I am here with my 16 year old son this visit. It is the second time he has come to JiaoZuo with me. This time, he saved his hard earned wages from an after school job and paid his own way - flight, new passport, visa, spending money ... the lot. All three of our kids have been to China. Our daughter came for the first time in 2009 as a 12 year old and paid her own way to return again in 2014. The boys came in 2014 when they were 12 and 13 years old. We think we timed it okay ... they were all about to hit their teenage years so we thought it was a good time for them to get a good dose of 'real life'. They share their mother with many Chinese children so it's a good thing they have been able to get to know them in the flesh!
This is the first time that my son has visited the orphanage floors. It's a big thing to come face to face with children your own age and be hit with the reality that despite your similarities, you have a very different future ahead of you... I have been there lots of times now. I remember their faces and their names and notice the new ones.
Last night as we lay in our beds in the dark, my son asked "why do people abandon their kids?" A discussion as to the many possible reasons followed. Some recent statistics state that there are around 150 million orphaned or abandoned children world wide but this number does not take into account street children, trafficked children and child soldiers that make up more than this figure again. That's over 300 million children ... and it also doesn't count the children who are left in villages while their parents travel to the cities in order to find work. In China alone, it is estimated that around 61 million children are 'left behind' like this. There is a link below to a recent story from the ABC on this topic.
UNICEF defines an abandoned child as one who: does not know where his or her next meal is coming from; does not know where he or she is spending the night; does not live with either the mother or the father. Much progress for children has been achieved since the UN established the Millennium Development Goals in 2000. But there is still a long way to go.
The reality is that the gap between the rich and the poor in many countries, not just this one, gets wider and wider every day. Official data on this can easily be obtained from government websites in different countries but it unknown if this reflects a complete picture.
Unfortunately, people close their eyes to the needs of others. In this country, the poor are really poor. A village farmer might grow rice, corn and some vegetables and maybe keep some chickens and pigs. They produce enough to eat but not much to sell. Rural families live in simple wooden houses, use outhouses and cook over open hearths. Some villages only have electricity during the night as rural industries need the power during the day. There is access to basic public services such as education and health. Imagine earning the equivalent of around $300 a year, of having to work long hard hours every day .... and then giving birth to a child with a health issue .... it is a user pays health system here ... pay up front before any treatment is offered to your sick baby ... imagine knowing that there is no way you could possibly find the money you need to save your child .... how far would you go in order to get assistance for your baby? We are so lucky in Australia that we don't have the need to imagine it .... but we must not close our eyes to the need in our world.
There are several young babies downstairs at the moment. One arrived two days ago from the hospital, with a milk blister in the centre of his top lip. He is just beautiful. Big chubby cheeks, a little round chin and a plump and squishy body, his tiny hands clench into fists by his head ... I think he is a few weeks old. But seeing that tiny milk blister on his lip made my heart hurt ... where is his mama? Are her breasts full of milk and aching for her little boy?
I have no medical training, but he appears to have microcephaly. The World Health Organisation describes Microcephaly as "a rare condition where a baby has an abnormally small head, due to abnormal brain development in the womb or during infancy. Babies and children with microcephaly often have challenges with their brain development as they grow older." Boston Children's Hospital states that "there is no specific “cure” for microcephaly itself ... so treatment instead focuses on managing any symptoms and related conditions." Now, let's go back to the fact that families in this area might earn around $300 a year. How do they pay for medical treatment alone, let alone all the therapy that might go hand in hand with this condition. How do they look after a child that might need constant 1-1 attention, especially when there are fields and animals and other children to tend to ...
Two days later his milk blister is gone.
Another newborn has arrived from the hospital. He is very new ... his umbilical cord has fallen off but his brand new belly button is still healing. He is also beautiful - tiny little wrinkles across his forehead and that newborn baby smell. His eyes open wide to take everything in. I wonder who he looks like - his mama or his baba. I've looked him over and I can't see anything wrong with him except for an injury to a little toe on one foot. I held him up to our principal and suggested that her 15 month old daughter might like a little brother. She smiled and commented on how tiny he was and searched on her phone for photos of her own daughter as a newborn. Again, my mind wandered to a grieving mama ... was this her first baby? Does she even know where her son is? My heart hurts for her tonight ...
As we left the orphanage today I asked our principal if she would have considered abandoning her child had she been born with a disability or a medical condition. I knew the answer, but I still wanted to hear her say it. "No, of course not!" ... my next question wasn't as easy for her to answer. I asked her if she would have had pressure from her family or her husband's family to abandon. She took a while to answer ... "I don't know." She went on to tell me about a young mother who lives in the apartment above her own parent's house. The baby was born with some fingers missing on one hand. The mother and both of the grandmothers wanted to keep the baby but all of the other family members had pressed hard for her to abandon the child. "She had a lot of pressure to give the baby away but she didn't do it." The baby is now 7 months old and is doing very well.
I wonder how many young mothers lose this battle every day. I have a book at home written by the well known Chinese author XinRan. It is called "Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love". I have read it many times and cry all the way through. It is worth the read though ... as it explores the painful stories of mothers who have lost their babies.
There is no answer to the question "why?" ... but I do know that we must do what we can ... locally, abroad .... wherever need lies ... find a group that supports families to stay together, that helps to reunite children with their families, that advocates for adoption ... ask questions to ensure that the money goes directly to those in need and not to paid volunteers .... we have so much .... give what you can.