanage.

Back in the early 1950s, after China's civil war, there were many orphans without anyone to care for them.

"At that time the orphanage took in these children. Due to lack of hands, many married women in the village and nearby village offered to foster the orphans and gave them a home," Shi says.

Over the past four decades more mothers (and fathers) have opened their homes and their hearts to foster children.

In the 1960s, the monthly government subsidy was 9 yuan (US$3.66 at the exchange rate back then), capable of buying 90 eggs, and several kilograms of millet.

It has increased to 650 yuan (US$100) today. The government also covers the children's education and medical expenses.

The allowance is to be increased this year to 1,000 yuan per child per month, says Shi citing a State Council decision.

"We hope our children can have a better life," Shi says.

Each child get an allocation of milk powder, soap, rice, oil and other necessities. In summer they get sugar and bath powder, in winter they get hog-water bottles for warmth, Wang says.

Wang's mother Liu Meisheng, 65, has fostered 17 orphans. The eldest is now 32 years old and has a 3-year-old son himself. Liu took him home when he was a small baby. "I didn't have much breast milk, so I only fed my boy; my girl got milk powder," Liu recalls.

The boy suffered from cataracts and urinary stones. Each week Liu traveled long hours to a hospital where he got dialysis treatments.

At first Zeng's daughter Xiao Feng couldn't do anything but lie in bed because she had a big lump in her spine. Zheng held her in her arms to feed her, wash her and rock to sleep every night. She had surgery when she was 5 to remove the lump. Now she's healthy again.

To become a foster mother a woman must be healthy, married, aged from 30 to 60, hold a Datong City hukou (permanent residence), have a stable income, a permanent dwelling, experience in child rearing - and a caring heart. At most a mother can raise three orphans at the same time.

Because almost each orphan has some disability, a foster mother gets at least a week's training to learn to care for children with disability; then they must pass a test to qualify.

An inspection team pay regular visits to assess the mother and determine whether she is qualified to continue caring for the child.

Some children with mental and developmental disabilities lose their tempers easily and are hard to please. One of Wang's foster children with cerebral palsy sometimes smashes windows. "Each time when he gets angry, I hold him in my arms, pat him gently and hum some lullabies to calm him down," Wang says.

The boy doesn't know how to eat properly and when to swallow food. Wang has created a language system of signals only she and her son understand. "When he has chewed his food long enough, I pat him lightly on his face and he knows it's time to swallow. He is still clever."

When a child reaches 18 years of age, he or she can decide to continue study or find a job if he or she can be self-supporting.

For those who cannot live independently, the foster mother continues to care for them as they age.

"They are my family; family members live together forever," Zeng says. Her neighbor 58-year-old Guan Yuecun still feeds her 31-year-old foster son Wang Yanjun, who suffers cerebral palsy and deformity. "She told me she would look after him till the day she dies," Zeng says.

It's also heartbreaking to part when a child leaves home. Wang comes down with a fever and cries for days when a foster child leaves for work.

"I don't eat or sleep well for days," she says. "They are my children."

But they still write and call and come back on holidays.

"Reunion is the happiest moment," she says. "They love me and I'm glad I brought them up."


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