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'Yingying's Fund' at Illinois starts strong

By KONG WENZHENG in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-08-20 22:39
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A grief stricken Ye Lifeng, second from left, the mother of slain University of Illinois scholar Zhang Yingying, is supported by a friend Lin Guiping, left, Yingying's boyfriend Hou Xiaolin and Yingying's brother Zhang Zhengyang, right, during a press conference at the US Courthouse in Peoria, Illinois, July 18, 2019, after Brendt Christensen was sentenced to life in federal prison without the possibility of release. [Photo/IC]

Two years after the death of Chinese scholar Zhang Yingying, the University of Illinois, where she was a visiting student, on Monday announced the establishment of Yingying's Fund to support international students and their families in crisis.

Zhang's family members, who had been traveling back and forth between China and the US after her disappearance in June 2017, provided $30,000 as a lead gift to the endowed fund.

"We have set up Yingying's Fund because Yingying was always willing to help others when they were in need — we want to act in that spirit," said Hou Xiaolin, Zhang's fiancé, who has returned to China to work as a teacher, in prepared remarks read by Zhang's brother Zhang Xinyang.

As of Monday, more than 480 people had donated to the fund less than two weeks after its launch.

The fund, which has raised more than $58,000 as of Monday, will be managed by the University of Illinois Foundation and is designed to serve international students on campus and their families during times of hardship.

"Because of your kindness, countless international students and their families will receive the support they need during times of crisis, including continued support to the student assistance center and sustained partnership with their academic units," said Danita M. Brown Young, vice-chancellor for student affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).

Also, Zhang's parents will give at least $20,000 to people who provided authorities with crucial information that led to the arrest and conviction of their daughter's killer.

The money will come from a GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $161,000 from more than 3,500 people since the young woman disappeared.

Zhang, 26, who was from Nanping in Fujian province, attended the university to study agriculture before her life was cut short by Brendt Christensen, the man convicted of kidnapping and brutally murdering her.

"We hope that future international students and their families will be able to receive financial support and assistance when they encounter emergencies so that they will not be as helpless as we felt when we first arrived in the United States," said Zhang Ronggao, Zhang's father.

"We didn't even know how to get to Illinois," he said. "When we first arrived in Champaign, we didn't know anyone. Everything was challenging and overwhelming — we were scared. Our life turned upside down."

"The grief of loss of a child or sister or partner is heavy enough of a burden. But to have the grief more than 7,000 miles from home in the spotlight of the international media attention and among baseless accusations and criticism from strangers is a weight no family should have to carry," said UIUC Chancellor Robert Jones.

Hou recalled the family being criticized online and to some extent taken advantage of by some throughout the already painful process.

Christensen, a former UIUC graduate student, was convicted in June in US District Court in Peoria, Illinois. He faced a potential death penalty, but was sentenced to life in prison without parole on July 19.

"There were so many people from the university and local community who helped us, finding a place to stay, providing meals, arranging rides, offering legal and financial advice, all these complicated issues," said Zhang.

"If it were not for the kindness of these individuals, I cannot imagine how we would have been able to face all these challenges," he added.

Many from the local community also voluntarily joined the search for Zhang Yingying. Finding her and taking her home had long been the family's primary hope.

However, they were told last month that her remains might be compacted and buried deep in a landfill, and they acknowledged that finding her might be impossible.

"I cannot describe the pain we suffer as we cannot take her home to China," said her father. "We hope no other family ever experiences the tragedy we endured."

"Throughout the months, we have seen the Zhang family face the darkest and the saddest and the most difficult experience imaginable with nothing but grace, kindness and gratitude to all," Jones said.

"It is our hope that this fund will offer some support and help when (international students and their families) are dealing with an accidental and urgent situation," said Zhang.

In 2018, UIUC enrolled an international student population of around 11,000, one of the largest among US universities and 22 percent of the university's enrollment. Chinese students account for about half the school's international total.

Steven Beckett, a lawyer for the Zhang family, declined to say on Monday who would receive the Go Fund Me reward money or how it might be distributed.

During the course of the investigation and Christensen's trial, the names of two possible recipients emerged: Christensen's ex-girlfriend Terra Bullis, and Dr Emily Hogan, who prosecutors believe Christensen unsuccessfully tried to lure into his car before he pulled up to Zhang Yingying in Urbana.

After the trial, Beckett and Zhang family lawyer Zhidong Wang praised Bullis and Hogan.

"Terra's courage is self-evident, and the assistance she gave to law enforcement was invaluable," they said in a statement. "Emily's willingness to come forward and testify about the defendant's conduct toward her was also a key part of the case."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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