Saving the drug orphans
Community champion seeks to support Gansu children left behind by imprisoned parents
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.
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.