In direct relation to the growing number of migrant workers in China is an increasingly large population of street children. With numbers rising above 150,000, these kids face extreme poverty, are subject to abuse, and are vulnerable to exploitation by gangs and traffickers. Because many of these children still have parents, they are not eligible to go to orphanages and most have no option but to stay on the streets. One organization in Shaanxi province is reaching out to these children while also helping to prevent more children from entering life on the streets.
Xinxing Aid for Street Kids is a Chinese run NGO based in Baoji city that provides street children with support while also reuniting them with their families. The organization began in 2001 as an initiative of the international humanitarian aid organization Doctors Without Borders (DWB) after they realized there was no specialized care for street children. While Baoji is neither a popular tourism nor business destination, DWB chose it for its strategic location along a common migration route for workers in Western China moving to Eastern coastal cities in search of jobs. DWB worked side by side with Chinese staff for several years before turning the organization over to them in 2006.
Xinxing, which is Chinese for ‘new star’, runs a center that is open 365 days a year and can house up to 45 kids. The children who come to the center, a majority of them boys, have become homeless for a variety of reasons. Some are runaways; some have been trafficked, joined gangs, and/or have physical or mental disabilities. By the time they come to the center, most kids have faced abusive and traumatic situations. “The center provides kids with a safe haven for them to get on their feet, restore their confidence,” says Diane Cheung, a volunteer with Xinxing.
The children, who range between the ages of six and 18, are free to leave if they want, but the staff encourages them to stay and provides them with regular meals, a place to sleep, educational classes, and counseling all free of charge.
“A lot of kids are quite closed up when they arrive and we don’t make them speak straight away,” says Cheung. “Once they’re more comfortable and have had a chance to have some food and get cleaned up, we start speaking with them and find out where they come from. After a while they do actually open up.”
Since it began, Xinxing has had a unique position in the city and an unusually positive reception from the community in a country where people are usually hands off or suspicious of NGOs’ work. Members of the community frequently bring in street children to the center as well as volunteering and taking children on outings. “If anyone sees kids hanging around recycling dumps or the train station, they will tell them about Xinxing,” says Cheung.
Once the kids feel more comfortable at the center, Xinxing works to reunite them with their families, when possible. Many of them are left behind kids whose parents have gone to the cities to work, leaving them with grandparents or neighbors who provide them with little or no supervision. Others have parents in prison, are runaways, or have been forced into gangs and child labor. For those who have families or a caregiver, Xinxing works to locate and reunite them. Before children return, however, Xinxing staff investigates the situation to make sure it is safe. Later they follow up on the kids to make sure they are thriving.
Irfan*, a native of Xinjiang, was one such child. When a policeman brought him to Xinxing, the staff could not communicate with him because he spoke Uygur not Mandarin. When they were able to find a translator, the staff discovered that Irfan had been grabbed from his hometown and forced into a thievery ring. Unfamiliar with the cities he was taken to, he feared trying to escape. And because he was not good at stealing he was often beaten by his captors.
“I missed Mum very much,” said Irfan. “I often dreamed about going home and attending school with my friends; I don’t know what Mum could be feeling after I went missing. I even dreamt that I talked to Mum on the phone, but my poor family has no phone.”
Finally arriving in Baoji, he went to the police. After more than a month, Xinxing found his mother and three older brothers and reunited Irfan with them.
Children without caregivers often stay at the center longer while they attend school and get vocational training so they are able to provide for themselves.
Addressing the Problem
In 2008, the staff at Xinxing began to ask what more they could do to help China’s street kids. The best answer was to reach at-risk children before they ended up on the streets. As a result, the center began an outreach program aimed at helping rural children and their families in areas around Baoji who are in desperate situations. Xinxing partnered with 12 rural schools to identify the most needy children.
Through this partnership, 135 children have been registered with the program. Staff from Xinxing visit the children and their families at home, which often requires taking 4-wheel drive vehicles into mountainous areas. The staff brings basic necessities that are often unaffordable for these families, coach families on things such as the importance of education, and act as mediators in unhealthy or abusive situations. In extreme cases, Xinxing provides children with financial assistance to attend a boarding school.
For the most part, Cheung says, “the program has been really positively received. For families, it means something that someone else cares about their family and their children.” Additionally, Xinxing supports the schools through art, music, and sports therapy programs.
“It’s basically prevention,” says Cheung. “We’re just looking at the source of where the street kids are coming from and we’re hitting the problem from both ends.”
Xinxing has identified many more children in need of help and are aiming to expand their program slowly. Additionally, Cheung is working to raise more awareness about the plight of street kids across China in the hopes that more children will be helped before they get on the streets. “We want to set up a model that works so well for street children that it can be replicated in other cities in China,” says Cheung.
*Name has been changed to protect the child’s identity.
For more information on Xinxing, visit their website.