Saving the drug or­phans

Com­mu­nity cham­pion seeks to sup­port Gansu chil­dren left be­hind by im­pris­oned par­ents

Global Times - Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Zhang Yiqian

Peng Lisheng’s child­hood mem­o­ries are mostly a blur, but he re­calls that his fa­ther had never been an im­por­tant fig­ure, hav­ing hardly seen him when he was young.

When he was just a 1-year-old, his fa­ther went to Yun­nan Prov­ince for a “job.” When he came home, he would get scared eas­ily and leave through the back door. But Peng was too young to un­der­stand what his fa­ther did for a living.

In 2000, when Peng was 11, his fa­ther was caught traf­fick­ing drugs in Yun­nan and sen­tenced to death with re­prieve. Sud­denly, his house­hold had no in­come. No­body told Peng the news, but he heard peo­ple talk about it in hushed voices. He had no un­der­stand­ing of drug traf­fick­ing at that age and hated the po­lice for tak­ing his fa­ther away.

Now go­ing on 30, Peng is try­ing to help chil­dren in that area who have be­fallen the same fate, the so-called “drug or­phans.” He knows what these chil­dren need, phys­i­cally and psy­cho­log­i­cally, and vol­un­teers to help them through his NGO.

A means of sur­vival

Peng, a Hui mi­nor­ity living in Xia­maguan town­ship, North­west China’s Gansu Prov­ince, grew up in an age when it was quite com­mon for lo­cals to fall vic­tim to drug traf­fick­ing and abuse.

Ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports, in 1999, out of 86 town­ships, cities and dis­tricts in Gansu, 73 had deal­ings with the drug trade. There are even some vil­lages where al­most ev­ery­one is in­volved. As such, the gov­ern­ment has vowed to clean up the area.

Peng thinks the lo­cals in­ter­pret it in a much sim­pler way, not think­ing of it as some­thing il­le­gal, but merely a job to sup­port their fam­i­lies with. The land in the area is bare, the weather too dry for crops to grow, and be­cause the whole re­gion is un­der­de­vel­oped, there aren’t many jobs for lo­cals ei­ther. Many take up deal­ing drugs be­cause it’s easy money, and grad­u­ally, it en­traps their fam­i­lies and fel­low vil­lagers too.

As the el­dest son, Peng dropped out of school and started work­ing with his mother in or­der to sup­port his sib­lings. He worked mul­ti­ple jobs, wash­ing plates at restau­rants, dig­ging coal in mines and mov­ing bricks at con­struc­tion sites, suf­fer­ing a great deal of phys­i­cal strain be­cause of it.

But it’s the men­tal stress Peng finds harder to bear. Grow­ing up with­out a fa­ther, he found him­self lonely and feeling self-con­tempt. When he was 16, there was a long pe­riod dur­ing which he wanted to com­mit sui­cide. The only thing that pre­vented him from do­ing so was the wel­fare of his mother and sib­lings. “How could they live with­out me?” he said.

Dif­fer­ent path

In 2015, Peng’s friend and his friend’s fa­ther were in­volved in a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent and later crowd­funded the money needed for their op­er­a­tions. He then reg­is­tered an NGO called Tongxin Love and Aid As­so­ci­a­tion in April, be­cause he felt a char­ity or­ga­ni­za­tion was needed to help those in need in the area.

For a while, the vol­un­teers did ev­ery­thing, pro­vid­ing care for the el­derly and the chil­dren. It was only in 2016, when Peng at­tended a train­ing ses­sion for NGOs pro­vided by a youth or­ga­ni­za­tion in Shen­zhen, South China’s Guang­dong Prov­ince, that he re­al­ized he needed a stronger focus.

He de­cided to try and help the “drug or­phans” in the area, be­cause he knew from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence what these chil­dren had gone through and what they needed. Right now, the or­ga­ni­za­tion helps more than 60 chil­dren in the area whose guardians have been im­pris­oned for deal­ing drugs.

Peng lists “anti-drug ed­u­ca­tion” and “child psy­chol­ogy men­tor­ing” as the NGO’s mis­sions. He knows that these “drug or­phans” are usu­ally raised by a sin­gle par­ent, grand­par­ents or other rel­a­tives, and can be shut off, feel in­fe­rior or be­come de­pressed.

One project he has been work­ing hard to re­al­ize is tak­ing the chil­dren to see their guardians in prison – most of whom are fathers – hop­ing to bring pos­i­tive en­ergy to both the par­ents and the chil­dren.

But the project has been ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to set up. There has never been a project like it be­fore and Peng spent the bet­ter part of two months try­ing to con­tact the lo­cal gov­ern­ment, who he needed per­mis­sion from. Some­times, he had to sit in a gov­ern­ment build­ing re­cep­tion room all day, just so his re­quest to meet with an of­fi­cial could be sub­mit­ted.

Af­ter nu­mer­ous trips to prison and other au­thor­i­ties, his re­quest was fi­nally re­ceived and re­viewed. In June, he took a team of chil­dren to prison to see their fathers. They met in a pri­vate room where the chil­dren could talk to their fathers face to face and even em­brace them with a much-needed hug.

He was glad to see that the trip had a pos­i­tive ef­fect on the chil­dren. Some started smil­ing more af­ter the visit and told the vol­un­teers in pri­vate they wanted to do more for so­ci­ety and grow up to be some­one use­ful.

“This is an im­prove­ment. Even I didn’t re­ceive this kind of treat­ment when I vis­ited my fa­ther back in the day,” Peng said. “We only talked through a phone, sep­a­rated by a cold glass win­dow.” He didn’t want the chil­dren to re­peat the path he had taken.

Good deeds pun­ished

But in the last cou­ple of years, Peng has had to en­dure much hard­ship and crit­i­cism, and feels there isn’t enough gov­ern­ment sup­port.

More­over, he is judged and mis­trusted by lo­cals.

“It’s so hard to do a good deed,” he said. “It’s much harder than do­ing some­thing bad. If you do a good deed one day, peo­ple cel­e­brate it. If you do it ev­ery day, they get sus­pi­cious; they won­der what you’re up to or what prof­its you are se­cretly earn­ing.”

Just last year, one of the fam­i­lies took Peng to court be­cause they wanted to re­ceive an en­tire do­na­tion, which Peng re­fused. When lo­cals saw Peng was be­ing sum­moned to court, they spread a ru­mor that he was keep­ing the do­na­tion for him­self.

That was a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult time for him. He didn’t feel un­der­stood, he had a fam­ily to sup­port and he didn’t know what di­rec­tion he should take. At that time, he re­ally wanted to quit, but it was the thought of the chil­dren that helped him through.

His next step is to make the NGO self-sus­tain­ing. He and some vol­un­teers have opened a restau­rant to­gether, and 10 per­cent of the earn­ings will go to sup­port­ing the NGO. He hopes to make it a long-term project and re­ally make a dif­fer­ence.

“Right now, many peo­ple are afraid to re­turn to our area, be­cause they are afraid their chil­dren will be in­flu­enced by the cul­ture and have deal­ings with drugs,” he said. “It will take a long time and a lot of ef­fort to make changes.”

Peng Lisheng (right) is pur­chas­ing ev­ery­day items for or­phans at a store.

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