Sun Village in Shunyi district, Beijing, is home to about 100 children of prisoners. Photos by Sun Shousen / Asia News Photo
Innocent children of convicted criminals find a safe haven in Sun Village. Liu Xiangrui reports
Ten-year-old Ma Qilan was standing facing her mother but didn't know it. She kept asking her grandfather: "Who's mom? What's she like?" She was only 2 when her parents were jailed for human trafficking and had to move to rural Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, along with her brother, to live with their aging grandfather.
When Ma visited her parents, both behind bars in Xinxiang, Henan province, that was her first sight of them in eight years.
Ma, now 18, is a volunteer at the Sun (Taiyang) Village in Beijing.
Located in Shunyi district, it is home to nearly 100 children from similar backgrounds.
Founded by Zhang Shuqin, or "Granny Zhang", in 1995, there are six other Sun Villages across the country, providing precious shelter and succor to some 4,000 innocent children suffering for the wrongdoings of their parents.
Ma and her brother arrived at Sun Village in 2004 along with 21 others, all prisoners' children, after spending a night on the train to Beijing.
"Granny Zhang and some of the children were already waiting for us at the gate. It felt like we were returning home after a long absence," Ma says.
She found herself in a big empty yard dotted with a few poorly equipped buildings. But she soon felt a sense of family.
In the early days, they didn't see much of Granny Zhang. "It was while working together on the farm that we really got to know her.
"I think living here made us mature faster as we learned to be independent and also picked up a number of skills," says Ma, who soon became interested in dancing.
While her brother went to work in a southern city in 2009, Ma graduated from a technical school and returned to work as a volunteer at Sun Village.
"I know how scared a child can feel when there is no parent around and no companions to play with."
As she leads her group of little "brothers and sisters" to their dormitory, Ma introduces her family at the village, which has now grown into a big compound with a small office building, a canteen, some recreational facilities for children, and several colorfully painted cottages.
After changing into "home" shoes, the children enter a big room with polished wooden floors and toys stacked in a corner. Some play games, while others read their favorite picture books.
In an inner room, their bedroom, a boy of about 2 wakes up from a nap, while his twin continues to sleep soundly.
Each cottage houses 14 children and a "loving mother", a staff member of Sun Village. The older children also help take care of the younger ones. Those above 6 attend a school nearby and will later go to vocational schools or colleges.
Children at Sun Village are encouraged to learn dancing, painting and embroidery, among other skills, "to cultivate a loving disposition", and also share the everyday chores. They help the staff tend a 40-hectare rented plot, to supplement finances, as the budget is tight.
"The children no longer have the fear of hunger hanging over their heads or worry about being driven out of school," Ma says.
Her close friend Ma Yanhua, 18, from Hebei province, recalls how much "it hurt to see my grandfather crying and begging the school staff to let me continue at each new term, as we couldn't afford the fees".
Both share similar feelings toward their parents.
Volunteers take care of children at Sun Village in Beijing.
Talking of her mother, Ma Qilan says, "I have never called her 'mom', although she always likes to talk to me and often cries on the phone. We haven't seen each other in years and I have no cordial feelings toward her.
"I really hated my parents when I was young. I couldn't understand how they had the heart to desert us."
However, she says, "I will look after my parents when they are old, no matter what wrong they have done - they are, after all, my parents. I'm grateful to them for giving me life."
Many volunteers come in to help with cleaning-up and to tutor the children. But Ma says although these people come with loving hearts, she always notices something in their eyes. "They come pitying us, expecting us to receive them in a humble way," Ma says.
"I might leave some day, but Sun Village will always be my home," she adds. "And I will look after my parents as well as Granny Zhang.
"It's the time for me to take responsibility."
(China Daily 01/04/2011 page20)