China: The Plight of the Earthquake Orphans

Of all the wrenching images emerging from China's devastating earthquake, those of the hundreds of children crushed in their schools are probably the most poignant. But as grieving parents mourned their children, aid workers were rushing to help another vulnerable group: those left orphaned by the disaster. Chinese authorities announced Thursday that 4,000 children lost their parents on May 12—a terrible toll in a disaster where the number of official deaths now tops 50,000.

Care for Children, a private organization that runs more than 180 orphanages in over 30 provinces as well as assisting state facilities, is one of the groups trying to help the youngest victims. NEWSWEEK's Manuela Zoninsein spoke to Robert Glover, executive director of the Beijing-based group, about what he found during his recent visit to the quake-hit Chengdu area. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How did the earthquake affect the children in your care?
Robert Glover:
We know that nine child welfare institutions we work with were affected; they are in Chengdu, Deyang, Mianyang, Chongqing, Bazhong, Neijiang, Zigong, Yibin, Abazhou. On this most recent trip [to the quake zone] we were able to visit the first three; we don't know about the extent of damage to others. [At these three] all the people were fine in all of the orphanages, though some orphanage buildings and foster care families' homes collapsed. The biggest part is the psychological impact. People have never experienced anything like this. The only injury was a man with both legs bandaged with rough plaster casts. When the earthquake struck he got most of the children out of the building, but the last few were stuck so he climbed through a window and then with two children in his arms jumped out of the window and broke his legs.

Earlier this week China observed three minutes of silence at the start of a national mourning period. Can you describe what that was like?
[On Monday], when we visited the Chengdu Social Welfare Institutions, we stood with the staff to commence the three-day period of national mourning. It began at 2:28 p.m., marking the very moment the massive quake struck in Wenchuan County, Sichuan. Flags flew at half-mast; the people wore white flowers and, heads bowed, held hands. Across the country, horns and sirens wailed in grief. The staff at Chengdu were very upset, and as I held the hand of the orphanage director she started to cry.

How are people reacting to the aid you delivered?
[When] we arrived in Zitong we were met by the young [orphanage] director, who clearly was in shock. She told us that they had got all the children out of the orphanage safely. [The building suffered significant structural damage in the quake, and the children are now living in tents.] They had already received children from Anxian, close to Beichuan; it was a bit unclear if they were orphaned or still waiting to find out about their families. We spent some time with two 10-year-old girls that had been evacuated from a school in Anxian; they were clearly in shock, but I managed to get a little smile from one of them when we gave them a Mei Mei doll.

What does the structural damage look like?
On Tuesday we left Chengdu midday for the Mianyang orphanage, which is 100 miles north of Chengdu in a town called Zitong and closer to the epicenter. Over 10,000 people died in this region, with 75,000 injured and 15,000 missing. En route we saw again many ambulances, rescue teams and trucks with aid on the road. As we got closer, the terrain became more mountainous, and more and more damage could be seen to buildings. Most people had moved out into makeshift tents. As we went through Mianyang it was clear the town was hit very hard. Many people sat on the side of the road staring into space. When we arrived in Zitong I was surprised that no cleanup had taken place—lots of rubble on the streets from collapsed buildings.

What aid are you sending?
A lot of aid has already gone down, so we're being more focused. Getting hygiene kits to the children, since all the kids are living in tents. There's a scare of epidemics, so we're trying to get a medical kit for every child from the orphanages. We're sending a medical team to support children with [physical handicaps], a logistics team to make sure and get aid to the right places, and a counseling team. You can see the devastation in the buildings and the horrendous consequences of the earthquake—but not the psychological impact. Everyone is just in incredible shock. Counseling now is needed; in this kind of situation people become very desperate. The idea is to set up a team in Chengdu to help with counseling but also to bring in international trauma relief trainers that can train local counselors in Chengdu.

Right now, what are the best ways that NGOs can help in the area? Is it raw materials and products: water, foodstuffs, clothes. Or housing? Or medical supplies?
I think there is a lot space for NGOs to help. People need tents, sleeping bags, [flashlights], cell [phones], radios, daily care stuff, as well as basic care medicine such as antibacterials, medicine to cure colds, etc. It seems there are needs for post-trauma counseling. And we need toys.

You sent a van full of supplies from Shanghai yesterday, and you're preparing a van to depart from Beijing. What supplies are you sending?
Our team is already in Chengdu, and they've already signed a request lease for us. We work based on that: we deliver what they need. So we'll send hygiene kits that include a toothbrush, comb, towel, socks, antiseptic cream, sanitary towels for women. We'll also send milk powder and other foodstuffs for the children.

Of course it's too early to know, but do you expect a huge surge in adoptions in the quake area? Will parents who've lost children seek to adopt children who've lost parents?
No idea. There are a lot of people applying, through the China central adoption agency. But I don't know if there will be a surge. Everyone's still in too much shock to consider … We're still in the crisis and intervention stage.

Will any of the Sichuan orphans be transferred to Care for Children orphanages in other parts of China?
I have no idea. I hope not. I hope they keep the kids within their own province, to establish links for future extended care, if possible.

What is the best way for people outside China to donate to Care for Children?
We launched an appeal which is open overseas for bank transfers. People can either check our Web site or visit Charity in China for details. All money raised will be directed to support children and families affected by the earthquake.