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AIDS-orphaned Children Taste New Life
Liang Tingting had not danced since her parents died of AIDS five years ago.

However, the 14-year-old girl of the Yi ethnic minority group in Southwest China's Yunnan Province could not help but give a performance two weeks ago as she took part in a Beijing summer camp for AIDS-orphaned children like herself.

"I was so happy to see people around me all applaud and cheer for me, and Sir Roger Moore even gave me a hug," the slim girl said. "I was so overjoyed that I could be a happy dancing girl like other children."

The five-day camp was sponsored by the China Youth Concern Committee (CYCC), Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The first of its kind in China, it hosted 72 AIDS orphans from nine to 16 years of age from five provinces, including Henan, Shanxi, Sichuan, Jilin and Yunnan. During the encampment the orphans were taken various famous Beijing sightseeing destinations as well as to the theatre to enjoy children's operas.

Moore, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and former James Bond actor, visited the camp to meet with the orphans. That was when Liang danced for the first time in five years.

Liang enjoyed many other firsts at the bivouac: She left her hometown;, hopped aboard a train for a ride, made a cross-country journey which took two days and three nights, had pictures taken by a digital camera, and saw a musical on stage, just to mention a few.

"Life is so fantastic outside, even the air is different," the girl said.

Since her parents' death, she and her little brother have been living with their grandmother.

Supporting them is her uncle's meager annual income of 1,000 yuan (US$122), which affords them a simple diet of vegetable porridge.

Along with the hard life the young Tingting lives comes discrimination she must face each day. She says her classmates seldom play with her and often sneer at her at school. "They say my parents died of a kind of ashamed disease, and I am doomed and should be isolated," the child said.

Sadly, when it first got to Beijing, the camp suffered the same discrimination when it was rejected by nearly 40 hotels and schools for fear that the presence of children associated with AIDS might affect businesses' reputations, says Li Qimin, CYCC's executive director.

Although the organizer finally found the Xicui Hotel in Beijing's western suburbs to take in the 72 children and arrange the best rooms the hotel had for them, Li says the previous rejection "indicates a prevalent misunderstanding of AIDS in society at large."

"The summer camp aimed to help these children widen their horizons and walk out of shadow and isolation as well as urge all of society to eliminate biases against people living with HIV/AIDS and their relatives and take care of them," he says.

The Xicui Hotel received wide public praise for opening its heart and rooms to the children, something any good business should have done in the first place.

The orphaned children are representatives of an estimated 78,000 children across the country who have lost parents to AIDS, according to the Chinese CDC.

The CDC predicts that China will have 138,000 to 260,000 children orphaned by AIDS by the end of 2010.

Dr Zeng Yi, the CDC's chief scientist, attributes blatant discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS, as displayed in rejection of the camp, to "insufficient and often incorrect understanding" of the disease.

A survey conducted by Futures Group and Horizon Research Group on 3,968 people between the ages of 16 and 60 shows that only 8.7 percent of them know the correct answers on questions regarding the transmission of the AIDS virus and preventive measures against transmission.

The survey also found that few people tend to care for and accept people living with HIV/AIDS. Only 33.9 percent of urban residents and 19 percent of rural town residents think that HIV carriers should be allowed to continue working. Over 40 percent of urban residents and 55 percent of rural town residents would not be willing to take care of HIV-infected relatives.

That's why Zeng regards the camp for AIDS orphans as "significant," in keeping with "the solemn commitment made by the Chinese Government to take care of AIDS orphans."

The camp, he says, "is effective publicity by the government in its battle against AIDS. On the one hand, from what occurred with this summer camp, the public will know that AIDS orphans are not a threat, but a group equal with anyone else. On the other hand, society's care for them would empower these children so they may become tough fighters against AIDS when they grow up."

Even advocates for bringing up AIDS orphans in a family-like environment rather than putting them together applaud the encampment for the children.

Dr He Jinglin, national program officer for UNAIDS, is one of them. She is strongly against the practice of putting AIDS orphans into large care centers, but thinks summer camps are an effective way to allow children to make social connections.

"I don't think it's a good idea to have special isolated institutions for these kids, which may impress on them that they are different and make them ashamed since they cannot have a normal social life there," she says. "But the summer camp offers a chance for these children to go to a place they have desired to see and to know there are people in society who care for them. That is good for their growth."

A special center for AIDS orphans may cost 1.8 million yuan (US$220,000) to shelter only 50 children, she points out.

"This amount of money could well benefit many more children orphaned by AIDS if used more wisely," she says.

But the summer camp for AIDS orphans, she says, is what every provincial government should sponsor in the future.

The Chinese Government has encouraged people to adopt AIDS orphans or let children live with their relatives in local homes instead of being put together in an isolated care centers, says Li Liguo, vice-minister of the Ministry of Civil Affairs. He added that the government will work out measures to subsidize the costs of caring for orphans for those people who adopt them.

That is one of the effects of the first summer camp for AIDS orphans. Having learned about it, some 100 couples came to Beijing to see whether they could adopt a child.

Zhao Lifeng, 52, a retired worker from Tianjin, was touched by the children's plights, and came forward.

"I want to adopt one child and I want to raise her up just like other kids," says the woman, whose monthly income is 3,000 yuan (US$361).

And more international organizations also join to help AIDS orphans. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) raised US$100,000 to support UNICEF's project for children against AIDS in China.

Christian Voumard, UNICEF representative to China, says that "there is great opportunity to control AIDS in China, since HIV has been recognized as a problem and demonstration of leadership at the highest level is very clear."

"The particular challenge now is to mobilize leadership at all levels, including provincial and local," he says. "It is time to equip the next generation with knowledge and education to curb the spread of HIV."

Liang Tingting says that after the camp she returned home to tell her classmates to urge their parents to quit drugs to avoid AIDS, or they might lose them forever and suffer the pain she has endured.

"My parents didn't value their lives. But I will treasure mine even more, and study hard to go to university in Beijing," she says.

(China Daily August 27, 2004)

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