Aid to struggling children's refuge blocked

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 December, 2007, 12:00am

A choking stench fills the air of a home for abandoned, disabled children in Jinzhou in Hebei province .

Dozens of mentally and physically handicapped children sit all day, perched over buckets set into specially made wooden or metal chairs. Nappies are too expensive for the Wuqiu village home run by Catholic nuns, who say the local authorities are making life even more difficult.

It is difficult to tell the children's ages because many are physically deformed or undersized. Some have been in the home for more than 10 years.

They twist their bodies on the chairs, some wailing, some smiling, and others crouching and ducking their heads. Visitors are rare.

In one room, paralysed children lie on beds covered with plastic sheets, unable to express their discomfort apart from groaning.

Serious shortages of funding and staff, which make proper medical care impossible, have contributed to the deaths of 26 children in the past 20 years.

But despite the appalling conditions, the home is a far cry from the uncaring, Dickensian stereotype.

It is operated by a group of self-sacrificing Catholics who have resisted immense pressure from the local government to take care of the handicapped children, who are considered garbage by their parents and a worthless burden by the local government.

An underground Catholic church was established in the village in 1985, and priests picked up the first paralysed baby abandoned on the church's doorstep in May 1987.

About two weeks later, the priests found a three-year-old paralysed, deaf girl and two months later a two-year-old deformed, blind boy.

The number of abandoned children, most suffering from serious birth defects, continued to increase, and local believers built the home in 1987 to take them in. Fifty-six children with less serious defects, such as cleft palates, have been adopted in the past two decades.

The caretakers are mostly nuns who receive no salary or holidays.

A young nun surnamed Cao said she had been working at the home for 10 years, without a break, even though she realised she would never see any visible improvement in the children.

'Our food is the same as the children, basically a steamed bun and some other staple food. I have been here for 10 years, but I only took an oath to become a nun three years ago,' she said. 'I won't leave because it is a lifelong calling for me to work here.'

Sister Cao said the 35 caretakers worked in two shifts - cleaning the stools, cooking and feeding, removing and washing blankets and linen and treating the sick with their basic medical supplies. Their links to the outside world were almost completely severed, and donations blocked, because of mounting pressure from the local government after the orphanage was expanded about a decade ago.

'They said we had violated the birth control policies by keeping these children,' said Li Yongqian , the nun in charge of the operation.

To stop the nuns from taking in more abandoned babies, local officials have threatened to charge the home 2,000 yuan for each one.

But the nuns said they had no choice. 'They were abandoned outside our door, and we had to take them in,' Sister Li said.

Officials have stopped visitors, blocked donations and prevented priests and nuns from contacting others. A surveillance camera was installed at the home's door recently, and Sister Li and other nuns were summoned to the police station for interrogation.

Their communications with the outside world were cut off, according to one volunteer who tried to bring donations to the orphanage.

Some volunteers who tried to visit the orphanage or bring donations to help the children had their cars detained and were fined.

Officials from the Zongshizhuang township government, which oversees the village, and the police station said they were not aware of the home, while Jinzhou's Civil Affairs Bureau refused to comment.

The unusual level of surveillance could be targeting the underground bishop of the Zhengding diocese, Jia Zhiguo , an internationally known figure in his 70s who has been jailed countless times.

Sister Li said if that was the case, innocent children were paying the price. 'A rich Buddhist tried to donate a truck of food and other necessities, but the truck was stopped by local police, and we never receive the donations,' she said.

'The donation by the Buddhist had nothing to do with religion, but they still stopped it.'

Sister Li said the home always hoped to find someone to adopt the children. However, volunteers familiar with the operation of such homes said it was extremely hard to find people to adopt children with serious birth defects.

'It is also difficult for government homes to take care of children with such serious problems,' said one volunteer.

'Many rural officials simply hope these children die instead of becoming a burden.'