CHINA> National
One year on, quake orphans struggle to carry on
Updated: 2009-04-30 09:36

CHENGDU -- Four-year-old Ma Ke is too young to understand what happened to his mother and father, despite the fact that the memory of their deaths often reduces his grandfather to tears.

Ma Ke's parents, Ma Qiang and Liu Chunli, were killed in last year's devastating earthquake on May 12.

Ma Qiang, the father, had run an iron plant in Yinxing village, Wenchuan County, the quake epicenter, and the family had been well off.

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Ma Ke and his 12-year-old brother Ma Ziheng were left with their grandparents, who are in their 60s with very little income. The couple not only lost their only son, but almost all their property in the earthquake.

Farmers their age in China usually rely on their offspring for a living as the country's social security network has yet to cover its huge rural population of about 900 million.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs worked out a plan in June 2008 to provide all possible support for the orphans, and promised to guarantee their schooling, housing, and employment.

Chen Kefu, vice director of the civil affairs bureau of Sichuan Province, told the public earlier this week that apart from 12 orphans who had been adopted, 638 children who lost their parents in the quake were staying in orphanages and the rest with relatives.

"They are in a fairly good situation," said Chen.

Ma Ke and his brother have struggled to begin a new life in strange environments. The little boy was taken to his aunt's temporary home in Dujiangyan, about 40 minutes drive from the provincial capital of Chengdu.

He often asks his grandmother whether his father and mother know he has moved to this new place.

He is attending a kindergarten in Dujiangyan.

"He is always ready to help, such as arranging desks and chairs," says Yang Jing, Ma Ke's teacher.

But he refused to touch the crayons when the class were asked to draw pictures of their mothers on Women's Day.

Ma Ke will quietly stay in a corner, watching other parents picking up their children.

"It just hurts me so much," says Yang, "My colleagues and I try very cautiously to treat Ma Ke the same as we do other kids. He is sensitive. Special care would make him feel less comfortable."

Compared to his brother, Ma Ke is lucky staying with his grandparents. Ma Ziheng was sent to a welfare organization in the coastal city of Rizhao, in east China's Shandong Province, with 337 other teenage orphans September and enrolled at a middle school there.

"Ziheng never shows his grief in front of us," says Ma Yuanda, the grandfather. "He also cries when he misses his father and mother, but he always tries not to let us know. He has been very much concerned about his younger brother and us, never spending a penny on unnecessary things."

The grandfather gave Ziheng 100 yuan (US$15) as pin money last September before he left for Shandong. "But he hasn't finished it even today."

The grandparents have been worried about Ziheng being so far from home. They felt helpless when the welfare organization staff said Ziheng had performed poorly in school due to possible mental stress.

"What can we do for the boy as we are so far apart?" asks Ma Yuanda.

The local government has noticed the problems faced by the grandparents and their grandchildren.

"It is true that the carers feel it is difficult to support the orphans on their own," says  Xiong Xiaohong, an official in charge of orphan affairs with Wenchuan County. "The county government has been helping them find work as well as paying a monthly allowance of 600 yuan (US$90) for each orphan plus donations."

Ma Ke and his grandparents need at least 1,000 yuan (US$150) each month to cover basic living costs. The grandparents can hardly make ends meet on the 600-yuan allowance.

Thanks to the efforts of the local civil affairs department, Dong Suyun, the grandmother, has work as a day carer at a kindergarten, which enables her to bring home 500 yuan (US$75) every month.

And it means a long expected family reunion as Ziheng will return to Sichuan for schooling in September.

"I'm overwhelmed at the prospect of taking care of my grandsons and helping them live postive lives," says Dong. "We are getting older by the day. I do hope in the future people still remember my kids and give them a hand."