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Quake Orphans Face Uncertain Future

She held hands of her mum and dad on the way to kindergarten, with no idea that she would soon lose her parents to the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Beichuan County in China's southwest Sichuan Province on May 12.

Shielded by the bodies of her parents, three-year-old Song Xinyi survived the catastrophe that claimed more than 50,000 lives and left 5 million homeless.

In hospital, one of her legs was amputated. Lying at Mianyang No. 3 Hospital, the little girl screams "I want Dad and Mum" every time she wakes up. Whenever she sees a woman, she calls her "Mum" and every man "Dad".

The number of quake orphans like Song Xinyi could reach 4,000 with 70confirmed so far, according to the Bureau of Civil Affairs of Sichuan Province.

Local officials are scrambling to reunite children with their missing families. Newspapers and television stations have run children's photos and names, asking the public for help. Posters with similar information have been posted at the relief camps.

The Civil Affairs Ministry has announced that each confirmed orphan would have a 600-yuan (US$86) allowance per month for basic living expenses over the next three months and they would be taken care of by welfare organizations.

The central government will put the orphans through college if they pass the entry exams. As for those not enrolled in college, the government will pay their tuition for their vocational schools, and help them get jobs on graduation.

Meanwhile, more than 300 professional psychologists sent by the Ministry of Health and other institutions are working in the quake zone in trauma counseling.

Dr. Shi Kan, fellow researcher with the Institute of Psychology at Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), believes timely psychological intervention can help reduce the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among orphans.

He notes that 23 percent of the 4,200 orphans suffered PTSD after the 7.8 magnitude Tangshan quake in 1976, which killed more than 240,000 people in Tangshan, Hebei Province.

"I think all of the children will have psychological problems. The smaller children can't even verbalize their feelings. They have a look of terror when you mention the earthquake. They just start weeping," he says.

Dang Yuxin, 32, who lost her parents when she was six months old during the Tangshan quake, came to Mianyang to comfort orphans and tell of her own experiences.

"It is not the end of the world when you lost your parents. More horrifying is that you lose hope and confidence in later life," she says.

An orphan himself of Tangshan quake, Zhang Youlu says, "We can feel those children's pain better than anyone else. We want to tell them to be strong and brave, because everything will be all right finally." Zhang, now a bookshop owner in the city, initiated the rally of Tangshan orphans to mourn the dead and donate for the quake-hit areas.

Zhang Xiangqing, president of a steel company in Tianjin, who also orphaned by the Tanshan quake, has donated 100 million yuan (US$14 million) to disaster relief in Sichuan. "I hope the money will help build new homes and schools that will withstand earthquakes," he says.

Nationwide, thousands of Chinese have swamped online forums and phoned the hotlines of local civil affairs bureaus with offers to take in children orphaned in the quake when the government said it was drafting plans for adoptions.

For 17-year-old He Junli, a student at Beichuan Middle School, however, Mianyang stadium will be her home for quite some time. She lost her parents and all her relatives to the quake. She was relocated here with other survivors.

"I can't sleep. I keep asking myself: 'Where will I study in the future? Who will I live with?" she says. Her school collapsed and half of her schoolmates died during the quake.

"Children's mental scars most likely will last for a long time. They may nod and agree when you tell them to be strong, but they are very hurt inside. They have lost their parents, lost everything in a flash," says Shi Kan, of the CAS.

Su Youpo, a post-quake reconstruction specialist, says most quake orphans preferred a special school or institution to being adopted based on his research in Tangshan quake orphans for decades.

"Children who live in foster families always feel uneasy. They think they owe a great deal to their foster parents. When staying in an institution, however, all the children are equal and can support each other," he explains.

Zhou Jie, 39, who lost parents at the age of seven during the Tangshan quake, still remembers living with her aunt and uncle in the south. "In fact, they were very nice to me, though they have three children themselves. But somehow I always felt like an outsider."

"A special institution for these children, preferably in their home province, would help them feel closer to their dead parents and remind them that they are not alone," says Dong Yuguo, who served as president of Yuhong School, a government-run school that sheltered 148 Tangshan quake orphans in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei Province.

For those who want to adopt quake orphans, Zhang Kan, head of the Institute of Psychology at the CAS, suggests they need more than just passion and financial security.

"A sense of responsibility and parenting skills are crucial to help quake orphans step out of shadows as fostering parents may gradually find it a challenge complicated by the children's unstable mental conditions," he says.

"Every decision concerning these orphans should be made on the perspective of these children instead of that of adults," he adds.

Sitting on the floor of Mianyang stadium, He Junli says she misses the everyday phone calls from her father. "He loved me very much, but now he is gone," she says. "If someone, somewhere out there could love me and accept me, I will love them through my whole life."

(Xinhua News Agency May 24, 2008)

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